The Great Fear
The worst outcome of the upcoming election is a McCain-Palin victory followed by McCain, a year or so into his presidency, becoming physically incapable of running the country. Worse than dropping dead, McCain could end up much like Wilson and Reagan in their last years in office.
Others, a wife and aids, would essentially run the country with the invalid president serving as a ceremonial figurehead. Or, worse still, our ready-shoot-aim Annie Oakley would take the oath of office and become commander in chief. Sarah Palin would not only be America’s first woman president, but America’s first truly hardcore Christian fundamentalist president.
Most frightening about Palin becoming America’s chief executive is her apparent tyrannical management style. She seems to weirdly combine the worst of Bush and Cheney. Like Bush, she is personable and folksy, remarkably insubstantial; like Chaney, she is devious and authoritarian, unaccountably imperious. What Cheney did as part of the war on terror, Palin may well do for the culture wars.
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In case you missed it, one of the most popular buttons at the Republican National Convention read "Hottest V.P. from the Coolest State". And Palin has been hot. Like an electric shock reinvigorating a comatose patient, she rejuvenated a frumpy grand-dad into a barn-storming populist. She gave John McCain’s faltering presidential campaign new life, especially among dedicated “values voters” who have long been suspicious of McCain’s true beliefs.
Now, only a few weeks after her bombastic introduction, the heat seems to be fading from the Klondike princess. Her poor showing in a TV interview, Trooper-gate and other episodes of her questionable personality are quickly making her a dubious VP choice. In the face of the current major crisis of capital, glib one-liners and folksy asides don’t seem to cut it. Palin’s initial media celebrity was based on clever hype, no wonder the McCain team has limited her formal interviews, fearing what she might say about the financial crisis.
Palin exemplifies what conservative analysts call “red-state feminism”. She represents a generation of conservative white women who share some of the same qualities of modern feminists. They are self-assured, often have college degrees, careers and are married with children. However, in distinction to modern “blue-state” feminists, many of these “red-state” feminists believe in “traditional” (and often fundamentalist religious) values. These values are directed to preserving the myth of the patriarchal family.
Sex is the most threatening issue challenging red-state feminists. The contradiction between their real-world accomplishments and self-hood, including erotic desire, and their accommodation to the fiction of the patriarchal husband remains unresolved. It is this lack of resolution that characterizes Sarah Palin and her quest for the Oval Office.
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As has been widely reported, Palin is an anti-choice, anti-sex ed, anti-gay marriage, anti-evolutiuon and pro-guns “gal”. (In her defense, she claims to eat what she kills.) She is a moral absolutist who opposes abortions for girls and women, even victims of incest or rape, and is committed to abstenence-only pre-marital sex, opposing in-school comprehensive sex ed, including for her own children.
As a child, Palin was baptized a Roman Catholic, but as a teenager was “born again” in the Pentecostal faith in her hometown of Wasilla. Pentecostals adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, emphasizing speaking in tongues, divine healing and other miraculous signs of faith. The churches she attends in Alaska are part of the Assemblies of God denomination.
The Pentecostal faith emerged a century ago, developing out of a fundamentalist revival that swept through late-19th century Protestant churches under the rubric of the Holiness movement. The formal start of the Pentecostal church is generally attributed to prayer meetings led by Charles Parham in Topeka, KS, in 1901.
Often forgotten, during its early years, Pentecostalism was America’s most socially and racially integrated denomination. During a now-legendary three year revival at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, this new religious movement took root. It was remarkably popular with thousands attending. As reported in the “Los Angeles Times” in 1906, “Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.”
The Azusa Street revival was lead by William Seymour, the son of former slaves. When visiting Parham in Texas he found a very different Christian fellowship, one scarred by a racism that still splits Pentacostalism. Seymour was required to sit in a hallway in order to hear Parham’s sermon. Not surprising, when Parham, a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, visited the Los Angeles revival, he was deeply troubled by the race mixing. He denounced the revival as "Southern darky camp meetings".
Charles Mason, a black Baptist minister from Jackson, MS, also heard about the Los Angeles revival and ventured west in 1906. He was baptized by Seymour and, upon returning to the south, began proselytizing his new faith and founded the Church of God in Christ. Ironically, the Church of God in Christ provided initial credentials to the mostly white Pentecostals. Unfortunately, Jim Crow laws and other racist practices led to a fundemental split among Pentecostals, with whites establishing the Assembly of God in 1914.
As a fellow Pentecostal, one can only wonder why the morally upstanding Palin did not speak out against the McCain campaign’s ravings against Barach Obama’s affiliation with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as his former church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, is a Pentecostal church affiliated with Church of God in Christ. (And Palin’s ministers have made equally “outrageous” statements as Wright.) Ironicaly, Rev. Wright might have been among the only black Pentacostal ministers not in attendance at the Democratic Convention. Leah Daughtry, who minister’s to a small Pentecostal church in Washington, D.C., served as the Convention’s CEO and Joshua DuBois, an associate minister in Pentecostal church in Cambridge, MA, is Obama campaign’s religious outreach director.
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Sex occupies a peculiar place within conservative evangelical culture. It is the collision point between husband and wife, man and woman, self and other. Uniquely personal, and shaped by deeply-rooted unconscious factors, sex is where desires and fears, wishes and obligations, fantasies and prohibitions are lived out in relation with another person. And it is in this collision that the inherent contradiction of patriarchal sexism and modern capitalist society explodes.
In her very informative, if overly pessimistic, book, “”Sex in Crisis,” Dagmar Herzog provides a revealing review of current beliefs among leading rightwing Christian marriage and sex counselors. Many of these commentators seem to be among the evangelical community’s “moderate” wing. Nevertheless, they seem like a frightening group.
They ape many of the conventions of more mainstream, secular psychotherapists, sex counselors and advice writers. They seek to offer solace to their followers, whether through their books, videos and public lectures often held in churches. Whereas earlier generations of family-relations counselors tended to be circumspect about or outright disapproving of sex, these advocates attempt to present sex as a positive experience. Unfortunately, their ostensible message is distorted by a combination of patriarch, with its fixed structure to sexual relations, and sexual repression, with its puritanical restrictions on pleasure.
At the heart of Christian evangelical sexual beliefs is the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. For them, church-sanctified marriage provides the holy status for unparalleled erotic ecstasy. As Herzog points out, “ … evangelical experts offer the happy news that holy sex is orgasmic sex.” [Herzog, p. 41] They proclaim that by saving one-self as a teen and remaining faithful in marriage, one will have the greatest, most fulfilling and pleasurable sex!
Thus, a good marriage can overcome the sexual temptations of post-modern society, especially the lure of pornography, masturbation, adultery and homosexuality. But maintaining a constant vigil against one’s deeper urges doesn’t mean one can’t have fun. Many of these counselors urge their followers that marriage allows them a new freedom to explore the “darker” side of sex. Surprising to many, these advisers encourage Christian couples to play out their fantasies, including those involving fetishisms, provocative lingerie, oral and anal sex, spanking and even “quickies”.
But, as Herzog discusses, this new freedom comes at a high price. “For a woman must be taught to cooperate,” she points out. These advisers “pay lip service to gender equality, yet instruct wives to be available as sexual receptacles no matter how badly their husbands are treating them or how ineptly their husbands perform in bed … .” [Herzog, pp. 52, 57] For all the fun and games of their ostensible new sexual freedom, a good “red-state” evangelical feminist must know how to serve her husband. This is one of the inherent contradictions defining Palin’s run for the White House. [For those interested in a most peculiar interpretation of sex and the Bible, check out www.sexinchrist.com]
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The February issue of “Vogue” ran a profile of the Alaska governor. Coming as it did seven months before Palin became the VP candidate, it presents many of the anecdotes that have by now become campaign cannon-fodder. Beauty contestant, caribou hunter, commercial-fishing with hubby and many others tales are mentioned.
However, as “Vogue” is a “women’s” magazine, Palin’s own sexuality could not be ignored. She laments the sexism of her beauty contest experience: “They made us line up in bathing suits and turn our backs so the male judges could look at our butts. I couldn’t believe it!"
More revealing is Palin’s revelations about how the media and public see her self-presentation or personal sexuality. "I’ve been taken aback by the nasty criticism about my appearance," she said.
"I wish they’d stick with the issues instead of discussing my black go-go boots. A reporter once asked me about it during the campaign, and I assured him I was trying to be as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses, but he said, ‘No, that’s not what I mean.’ I guess I was naive, but when I hear people talk about it I just want to escort them back to the Neanderthal cave while we get down to business."
Palin self-consciously chooses to appear "as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses". One can only wonder if Palin is familiar with the works of the evangelical counselors about greater sexual experimentation. So, who is the real Sarah Palin?
At the time of the Republican Convention, the “National Enquirer” came out with a front-page headline screaming, “Sarah Palin’s Dark Secrets”. Given the Enquirer’s track record “outing” Bill Clinton and John Edwards, this story quickly became a minor scandal. The article alleged that Palin had an affair with a business associate of her husband who, in response, dissolved the business.
The McCain campaign quickly assailed the Enquirer. “The smearing of the Palin family must end,” McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt railed. “The allegations contained on the cover of the National Enquirer insinuating that Gov. Palin had an extramarital affair are categorically false. It is a vicious lie.” The campaign even threatened a libel suit, but nothing has come of it.
However, rumors of sex scandals have circulated throughout the ’08 race involving both McCain and Barack Obama.
A front-page exposé in the “New York Times” in February alleged that McCain had an affair with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. She is a partner with Alcalde & Fay, representing telecommunications companies. Her corporate clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns. After extensive denials, the story disappeared.
The Drudge Report and other right-wing sources floated a scurrilous rumor earlier this year about an alleged homosexual incident in 1999 involving Obama. They reported that Larry Sinclair, a Chicago drug dealer, claimed that he had sex and took drugs with then-state representative Obama. In a video posted on Youtube, "Obama’s Limo Sex and Drug Party," he claimed that they met twice, once in a limo and the other at a hotel. However, WhiteHouse.com paid Sinclair $10,000 to take a polygraph test which it claims he failed.
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While repeatedly voicing opposition to abortion, sex-ed, homosexuality and other issues, Palin has not pushed the religious-right’s agenda during her nearly two years as governor. A careful review of her political biography shows Palin as a slippery candidate. She is an insistent ideologically conservative, holding together a complex mixture of fundamentalism and libertarianism. She is political figure very much in the McCain mold.
During the 2006 gubernatorial contest, then-candidate Palin admitted in an “Anchorage Daily News” interview to having smoked marijuana; it was not a crime in Alaska. As she coyly said, "I can’t claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled." [August 6, 2006]
In answer to an Eagle Forum Alaska questionnaire, she revealed much about a host of sex-related issues. One question was: "Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?" Palin was unequivocal: "Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support."
Further queried in a local radio station candidates debate, she said that condoms were "relatively benign". She argued, "No, I’m pro-contraception.” And insisted: “I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don’t have a problem with that. That doesn’t scare me, so it’s something I would support also." Why, one might ask, should not the classroom be one of the “avenues”? However, she has essentially repudiated this position since being chosen the VP candidate
In other pre-VP statements, Palin insisted that she did not judge people based on their sexual orientation and claimed to have good friends who were gay. She insisted, however, that she strongly supported the 1998 state constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. Palin appears to support the traditional fundamentalist religious belief that homosexuality could be “cured” through religious conversion.
There was much media attention to recent reports that her former church, Wasilla Bible Church, promoted a conference that promised to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer. As a church announcement declared, "You’ll be encouraged by the power of God’s love and His desire to transform the lives of those impacted by homosexuality".
As governor, Palin received criticism from fellow state Republicans like Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Fairbanks) for enforcing the Alaska Supreme Court’s 2005 decision to provide spousal benefits to same-sex partners of public employees. Nevertheless, as governor she supported a bill to overrule the court decision, insisting she "would support a ballot question that would deny benefits to homosexual couples.”
Yes, Palin is slippery and will likely move further to the right during the election process. Her role is to cover McCain’s back, to give him traction among the religious “values voters”. Like McCain, she is informed by a western, if not cowboy, libertarianism. However, both of them have had to jettison their libertarianism, their idiosyncratic “maverick” identity, to meet the dictates of the hardcore religious right and corporatist Republican establishment.
Palin’s political situation is made more complex by the inherent contradictions that she shares with other “red-state” feminists. Part of her appeal is clearly rooted in her sexual appeal, the lure of the RNC button, “Hottest V.P. from the Coolest State". It is an appeal not unlike the sexual excitement that Obama generates. For both, it affirms a belief that politicians, male or female, Democrat, Republican or independent, need not be dull, asexual people.
Their appeal draws both heterosexual women and men, but in very different ways. It is rooted in desire and imitation, appropriately applied. It is an appeal expressing a powerful sense of being alive, of personal vitality.
Unfortunately, for “red-state” feminists, including many religious fundamentalist women, personal power (especially sexual passion) is a deeply troubling terrain of existence. Due to their core belief in patriarchy, their power has to be moderated so that it enhances the husband’s sense of self, sexual and every other way. Female sexuality has to be subordinated to strengthen a mate’s virility, especially at a time when male masculinity is under such attack.
One can only wonder how this deeper social contradiction plays out in the political life of the Republican VP candidate. Her private life is her own personal affair. However, if she becomes vice president and, worse case, president, she will confront overwhelming challenges. One can well expert her to move still further to the right, taking shriller, more uncompromising positions. Palin can be expected to embrace the most authoritarian, militaristic and moralistic positions to find stability.
If such a development does take place, and it is far-fetched but quite possible, Palin could be expected to be puritanical when it comes to culture-wars issues. Long gone will be her libertarian acceptance of marijuana and condoms. Faced with the demands of such an overwhelming position, she can be expected to become a Dick Cheney in a prim, chaste outfit.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.