A Palin Critique

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Given the trajectory of events, it looks to me as though Sarah Palin is going to be a significant player in the coming year, leading up to the 2012 presidential elections. I am not saying she is going to run, and I am not saying that she would get the nomination/presidency if she did run — although everything in that category is certainly a distinct possibility.

That being the case, and since I will no doubt write about aspects of it at the time, and would then have to field questions from baffled friends and cynical foes about being a Palin fan-boy, I thought to do something preemptively now.

So this is what I set out to do. I decided to read both her books (Going Rogue, and America By Heart), and give a brief synopsis of the central place where I think she is missing it. That way, when something comes up down the road and I defend her, nobody can at that point say “why doesn’t Wilson see x, y, and z?” Especially y — y oh y?

This is not really an adjustment of anything I have written before, which all still stands. And I continue to confess that it would be entertaining to see her elected for any number of reasons. One would be the prospect of Andrew Sullivan immolating himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Another would be closer to home — even though Palin would certainly put her presidential library in Alaska, it would be lovely to watch our local officials here at her alma mater, the University of Idaho, having to sweat the possibility that she would ask to put it here. That would be high entertainment as well.

She is an evangelical Christian woman, and an affable person with real convictions and true humility (p. 87). On the central issue relating to our contemporary American heartlessness — abortion — she is unassailably pro-life. In many ways she displays a down home wisdom that is more proverbial than conventional. She is least likely to do “business as usual” with most of the regnant corruptions. Having read both her books, and having looked over the field of current contenders, I have to say that we could do a lot worse than elect Palin as president . . . and probably will.

But that just sets the context of these comments, where I want to point to the central problematic element in her worldview. There are three basic problems, all related to feminism and our sexual culture.

The official position of the National Organization of Harpies notwithstanding, Palin really is a feminist. But in order to understand this, you have to understand that in 19th century American feminism, there were two basic currents of thought. One got control of the stage and microphone, and not only assumed the right to speak for all women (which was its very own hoot), but also assumed (much more effectively) the right to speak for all feminists. This particular strand of feminism is characterized by two tenets: 1. men are jerks, and 2. women should strive by all means to become like them.

In contrast, the other stream of feminism has not wanted to disparage feminine identity and distinctiveness, and was therefore ardently pro-life, for example. This form of feminism has been much more likely to support women who want to be stay-at-home moms, and is much more likely to recognize physiological realties and differences between men and women. This second form of feminism is not as obnoxious as the first, but it is still dangerous for reasons I will discuss shortly.

“I didn’t subscribe to all the radical mantras of that early feminist era, but reasoned arguments for equal opportunity definitely resonated with me” (GR, p. 29).

The example she uses to buttress this point is Title IX, which shows one of the limitations of “common sense conservatism.”

“I grew up in a place and time where women did the same work as men — but were still allowed to be girls” (ABH, p. 139).

This is the one regnant corruption that a Palin presidency would likely make worse, and it is not a trivial point. She has a strong constitutionalist streak (GR. 143), and another libertarian streak, which, when combined with her feminism, could easily lead to a toxic mix on issues like women in combat, women being susceptible to the draft, DADT in the military, homosexual civil unions, and so on.

Palin herself is an odd mix of feminism and traditionalism. When she got pregnant as governor, she “dreaded the reaction and comments from the Neanderthals who would think of this pregnancy as a distraction” (GR, 172).

She certainly seems to subscribe to the view that a woman “can have it all.”

“Society has made women believe that they cannot do both — pursue career, or education, or anything else, and still carry a baby” (GR, p. 172).

Notice that the limits are adopted by the women, who in turn were taught by society that certain activities are inconsistent, that you cannot successfully do everything you might want to do.

When her daughter Bristol got pregnant out of wedlock, to her credit Palin owned her responsibility in it. She says she was “preoccupied with the enormous job of being governor of the nation’s largest state” (ABH, p. 95). Todd’s job was 1500 miles away on the North Slope. “I assumed that Bristol was making only wise decisions . . .” (ABH, p. 95). “I kick myself to this day for my selfish assumption” (ABH, p. 96).

But what she does not say is that perhaps some of the Neanderthals mentioned earlier were not actually being Neanderthals. People being what they are, some of them probably were, but it may have been the case that some observers of the Palin family thought (correctly) that the breakpoint was coming a bit sooner than she thought.

At the same time, her common sense on the related issues has a way of popping out. This is just another way of saying that in this area, she does not have a consistent framework for understanding the world. For example, she had a conversation with Todd about his participation in the Iron Dog snowmobile race. The race extends across 2,200 miles of Alaskan territory — and according to Wolfram Alpha that’s more than the distance between Baltimore and Spokane — and in wind chill conditions that can get to 60 below. Not an activity for the kind of sensitive male wuss that would marry feminist type #1.

“Women have raced too, and someday they’ll win. ‘I really want to run the Iron Dog,’ I cockily told Todd one night as he settled down for a few hours’ rest between 120-mph training rides by himself in the middle of the night. ‘Can you wrench your own machine?’ he asked. ‘Nope.’ ‘Can you get the back end of a six-hundred-pound machine unstuck by yourself with open water up to your thighs, then change out an engine at forty below in the pitch black on a frozen river and replace thrashed shocks and jury-rig a suspension using tree limbs along the trail?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Then go back to sleep, Sarah'” (GR, pp. 187-188)

The second point is related. Some limitations on women do have to do with societal expectations and training. If you were to take an anti-feminist of the late 19th century (and good for him), and show him a picture of a contemporary woman with five kids in an SUV, driving them all from school to their violin lessons, and doing this on a busy six-lane highway, and after that off to home and dinner, the picture that would come to his mind would not be that of domesticity. But it would in fact be domesticity. None of the women he knew would have been up for that kind of thing, and that would have been a function of societal expectation and training. Those sorts of things can change.

But there are built-creational limits as well. This is what we might call the hours in the day problem, and not a function of how many mouthy “Neanderthals” you might have in your life. Some limitations are cultural and can change over time. But some cannot be changed, not without doing violence to the nature of women, and the nature of marriage. It is the part of wisdom to acknowledge the difference between those two categories, and to honor them. Sarah Palin needs to do some more work on where that boundary is, and not be so quick to dismiss those conservatives who are dubious about the ability of even high performance families to surpass the built-in limits.

And last, as has been often noted, only Nixon could have gone to China. And only conservatives can really screw us up when it comes to the issues of sex and culture. Palin has been so identified by leftist hysteria with ultra right wing causes (along with other entities like Fox News), that it is then assumed that anything she does or supports is somehow “conservative.” But numerous signs indicate that what radicals succeeded in getting on the agenda, “conservatives” will eventually help to get passed. From CPAC’s acceptance of GOProud, to Fox News retail outlets in airports proudly selling their pornography, ostensible conservatives are now doing with sexual issues what they have done with so many, many other issues.

It is a two-step process. In one election cycle, the conservatives respond to an outrageous proposal by the leftists with the taunt that “it will never work.” In a subsequent election cycle, the conservatives promise, if elected, “to make it work.”



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