Monday, 31 January 2011

The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton - Part 2

Cross-posted at Religious Studies

Gerald Gardner spent most of his life in the Far East, working in business and the colonial civil service.  He retired in 1936, and in 1938 he ended up in Highcliffe, a village near Christchurch in Hampshire.  He later reported that, while living there, he had encountered a coven of pagan witches via a local society that was interested in amateur dramatics and the esoteric tradition known as Rosicrucianism.  These witches were followers of the old pagan religion of the British Isles, and Gardener was initiated into the coven in 1939 at the house of a local worthy called Dorothy Clutterbuck.

Some elements of this story must be true.  Gardner really did live in Highcliffe, and the existence of the Rosicrucian group can be independently verified.  There really was a local worthy called Dorothy Clutterbuck, and the Wiccan writer Philip Heselton has published interesting evidence linking a number of other inhabitants of the area with esoteric activities in general and witchcraft in particular.

There are problems with Gardner's version of events, however.  It is inconceivable that he discovered a surviving coven of pagan witches.  It is much more likely that the group had been formed in the fairly recent past by middle-class occultists under the influence of the ideas of Margaret Murray.  Hutton casts doubt on the very existence of the coven, though this seems unwarranted in the light of Heselton's researches and the confirmed existence of the Rosicrucian group.  The chronology is odd.  Gardner dabbled in a number of esoteric interests in the 1940s, and he only seems to have started to take a serious interest in witchcraft from around 1947, despite having allegedly been initiated 8 years earlier.  As for Clutterbuck, Hutton believes that the evidence shows that she was a devout and conventional Anglican.  The first attested female witch in Gardner's circle was an entirely different individual, a teacher called Edith Woodford-Grimes, and Gardner may have been using Clutterbuck's name in order to protect her.

By the early 1950s, Gardner was publicising the witch religion that he had discovered and/or created.  Until his death in 1964, he followed a policy of initiating as many newcomers as possible into the movement.  His best known initiate was a young woman called Doreen Valiente, who went on to write a string of books on pagan witchcraft before her death in 1999.  He seems to have preferred to compile his own witchy rituals rather than adopting them from any existing group.

There was some bother, of course.  Gardner came out of the broom closet at a time when dark rumours were circulating in British society about black magic and devil worship, under the influence of Denis Wheatley novels and the like.  Nonetheless, Gardner succeeded in obtaining some favourable press coverage, and hostility towards the movement peaked not in the straight-laced 50s but in the psychadelic 70s, by which time the old boy had been dead for some years.  Attitudes towards pagan witches eased in the following years, with the result that members of the movement largely avoided being caught up in the panic over "satanic ritual abuse" in the 1990s.

The modern centre of the Craft (as it continues to be known) is the United States, where pagan witchcraft had been transplanted by the 1970s.  On the other side of the Atlantic, it became intimately entwined with radical feminist politics, a development that reached its high point with the publication of Starhawk's The Spiral Dance in 1979.  The heavily counter-cultural version of Wicca and Goddess spirituality that flourished in Reagan's America represented a new and important development in neopagan history, and one that forms a striking contrast with the romantic English Toryism of Gardner and his friends.

Hutton explicitly attacks one part of the narrative of victimhood that is especially prominent in some politically radical forms of Wicca and witchcraft.  This is the myth of the 'Burning Times' - the period in mediaeval and early modern European history when pagan witches had allegedly been persecuted and burned in (literally) their millions by the Church and the State.  Hutton notes that persecutions of witches in this period were neither long lasting nor wide ranging, and that they tended to be sparked off by popular prejudice rather than by the political or ecclesiastical élite.  Only a tiny number of people accused of witchcraft actually ended up being tried and condemned for it, and those who did tended to be unfortunate social misfits rather than priests and priestesses of a surviving pagan religion.  Few of them were involved even in bog-standard folk magic.

Hutton ends with an assessment of the present-day state of pagan witchcraft in Britain.  It is not even clear whether the W-word is still entirely appropriate as a description of the tradition: Hutton notes that the image of the priest or priestess has increased in importance for practitioners of the Craft at the expense of that of the witch.  Hutton notes that modern British practitioners tend to come from the lower middle and upper working classes, that they are mostly female, and that a solid core of committed initiates is surrounded by a larger penumbra of followers.  He estimates that there are 17,000 to 20,000 "core" pagans (not just witches or Wiccans) and a total of 90,000 to 120,000 British pagans in total - figures which were echoed independently in the work of other researchers.  He later revised his figures upwards to 250,000, which would roughly mirror the size of Britain's Jewish population.  The 2001 census revealed the existence of 31,000 people who identified as pagans and a further 7,000 who identified as Wiccans, though these numbers appear not to include returns from Scotland or Northern Ireland.  It is a fair bet that at least as many will show up this year.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton - Part 1

Cross-posted at Religious Studies

This is a history of neopagan witchcraft, with particular emphasis on the religious tradition known as Wicca.  Its author is Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol.  Hutton has taken some stick for writing this book, both from academic colleagues and from some sections of the neopagan community.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and exemplary account of the history of "the only religion England has ever given the world".

Hutton begins with an examination of responses to paganism in nineteenth and early twentieth century British culture.  He discerns four broad sets of attitudes.  First, there was the belief that pagans - both the long-dead pagans of European prehistory and the contemporary tribal peoples whom European colonists were encountering - were primitive savages, whose beliefs and practices were barbaric, bloody and depraved.  Second, there was the view, derived from the classical paganism of ancient Greece and Rome, that pagans were noble and admirable people who fell just a little short of Christians.  These two discourses were culturally dominant and characteristic of respectable mainstream opinion.

The other two sets of attitudes were less conventional in nature.  Some writers and thinkers believed that paganism was not essentially different from Christianity - they were both descended from the same pure, primaeval religion of humankind.  Others saw paganism as a joyous, life-affirming faith that reconnected human beings to themselves and to the natural world.  It is from this fourth discourse, which grew out of German Romanticism, that contemporary neopaganism is descended.  The first Brits to embrace something like a revived paganism - Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, the Baron de Tabley - tended to be writers and poets with connections with the Romantic movement.  It would be a mistake, however, to see neopaganism as a socially or politically subversive movement.  Several of its founding figures were deeply conservative (and Conservative), and their quarrel was not so much with social hierarchies or economic inequality as with the unnaturalness, ugliness and destruction of traditional patterns of life associated with industrial modernity.

The goddess that many modern pagans worship grew out of the figure of the great mother goddess, who was seen as a synthesis of the individual pagan goddesses and was connected with the earth and the moon.  This represented not so much a revival of ancient pagan ways of thinking about divinity as a development and expansion of it.  Writers and poets explored the idea of the Goddess in the nineteenth century, and scholars like Sir Arthur Evans and Jane Ellen Harrison brought her into the scholarly community in the twentieth.  The male counterpart of the Goddess was the Horned God, who was frequently associated with the Greek god Pan.  Pan assumed considerable importance as a literary figure in the period that Hutton examines, and he may well have been the inspiration for the Christian conception of the devil as a horned, goat-like, cloven-hooved being.

As to the ritual and practice of modern pagan witches, Hutton traces their origins back to mediaeval and ancient magic via the Victorian era occult revival and organisations like the Golden Dawn.  Alongside this intellectual tradition, which was closely associated with the educated élite, there was also a popular English tradition of folk magic and "cunning craft" - village healers, fortune tellers and so on - which continues to the present day.  The initiatory coven structure which is found in some branches of Wicca (and which some practitioners regard as the only truly legitimate form of the religion) is traced to Freemasonry and its offshoots.

Why did so many neopagans end up identifying as witches, rather than as Golden Dawn-style ritual magicians or fraternal Masonic types?  The answer lies in the idea, prevalent in nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual life, that scraps of pagan beliefs and practices had survived for centuries - even to the present day - in rural folk customs.  This in turn gave birth to the theory, put forward by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, that the "witches" who had been persecuted in the mediaeval and early modern periods were the surviving adherents of a prehistoric pagan religion.  This turned out to be nonsense in historical terms, but the idea was a powerful one and captured the imagination of a number of neopagans, including a former colonial bureaucrat from Blundellsands in Lancashire called Gerald Brousseau Gardner.  Had the old "witch-cult" had survived into modern times?  Could it be recreated?

While all this was going on, a number of writers and mystics were preparing the ground for the revival of pagan witchcraft that Gardner and others would lead.  Aleister Crowley, a man who remains famous largely for taking drugs, having sex and pretending to be a satanist, was one such godparent (or goddessparent) of the new movement.  Alongside him were such figures as the mystical Christo-pagan Dion Fortune, the aristocratic Irish poet W.B.Yeats, and poor mad Robert Graves.  By around 1950, all the elements were in place for the witchy revival.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts

The plague hit San Francisco unexpectedly, silently spread by deadly microbes.  It was infectious and lethal, but the routes of transmission were not properly understood. Government agencies squabbled amongst themselves as they made fitful attempt to get to grips with the crisis.  Some people just didn't want to know.  The problem disproportionately affected a stigmatised minority group, and it proved difficult to get effective warnings out.  For some people, raising the alarm was simply bad for business.

Such was the progress of the San Francisco bubonic plague outbreak of 1900-09.  Shilts cannot resist drawing the parallel between that now forgotten episode and the AIDS crisis.  It is one of the innumerable signs of erudition and research in this seminal modern classic.  And The Band Played On was something of a sensation in its time, becoming both a critical and a commercial success, and spinning off an HBO film featuring Ian McKellen, Richard Gere and Phil Collins.  Originally published in 1987, it was reissued in 2007, and its skilfully crafted prose has stood the test of time.  It is fantastically detailed and well-informed, yet readable.  Its lessons are as relevant today as they were a quarter of a century ago.


I

The narrative starts with the start of the appearance of AIDS in the West in the late 1970s.  The early centres of the epidemic in the United States were New York and California.  San Francisco had been a magnet for gay men since the late 1960s, and they formed a significant slice of the local community.  Many gay San Franciscans were politically active.  Others were public-spirited in a more apolitical way: many of them, for example, were blood donors.  Similarly, New York had a large and active gay population, though NYC was a somewhat less hospitable and more closeted place than the city on the bay.

By late 1980 and early 1981, it was starting to become apparent that something new and disturbing was happening.  People were starting to fall ill with lethal forms of rare diseases, including pneumocystis pneumonia and a rare form of skin cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma.  The most visible of the first victims were gay men, though it would later become apparent that the syndrome was affecting other groups too.  By April 1981, the US government had been alerted to what was going on by an upsurge in requests for Pentamidine, a rare drug used to treat pneumocystis.  The syndrome was mentioned in the gay press in May 1981, and the following month it was reported in an article in a widely circulated weekly report published by the federal Centers for Disease Control, from where it found its way into the mainstream media.  A task force was formed, and doctors strove to get on top of the problem.  From the outset, it was suspected that a virus was to blame - indeed, doctors had already been worried about the prospect of a new infection getting loose in the gay community.  Fortunately, the syndrome seemed to be confined to a limited number of large cities.  As late as summer 1982, the names of all the AIDS cases in San Francisco could still fit on a single blackboard.

Looked at from this angle, AIDS should have been a relatively manageable phenomenon.  But there was another, fatal side to the story.  Doctors were working on the epidemic from the start, but they had scant support and resources.  Some headed down what turned out to be blind alleys: as late as 1982, some researchers continued to believe that AIDS was caused by amyl nitrate poppers or the immunosuppressant properties of semen.  One psychologist even suggested that AIDS was psychosomatic.  The government may have known what was going on, but it did not provide desperately needed funds, publicity or leadership.  Nor did important sections of the gay community.  After the initial flicker of interest, the media mostly declined to cover the epidemic, apparently because editors were squeamish about running stories about gay sex.  When media coverage finally increased for a while in 1983, it was rather shallow in nature and included scare stories about how AIDS might be transmissible by casual contact (these stories were in turn picked up by the British press).  Not until Rock Hudson died in 1985 would AIDS become a media cause célébre.

Worst of all, the apparently limited spread of the syndrome was highly deceptive.  HIV has a very long latency period: it is now recognised that it takes on average 8 to 12 years for HIV infection to develop into AIDS.  As late as 1985, the period was widely thought to be just 2 years.  The awful truth, worthy of a horror movie plot, was that HIV had already got everywhere by the time that AIDS started looking like a widespread problem.  In 1981, in the very earliest period of the epidemic, blood samples taken from a group of apparently healthy gay men in Washington revealed that half already had hidden immune system problems.  Similarly, later analysis of blood samples taken for Hepatitis B research would show that 45% of subjects were already HIV-positive in 1981 (rising from 12% as early as 1979).

The long latency period of HIV, incidentally, rendered useless the early studies that tried to demonstrate that the virus was sexually transmitted by looking at infections among patients' recent sexual partners.  The people who were falling ill when the studies were being done had caught the virus years ago.  It is now believed (based, again, on blood sample analysis) that the average latency period in gay San Franciscans who were infected with the virus at the end of the 1970s was a staggering 10 years.  The researchers were right about sexual transmission, but for the wrong reasons.


II

The response to AIDS was grossly inadequate from just about everyone.  The federal government said that yes, of course, AIDS is our top health priority, but no, we really don't need any more money, thank you.  Government agencies waged turf wars amongst themselves.  Scientists attended to their own agendas, egos and careers.  American and French researchers sniped at each other.  Haemophiliacs argued with gays.  Gays argued with gays, in some cases continuing political feuds that had been running since the 70s.  Everyone formed committees, held meetings and tried hard not to say anything publicly that would alarm or offend people.

In the meantime, no-one seems to have noticed that Americans were falling ill and dying in their thousands.  Shilts draws comparisons with other contemporary or near-contemporary health scares - Legionnaire's disease in 1976, the Tylenol poisonings in 1982 - to argue that AIDS suffered a degree of neglect that was not afforded to other, objectively less serious threats.  To some extent, the apparent lack of concern about AIDS is a product of hindsight, since few people at the time had the slightest idea that HIV had a decade-long latency period or that tens or hundreds of thousands of apparently healthy people were walking around with the virus in their bloodstreams.  All the same, it was known that people were dying in frightening numbers, and that should have been enough.

It seems fairly clear that the Reagan administration was culpable in not fighting the epidemic more vigorously.  To some extent, this may have been due to homophobic prejudice, but a more important reason was that the US government's healthcare establishment was caught squarely in the fiscal belt-tightening of the early 1980s.  President Reagan stopped short of vetoing new AIDS spending, but Shilts reports that money had to be force-fed by Congress to a government which didn't really want it.  The administration insisted on maintaining the public pretence that its doctors had all the money they needed when behind the scenes cash was worryingly scarce.  All the same, Reagan's health secretary, Margaret Heckler, was more than ready to take very public credit when the discovery of the AIDS virus was confirmed in 1984 - which, by a happy coincidence, happened to be an election year.

But Shilts does not simply give a textbook liberal critique of the Reagan administration.  He also turns his fire on Democrats, in particular Mayor Ed Koch of New York City.  More broadly, he attacks the inertia and unprofessionalism of the federal bureaucracy.  The doctors who were employed by the American taxpayer to safeguard the nation's health were not uniformly enthusiastic about chasing or allotting extra funding.  The well-heeled National Institutes of Health appear to have been particularly disappointing.  They were stingy with research funding, and people joked that NIH stood for "Not Interested in Homosexuals" or signified that they were not interested in treatments that were "Not Invented Here".  According to Shilts, the NIH only started taking the epidemic seriously in 1983, and even then its constituent institutes squabbled amongst themselves and played political games with their rivals at the Centers for Disease Control.  The NIH's temperamental virologist Dr Robert Gallo comes in for particular criticism.

The funding gap was not adequately plugged by the private sector.  In 1981, the first full year of the epidemic, less than $15,000 was raised from private donors, and the fundraisers were somewhat resented in the gay community for their pains.  Fundraising was difficult when few big names were willing to lend their support to an unfashionable cause.  Most of the blood industry resisted taking robust anti-AIDS measures for commercial reasons (though suppliers of products for haemophiliacs were forced by different commercial pressures to take the opposite course).  Medical journals failed for several years to fast-track AIDS research papers, until the government bucked them up.  The most substantial private-sector assistance in the fight against the epidemic seems to have come not from any American organisation but from the Pasteur Institute in France, which actually succeeded in discovering the HIV virus in 1983.

The discovery of HIV forms a subplot in itself.  News of the claimed discovery by the Pasteur team was initially greeted coolly in the US, where doctors preferred to wait for the results of Robert Gallo's research at the NIH.  Gallo himself was claiming to have discovered the virus by the end of 1983, and the Americans got to the media first in April 1984 - though it later emerged that Gallo had simply re-discovered the same virus that the French had mailed to him from the other side of the Atlantic.  Gallo wanted to call the new microbe HTLV-III.  This, by chance, would have made it the third member of a group of human T-lymphotropic viruses which had been discovered a few years earlier by the eminent scientist Dr R. Gallo.  The old boy also mused that the stigma attached to AIDS would be diminished if the syndrome were to be given a new name: "HTLV-III disease" had a better ring to it, he suggested.

The French, who had initially given the virus the rather grotesque name "RUB", pointed out that it was entirely unrelated to HTLV-I and HTLV-II, and used the term "lymphadenopathy-associated virus" (LAV) instead.  It did not escape their notice that the Americans' announcement of their "discovery" had the effect of entitling them to the royalties from the new test for the virus.  A lawsuit ensued, and the resolution of the dispute eventually required the personal intervention of Presidents Reagan and Mitterand.

The advent of an HIV test meant that researchers could now get some sense of the progress of the epidemic.  But even this was not straightforward.  It was not initially known whether HIV infection led inexorably to AIDS once the latency period had run its course (it does, except in a small number of lucky individuals).  An AIDS prevalance rate among HIV-infected individuals of 5% or 10% was widely thought to be about right.  When doctors began to realise from the incoming test results just how many people were already infected, some of them seem to have reasoned that HIV couldn't always lead to AIDS.  After all, not all of these people were going to die - were they?  Another quirk of the tests, which still seems to apply to most HIV tests today, is that they detected the presence not of the virus itself but of antibodies to it produced by the individual's own system.  It was suggested that receiving a positive result on an HIV test could be a good thing because it showed that one's body was fighting the disease.

Surprising, perhaps, was the lack of a united and vigorous response from gay leaders.  Some gay activists thought that their more worried brethren were being alarmist or even homophobic.  Gay sexual identity and behaviour had become highly politicised, and in the climate of the Reagan years calls for safer forms of sexual activity were interpreted not as helpful medical advice but as self-hating puritanism.  Some even resisted the two pillars of present-day HIV prevention efforts, condoms and testing.  Meanwhile, closeted gay men in positions of power (including a senior officer of the NIH) were cagey about pushing the cause of AIDS research for fear of drawing attention to themselves.  Everywhere, there developed a politicised, euphemistic way of talking about the epidemic which Shilts dubs 'AIDSpeak'.

Serious bad feeling was stirred up by the likes of Larry Kramer, Bill Kraus and Shilts himself when they tried to point out that the defiant, exuberant political and sexual orthodoxies of the 1970s were meaningless in a world in which uncountable thousands of gay men were catching and dying from a terrifying disease.  In some cases, the motives for inertia were crudely financial.  The data showed that gay bathhouses played an important role in spreading the epidemic, but (with some partial exceptions) bathhouse owners were not eager to warn their customers that they could catch a deadly virus on their premises.  Ordinary gay men without political or commercial baggage saw more clearly what was at stake, and by 1983-4 gay sexual mores were becoming increasingly mundane.  Unfortunately, as Shilts hints, while this limited the growth of HIV/AIDS among gay men, the "second wave" of the American AIDS epidemic, among heterosexual IV drug users and their partners and children, was still to come.

The saddest thing about the response to AIDS as Shilts describes it is that the thousands of avoidable deaths came about not because the government, the medical profession or Americans in general hated gays or welcomed their deaths.  To be sure, homosexuality aroused widespread dislike and discomfort in heterosexual society.  But the unnecessary victims of the syndrome died not so much from hatred as from indifference, committee meetings, pennypinching, turf wars, politics, and general ignorance and apathy.  Contemporary gay activists appropriated the symbols and language of the Holocaust, yet it was a case not of genocide but of malign neglect - which certainly does not make it any the less frightening.


III

The book is perhaps best remembered for the subplot of "Patient Zero" - a Canadian air steward called Gaëtan Dugas who was alleged to be responsible for spreading HIV in North America.  This story took on a life of its own, and for a time Dugas became something of a household name.  He fell ill at the start of the epidemic, in 1980, but survived against the odds until 1984.  He was a handsome man, and he seems not to have let a problem like a diagnosis of potentially infectious immune suppression get in the way of an active and vigorous sex life.  He was quite well known in the gay community, and his friends reported that he was a nice guy.  From around 1982 onwards, rumours began to circulate in San Francisco that he was telling men whom he had just had sex with that he had the "gay cancer" and maybe they would get it too.  One doctor took legal advice in an attempt to restrain him.  Before long, he had moved back to Vancouver, where he is said to have continued his previous behaviour.

The Patient Zero story was very exaggerated, though much of the exaggeration was generated after the book came out (it also seems to have been the source of the urban myth of the mysterious one-night-stand who reveals to his or her partner, too late, that they are HIV-positive).  Shilts leant towards the theory that HIV arrived in America during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, but it is now thought that the virus entered the US from Haiti around 1969, when Dugas was still a closeted teenager in Quebec (in fact, the virus already seems to have infected its first American victim, "Robert R.", by 1966, but this rather anomalous case is probably unrelated to the main epidemic).  Some writers have even attempted to rehabilitate Dugas, albeit not entirely convincingly.  At any rate, Dugas may well have behaved irresponsibly, even homicidally, but he was hardly the only person spreading the virus around, or indeed the only person to engage in risky behaviour when he should have known better.  The desire to identify a scapegoat is a strong one, though.

Leaving aside the Patient Zero myth, which Shilts was not entirely responsible for, the book has a number of shortcomings.  Most obviously, it focuses heavily on AIDS as a gay disease.  There is some coverage of the impact on haemophiliacs, IV drug users and other risk groups, but perhaps not enough.  This is to be expected, since Shilts himself was gay and his sources came largely from the gay community.

More serious is the mixing of genres.  The book reads not like a history book or even a newspaper report, but like a novel with an omniscient narrator.  Accounts of historical events and publicly verifiable facts are mixed with imaginative reconstructions of meetings and conversations that Shilts was not privy to, complete with internal monologues in which he explores the various participants' thoughts, feelings and spiritual insights.  Sometimes, Shilts depicts characters - including individuals like Dugas whom he clearly hadn't interviewed - in solo scenes with nobody else present.  Now, it may be that (as Shilts himself indicates) every sentence of the book can be footnoted and the contribution of the author's imagination was minimal.  But one might reasonably doubt it.  I am not convinced that this genre-mixing, which is usually found only in biographies and works of experimental history like Keith Hopkins' A World Full of Gods, represents good writing.  Shilts should have decided whether he wanted to write a novel or a non-fiction account, and then stuck with it.

All the same, the book is a monumental achievement, well deserving of its acclaim.  I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone interested not only in the HIV/AIDS epidemic but also in the workings of politics and bureaucracies, or simply in the consequences of human error.

Friday, 7 January 2011

America by Heart, Sarah Palin

This is Sarah Palin's pitch to become President of the United States.  It is very right-wing, fairly predictable, and not as bad as I'd expected it to be.

The book is a collection of opinions, personal reflections and occasional digs at Obama and the Democrats, combined with quotations from books, speeches, songs and email circulars which have caught her liking.  Much of it is middlebrow, some of it is fairly intellectual, and some of it is populist drivel.  She quotes everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Margaret Thatcher to FDR to Antonin Scalia to Calvin Coolidge to Martin Luther King.

Palin's worldview can be summed up quite simply.  The United States of America is a unique and exceptional nation.  It has had its faults, of course, like the evil of slavery, but it is nevertheless a formidable force for good in the world.  Its founding documents and constitution are charters for human freedom.  This freedom ultimately comes from God, and Americans have always been a religious people, albeit they have the right to adhere to any religion or to none.  The dark side (which isn't emphasised too much) is that traditional American freedoms and the constitution are under threat from liberals who are ashamed of their country, disdainful of religious faith, scornful of the American tradition of hard work and meritocracy, and bent on saddling their children and grandchildren with huge public debts.

Some of Palin's ideas are in principle unobjectionable, even to a liberal like me.  The demagoguery isn't as bad as it could be.  But her outlook is too one-sided to be taken seriously.  Her ideas about economics seem to be somewhere to the right of Herbert Hoover.  We've tried this stuff before, and it didn't work.  She correctly argues that a woman doesn't have to be left-wing to be a feminist, but she shows no awareness that her natural political constituency includes some of the most misogynistic bigots in American society.  She makes some justified criticisms of the self-indulgence of Generation Y and the shallowness of TV talent shows, but she blames such things not on the comfortable prosperity of western nations or on the ethic of consumerism, but on her liberal political opponents.  She pays tribute to American soldiers (of whom her son Track is one), but she doesn't really explore why they end up being sent into battle by hard-faced men in Washington.  Of course, one doesn't expect an even-handed treatment of political issues in a pre-presidential book, but there are limits.  The contrast with Obama's The Audacity of Hope is telling.

The book's dominant motif is American nationalism (or patriotism, to use a gentler term).  Palin attacks Obama's well-publicised statement that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.  This is a quote that is usually taken out of context, but even on the face of it it's not an unreasonable comment.  If Palin had been born in, say, Liechtenstein or Guyana, it's a fair bet that she'd be a hardcore Liechtenstinian or Guayanan nationalist.  Moreover, while it would be immodest to list Britain's contributions to world civilisation (think: what language is Palin writing in?), I'd say that, in the case of Greece, there's something fairly exceptional about a nation that invented democracy and gave us the western tradition of philosophy, literature, art and mathematics.  Palin herself quotes Plato.

All the same, Palin does have a point.  America is exceptional, and not just in terms of economic power or brute military force.  The United States has some genuinely admirable chapters in its history, and there are aspects of American life that set a great example to the world.  Many of my more enthusiastically anti-American colleagues on the European left are really going to miss old Sarah and her friends when China becomes top nation.  Still, there is another side to the story.  If you want an unflinching look at American foreign policy, or at the social and economic injustice in American society, or at the treatment of minorities, this book is not the place to go.

Palin's blinkeredness is also evident in her attitude to America's founding texts.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are fine documents drafted by gifted men who were inspired by noble ideals (though a Brit might think that the Founders would have done better to choose a parliamentary rather than a presidential system).  The fact that they created a representative democracy with free speech and free elections has effectively inoculated the American far right against fascism.  But they are functional legal documents, not sacred scriptures.  They were negotiated among men with their own political agendas in the historical circumstances of 1776 and 1787.  Palin herself acknowledges that the contemporary reality of slavery was written into the constitution, with its implicit definition of slaves as three-fifths of a human being.

Palin describes her credo as "commonsense constitutional conservatism".  Given that her agenda is regarded by many - most - of her fellow Americans as unelectably extreme, calling it "commonsense" is a bit cheeky.  But calling it "constitutional" is perhaps worse, and historically illiterate.  The US constitution gives no warrant for many of the planks in the Palin platform.  Palin warmly supports present-day industrial capitalism, but the constitution was designed to govern a relatively small agrarian society with an utterly different economic structure.  She is pro-life, but abortion in the 1700s was lightly regulated and legal. She is anti-government, but the Founders' desire to keep the federal government weak was conditioned by a desire to preserve the competing governmental authority of the states.  Like it or not, the constitution is far from being a charter for the ideology of the modern-day American hard right.  In truth, conservatives and liberals both interpret the constitution in the light of their own times and beliefs, but at least liberals are honest about it.

There are other blind spots too.  Palin promotes an admirable ethic of work and personal responsibility, but the actual consequences of her hyper-free-market brand of capitalism are that the wealth created by ordinary people's hard work is retained very disproportionately at the higher levels of the food chain, while the level of social mobility required to reach those levels is lower than in welfare-state Europe.  Social injustice will never be eradicated, but the evidence shows that it can be lessened by progressive fiscal policies, appropriate state funding of education and healthcare, and responsible private sector trade unions.  One suspects that Palin would equate this modest European brand of left-leaning capitalism, which serves hundreds of millions of people perfectly well, with semi-Soviet socialist tyranny.

In general, economic and social policy is not Palin's strongest suit.  Her criticism of Obamacare is insubstantial.  Her attempt to make populist attacks on big business while defending true freemarket capitalism is incoherent.  She seems to have no grasp of how the United States got into its current economic hole.  The reason why Palin has a cat in hell's chance of walking into the Oval Office in January 2013 is that the American economy has just passed through a brutal recession and too many voters have lost faith in establishment politicians.  But the recession wasn't caused by limp-wristed, anti-American, terrorist-loving, pro-abortion liberals.  It was the direct result of a systemic crisis in a thoroughly capitalist financial system which the Republicans had been striving to deregulate even further.  True, Obama has failed to repair most of the damage, but then Obama isn't Superman, and even Superman didn't have to contend with the Senate filibuster.  As for the bailouts of Wall Street and the car industry, those were Bush's babies and were supported at the time by one S.Palin.

Interestingly, Palin experiments with anti-Republican, they're-all-as-bad-as-each-other rhetoric.  "Some say", she writes, "we don't actually have a two-party system, that each party is the party of big government, with a Republican wing that likes wars, deficits, and assaults on civil liberties, and a Democrat wing that likes welfare, taxes, and assaults on commercial laissez-faire".  Palin think that there is "some truth to this idea".  She is too socially conservative to be a libertarian, but she is not above attacking the Republican Party from the right.  "Democrats", she complains, "are driving the country toward socialism at a hundred miles per hour, while the Republicans are driving at only fifty".

If this book was merely an ex-governor's commonplace book of patriotism, it might suffice as (say) a birthday present for a diehard Republican aunt.  The politics, however, give it a less comfortable edge.  It will no doubt be enjoyed and even learnt from by readers who actually believe that the Republican Party is driving the United States towards socialism at fifty miles per hour.  Anyone else, however, would be well advised to give it a miss.