When Sarah Palin declared recently, while standing in the lobby of the Old North Church in Boston, MA, that Paul Revere’s famous ride was to “warn the British” that Americans were “armed and dangerous” – a reading that fits neither with history nor the common folklore – most of America groaned. Criticism flew back and forth, and increased when Sarah Palin doubled down on her position during an interview on Fox News, saying, “I know my American history.”
Sometime within the next few months, most pundits expect, we will know whether erstwhile governor and seemingly permanent Fox News pundit, Sarah Palin, will be throwing her hat in the ring for the Presidential Race. As a woman, I’m a glad to see a woman taken somewhat seriously as a political candidate, just I was happy to see Hillary Clinton as a serious challenger to Barack Obama. But, by the same token, I am unhappy with the choices I have been given for powerful women.
Why does the prospect of Sarah Palin as President upset me? I’ll admit – I’m not a fan of her politics. But I’m even less of a fan of her use of divisive labels and attacks on her fellow women.
Palin really likes the “us versus them” mentality. It is the lens through which she sees the world. It is her and the mama grizzlies versus those liberal feminists. It is her and her traditional values versus the progressive hedonists. It is her and her statements versus those elitist historians. And that I have a problem with.
As people, we tend to like labels. It’s just how we see the world – we are hipsters, geeks, nerds, Whovians, feminists, traditionalists, conservatives, liberals, jocks, chess club members, academics, Christians, atheists, agnostics, etc. It’s helpful, in many ways, to have set categories in which to place ourselves – it sets us within a narrative and allows us to develop our own story and identity within that sociological story. To an extent, labels are good.
Labels become problematic and even bad when they are misused, when people distort the meaning in order to elevate one label over another. Palin’s use of such labels is a red flag of danger for American politics and a reason for reluctance, especially within the church.
One of Palin’s most famous tweets of the last year was the almost-undecipherable-because-of-making-up-words tweet on August 18, 2010: “Who hijacked term: ‘feminist’?A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it’s ironic (& passé).”
In plain English, Palin is asking/saying: “Who hijacked the term ‘feminist’? It was a cackle of radical women who want to crucify other women with whom they disagree on a singular issue; it’s ironic and passé.”
All right, tweet translated. But how is Palin using or misusing a label here?
Palin (and many women in her party) like to say that they are the “true feminists,” or the “true women.” Not only is this dangerously close the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy, but it also denies the sisterhood that encompasses feminism.
Feminism is, as many high-profile feminists like to repeat, “the radical notion that women are human beings.” In accusing “radical” feminists of “hijacking” the term, Palin denies this mainline, accepted definition of feminism. Feminism is not a monolith, as Palin would have her audience believe. Feminism encompasses many, many different issues – without the work of feminists, Palin wouldn’t have a twitter handle to tweet from. By saying that “radicals” hijacked the wide-open term of feminism, Palin identifies herself and her mama grizzlies – the married, housewifey, kid protecting, Republican voting women – as the “true feminists, the true women.” By implying that feminism is a sacred part of the Republican party that radical women have hijacked, Palin again buys into an us vs. them tautology, an ideology that cannot exist within the wide bounds of feminism. Palin sows division by creating an imaginary bogeyman out of good feminist work.
Her slippery and slick use of language extends beyond feminism though. Ever notice that she refers to herself as a housewife? She does it a lot – she pins a lot of her political image on being a mom, understanding what the housewives of the real America are going through.
But she is the main breadwinner of the family. She is currently touring important primary states in anticipation of a possible Presidential run. She spends a good chunk of the year away from home, commentating on Fox News, tweeting, writing books, buying houses in Arizona, making sure that she stays in the national spotlight.
She has the image of a stay-at-home-mom, when her reality indicates that she is the quintessential career woman. She harangues other politicos about not being good housewives, about spending more time in the office than at home, and insists that mama grizzlies are the true feminists, not those radicals who disagree with her on her pro-life stance. Her actions, however, say that she’s pretty happy to have a career outside the home and that being a mom isn’t the end-all be-all of her life. She is a feminist all the while she is persecuting feminism.
And this is my main problem with Palin: while I want to applaud her for being a woman on a national stage and helping, in many ways, to pull the image of the Republican party away from that of “rich white men,” she has only done so by vilifying her fellow women. As Christians, we need to be wary of anyone who uses labels to divide and conquer: the Pharisees in the New Testament took much pride in how they labeled themselves and others, questioning Jesus on why he hung out with tax collectors and Samaritans, and thanking God they were not sinners like the men praying next to them in the Temple. Those who persecuted Jesus and his disciples used labels to separate and divide the church – they were called cannibals, heretics, and idol worshippers in early church history. Paul writes that our labels drop away in the presence of Jesus – “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We need to be wary of anyone who insists on reinstituting labels as a way of making themselves seem better, so we need to be wary of Palin in particular.