Thursday, September 11, 2008

So You Know This Lady?

The 2008 Presidential campaign is shaping up to be one of our most exciting, ever. Yes, that gets said on a quadrennial basis (almost as much as the insta-punditry of the "lesser of two evils" quip) but no, this time I mean it, I swear.

I'm no stranger to -isms. I spent a year at Marxist Indoctrination School (no really, it was Ed School, where I stuck around just long enough for the Master's) and some very up close and personal experience with the dangers of identity politics and a realization that the Far Left's bigotry is just as awful as that of the Far Right, only more dangerous for the people it claims to want to *help.*

Anyway, back to my point. As much as the extremism of Ed School repulsed me, if you don't think our society is infused with large quantities of racism and sexism, I think you're in some serious denial.

This year's election carries the extra excitement of three non-traditional (i.e. not gray or graying Protestant white males) on the major parties' tickets. So of course, that opens up the possibility of racism, sexism, or anti-Catholicism finding their way into the rhetoric.

Let me give two real live examples I've witnessed since Gov. Sarah Palin's place on the GOP ticket was announced:

1. The morning after her speech at the GOP convention, I heard multiple pundits quickly follow their praise of her speech and her bons mots with qualifiers about how she "of course didn't write it though."

Well, who does? Some politicians do write a lot of their stuff (Barack Obama and Robert Torricelli come quickly to mind) but there ain't no such thing as a modern pol who doesn't get help with speeches. Even the most overrated public speaker of the last century, Bill Clinton, didn't write his own stuff (though he did sometimes edit it).

I think part of this can be attributed to newcomer-ism (people said similar things about the Governator at first) but I also think you have to admit that sexism factored right into it. I think that even if some unknown male Governor suddenly came from nowhere to start cracking jokes at a convention, people would've given him more credit.

2. Secondly, and far more subtly, I've noticed the talking heads on the cable news channels (yes, it's on half the day in my office as white noise) refer to Gov. Palin as "Sarah" on multiple occasions.

It's like, do you know this lady? How presumptuous is that type of speech? I've never heard any of these types say "John," "Barack," or "Joe" unless they were referring to one of the Senators as a personal friend. Usually, those who are building her up will refer to her as "Gov. Palin" while those who are putting her down will remind us that "Sarah is just [insert unflattering adjective here]."

The same thing happened with "Hillary" but the key difference there is that her husband was once POTUS, so the use of "Hillary" as been with her as long as she's been in the public eye, in part to distinguish her from the other Clinton.

You'd be right to point out that gender discrimination works both ways. For some reason, it was once okay for John McCain to use "lipstick on a pig" in reference to Bush, but somehow it's not okay now that Gov. Palin made a single quip about "lipstick."

As I've written and said many times, I believe that Sociology Departments 'round the world will ultimately over-attribute the final results of the 2008 campaign to race and gender by drawing sweeping, deterministic conclusions about the American body politic once the dust settles from this election.

I'll challenge those pat assertions -- voter preferences are more complicated than most realize --but that doesn't make me right, either.

But what I do know is that both the "she didn't write it" and the "Sarah" stuff made me cringe just a bit.

Kind of like I cringed when I heard Senator Biden's "clean, fresh and articulate" line.


Nick said...

I agree with your distaste for the use of the first name, but I disagree with your assertion that "Sarah" is the only victim of this inappropriate familiarity.

For over a year, I have noticed that "Barack" has been used frequently and fliply--by people who are not necessarily Senator Obama's personal friends.

((A complete side note: This might be, in part, due to the repeated media gaffs in which Obama is referred to as "Osama"--see Bill O'Reilly and Ted Kennedy))

I also disagree with the idea that this sort of familiarity is wholly motivated by sexism, racism, or partisanship. Rather, it's a result of the dumbing-down of public discourse, combined with the exotic natures of the first names in question.

"Sarah" is exotic simply because it is female. "Barack" is exotic because it is unique, and ethnic.

Newscasters could not use "John", "Joe", "Bill", "Robert", or "Mike" to refer to a specific political figure, because that would be vague and confusing.

Matt said...

Hm. I'm kind of in-between. I think when Obama is called "Barack" and Palin is called "Sarah" it's not racist or sexist -- it's just simply a demonstration that you do not take the person seriously.

I'm not sure when this started, but I do remember during the Clinton impeachment many Republicans dropping the use of "president" when discussing him.

That being said, the irony is that both Obama and Palin encourage the use of their first names. It's an attempt on their parts to seem more folksy and down-to-earth. I've seen numerous signs at Palin/McCain rallies that just say "SARAH" or "SARAH for V.P" (signs, of course, made by interns on her campaign) and Obama signs his campaign mailings to supporters not Senator Obama, but "Barack."

So I guess the first name thing cuts both ways.

The New Englander said...

Matt and Nick,

As always thanks for your comments and insights. Good points to bring into the discussion and they definitely temper the initial idea that the first name use is driven by any -ism... seems we definitely agree though on the idea that the first name usage is often done in a belittling way (when done by the cable news talking heads, not a bunch of people chanting Sa-rah at a rally)..

Also good points about the uniqueness -- both are different from the "Johns," "Joes" and "Bills" because then no one would really know who you were talking about..