Monday, November 17, 2008

Splinter removal, part 2

Ok, so I suppose I should get this out of the way so I can get on with something more useful today.

As I suggested in my post last night taking issue with Nick Cohen's flippant dismissal of evolutionary psychology, my compelling need to respond was partly driven by the fact that I generally admire his writing and, on probably most things, agree with him. He's a thoughtful, original commentator, so I just couldn't let it slide by when that essay seemed like it was written on intellectual autopilot.

In a way that is not the same but somehow similar, the other thing that I haven't quite been able to get out of my head this week is Molly Ivors's accusation that some liberal criticism of Sarah Palin should be seen as misogyny.

I'm a regular reader of Whiskey Fire--where Ivors posts--not least since I feel a strong affinity for left-liberals who know how to use profanity creatively. And we probably agree on most things, such as the notion that liberals (progressives, the left, whatever noun you prefer) should not condescend to people living in rural and small town areas.

But Ivors's posts over the last week on the Palin critiques have bothered me, since I'm not sure that the problem she identifies actually exists--at least, based on the evidence she presents, in the places she says it does--and I wonder whether her suggestions, if acted upon, would be detrimental to the goal (which we seem to share) of keeping the right wing out of power.

Furthermore, both of us here at Obscene Desserts have spent a fair amount of time criticising and mocking Palin, something about which we feel completely justified.

Ivors's first post laid out the basic charge.

Exhibit A of left-liberal misogyny: Keith Olbermann in this episode of Countdown.

Here it is:

Ivors says:

[B]arely 30 seconds in, Keith Olbermann calls Palin, more or less, the Wife of Bath. Olbermann's a smart guy, and I have no issues with his fact-checking of the dates of Harry Potter publication (I did that myself) or the length of her acquaintanceship with McCain. But as a smart guy, he really should be aware of the medieval trope of the woman who will not shut up. Even as you give her more coverage than the VP who, you know, won.

So, the evidence of 'misogyny' is that Olbermann a) says Palin talks a lot, b) gives attention to the clothing issue and c) spends more time talking about her than about Joe Biden.

It occurs to me that we're setting the bar for woman-hating a bit, well...low here. There are good reasons why Olbermann might give her more attention than Biden (that she's given numerous interviews, may be gearing up for a presidential run and, you know, represents extreme political viewpoints that Olbermann finds appalling are three which come to mind), might focus on the Nieman Marcus scandal (it was directly relevant to--and contradictory of--Palin's efforts to present herself as an average woman) and might draw attention to her talkativeness (since, after being shielded from the media, she was suddenly everywhere wanting to talk about everything, and, can we not agree, she does have this knack for tortured, long-winded verbiage that means nothing.)

What I don't see here is what Ivors does:

Here's a hint: you guys think she's hot, plus she gives you a chance to smirk and sneer at women generally for their silly, profligate, Chatty-Cathy ways.

Well, I can't speak for Olbermann, but The Wife and I have spent a lot of time smirking and sneering at Sarah Palin in much the same way he has, and I can assure you that it's not because either of us finds her 'hot'.

I'm wondering if I' know, missing something, since I think you have to invest a fair amount of mental effort to re-interpret Olbermann's comments as criticism of 'women generally' or to believe that he's reviving ancient tropes all in an effort to Silence Women.

Liberal misogyny, exhibit B: an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.

In particular, Ivors offers this excerpt, apparently chock full of red-hot patriarchy:

Ivors condemns the 'delighted giggles of Maher and Paul Begala' that were 'rightly called out by guests Joe Queenan and Farai Chideya, who noted both the gender and class sneering toward Palin, as well as her scapegoating.'

Let her own people call her a hillbilly: we don't need to. If we're really smarter--and I believe we are--there's no need to go down this road

Starting at about 1:30 here, Queenan points out that, as a local political figure, there's lots of things that can't be laid at her feet. Note his face and that of Chideya, both of whom are not buying into the frat boy chuckles over her ignorance.

I've watched this excerpt a couple of times now, and I'm mystified both by Ivors's condemnation of Maher and Begala as well as by her admiration of Queenan.

Maher and Begala, yes, laugh at Palin, but they see her as symbolic of a broader trend in the Republican party. Palin is, after all, a prime example of the anti-intellectual populism and God-bothering provincialism that an important section of the party (the one that was most 'energised' by Palin) has embraced. When Maher uses the word 'bimbo', he has included not just Palin, but also George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and even Ronald Reagan in that category.

And, while I haven't seen the whole show, Queenan's comments here are the epitome of non-sequitur: OK, Sarah Palin is not responsible for the Iraq War or the financial meltdown or any number of other Really Bad Things.

But...what does that have to do with anything?! As far as I know, not even her most misogynist critics have blamed her for those things.

And if we take Ivors's invitation and read Joe's face for meaning, he also seems singularly unmoved by Begala's comments about the Republican Party's embrace of full-on religious lunacy (i.e., creationism). Should we see that as another fine example of Joe the Journalist standing up to elitist smarty pants like Begala and Maher?

'Just because you're smarter than someone doesn't mean you're better than them', he concludes. Well, chalk me up as a snob, Joe, but I do think that closely considering someone's intelligence (their curiosity about the world, their ability to digest and consider complex concepts, their openness to new ideas, their ability to comment on the kinds of the issues that would be relevant to the job they're seeking) is a good idea when you're going to give them political power.

I'm not actually a huge fan of Maher, though I think he has his moments, but in that exhange he made several good points and Queenan (whom I don't know anything else about) was making very little sense at all.

Thus, I can't see how Begala, Maher or Olbermann deserve the stern warning with which Ivors concludes:

OK, let's have a look:Try to win with some grace, boys. You've beaten back the scary vaginas, whether they were qualified or not, and your penises are safe. For now.

Maybe I'm just a bit deaf when it comes to women-hatin', castration-fearin' commentary, but I think that in this case--based on the examples Ivors provides--I don't think there's any to be heard.

In two subsequent posts, Ivors has sought to clarify her position, partly in response to comments that have both agreed and disagreed, but even the latest one doesn't really bring us much further:

I'm talking about people--primarily Olbermann and Maher, but there are others--who are seizing this moment to sneer at Sarah Palin not because she's a backward-looking ignoramus with Darwinian policies and a vicious, tribal religion, but because she's a pushy woman who won't shut up and her family is declasse.

Let us just ignore the 'Darwinian policies' reference, hoping that it was meant as an ironic comment on Palin's creationist viewpoints rather than another smear linking 'Darwinisim' with reactionary economic policies. (Sigh.)

There might be people who are doing what Ivors says, but she has yet to present any convincing evidence, and if there are left-leaning people who really do equate the kind of innocuous commentary she's quoted by Olbermann and Maher with 'misogyny' (and many of the commenters on her posts agree with her), then I fear they're going to waste their time getting upset over nothing.

And I think Ivors's other concern--that our mockery of Palin will be counterproductive, and this also seemed to be Queenan's point--is unfounded. She says:

[T]he next candidate they bring forward will have more polish, and that can't be the grounds on which the Palins and their ilk are rejected. To do so not only alienates huge sections of the population, but also invites another retrograde asshole onto the national stage.

Well, I think that obviously the criticism of a candidate is going to be at least partly specific to them: i.e., when some more polished Republican candidate comes along then new lines of attack will emerge. I don't see how going after Palin in one way precludes going after another candidate in another way.

On another point we may simply disagree, but to the extent that 'huge sections of the population' adore Sarah Palin, I think they have moved themselves beyond the ability to be attracted to a Democratic Party that I would want to have that name. Mocking Palin has, I think, proven an effective weapon this year, helping to turn her (justifiably) into a millstone around the McCain campaign's neck. She, in the end, alienated large sections of America. That sounds like success for liberalism to me.

And if 'another retrograte asshole' emerges from the GOP (and that's likely, as they have plenty such orifices to spare) they're going to do so whether Olbermann or Maher or you or I laugh at Lady Also. A lot of people in the GOP love Sarah not as a response to Democratic urban elite condescension but rather because they want what she stands for. And what she stands for is not only absurd but also a threat and deserves mockery.

But does laughing at a particular woman mean you are inevitably also laughing at women in general?

Not at all, and I don't think that the particular amount of attention given to Palin is necessarily an expression of hostility to women as such. (Though I'm sure you could find examples of the latter if you look for them.) Ivor's argument that the attention given to her is somehow untoward has unfortunate echoes of Republican complaints that Palin's gaffes and mistakes were given undue attention compared to those of the other candidates.

However, when you consider the scale of Palin's incapacity and the frequency with which she demonstrated her ignorance I think that that attention is perfectly understandable.

Perhaps more to the point: is it wrong to laugh at Sarah Palin not only as an annoying, ignorant person, but also as an annoying, ignorant woman? This is more difficult, perhaps, but I don't think it is either easy or necessary to separate our perceptions of people from their sex.

To an important degree, my views of all of the people in my life (whether positive or negative) are to at least some degree inflected by their being a man or a woman. And I think this is unavoidable. George W. Bush is an annoyance partly because he represents a particular kind of man: the smirking frat-boy moron. (Ivors herself makes use of the 'frat-boy' image when critiquing Begala and Maher.) This may not be fair to all frat-boys (some of my best friends, etc., etc.....) but it's a recognisable type, and it's a type that is instantly recognisable as different than that represented by Barack Obama, John Kerry or Al Gore. Nor am I especially concerned about losing the frat-boy vote by pointing this out.

It's no different with Sarah Palin. Criticism of her--certainly criticism of the kind to which Ivors links--does not reflect upon other, demonstrably more capable female politicians.

And I don't even find the accusation of classism all that convincing, but this post has gotten long enough. Suffice to say, I think a lot of people who found her ridiculous did (and do) so not because they see her as an authentic representative of small town America but rather as a weird caricature of that kind of life.

So, in short, I think feminism has a lot more to worry about than inventing misogyny where it doesn't exist, that the left should not refrain from mockery or satire of the more absurd currents of right-wing thought (whether represented by small-town women or big-city men or vice-versa) and that those people (in whatever part of the country) who feel represented by Sarah Palin will probably never be reached by a Democratic Party that wants to maintain its sanity.

So they might at least provide us with a few laughs.

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