kleobis-and-biton.thumbnail.jpgWhat does scrotal asymmetry have to do with Sarah Palin? At first, the answer might seem like a mystery and an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. But the real answer is within our grasp, and it reveals something about the unreality of American politics.

To begin, let’s examine just how Sarah Palin became a national celebrity. An impetuous John McCain picked the inexperienced and goofy governor of Alaska as his running mate in 2008. The political media, drunk with its ability to create "truth" in its own private America, finds her pretty. She’s given a speech to read before the easiest audience in the world:  2008 Republican national conventioneers, who, staring balefully at John McCain, want an umbrella for their bitter, boring cocktail. Palin is that umbrella. She reads the speech. The crowd roars; the media get tears in their eyes, wowed by their own abilities to cry on cue.

In any culture tethered to the real, the Palin phenomena would not be possible. We would not hire her to babysit our kids, much less to be a heartbeat from the presidency. But we have escaped from the real into a world of celebrity where possible consequences don’t matter. It’s the show that matters.

This terrible un-tethering is made possible by many things, among them the fact that in the funhouse of language, we often can’t tell our right from our left.

This isn’t the case everywhere. For instance, in northern Australia there’s a small Aboriginal community called Pormpuraaw. The locals are known as Kuuk Thaayorre. They have no words for "left" and "right." Those are the relative terms we use to orient ourselves in space. But, neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky tells us, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many such groups, use the cardinal directions – north, south, east, west – to define their space upon the real earth. Boroditsky explains:

This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like ‘There’s an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past "Hello."

Wasn’t it Palin’s very problem that she couldn’t get past hello? "You have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly." Therein lies her difficulty, and ours as well. Lost in our admittedly powerful abstractions, we, like our very own media, get dizzy. We can make stuff up, but what we make up can kill us. If we don’t need to know where on the earth we are anymore, why would we worry when it grows too hot to stand upon it?

And this, as if demanded by logic, brings us to scrotal asymmetry.

Several years ago, Chris McManus published a paper in Nature magazine, called "Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture." McManus noticed that many Greek sculptors confused the left and the right when it came to representations of the male nude. You see, in real life, the left testicle, though smaller, hangs lower than the larger right testicle. It is counter-intuitive, as gravity would seem to require that the bigger the testicle, the closer it be to the ground. This caused problems for some sculptors who let abstract notions overwhelm observation.

McManus won the 2002 Ig Nobel award for his paper. That award is given to studies that make us laugh and think. The paper does read like a Monty Python script. Who wasn’t made to think by the Python’s Dead Parrot bit (video)?

Among other things, the observations of Boroditsky and McManus ought to give us pause about our bad habit of bifurcating our political culture into artificial categories of Right and Left. If the terms ever had any meaning, they’ve lost it. Many evils can be hidden within such abstractions. To name just one, those of the so-called Right, whose values are authority and obedience, can disguise themselves as freedom-lovers. In their worldview, obedience is freedom. When it comes to the political Left and Right, we have no way of judging which hangs more truly.

My point is that a melodramatic celebrity like Palin would never be taken seriously in a world in which we knew where we stood. If we can’t tell a left nut from a right, how can we be expected to see a nut like Palin for what she really is?

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith