My college philosophy tutor* once told me why Wittgenstein was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It was because he permanently changed the debate. All philosophers who came after him could agree, or disagree – but they couldn’t ignore him.
I’m worried that Sarah Palin’s Facebook page is going to become the modern equivalent of Wittgenstein on every news event – you agree or disagree (in my case, strongly disagree), but you have to have an opinion. The latest use of her forum as a prism for news is the controversy over the Arizona shooting and whether she is inciting violence.
In fact, it’s not just her Facebook page. She has, like Wittgenstein, changed the debate, whether it’s via her silly comments on Twitter, or her TV show, or her book, or the fact that the entire 2012 presidential race will be in some way about her.
Sarah Palin has also one other thing in common with Wittgenstein – it’s all about language. Wittgenstein would have recognised her language games as having rules all of their own. Whether it’s the new word “betcha”, a conflation of two words (bet you) one of which is already a shortening, or “refudiate” with reference to the ground zero muslim centre, she’s mangling language like crazy. Allies or enemies? North or South Korea? What’s the difference? Palin didn’t know, but it changes nothing – her supporters couldn’t care less.
Sadly, Sarah Palin seems unlikely to follow Wittgenstein’s maxim which ended the Tractatus – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. (Translation for Palinites: If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the hell up.) Somehow I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her on things she knows absolutely nothing about.
* My tutor was Peter Hacker, the world’s authority on Wittgenstein and a wonderful philosopher in his own right. So he knows what he’s talking about.