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Strange Maps

316 – Les extrèmes se touchent: Palinworld

In its most recent issue, The New Yorker magazine revisits one of its most famous covers ever. Saul Steinberg’s cartoon on the front page of the 29 March 1976 issue showed the world as seen from New York’s 9th Avenue. Mr Steinberg’s ironic, iconic cartoon, mentioned earlier on this blog (#72), has been recycled, imitated and parodied many times – and now by the New Yorker itself, as a  comment on vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s world view.

The world outside Alaska knew little of Sarah Palin before Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced, on August 29, that she would be his running mate. It seems that before that date, Sarah Palin also knew little of the outside world. She has been outside of the US only once, on a visit to Alaska National Guard troops in Germany and Kuwait. 

One of Palin’s more unfortunate statements, much derided afterwards, is her claim that the governorship of Alaska was a good preparation for the job of vice-president, since, as she explained to ABC interviewer Charlie Gibson, Alaska is so close to Russia. Which is a foreign country: “They’re our next-door neighbours, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

Well, at least that is true. Big Diomede and Little Diomede, are where les extrèmes se touchent, as the French say. These two islands in the middle of the Bering Strait, which separates Russia’s Far East from America’s Frozen North, are Russian and American respectively. As they are only 2.5 miles from each other, they are well within visibility range on a clear day. In winter, when the sea freezes over, you can even walk from the US to Russia, and vice versa – but check with customs first. 

But to claim that  geographical fact alone as a justification for foreign policy experience is just too absurd for words (*). And if something is too absurd for words, why not draw a cartoon? Which is exactly what Barry Blitt did, for the Oct. 6 issue of the New Yorker. Over vast expanses of empty Alaska, just a tiny bit of Russia is visible on the horizon. Et voilà: Palinworld.

That’s an oversimplification of the pot-kettle-black kind. Since her elevation to vice-presidential candidate, Palin has speed-dated half a dozen foreign heads of state at the UN. She exchanged views with Henry Kissinger (although that probably left him with most of the work). The Republican team had her ‘quarantined’ to stop the death by a thousand gaffes and to allow her to cram for the vice-presidential debate on October 2 with her Democratic opponent Joe Biden. After that debate, she was generally judged to have passed that test (if only because she enjoyed the benefit of low expectations).

At least she managed to do what many other more experienced politicians don’t manage: to pronounce the name of Iran’s president with surprising accuracy. Ahmadinejad. Now there’s a populist with a down-home folksy manner, an extremely religious world view and an electoral success that has confounded and frustrated the better-educated classes at home and abroad. Les extrèmes se touchent?

Many thanks to Tony Pappas for providing an image of the New Yorker cover.

(*) Strange Maps tries to be nonpartisan and apolitical, but insists on being anti-nonsense.


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