Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Sarah Palin and The Outsourcing of Belief

Sarah Palin Frightening Prospect Paste-Ups

“I can’t believe that just because Sarah Palin is a woman, and a mother, they think that women will vote for her. It’s insulting. She speaks in word salad for crying out loud! My parakeet speaks in more complete sentences!!”

So say many of my Democrat friends. I feel the same way. But with McCain and Palin down in the polls, it might be time to consider why Sarah Palin as VP was almost a good strategy. When she was first announced as VP she certainly seemed to sway the polls in favor of McCain.

Why has Palin lost some of her initial draw? Inarticulateness? The refusal of the McCain campaign to let her speak to the media (inarticulateness)? Perhaps. However, one of the most direct threats to Palin’s political appeal is Troopergate. Why? Why would a moral-ethical issue trump questions of political finesse? Why do people need her to be clean? For the same reason people pick up illegal immigrants in the Home Depot parking lot–to do the dirty work.

For this to make sense, we must take a detour through the Lacanian thought of world-renowned philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. One of Zizek’s most beloved jokes goes like this: There was a man who was terrified of chickens because he thought he was chicken feed. He went to a psychiatric ward, where after extensive treatment, they convinced him that he was not feed, but human. So they released him. Five seconds later he came dashing back, screaming that there was a chicken outside. “Why are you afraid of the chicken? You know you aren’t feed!”

“Yes,” he replied, “But the chicken doesn’t know that!”

What’s the point? The point is that often individuals project belief onto the big Other (the big Other is the matrix of meanings that structures a person’s world. This might be one’s religion, or worldview, or society). A classic example of this, pointed out by Jack Miles, is church. Everyone might show up on Sunday morning with grave doubts about the veracity of the Christian message, but as long as everyone believes that the preacher believes it, then people leave with a sense of satisfaction. Again, a person may commit horrible crimes, but what allows them to retain a shred of sanity is the belief that somewhere out there, “decent people” exist.

Zizek has called this phenomenon, “the outsourcing of belief.” The Lacanian twist is that the big Other is nothing more than a person’s unconscious. We unconsciously project belief onto other people or systems. That is why it is not enough to convince the man’s conscious self that he is not chicken feed, his unconscious must know it as well.

Enter Sarah Palin, Hockey mom, Small town girl, Washington outsider, Hunter, Champion of the family, Jane six pack. She represents so many of the things so many Americans still want to believe in, but can’t. They can outsource it all to her. She can do the dirty work of believing the American dream for us. That’s why Troopergate is a death knell. It shows that she may not really believe in old fashioned honesty, she may not be the Honest Washington Outsider after all. That’s also why the inarticulateness was a death knell. People needed her to articulate their belief, and articulate it well.

“I can’t believe they picked Sarah Palin, because she cannot believe for me.”

Enter Barak Obama. Articulate Barak Obama. In the town hall presidential debate, Barak echoed Senator McCain, saying, “I too believe that America is the best nation on earth.”

“Yuck,” I thought to myself, “How can you say something like that? That’s is so ignorant and nationalistic. I could never believe that.”

Am I going to vote for Barak Obama? You bet your bottom dollar I am.


  1. Interesting. A few questions. Why do we need to believe that there are “decent” folks out there? Can’t we just pull a Nietzsche and say that decent sucks, and try something new? Once we realize that the big “O” Other is just the unconscious, can’t we begin believing in ourselves instead of neurotically outsourcing that belief?

  2. Interesting idea. My question is are we the man or the chicken?

    For me the election usually falls under the category of which non-belief is less scarry. It would be like asking me if I believed in heaven or hell. Well, neither. But if I have to vote for one…

  3. not that you’ve outsourced your belief to Obama

  4. Good questions. First, we can believe in different versions of “decent.” Nietzscheans need to believe in the uber-man, he is their “decent” person. The salient point being that he embodies (and himself fully believes) the values that make up the big Other, as a network of meaning.

    Second, as Zizek points out, it is not enough for the man to consciously believe that he is not chicken feed, his unconscious must believe it too. So it is not a matter of just saying, “Oh! The big other is my unconscious! (Oh! I am a human and not feed!).” Because that is not an “unconscious” act/realization. For a psychoanalyst like Lacan, the latter only occurs in proper psychotherapy.

    I don’t know if I buy it all, but I do find truth in the idea of outsourcing belief.