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Libel in Fact Magazine: Judging Sarah Palin vs. Judging Barry Goldwater

Judgments of Palin today are different from those of Goldwater in 1964

An example of such a mental model by analogy would be: "Marcia is just like her mother." It creates a quick mental representation of Marcia by invoking her mother.

Some analogies are global and characterize the whole personality; other analogies are more specific. "Marica is just like her mother" is relatively global. "Marcia is generous like her mother," involves one dimension of personality -- generosity -- more specifically.

Politicians often get the "judgment by analogy" treatment: sometimes global, sometimes specific. Consider two politicians who sometimes have been evaluated in an extreme fashion. Senator Barry Goldwater believed he was libeled when he ran for president in 1964 (and the courts agreed); former Governor Sarah Palin alleged she was libeled when she announced her resignation from the governorship of Alaska. In one case, global analogies were part of the libel; in the other case, the specific analogies were made apart from the libel.

In a 1964 poll of psychiatrists in Fact Magazine, Senator Barry Goldwater's personality was compared to that of Hitler, and also to that of Stalin, to Mao-tse Tung, to Joseph McCarthy, and to the (fictional) Minever Cheevy. Those analogies are global and seem intended to characterize a whole person. They also were particularly negative, in part because of the poll's bias. The comparisons gave rise to a libel suit that I have been writing about.

Sarah Palin, too, has been described by analogy. These analogies are separate from her accusations of libel. (When Palin resigned her governorship some commentators said it was because a scandal was brewing; her attorney warned media outlets not to repeat allegations of a scandal that, six months later, has not yet surfaced in news reports).

The analogies to Palin's character generally have been more specific than those analogies made to Goldwater.

Some examples: Sarah Palin is a bit crazy like the rapper 50 cent. She makes the same points as Ron Paul. She polls like Dan Quayle (and therefore will not be a serious presidential candiate). To her credit, she governs like a CEO in tough times.

More examples: She is more like Elizabeth Dole and Condolezza Rice than like Hillary Clinton. That said, she sounds like Marge Gunderson in film Fargo, looks like Peggy Hill in the cartoon television show, and her character is like Jodie Foster's in the movie Nell. Needless to say, she has been compared to a pit bull; and she has been described, with humor, as naughty like Paris Hilton.

It is not clear why Senator Goldwater was characterized by global analogies (Hitler, Stalin), whereas Governor Palin attracted analogies to more specific aspects of her character. Perhaps it reflects a difference between how psychiatrists judged in 1964 (for Goldwater) and how political commentators judge in 2009.

The current analyses of Palin that I tracked down, whether right or wrong, seemed more sensible than the analyses in the Fact poll of Goldwater. It seems more plausible to claim that two people are alike on one or two dimensions, than that they are alike on most or all dimensions.

Which leads to a point that seems central to judging others:

When we judge someone it makes sense to keep in mind whether we are, on the one hand, judging the whole person, or on the other hand, judging one or two specific parts of the person. Judging a whole person is quite different from judging one or two parts: A judgment of the whole is a bigger claim -- a claim to more knowledge about a person -- relative to more specific claims.

The form of our judgments and their intended puporse are related. If we want to understand and predict the whole person we evaluate the whole person (e.g., "He is like Stalin"). If we want to know something more specific, it may be enough to evaluate just one aspect of a personality -- how a politician polls, for example. In design it is sometimes said that form follows function. In evaluations of people, a judgment's form often fits its purpose.


Copyright (c) 2009 John D. Mayer