So there I was, minding my own business at the coffee shop, when a trim and tailored blonde took one look at the book I was reading, “Sarah From Alaska,” and sneered (as only a trim and tailored blonde can do): “If she wasn’t a woman, McCain wouldn’t have picked her, and we never would have heard of her.”
As I later explained on my Facebook page, I came back with: “And if Barack Obama were not the ‘first serious black candidate,’ those outside of Chicago might never have heard of him, either.”
That posting garnered 120 comments at last count, a personal best for yours truly. Many of the responses supported my viewpoint (which is why they’re my virtual “friends”) while a few stalwart souls insisted on convincing the rest of us that Palin was stupid and Obama was, in all respects, superior. They completely missed the point that identity politics are toxic precisely because they prevent us from looking at people as individuals and force us to judge them on qualities (melanin, chromosomes) over which they have no control and which have no relevance — in this case — to their qualification for office.
My favorite comments were from those male “friends” who told me I was “too smart” to believe that Palin was qualified for anything other than a “Saturday Night Live” cameo. People who tell you you’re “too smart” for something are generally saying, in not-so-elegant code, that they are smarter than both you and the Alaskan caribou you rode in on.
The thing that perhaps most surprised me about this late August social media skirmish is that even today, five years after she exploded on the national scene, Sarah Palin still represents that line in the political/cultural sand that divides the enlightened from the knuckle draggers. It seems that unless you disassociate yourself from her completely (and cover that book you are reading in brown wrapping paper) people will feel free to question your judgment, your breeding, your intelligence and your sanity. They will have no problem poking their redone noses into your happy little java moment and tell you that you — a stranger — have really bad literary taste.
If, on the other hand, you point out that Palin’s gender is analogous to Obama’s race with respect to their ascension in the public eye, you will set off a firestorm of rhetoric defending the president and implying that you are six degrees removed from George Wallace.
No one denies that Barack Obama is a smart man. Some might argue that he is not as bright as his supporters would have us believe, particularly when it comes to an understanding of the separation of powers and the appropriate role of both the Justice and Treasury Departments. Nonetheless, he is undoubtedly gifted.
If, however, we accept that fact, we are equally obligated to recognize that a lot of other bright and gifted men didn’t win the Democratic nomination back in 2008 since President Obama did not have a corner on talent. What was that extra “je ne sais quoi” that pushed him out in front? Could it have been the desire of so many Americans (not all of them white liberals, but a lot) to see a black man in office? That question answers itself.
That question also paints me as a racist, in many quarters. It is considered demeaning to focus on our president’s skin color when talking about his contributions to the political present, even though he himself has begun to make a point about it in recent years. The Henry Gates beer summit was one sad example. The Trayvon Martin debacle was another. So if the president is able to talk about race, why can’t we?
Pivoting back to Palin, there is no question that her gender was probably the single most intriguing factor about her candidacy. As the authors of my notorious summer read observed, “[McCain’s] vice presidential candidate had to appeal to female voters.” It is the nature of the political beast that you pander to the loudest constituencies, and at the risk of sounding sexist (since I’m also racist,) who can outshout or outlast a woman in a rhetorical debate? Anyone who has seen Real Housewives reunion knows I’m right.
It is not surprising, then that the growling Mama Grizzly got the attention of a party so often accused of ignoring women.
You can say this and get a “Mm hmm.” Try, however, to suggest that Barack Obama was plucked out of the same relative obscurity as “Nanette of the North” to satisfy a black demographic and you will be roundly criticized as misinformed, or worse.
This is the great danger of identity politics. Once you start judging people on one irrelevant aspect of their biology, you can’t avoid judging them on other aspects. It’s a matter of consistency. My Facebook friends who were so offended that I would suggest that Barack Obama benefitted from his race should be equally offended by the notion that Sarah Palin benefitted (solely) from her gender.
Sadly, they’re not.
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