The Choice of Sarah Palin
From The New Criterion.
October 31, 2008.
It may seem odd, at first, that the unbending, hard-line "pro-choice" attitude to abortion adopted by so many feminists of a generation now deprived by nature of their "reproductive rights" came to its present position of political importance just when it did. For that was at the same moment in our cultural history, the early 1970s, when the only good reason for legalized abortion apart from mere personal preference — namely, the social stigma attaching to single motherhood — was on its way, very rapidly, out. Who could imagine such a cruel, unenlightened approach to female sexuality today as the one which was all-but universal up until the 1960s? And yet some very enlightened people in the media and the Democratic party would have been happy for an ad hoc re-scandalizing of illegitimacy when it was revealed, the day after John McCain’s electrifying announcement of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his choice for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.
Of course it wouldn’t do for them to call this teenager a slut and a hussy, but they were pretty sure that there must be something in her interesting condition which would allow them to accuse her mother, a conservative evangelical Christian, of hypocrisy. Or something. Here, for example, is the tortured line of reasoning followed by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic to suggest a reason why one or both women should be hanging their heads in shame:
Some commentators have detected moral relativism in the untroubled, even edified conservative response to the obstetric developments in the McCain campaign; but I see something even more sinister. I see the teleological suspension of the ethical. You remember the teleological suspension of the ethical. It is the recognition that, whereas there is morality in religion, religion is not the same as morality, and may justify an exemption from morality. I know of no religion in which this handy power of extenuation is not used. The telos, in the case of Bristol Palin, is life; and a fine telos it is. The casuistry goes something like this: since there are no unwanted babies, there are no unwanted pregnancies. "It can sometimes result in the arrival of new life and a new family," [Michael] Gerson cheered. For "evangelical Christianity (in most modern forms) is not about the achievement of perfection." If evangelicals are so exquisitely conscious of our creatureliness, why have they devoted so many decades to reviling the imperfections of others? If they are, as Gerson says, "about the acceptance of forgiveness," why do they diabolize difference? The fecundity of Bristol Palin is a windfall for Jesus, but the fecundity of black girls is the doom of the republic. Spiritually speaking, the forgiveness of oneself or of one’s own is a smaller attainment than the forgiveness of the other or of all. My friends, the politics of virtue is a vice.
I suppose that "Go and sin no more" would also count as the teleological suspension of the ethical, then. So, presumably, would anything be that did not involve — what? stoning the fornicatress? Or at least stoning her mother? What nonsense! It’s not often that you see someone get quite so tangled up in his own sneering as Mr Wieseltier does here. Once airborne on his rhetorical flight of fancy, however, he could think of no way to return to earth except by conceding that Governor Palin is a woman of integrity while at the same time averring that integrity is a positive disqualification for the office she seeks. He prefers to be governed "ruthlessly," he claims — which is the sort of thing people say when they can be pretty sure that, whoever else is the object of power’s ruthlessness, it won’t be them.
All the same, he was also undoubtedly right to say that "Sarah Palin was chosen not for what she has done but for what she is — for her value as an ideological illustration." Not that, as he might have added but didn’t, there is anything wrong with that, since Barack Obama was chosen — admittedly by many people rather than just one — for exactly the same reason. So, for that matter were John McCain and Joe Biden. This is how we do presidential (and other sorts of) politics in our post-modern, scandal- and celebrity-obsessed media culture. It’s a little late in the day to start trying to make a scandal out of that, you might think. Yet Maureen Dowd complained in The New York Times that, "after devilishly mocking Obama — and successfully getting into his head — with ads about how he was just a frothy celebrity, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, it turns out all the McCain camp wanted was an Obama of its own. Now that they have the electric Palin, they’ve stopped arguing that celebrity is bad." Well, duh! She might as well have said that, now that their own celebrity has been trumped, Miss Dowd and friends have started arguing that celebrity is bad.
Thus the widely-respected political commentator Lindsay Lohan wrote on her MySpace blog: "Oh, and. . . Hint Hint Pali Pal — Don’t pose for anymore [sic] tabloid covers, [sic] you’re not a celebrity, [sic] you’re running for office to represent our, your, my COUNTRY!" I find something tremendously sad about that little bit of advice, especially since it comes from someone who is so obviously a victim of her own celebrity as Lindsay Lohan is. Perhaps, as The Washington Post’s "Reliable Source" column may have been hinting when it picked up such a delicious quotation, Miss Lohan was just jealous that she wasn’t included in the McCain advertisement’s shot at Paris and Britney, who have been on a lot more "tabloid covers" than she has recently. But I prefer to believe that she is as well aware as the ad’s target audience was — or as Maureen Dowd, Barack Obama or I am — that there is something shameful in the very idea of celebrity and doubly shameful in the idea of voting for a celebrity as president. Or vice-president either.
But even apart from the fact that a right-wing celebrity is almost a contradiction in terms — since celebrity is the heroism of militant egalitarians — I don’t think Sarah Palin qualifies, however many tabloid covers she graces. Nor did legions of pro-choice Democrats think it faintly scandalous to find themselves aligned with the blue-noses of yesteryear in their self-righteous clucking over "the obstetric developments in the McCain campaign." Unfortunately for them, when the news of Bristol Palin’s little "windfall for Jesus" broke, scandal-mongers had already started spreading a rumor that Governor Palin’s own new-born son, Trig, was really her daughter’s, and the first would-be scandal trod upon the heels of the second. Within a day or two, few people this side of the gay blogger and conspiracy theorist, Andrew Sullivan, were disposed to buy in to such a socially retrograde view of the governor’s little family drama anyway, and the scandal market swiftly collapsed — though not before first creating the entirely justified suspicion among large sections of the public that the media had joined the most partisan sort of Democrats in seeking out any means, fair or foul, to discredit so attractive a candidate.
For the most part, the left was forced to move on to its factitious outrage at the hopeful vice-president’s relatively brief experience in high office — though this might have been thought extremely shaky ground for the backers of a hopeful president who was a first-term senator with no executive experience at all. But at least one person, Carol Fowler, chairman of the Democratic party of South Carolina, tried with rather more wit than the Sullivanites to bring back sex by noting Senator McCain had chosen a running-mate "whose primary qualification seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion." Of course, poor Ms Fowler was forced to apologize — and for the same reason any Republican who had dared to complain of how Hillary Clinton’s chief qualification for the presidency was that she hasn’t divorced Bill Clinton would have been forced to apologize. Even the feminists, their noses put very considerably out of joint by the nomination of a conservative Republican to a national ticket ahead of their gal Hillary, would not stand for such a slight offered to a woman in power.
Yet, as is so often the case, the sayers of the unsayable had a point. I happen not to agree that not having an abortion was Governor Palin’s primary qualification, but who can doubt that it was a qualification — as was her basketball-playing, beauty-queening, moose-killing and hockey-momming. A man with her qualifications could have been no more eligible for the Republican nomination for vice president than a middle-class white man with Senator Obama’s qualifications could have been eligible for the Democratic nomination for president. But what, as I have said, is the point in trying to make a scandal out of that? On all sides, this is proving to be even more of a symbolic election than the last one, just as the last one was more symbolic than the election before it. If you’re in the business of symbolism — as, willy-nilly, our politicians and their handlers are nowadays — you’d better get used to it and stop being outraged that the electorate aren’t paying attention to "the issues." There are no issues to pay attention to anyway, since both candidates are, as the media now force them to be, utopians who believe that the job to which they aspire is to put all that’s wrong with the world — thank you, George W. Bush! — to rights again.
Anyway, as symbols go, not having an abortion — particularly when that "choice" also involves, as Sarah Palin’s did, choosing to be the mother of a severely handicapped child — is in my opinion not a bad one. I guess I lack a little of Leon Wieseltier’s admiration for ruthlessness in a leader. The choice also draws a clear line between the two presidential candidates as nothing else does or could — not even President Bush, who is no more beloved of Senator McCain than he is of Senator Obama. The latter himself recognized that the symbolists on his own side were as sure to be galvanized as those on the other and rushed onto the airwaves a radio advertisement to the effect that "John McCain will make abortion illegal." There was in this the disingenuous pretense (a) that the president has the power to abolish Supreme Court decisions, and (b) that the relevant decision in this case, Roe v. Wade, is the only thing preventing a return to back-street abortions. But perhaps this is just the other side of the coin to the extravagant promisings of the Obama campaign, which at times really does seem to believe in the power of the president to do anything he chooses to alter the political or social landscape.
If there’s one thing we can be sure that John McCain — or anybody else — won’t do and couldn’t do if he wanted to, even though he may indeed want to, it’s to make abortion illegal. Nothing would happen. Or almost nothing. There might be a few fetuses at the margins who are suffered to live and who otherwise wouldn’t be as more restrictions are placed on the availability of abortion in the most conservative states, but those will come with or without a McCain presidency. In fact, given the inevitable fillip to local Republicans of an Obama victory, they are more likely to come without it than with it. At no time in the foreseeable future will a woman who is determined to have an abortion be unable to obtain one in the United States of America, and that is a legacy not of the Burger court but of an earlier sort of symbolism pioneered by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who found that the libertarian message of "choice" was far more effective with the electorate (and the judiciary!) than the neo-Marxist one, still preached by doctrinaire feminism, of women’s "oppression" by men.
For abortion became legal not only at the same time that illegitimacy and pre-marital sex learned to hold their heads up high but also at the same time that conscription was ended and the armed forces were instructed that henceforth they would have to be manned — and, increasingly, womanned — by volunteers. I think that the two developments are closely related. Child-bearing has traditionally been thought of as a defining act for women, just as military service has been for men. This way of looking at the world is built into all honor cultures we know of, wherever we find them. They regard men’s honor as flowing from bravery in battle and women’s from chastity before marriage and fertility (and fidelity) after it. But America’s honor culture, like that of the Western world generally, had been under assault since the 1920s, and the catastrophic defeat of a conscript army in Vietnam finally finished it off. Roe v. Wade and the all-volunteer (i.e. pro-choice) army — both dating from 1973, the year of America’s withdrawal of her last combat troops from Vietnam — were therefore both symbolic repudiations of those traditional expectations of womanhood and manhood.
As a culture we remain strongly attached to this symbolism. So strongly indeed that, 35 years later, there remains as little prospect of a return to conscription as there is of a return to criminalized abortion, although every now and then the idea (of the former, not the latter) is brought out and dusted off again, as Time magazine did, under the guise of "national service," the week after Governor Palin’s nomination. Yet the rival symbolism of the discredited if still-latent honor culture also retains a certain power. Though few among even the most conservative would consider it a shame not to have served in the armed forces — as nearly everyone considered it to be during World War II — even the most progressive feel it incumbent on themselves to honor those who have served. By the same token, though few beyond the most militant opponents of abortion would consider it a shame to a woman who had had one, all but the most militant pro-choicers are unwilling to doff the cap to those who have made Sarah Palin’s choice. You might almost think that something in us was genetically programed to respond to the old ideas of manhood and womanhood.
This, I think, is what accounts for the hysterical anti-Palin sentiment of so many on the left. "Her greatest hypocrisy," wrote Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "is in her pretense that she is a woman." Huh? What does that even mean in regular people’s English? That she’s pretending to be what she is? Or what she isn’t? It sounds like Gloria Steinem’s saying 15 years ago of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Republican of Texas, that she was "a female impersonator." The attempt at paradox, I guess, is the ideologue’s cri de coeur against the recrudescence of an organic notion of womanhood which she has spent her life trying politically to define out of existence. Mrs Palin, that is, stands for a form of female honor that the likes of the Mizzes Doniger and Steinem loathe but towards which they are otherwise powerless to express their loathing.
In this she is like her running mate, whose sufferings in a Vietnamese prison elicit the respect — sincere or otherwise — of even the most adamant opponents of the Vietnam War. Sound implausible? Just look at non-Nobel prize-winning Gore Vidal, a man who is always ready to provide a bed and a hot meal to any vagrant paranoid fantasy that crosses his path, but who preferred to question the existence of Lt. Cdr. McCain’s long-ago sufferings rather than their honorableness. So the Obama campaign was driven to the last — and also the first — expedient of his left-wing allies in recent years, which is gratuitously to accuse one’s opponent of "lying." Oh, that! It’s hard to imagine that anyone could take him seriously for proposing that a charge which has become so commonplace in our debased political discourse amounts to running "a disgraceful, dishonorable campaign." Nowadays, that’s a routine campaign. As others have discovered before, if everything is disgraceful, then nothing is.
Moreover, if the accusation of lying, or what could be represented as lying, were truly dishonorable — as once it truly was back in the days when men pretended to be men and shot or stabbed or slashed or fought each other with fists over it — it would not be available for every Tom, Dick and Barack out of the class of political aspirants to accuse each other of on the slightest of provocations. In fact, dishonor itself, at least as that term has traditionally been understood, has been no disgrace for decades now. Why all of a sudden should Senator Obama, a man who was just about reaching puberty in1973, be concerning himself about honor, of all things, unless he recognized a danger to himself in the McCain-Palin ticket’s two-fisted attempts to strike a spark from the cold, dead ashes of the now defunct honor culture? I can’t quite see it myself. We are far too far gone in our love of rhetoric without consequence, politics without demands and sex without responsibility. But if he’s worried, I’m happy.