Turning Sarah Palin into a twenty-first century witch

In our era of lifestyle politics, the PC moral crusade against Palin exposes the cosmopolitan elite’s contempt for the common people.

Frank Furedi

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So, Sarah Palin or her vicious, spiteful critics – who is worse?

As a libertarian humanist, I find Palin’s prejudices about creationism and family life troubling. And I am always disturbed when politicians cynically pretend that they are just ‘regular guys’ or ‘hockey moms’. Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to picking a candidate for the vice president of the United States, I am less interested in the individual’s mothering identity than in her policies.

That is also why I find the attacks on Palin for her role as a mother so nauseating, too. As an advocate of choice in reproductive matters, and in the conduct of personal morality, I strongly disagree with Palin. However, I find myself in the strange position of disagreeing even more with her critics, who seek to dehumanise her and cast her in the role of a twenty-first century witch.

Feminists used to complain that in medieval times it was mainly women who were accused of being witches and burned at the stake. Now many of them have signed up to a vicious internet-driven witch-hunting club against Palin. In their obsessive desire to expose the ‘real’ Palin, they have even tried to crucify her for ‘wanting it all’! She ‘returns to work three days after giving birth’, exclaims one feminist, adding that Palin is ‘living the life of a caricature of the feminist who “wants it all”’.

‘After the birth of her fifth child, she was back in the office after a few days’, complains Sally Quinn of the Washington Post. Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, asks: ‘How does [Palin] square her role as a mother and a politician?’


Sarah Palin at the
Republican convention

When did the aspiration to combine motherhood with a successful career become a focus for the hatred of so-called progressives and feminists? In their opportunistic denunciation of Palin, many of her critics reveal their own barely concealed sense of envy. Take the good Reverend Debra W Haffner, who finds it ‘hard to imagine how a new mother of a five-month-old baby, no less one with special needs, is running a state, no less a national campaign’. In a distinctly mean-spirited tone, she adds: ‘Maybe it’s gotten a lot easier since I had mine.’ This woman of the cloth, who describes herself as a ‘minister and a sexologist’, has no problem with denouncing Palin for putting her career ahead of her family. ‘My family values – and the decisions I’ve made throughout my career – have always put challenging times in my family first’, Haffner boasts. From Haffner’s perspective, a mother pursuing a serious career means putting children and family second.

It seems that even fervent advocates of women’s rights will adopt outdated and chauvinistic moral rhetoric when targeting a woman they do not like. Jane Smiley castigates Palin for her ‘bitchy and arrogant point of view’, which is apparently a ‘characteristic of all conservative women’. ‘The bitch is in there’, observes this signed-up member of the otherwise sophisticated American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The reaction to Palin suggests that many supporters of the pro-choice lobby have adopted a radically new definition of choice. It now means ‘choose what we think is good’, otherwise you will be denounced as a feckless breeder or an irresponsible mother. Jane Smiley took it upon herself to question Palin’s right to have a child at the ripe old age of 44. Smiley the prescriptive inquisitor asks: ‘If she produces a child at 44, I want to know if she believes in birth control.’

Other pro-choice commentators find it incomprehensible that a 44-year-old woman would choose to give birth to a child in the first place. ‘I think getting knocked up when you’re 44, at the peak of your career and [when you] already have four children, is more than slightly narcissistic’, writes the blogger Molly Lambert. Lambert also seems to believe that Palin has only herself to blame for the fact that her youngest child has Down’s Syndrome. ‘I am not saying that being old gets you a retarded baby, but it certainly doesn’t help’, she observes helpfully.

In its ‘Top Ten Most Disturbing Facts and Impressions of Sarah Palin’, the popular liberal magazine AlterNet seems adamant that Palin ‘takes unnecessary risks with the health of her child’. Progressive America, it seems, is now in the business of moralising about how a mother ought to manage her pregnancies. Palin apparently has ‘taken unnecessary risks in the delivery of her child’, and as far as AlterNet is concerned she is not fit to be a mother, never mind a serious political candidate.

This sentiment is echoed by Bonnie Fuller on The Huffington Post, who asks if Palin is ‘ready to take the mantle of the worst mother of the year’. For AlterNet, Palin’s ‘uber-motherhood’ is a façade since she is the ‘right’s version of what a strong woman should look like’. Evidently, right-wing women can be treated as white trash by an otherwise morally refined and ‘progressive’ online publication.

Others condemn Palin for allowing her 17-year-old daughter to get pregnant and for not being embarrassed by this ‘family secret’. For Bonnie Fuller, one of Palin’s crimes is her attempt to ‘normalise’ her daughter’s pregnancy. ‘She opposes sex education and her daughter is pregnant’, writes the Democratic Party’s favourite academic George Lakoff. As far as he is concerned, that alone is proof of Palin’s moral inferiority.

America’s cultural elite sometimes expresses its contempt for simple-minded ordinary folk – yet when it comes to circulating rumours and conspiracy theories, this elite can outdo the most gullible, poorly-educated of America’s ‘trailer trash’. Spreading the rumour that Palin’s youngest son (Trig) is really the offspring of her daughter (Bristol), one reproductive advocate employed by the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh writes: ‘My own sicko scenario: Trig is Bristol’s baby.’ Others speculate that Palin has cynically encouraged her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy in order to use her as a poster child for her own anti-abortion and abstinence-only education policies.

The virulence of the language used by the anti-Palin crusaders reflects the contempt with which the American cosmopolitan elite regards common people. Such explicit denunciations of ordinary people’s morality and lifestyles by self-confessed progressive or liberal commentators are rare today, at a time when American culture professes to be non-judgmental and tolerant – certainly such vicious stereotyping would be condemned if it was directed at minorities or any other section of society apart from ‘rednecks’. That is why, normally, such top-down contempt is expressed through euphemisms and nods and winks.

In the US, terms such as ‘Nascar Dads’, ‘Valley Girls’, ‘Joe six-pack’ or ‘redneck’ have become codewords for the white working classes or the ‘underclass’. In Britain, commentators use different phrases for undesirable sections of society: ‘chavs’, ‘white van man’, ‘Worcester Woman’, ‘tabloid readers’. These are the kind of people who do not write for The Huffington Post and whose lifestyles are looked upon as alien by the very high-minded cultural elites. The very fact that ‘these people’ breed, are unashamedly carnivorous, are not on a diet, sometimes drink beer, sometimes smoke and sometimes partake in even cruder pleasures of life means they cannot be treated as the moral equals of their cosmopolitan superiors.

The invective hurled at Palin is directed not at her politics, but at her lifestyle. This shows that the real dividing line in the American election is not between left and right, but between competing lifestyles. Indeed, the politicisation of lifestyle has become one the most distinctive features of American public life today. Some seem to take their lifestyles so seriously that they do not simply disagree with people who have a different outlook to them – rather they heap contempt and loathing on those who possess different manners, habits and values.

What is most striking is the passion and force with which certain individuals are attacked if they take a different position on, say, the right to abortion or the right to bear arms. These passionate denunciations suggest that some people, most notably those in the liberal elite, feel that their very identity – as expressed through their lifestyles – is being called into question by those who dare to disagree on the environment, abortion, sexual behaviour or any other issue. That is why the denunciation of Palin has assumed such an intensely personal and bitter character. When lifestyle becomes politicised, the new breed of politically-correct moral crusaders cannot help but embrace the language and approach of the witch hunters of old.

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here. This is an extended version of an article first published in The Australian on 5 September 2008.

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