Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Palin, pregnancy and why it matters

by friend and guest blogger Christopher Moses

It has been amusing to watch the media – especially its more conservative mouthpieces – bend contortionist-like with sensitivity and discretion over the Palin family’s travails. Every other day they struggle to come up with sultry gossip so rich as to generate hours of mindless coverage. But amidst the hoped for fanfare of the Republican National Convention, with one hurricane already passed, the matter of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy has become an elaborate hand-waving “there’s-nothing-to-see-here” routine as the McCain campaign stumbles to find some stable ground.

Claims to privacy should be taken with profound skepticism. Certainly the paparazzi shouldn’t accost this young lady nor should she be put on trial for behavior in which the majority of her peers engage. But there’s absolutely no excuse to refrain from putting Governor Palin under scrutiny for her views as they compare to the reality of her own life.

What can a politician be held accountable for if it’s not how they actually respond to their own ideological program? If it’s good enough for us, it ought to be good enough for them.

The biggest success for the McCain campaign will be to paint this as an exception to the rule, an unfortunate anomaly not to be pried upon. Yet they will still continue with their regressive social agenda, refusing women open and honest health care, circumscribing doctors’ and patients’ rights in end-of-life care, and countering reasoned approaches to sex education.

McCain and Palin: you can’t have it both ways.

Gender has and will play an enormous role in this controversy and in every subsequent chapter of the election—just as it did for the democratic primary. There’s no denying that perceptions of motherhood and a profound bias against female professionalism will stir questions of whether it’s worth letting her family go to hell in service of her own ambitions (men have wives to avoid this risk—and indeed, where has Mr. Palin been in standing up as the father figure who will proudly serve as second husband, looking after his beautiful children?)

Bill Clinton offered humorous fodder for jokes about the role of first husband. Though in the case of the Clintons, we never really had to confront the truly inverted role of traditional parenting because Chelsea is well established as an independent adult. With the Palins, diapers still need changing and bedtime stories still call forth nightly—will toddler screams in the background matter when that red phone rings at 3:00am?

All of this strains to the extreme the hip and with-it message McCain hoped to project by choosing a youthful, female reformer who might reinvigorate and compliment his maverick image. Now the novelty of a hockey mom who can do it all looks a lot like the everyday sort of family that is unexceptional in its problems.

So what is the proper response to teenage pregnancy? I’m doubtful that pressuring a seventeen year-old couple into marriage is the best solution. Reading between the lines, Bristol has been given credit for her own choice not to abort—we do note that, thankfully, a choice existed—yet not much direct attribution has been given to the decision about becoming a wife. Indeed, privacy concerns aside, what does the future father have to say for himself? If anything has been overtly sexist in this whole ordeal, it has been the assumption that all ought to ride on the shoulders of the dumb girl who’s gone out and gotten herself knocked up.

Liberals’ delicacy here mirrors the ironically newfound openness of conservative pundits towards premarital sex. The right has perfect the art of making the bedroom into a national political concern while the left cringes at what if anything can be said without appearing sexist in targeting the pitfalls of a woman candidate and her daughter.

We needn’t fear so much.

There’s plenty of worthwhile concerns that can be raised about women’s rights and teenage sexuality without tarring and feathering one young woman. Indeed, let’s celebrate youthful curiosity and promote widely accessible education—seventeen year olds need to grapple with the fact that they have the capacity to become pregnant, to realize that the hormonal confusion and erotic pleasure they’re beginning to feel should be a matter of open and honest discussion.

Letting the Republicans usher these issues off stage might be just the sort of political coup they couldn’t have otherwise orchestrated: letting them stick to their guns, unaccountable, because now these topics are too taboo in tending towards the immediate situation of the Palin family.


When you get up on that platform and run for national office you invite another layer of scrutiny. What’s said in your church, what kind of car you drive, the schools your children attend—it matters, man or woman. Giving Governor Palin a free pass to this sort of scrutiny would be by far the most sexist and detrimental effect of her ceiling shattering endeavour. Opponents of affirmative action should be comfortable with a large part of the logic behind that argument, if nothing else resonates with the base.

If sex ed can only occupy so much time in our national political debate, then there are a number of other related issues that can easily be raised to highlight the ludicrous dimensions of the perverted social agenda symbolized by Palin’s candidacy. (Still, a thoughtful, nuanced and serious debate about adolescent health, from sexuality to obesity, probably does deserve a far more significant role than ever in this campaign.)

Perhaps the McCain-Palin campaign can reflect on the privacy concerns of the Terri Schivo case? Or matters of executive privilege and the impeachment of Bill Clinton? How about sexual harassment and Clarence Thomas’ relationship with Anita Hill? Our good friend Larry Craig could join the chorus as well: who has been gay, was never gay, can get married, should share health insurance—where can you play footsy with all this patriot act security? And if Senator Craig gets tired, I bet Mark Foley can be booked for an appearance.

So lets stop with the false compunction. There’s a scandal here that begins with McCain’s decision making ability and the rashness of his choice (if she was vetted, they were incompetent; if they chose not to vet her, even more so). And it ranges to the very base of the Republican party and the way they can excuse their own while using prejudice and hate to disenfranchise and abuse groups from single mothers to gays to blacks “profiled” because of their supposed criminal proclivities.

There’s a lot at stake here: abortion rights, healthcare freedom—not to mention basic civil liberties. There’s a serious battle to be waged against the wave of religious extremism that has been overtaking America’s political culture for the last few decades.

No seventeen year old should stop us from fighting as hard as possible to expose McCain-Palin for the truths they represent, not least their unwillingness to admit how crippling their own ideologies can be when problems arise close to home.

I would love the sort of privacy and freedom of choice the Palin family now desires—the ability to marry whomever I want, to respond to terminal illness as I choose, to practice whatever faith I have without fear of being targeted for un-American activities. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me: and that should be the story until the pregnancy of a candidate’s unwed daughter isn’t such a scandal.

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