(Whoops. Comments were closed. I’ve been fighting with WordPress for days. Sorry. They’re open now.)
Let me begin with some context–something different than the tabloid tidbits and the “shocking revelations” that have emerged over the next few days. I want to tell you why I’m worried, to get it off my chest, so that I might get some sleep and move away from paralysis and despair. I’m starting with the thoughts of some of the diverse voices whom have added to the conversation over the past few days, and I’ll quickly get to my own analysis. You’ll forgive the length, won’t you?
A re-enactment of a conversation I heard on the radio today:
American Reporter: So as you’ve been covering the U.S. political conventions for your viewers, is there anything that you have to explain to them? That you have to put in context?
Pashtun Reporter: Oh yes. Sarah Palin. Her candidacy is very confusing for us.
American Reporter: How so?
Pashtun Reporter: Well, she is a woman with five children. In our country a woman with five children could never be anything more than a housewife. She would be expected to care for her children full time. And we explained that she has a seventeen-year-old daughter who is pregnant. This requires a lot of explnation.
American Reporter: Would a woman like Sarah Palin have trouble being elected in Pakistan? Would her daughter’s pregnancy affect her candidacy?
Pashtun Reporter: Oh, most definitely. It would be impossible for her to be elected to office here. Our culture does not accept pregnancy outside of marriage. Just last week, two women were killed from a nearby village because they brought shame to their family. They were having sex outside of marriage. They were beaten to death.
From The Baby Name Wizard (on the names of Sarah Palin’s children):
…in baby naming as in so many parts of life, style, not values, is the guiding light. The most liberal and conservative parts of the country differ on key style-shaping variables, like income, education level, and the age when women marry and have children. A community where the typical first-time mother is a 22-year-old high-school grad is going to have a very different style climate from the community where the typical new mom is a 28-year-old with a college degree.
From Thematically Fickle:
I struggled with these thoughts, which run counter to my belief system that women can do anything we want to do, anything men can do. But I also believe that “having it all” is an illusion, that we make choices in our lives and sacrifices always have to be made, which is true for women and men. Something must be given up for something else to be gained. If you decide to have children, you’re making a commitment to being a parent and certain other ambitions have to be put on hold if you want to truly be present in the lives of your kids. Certainly, how Palin—or anyone else—chooses to parent is none of my business. But the packaging of her as Every Woman, as the one whose going to “shatter that glass ceiling,” as if she’s even remotely in Hilary Clinton’s league, is condescending and deeply insulting.
From Mocha Momma:
She scoffed at Obama’s community organizing and pushed for her own small town agenda. You know what I heard in that thinly veiled line? Her lack of experience with people of color and the power of community organization. She doesn’t know cities or poverty that way or even what that does for education. She is keeping that dividing line bold and prominent by letting me see what she thinks about that: small town = hard-working white farming families vs. city/community = blacks and latinos and asians and other people she knows nothing about. She so wasn’t talking to me.
If you haven’t rented the documentary, So Goes the Nation, I cannot emphasize enough how important that film is shaping my understanding of modern elections. If you do not understand how Bush won in 2004 (or you think it is because John Kerry talks in convoluted sentences), you need to see this film. Regardless of your political affiliation, the film will make one thing very clear: the Republicans under Karl Rove know how to win elections, and Democrats are still playing catch up when it comes to this game. It’s a game I thought we couldn’t lose this year. And then, in a move no one in the mainstream media seems to acknowledge the brilliance of (at least not for the right reasons), McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and the chances of my living to see the first black man become president, became shaky, at best.
Why am I saying this?
First, we’ll reflect on the comments from the beautiful Kelly of Mocha Momma and, yes, Laura Wattenberg of the Baby Name Wizard blogs. What strikes me about both posts–though the are disparate in subject, and one is arguably apolitical–is that they are both talking about the subtleties of language (or lack thereof). In 2004, NOVA ran an intriguing profile of the ways in which George W. Bush incorporates evangelical and biblical language into his speeches. Those who study the Bible, or attend evangelical churches, will pick up on these metaphors and allusions. Those who do not, will be none the wiser. His allusions confirm to other Christians that President Bush is like them, he believes what they believe; and, in turn they are able to identify with him on a spiritual level. Similarly, when Mr. Bush is shown wearing plaid shirts and clearing brush on his Crawford ranch, this sends a visual message of the man as a hardworking, country boy. His sometimes clumsy use of American English further emphasizes this message, and some have argued that this is deliberate. It easy to forget that this is, in fact, an Ivy League-educated member of one America’s wealthiest oil families. To the rural Americans that populate most of this country–and rarely see their lives represented or respected in the fictional or news media–George W. Bush’s country image and “improper” speech spoke volumes.
He was one of them. A them with whom the urban-based media was out of touch. And that was enough to get him elected. Twice.
So what we see then, in Palin’s references to “hockey mom’s” and the poopoo-ing of community activism, is a tacit message to voters about her values. Hockey is a nordic sport that few people of color play. The NHL struggles to get mainstream interest, and has little appeal to the majority of urban cities (I LOVE hockey, but that’s besides the point). Smaller communities, in which it easier to have one’s voice heard, and which are more homogeneous based on size, have little use for community outreach and activism. People from Wasilla, AK or Peru, IN, for that matter, cannot comprehend the harsh inequities of multi-generational poverty such as exists in the South Side of Chicago. And at the end of the day, they don’t much care. That’s big city noise, taking up lot’s of time on the television, and finally there’s a former beauty pageant winner talking about the things they’re interested in (whether or not she actually is).
Similarly, when one of these potential voters, hears a name like Bristol, Trig, or Track she doesn’t smirk, and pull her Jacob or Addison closer, like her urban counterpart. She sees these names as an expression of rugged individualism. She suspects that a woman who take a frontier attitude toward naming her children, might share other values with her. Then, when it is revealed the candidate has five children, and gave birth to one knowing he hand a chromosomal disability, the image is further established that this candidate is “one of us.”
Palin, then, is seen as pro-family and pro-life, and that has effectively taken discussion of the choices she has made for her family off the table. The image is enough, if people accept it. Questioning whether a woman with a newborn should be seeking one of the most demanding jobs in the nation is painted as sexist. Analyzing why that same mother would seek the national political stage at a moment when her oldest daughter is in crisis–and the nature of that crisis would make international headline news, would be the subject of debate in Afghanistan, if all places–is all but dismissed.
Many modern women have dismissed earlier feminists illusions that women could be 100% successful in their careers and 100% successful in raising their children. We can have both, though few believe these can happen simultaneously. Most women resist, or are discouraged from, trying. I’d welcome a conversation about the sacrifices and assistance Ms. Palin requires in meeting the emotional and psychological needs of her family. I’d love to hear her talk about her struggles with work/life balance and learn about her plan for easing the burden on families.
But anyone who approaches this topic is told, “we’d never be asking a man these questions.” It’s as though that means we shouldn’t be asking men these questions, when in fact the exact opposite is true. I wanted to know why John Edwards refused to drop out of the race at a time when his wife was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I wanted him to choose family over public service, because that’s what I value. I would respect any politician for making that choice. What I can’t respect is someone suggesting they are more traditional and dedicated to family than I am, while simultaneously placing her own wants above the very pressing needs of her children. Many women have had to turn down that great job offer, because it wasn’t the right time. Why should Gov. Palin’s decision to take the job at the expense of her family be off the table? The conversation is not whether women should sacrifice career for family, but why men don’t do it more often.
Thinking women of all stripes are silenced by the idea that this woman–a woman so far from the values we’d thought we’d share with first female vice president–is potentially weeks away from occupying the vice presidency, because we have been given a candidate with no genuinine political history to discuss. Instead, what has emerged is tabloid view of Gov. Palin’s family. This is purposeful. The calculated backlash has already begun and Republicans are emphasizing this in their talking points at the convention. As the urban media and the 24-hour news cycle overplays each salacious detail of teenage pregnancies and ex-brother-in-law firings, the rural voter (the majority voter) is starting to get angry.
“They’re not just making fun of Sarah Palin,” they say. “They’re making fun of us.”
And that anger will translate to votes. The perception that the urban Democrats have nominated a biracial, Harvard-educated, brown-skinned, world-traveling, former Muslim, lawyer will translate to the one message that is enough to turn this election in the Republicans favor: He’s not like you, but we are. We are white like you. We are Christian like you. We don’t speak eloquently, and our men aren’t photogenic. We get married when we have our babies out of wedlock. Our daughters sleep with white boys who play hockey, not dark boys from Kenya. We don’t believe in abortion. And we’re never going to tell you trade that pickup truck in for a Prius.
And once again the conversation has been turned. Once again, we’re not talking about the dreadful state of the economy, our embarrassing health care system, or school districts so poor they operate only four days a week. We’re not talking about a protracted war or our flailing position on the world stage. We’re not talking about how desperate the rest of the world is for us to return to the country of their dreams. We’re talking fear of the unknown, and class preservation, and teh result of that, I’m afraid, will be a continuation of the status quo.
A palingenesis, if you will, of the eight years that have come before.