Thursday, September 18, 2008

Politicians and Privacy, Take Two

Previously, I criticized the excessive attention paid to the pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter. As with every blog I write, I reserve the right to change my mind in light of new evidence. I won't hold onto a belief, willingly blinding myself to other ideas, just for the sake of remaining "correct."

While I still believe that focusing on Palin's daughter is intrusive and politically unwise, new ideas have convinced me that pro-choice advocates are justified in talking about this. I still believe, however, that if the purpose of invoking the pregnant teen is to drag Palin, or her family, through the mud, it is unacceptable.

1. She Brought Her Family Onto the Stage

When it was announced that Sarah Palin was to be McCain's running mate, she immediately paraded her family across the public stage. Part of her personal narrative is that she's a Family Gal, committed to good ol' American Family Values. Yet, in opportunistically using her family to write this narrative for the American people, it is dishonest to omit the bad stuff.

Family matters cannot be "private affairs" only when they are harmful to a political campaign and "public affairs" only when they benefit a campaign. While I think most family affairs, in general, are none of our business, if a candidate's the one who makes an issue of her family then she can't really complain when the media makes an issue of her family.

2. "The Personal Is Political"

Secondly, as ProfessorWhatIf reminded me in a recent blog post, a common feminist slogan back in the day was "the personal is political" meaning "...that the personal issues facing women were linked to the wider societal systems and institutions - that, what you do in your own house, your own daily life, is linked to (and defined by) the politics of the society in which you live." The gist of the slogan is that the personal issues a woman faces are, often, the result of the political oppression of women. For instance, in a society in which abortion is illegal, a combination of political and personal factors cause a low-income woman to struggle to raise a child on her own. The political choices that others made have effectively made this woman's life more difficult.

In the specific case of abortion rights, those who oppose abortion take the profoundly personal issue of pregnancy and interject it into the public sphere for regulation. Of the Palin pregnancy, ProfessorWhatIf writes:

"Claiming that this is a ‘personal matter’ is utter hypocrisy. So it’s personal when Palin’s daughter gets pregnant, but when anyone else does, it should be a matter of the state??? Or, as Gary Younge puts it in his piece on Palin, 'The woman who would like us to keep her daughter’s pregnancy a private matter is running for office so that she can make the pregnancies of other people’s daughters an affair of the state.'"

After parading her family across the stage of the Republican convention, Sarah Palin has declared certain aspects of her family life to be "personal" matters and, therefore, off limits for public discussion. Yet she believes that the very personal right to be or not to be pregnant is a matter of public affairs. The message we get from her is that "public discussion of a woman's pregnancy is off-limits because it's personal, but public regulation of other women's pregnancies is A-OK because pregnancy itself is not personal." What a profoundly hypocritical, privileged, and absurd message.

3. The Spin Machine

While I think that the Republicans have created a double-standard in that they expect the media to only discuss the "good" parts of Palin's family and that it is hypocritical for Palin's daughter's pregnancy to be "private" and other women's pregnancies to be "public," we still have to tread carefully.

The Republicans are experts at twisting rhetoric for their own political purposes. When news broke about The Pregnancy, the message from the right became The Left Hates Families and Babies! In reality, much of the commentary, at least from pro-choice advocates centered on Palin's ironic use of the word "choice" in reference to her daughter's decision to have the baby.

As a similar case in point let's remember back when, in 2004, John Kerry criticized the Bush Administration for its anti-gay policies by saying:

"And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was. She's being who she was born as."

The Republican/Dick Cheney outcry was hypocritical, absurd, and unwarranted. Of John Kerry, Cheney said:

"You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected, and I am not just speaking as a father here, although I am a pretty angry father."

The right completely twisted the rhetoric around with a "how dare you bring family into this!?" attitude even though Kerry’s point was, precisely, "how could you take your own daughter’s rights away?" It was a big clusterfuck of a non sequitur. The big sin, in the eyes of the Right, was not with the fact that the Bush Administration was against gay rights but with the fact that John Kerry publicly reminded everyone that Dick Cheney had a lesbian daughter. Because, you know, having a lesbian daughter is a gravely embarrassing private matter. Whereas, the homosexuality of millions of other Americans is a public affair that requires state regulation and repression.

Like 2004, the key to this election will come down to which party can create the best personal narrative. Unfortunately, I think the Republicans are winning. With Palin on their side they are now able to decry any criticism of her to be off-limits, elitist, and/or sexist. I suppose the upside is that at least the Republicans are taking such a keen interest in sexism these days.

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