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September 8, 2008


Doing the Palin polka


Hey, guys! John McCain really did a number on you when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. And he’s been jerking your chains ever since. Why did you let John McCain jerk your chain last week? There’s been a whole lotta jerkin’ goin’ on. And y’all did a cute little dance in response, jumping up and down, back and forth.

I assume that Palin, like many other VP candidates, was chosen to act as party pit bull, leveling attacks at the opposition that might be considered unseemly coming out of the mouth of someone headed directly to the Oval Office. If so, she did a good job, and she did it with a certain kind of folksy panache. That’s what candidates are supposed to do.

But others saw her performance differently.

New York Times columnist Judith Warner’s chain was jerked in one direction:

Palin sounded, at times, like she was speaking a foreign language as she gave voice to the beautifully crafted words that had been prepared for her on Wednesday night.

But that wasn’t held against her. Thanks to the level of general esteem that greeted her ascent to the podium, it seems we’ve all got to celebrate the fact that America’s Hottest Governor (Princess of the Fur Rendezvous 1983, Miss Wasilla 1984) could speak at all.

Could there be a more thoroughgoing humiliation for America’s women?

Snap. Tammy Bruce was jerked in the other direction. Humiliation? Not at all, she wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. Far from it.

For Democrats, she offers something even more compelling — a chance to vote for a someone who is her own woman, and who represents a party that, while we don’t agree on all the issues, at least respects women enough to take them seriously.

Whether we have a D, R or an “i for independent” after our names, women share a different life experience from men, and we bring that difference to the choices we make and the decisions we come to. Having a woman in the White House, and not as The Spouse, is a change whose time has come, despite the fact that some Democratic Party leaders have decided otherwise. But with the Palin nomination, maybe they’ll realize it’s not up to them any longer.

Clinton voters, in particular, have received a political wake-up call they never expected.

Snap again. In Salon, Joe Conason was yanked over to Judith Warner’s side:

It is hard to think of a more cynical and contemptuous political act this year than John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. Having served as governor of Alaska for less than two years — and as mayor of a small town before that — her qualifications for national office are minimal.

Palin is the epitome of tokenism, exactly what conservative Republicans have always claimed to scorn, until today, as the politics of quotas and political correctness. Even Rush Limbaugh is a feminazi now (at least until Election Day).

But if Palin’s résumé is limited, to put it politely, she possesses the only two qualities that McCain now seems to consider essential: She is a right-wing religious ideologue with female gender characteristics. Suddenly that is all anyone needs to qualify as a potential commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military.

It’s stories that jerk chains. And storytelling was out in full force last week.  Joan Walsh, writing in Salon, noticed it:

By the time Palin took the stage, she no longer seemed like an Alaskan Annie Oakley, a gun-toting, hockey mom biker-gal; she’d become pioneer victim girl, Pauline tied to the train tracks by mean Democrats and the liberal media. But Palin shook off the victim mantle by coming out swinging, first blasting “the pollsters and the pundits” for writing off McCain last year, then tearing into Barack Obama with glee, teeth bared like a Rudy Giuliani in heels.

A doctored photo in my email summed it up: Sarah Palin wearing an American-flag bikini and a big smile, stands beside a swimming pool, cradling a rifle.

In the past week, the world has turned the old Women’s Studies slogan on its head. The political has become the personal. Issues have become anecdotes. The war in Iraq was transformed into a woman’s oldest son, about to head into battle. Teenaged pregnancies turned into a photogenic 17 year old. Birth defects emerged as a beautiful five-month-old boy. Gun control was reduced to moose hunting. And so on. The technique worked well for Ronald Reagan. And it’s equally effective today.

It’s time to flip it back and resume the political debate. The only trouble is that the venerable slogan doesn’t want to stay upright. Sometimes the easiest way to talk about policies is in metaphorical terms. But people can always change the metaphors and thus reframe the discussion.

Take, for example, the most obvious feature of the GOP’s Palin lovefest, the sanctification of motherhood. We can point to the reasoned arguments of NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Or we can pull out a well-worn copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and begin reading:

A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick sidewalk towards me. She reaches me and we peer at each other’s faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is the right one.

“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.

“May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response.

But that’s just one woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008