Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Dangerous Sexism of Political Chivalry

In addition to their usual attempt to “work the refs” by whining about the mythical “liberal media bias”, the Republicans have a new weapon to use this time to shield Sarah Palin from valid questions about her experience, qualifications, competency, track record, religion and policy positions: “sexism”. Unfortunately, this smokescreen is working far better than it should. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen media “pundits” and partisans on both sides of the aisle wondering how the Obama campaign will “deal with attacks from a female candidate”, or how Joe Biden will conduct himself in the debates so he doesn’t come across as “beating up on a woman”.

The sexism here is in even asking these questions in the first place. Would anyone ask how Obama should treat McCain so he doesn’t seem like he’s being “mean” to his elder? Would anyone suggest that McCain had to pull punches about Obama’s resume or his policies to not look like he was being “racist”? Of course not. But some keep perpetuating the notion that Palin is entitled to a tilted playing field in a contest upon which rests the future of our nation.

Worrying about opponents being “too tough” is not being kind to women, it is an insulting double standard that treats women as if they were inferior, like children who must be protected. (That’s in addition to the other double standards, of course, such as decrying “sexism” while playing up Palin as being the “hottest governor from the coldest state”.) Allowing this false narrative to be used to deflect valid, critical media questions, or to disarm political opponents, is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Political chivalry is sexism our nation cannot afford.

The Fourth Estate Punts

I don’t entirely blame the McCain campaign for trying to use this sort of approach. Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, thinks that Americans have no right to ask questions of the woman who could be their president in less than four years – she should only do what helps her get elected. Worse, he went so far as to blame the media itself for why Sarah Palin was being insulated from the media, saying that they needed to treat her with “a level of respect” – code language for political chivalry.

The problem is that the media is letting the McCain campaign get away with it. It’s bad enough that the press is publicizing and playing up the false narrative that Sarah Palin is being unfairly attacked by those who have valid concerns about her qualifications and viewpoints. But even worse than this is the media allowing itself to be completely cowed by the decision to keep Sarah Palin from proper press vetting, and then barely even criticizing her reluctance to face her critics.

“Respect”? That’s what Americans are rapidly losing for media outlets who let political campaigns tell them how to do their jobs.

What little outrage there actually has been to the McCain campaign’s “Shields Up!” Palin strategy doesn’t seem to have accomplished much. Davis and company decided to throw a bone to Governor Palin’s “subjects” (we the people) by having ABC’s Charles Gibson have a little sit-down with her – in Alaska. That sounds nice, but the problem is the risk of the result being exactly that: “nice”. The McCain campaign will try to pre-screen the questions, feed Palin the answers, and get ABC to edit out any mistakes. I’m skeptical that ABC can stick to its guns, and unless it does, the result will be more suitable for a college course on propaganda than one on journalism.

Regardless of her upcoming, uh, northern exposure, it’s been over a week and a half since McCain announced Palin, and she has yet to have an unscripted exchange with the media. This sets up a rather striking contrast: she claims she’s a “maverick” who’s going to take on Washington, but apparently she can’t take on Tom Brokaw? McCain said his candidacy was about being “ready to lead on day one” in the event of crisis, but Sarah Palin needs some on-the-job training before dealing with a press corps?

Is anyone in the media even awake? Hello?

What Happens After the Election?

If McCain and Palin do win, what happens to Sarah Palin then? If McCain’s people expect us to treat her like a shrinking violet, does that mean they believe people outside this country are just as foolish? Should we suppose that Vladimir Putin will treat Sarah Palin with “extra respect” in a key negotiation, because she’s female? Do the Republicans think people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chávez or Kim Jong-il are going to “play nice” because the leader of the “Evil Empire” is a woman?

Women have fewer rights and are treated with less respect in dozens of countries. These include ones that a U.S. president must interact with on a regular basis, especially across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. I don’t think they are going to give Sarah Palin any leeway on account of being a member of the fairer sex –in fact, it might be just the opposite.

If Palin has a problem with America’s so-called “sexism”, how is she going to deal with Saudi Arabia, considered one of our best “allies” despite women there being treated like second class citizens?

The Obama/Biden Counternarrative

My greatest fear – as someone who is gravely concerned about the danger that a McCain/Palin presidency represents to the future of this country – was that the Obama camp was going to fall for the political chivalry gambit. The nonsense about Biden having to treat Palin with kid gloves during their debate was particularly outrageous and insulting.

Fortunately, they are not taking the bait – just the opposite. Joe Biden is remaining respectful of Sarah Palin as a person, while very correctly making the same case that I do in this article: that women politicians should be treated the same exact way as men politicians. Yesterday, at a town hall style get-together in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a woman in the audience told Biden, “don’t be afraid to debate her”. The crowd cheered, and Biden replied, in part:

“One of the things I find fascinating is I think a lot of our Republican friends are kind of in a time warp. And I’m not being facetious. Years ago when I was a 29-year-old kid and I went to the senate and there were no women in the senate, it probably made sense that – well geez, ‘How do you debate a woman?’, ‘How do you do this?’ Folks, it’s 2008. I’ve been – there are an awful lot of very, very accomplished women holding high public office that I debate and we beat up each other every day in the United States senate. Try debating Barbara Mikulski. Try debating, you know, try debating Barbara Boxer, try debating Olympia Snowe. So the idea that somehow there’s a woman, I go ‘Oh my god, I don’t know how to deal with this.’ I think the only people, the only guys who think that way have never been around strong women.
Look, here’s the deal. Sarah Palin has made a couple really good political speeches and she’s makes a very strong impression, a confident impression. But Sarah Palin’s eventually going to have to do what I do, she’s going to have to go on Meet the Press like I do and have them come after ‘em like they come at me. She’s going to have to answer questions. She’s going to have to, she’s going to have to say where she wants to take America. And she’s going to have to say what her record was and defend her record.
My plan is to do no different than I get ready to debate, you know, Elizabeth Dole on the floor of the Senate.”
Well said, senator. And it’s also interesting that he drove home another key point that smart, successful women should still be chaffing about: the many qualified woman Republicans, like Olympia Snowe, and qualified men as well, whom McCain passed over in favor of his pandering Palin pick. (Apparently this sort of sexism doesn’t matter. Shhh.)

This is Not a Game

We’re told that vice-presidential candidates are not that big of a deal, that it’s the “top of the ticket” that matters. But that’s not always true, and it’s definitely not true here. Sarah Palin matters more than most VP choices for four important reasons. First, she’s an unknown quantity who was selected without proper vetting – we don’t know enough about her. Second, the McCain campaign has made the first issue worse by engaging in a dishonest “marketing” campaign surrounding her. Third, she has radical views and is a polarizing figure. And finally, John McCain’s age and medical history mean that a Republican win in November involves a far greater than normal chance of McCain’s VP becoming president.

It is not sexist to ask Sarah Palin about her record on women’s rights – it is sexist to avoid asking them.

It is not sexist to inquire as to why Sarah Palin thinks it’s great that her daughter had a choice about how to deal with an unexpected pregnancy, but that no other women should – it is sexist not to inquire just because she's female.

It is not sexist to ask Sarah Palin to give direct answers about her growing list of scandals – it is sexist to give her a free pass on them.

It is not sexist to expect Joe Biden to treat Sarah Palin in their debate the same exact way he would have treated someone named Steven Palin – it is sexist to suggest she can unload on him at will, but he has to hold back.

It is not even sexist to ask Sarah Palin about whether her running for vice-president is really the best thing for her newborn infant and pregnant daughter, when she claims to be a “family values” candidate and exploits her own family to improve her image and garner sympathy votes.

This is not a game we’re playing, folks: this is for all the marbles. A virtually unknown, unqualified, scandal-ridden woman could be the 45th president of the United States – leader of the free world, in charge of NATO, commander in chief of the largest military in history, and responsible for dealing with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economy in crisis, the future of the Supreme Court and a host of other crucial matters. We cannot afford to let political chivalry intimidate those who would expose her to correct and proper scrutiny. Our future depends on it.


Amy said...

Ok, so I see you don't rake in the comments. But you've earned a spot on my favorites list with this post. (I haven't read the others, yet). I wish more people saw blogs like yours.

Thanks for your many insights over on 538 as well.

Obama/Biden '08

Charles M. Kozierok said...

Thanks Amy. This blog is all of 4 days old which may explain the lack of commentage. ;)

Amy said...

That could be it. Sorry. I just read the one post, though I can't wait to read more, so I didn't glance at how long the history was before opening my yap.

Charles M. Kozierok said...

Hey, no problem! Glad to have readers and commenters, for the same reason. :)