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Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin: Reluctant Culture Warrior

A great way to guage just how intensel a topic is covered is to search the right key words. Search the words Sarah Palin culture war and you'll find 323,000 hits, a fairly extraordinary large number. It seems both sides of the culture war debate are all too willing to make Palin the symbol of the culture war. Her detractors are quick to point out that she doesn't represent the right kind of feminism. Her supporters see her as the beacon of hope in restoring traditional values. The irony is that the one person who said little or nothing about her role in the culture wars is Palin herself. Let's make no mistake. She has been thrust into the middle of the culture wars, but this has happened without her approval. It took a matter of minutes for Sarah Palin to go from simply being a Vice Presidential candidate to becoming a symbol, for both sides, of everything that is wrong and right in the culture wars. First, let's look at a sampling of the opinions of Palin in the culture war. First here are some from the other side.

Like this...

The storm around Sarah Pailn overtakes the story of the Republican convention and merges with it, like a smaller but stronger company taking over a larger but troubled enterprise. Behind the storm a "wave narrative" builds as her appointment generates headlines on multiple fronts.

The irresistible force of fact-fed controversy meets the immovable enthusiasm for Palin as cultural object: charismatic everywoman straight from the imaginary of conservative America.* The basic strategy is: don't fight the "crisis" narrative. Rather, do things that bring it on; and in that crisis re-divide the electorate hoping to grab the bigger half.

The evangelical wing, and other social conservatives are strongly moved by her candidacy. More and more of their commitment to McCain is vested in him through her. As Andrew Sullivan writes: "The emotions involved -- especially among the Christianist base who have immediately bonded on purely religious and cultural terms with Palin -- are epic."

and this...

The culture wars mobilize working class anger against the "liberal elite." This infuriates liberals, who point out again and again that Obama grew up in modest circumstances whereas McCain is the son and grandson of an admiral, married to a very wealthy woman.

But remember, American popular culture celebrates the lifestyles of the rich and famous: the cherished goal of the dispossessed is to have more money. Not to have different values and tastes -- like those snobs whose class status stems from their educational credentials.

Bridging the alienation between the working class and the upper middle class requires us not only to learn more about the working class. It also requires us to look at ourselves through their eyes. We think of ourselves as "upper middle class." But to them, we aren't middle class at all; we're an elite. Consider this, from a standard college textbook.

and from her defenders

No. Sarah Palin is not resented for what she has done, but for who she is: a Christian conservative who believes unborn children are gifts of God, even those with birth defects, and have a God-given right to life.

Normally, the press is reluctant to rummage into the private lives of public servants, unless their conduct affects their duties or they preach virtues they hypocritically do not practice.

Yet, no sooner was Palin introduced, than the media went berserk over the news that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. As one in three births in America is out-of-wedlock and Hollywood celebrates this lifestyle, why did The New York Times and The Washington Post splash this "news" on page one above the fold?

Then, there are those that try and maintain some objectivity.

Until last week’s Palin pick, many of these issues seemed to be receding. The National Review last year published an article titled “A Farewell to Culture Wars.”

No official cease-fire had been called, of course. But McCain and Barack Obama were not inclined to make this campaign a big fight over family values issues — for different reasons.

McCain is a social conservative but clearly uncomfortable talking about his personal faith and personal issues, such as gay marriage. His comfort zone is talking about national security and the federal budget. Obama is a social liberal who has little interest in making this campaign about anything other than the economy, the war and the need to shake up Washington.

“Something happens in the political realm that tends to trigger the culture wars re-emergence. So it’s always below the surface,” said James Davidson Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist who brought the term "culture war" into the political lexicon in the early nineties.

“McCain’s choice of a social conservative and now the revelation that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant out of wedlock has triggered the issue back up to the surface,” Hunter added.

Conservative evangelical Christians, the GOP’s foot soldiers in these fights, are delighted by the emergence of a new leader who seems so genuinely in sync with them on abortion (opposes) creationism (believes it should be taught in public schools) and other topics.

The thing about Palin's role in the Culture Wars is that it is entirely thrust upon her without her asking for it. Make no mistake, Palin is a consistent, reliable, and unabashed traditional social conservative. That's how she governs as well. I have no doubt that given the chance she would choose an Alito, Thomas, or Scalia to the bench. Still, social issues have never dominated her political agenda. She didn't make her political bones battling Planned Parenthood and limiting abortions in Alaska.

If anything, she should become a part of the fiscal wars in D.C., between fiscal conservatives and tax and spend liberals. There, she has actually attempted to insert herself into the war with something besides personal views.

There is, to me, something perverse about both sides inserting Palin into the middle of their ideological Culture War. Talk about using someone as a pawn. The reality, though, is that in the larger scheme of things using someone as a pawn in an ideological war is not altogether outrageous in D.C. Maybe, that is the real problem.

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