Friday, September 26, 2008

The Palin problem

While busy working on an extended piece about Russia's disgraceful prime-time TV broadcast of a program that endorses 9/11 conspiracy theories, I have been mulling of the question of what to say about Sarah Palin.

My friend Kathleen Parker says it all:

Some of the passionately feminist critics of Ms. Palin who attacked her personally deserved some of the backlash they received. But circumstances have changed since Ms. Palin was introduced as just a hockey mom with lipstick – what a difference a financial crisis makes – and a more complicated picture has emerged.
As we've seen and heard more from John McCain's running mate, it is increasingly clear that she is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn't know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion.

Right on. More interesting thoughts from Parker here.

I have defended Palin because a lot of the attacks on her have been so vicious and unfair, and I don't just mean the "Trig is Bristol's baby" rumors. She is not a "Stepford wife" or an anti-woman tool of The Patriarchy; she is not a woman who sends the message that women can get ahead by being demure and pleasing the boys; she is not a female misogynist who devalues her own daughters and charges victims for rape kits; she does not advocate abstinence-only education in public schools (a canard repeated by Sam Harris in Newsweek). And yes, I still think she's a good feminist role model in combining career and parenthood with the help of a strong family network, not the state.

Unfortunately, it seems that Palin has also come to exemplify a far less attractive feature of pseudo-feminism: affirmative action in the worst sense of the word. And the Palin defenders are just as exasperating as the Palin-bashers. Here is, for instance, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in Newsweek:

Many are attracted to [Palin] because she embodies the values of the American West, which they find superior to the values of coastal elites. This was part of the appeal of Goldwater and Reagan—a log-splitting, range-riding conservatism that emphasizes freedom. (Palin adds moose hunting to the list.) It's not irrational or simplistic for voters to prefer candidates who reflect their deepest values.

... And Palin appeals to many voters as a pro-life symbol, with a family—including a son with Down syndrome—that exemplifies a culture of life. Elites may dismiss this as trivial or backward. But there's no deeper question of political philosophy than this: whom do we count as a member of the human family and protect as our own? Palin welcomed a disabled child—the kind of child often targeted for elimination through eugenic abortion. It's not irrational for Americans to support a candidate who is willing to protect the weak.

First of all: why was it vile for Andrew Sullivan, Cintra Wilson, and South Carolina Democratic Chairwoman Carol Fowler to suggest that one of Palin's main qualifications for the job seemed to be the fact that she didn't have an abortion, yet okay for Palin supporter Gerson to suggest the same, with a positive spin? And since when do conservatives espouse the principle that "the personal is political"?

Secondly: I remember Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was my president. And Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan (pace Michael Reagan). Here, I have to agree with Ron Reagan, lefty though he may be:

"Sarah Palin," he said, "has nothing in common with my father, a two-term governor of the largest state in the union, a man who had been in public life for decades, someone who had written, thought and spoke for decades about foreign policy issues, domestic policy issues, and on and on and on."

Check out, too, this post on the Half Sigma blog. Ronald Reagan was not an intellectual, but he had a long history of engagement with and interest in ideas on the preeminent issues of his day. So far, I see absolutely no evidence of such from Sarah Palin. Besides, they didn't call Reagan the Great Communicator for nothing.

Sarah Palin is not Harry Truman, either. Yes, like Truman, she comes from small-town America. However, by the time Truman was picked to be FDR's running mate, he had served in the U.S. Senate for ten years and had gained fame (including a spot on the cover of Time) as the founder and chairman of the Truman Committee which investigated fraud, waste, and mismanagement in the military.

Palin may yet surprise us all in her debate with Biden. But I doubt it.

There was a moment when it seemed that Palin's candidacy could be a big moment for conservative/libertarian feminism in America -- a feminism that, I strongly believe, deserves a place at the table. Instead, with every passing day so far, she becomes more and more of an embarrassment. Particularly when Camp McCain's efforts to shield her from contacts with the media and to ensure that she gets to do the veep debate under easier rules (against Joe "Foot in the Mouth" Biden, no less!) look so much like a cringeworthy display of sexist paternalism. From Xena, Warrior Princess to damsel in distress in two weeks: how pathetic is that?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Russia and 9/11 denialism

In the wake of its war with Georgia, Russia (as represented by Medvedev, Putin, and the Russian foreign ministry) has repeatedly made noises about wanting nothing but friendship and partnership with the West, including the United States, and having no interest in a "new Cold War."

In light of these protestations, it's interesting to note that on September 12, Russia's state-owned Channel One broadcast the "documentary" Zero by Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa (who served as the Moscow correspondent for the Italian Communist newspaper Unita in the 1970s) and leading French 9/11 conspirologist Thierry Meyssan, which advances the idea that the World Trade Center bombing was an inside job and that no plane ever hit the Pentagon. The broadcast, in the prime-time program ironically titled "Closed Screening," went largely unnoticed in the West except by 9/11 "truther" sites.

The showing of the film was followed by a panel discussion before a live studio audience (which included both Chiesa, who speaks Russian, and Meyssan). The host, Alexander Gordon, made no secret of his sympathy for Chiesa's viewpoint, though he politely noted that the documentary could have used more objectivity. Several other pro-"truther" panelists, including the rabidly anti-American TV host Mikhail Leontiev, spoke at length in praise of the film, complimenting its makers on their courage and insight, ridiculing the official version of the attacks as absurd (in Leontiev's words, "the ravings of a gray mare" -- a Russian colloquialism that means something like "total nonsense"). TV anchor Alexei Pushkov categorically asserted that while we cannot be sure who engineered the attacks, the idea of "19 Arabs directed by Osama bin Laden in a cave" is completely discredited. He and co-panelist Geidar Jemal, the chairman of Russia's Islamic Committee, also lamented "the death of information" in the Western media and its replacement by "manipulation" -- thankfully, with heroes like Chiesa and Meyssan on hand to resist it. Toward the end of the discussion, explicit parallels were drawn between the Western media's obedient parroting of official lies about 9/11 and their collusion in the "official version" of the Russia/Georgia war.

Giulietto Chiesa

A couple of guests briefly and sheepishly offered opposing viewpoints. Irina Zvyagelskaya, analyst at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, said that she was "unconvinced" by the film and added that if its premise was true and such a cynical act not only toward one's own citizens but also toward world opinion could have been perpetrated, "you don't want to live in this world." Gordon then sarcastically suggested that, in order to be able to go on living, she was going to "shut out" inconvenient truths such as Chiesa's film (to which Zvyagelskaya replied that she would question all versions). TV journalist Vladimir Sukhoi, former Channel One Bureau chief in the US, said -- looking visibly nervous -- that a good journalist should not pursue an agenda or "string facts onto the skewer of his theory," and criticized Chiesa for doing exactly that. His comment went unanswered. When Gordon turned to the studio audience and asked those who believed in the official "19 Arabs" version of 9/11 to raise their hands, not one hand went up.

Alexander Gordon

Toward the end, Meyssan launched into an impassioned diatribe against brutal U.S. dominance all over the world and noted that Russia, no longer weak as in 2001, was the world's last, best hope. "Who can stop this huge predator which is ravaging the planet? We expect a great deal from you, from Russia. Only you can stop all this!" he exclaimed, to raucous audience applause.

Thierry Meyssan

It is estimated that the program was watched by 30 million people.

Ironically, on the same day, at a three-hour meeting with the Valdai Club mostly made up of Western political experts, Russian President (or is it Puppet-in-Chief?) Dmitry Medvedev declared Georgia's military action against South Ossetia on August 8 to be Russia's 9/11. The similarity, apparently, is that "Russian citizens" (i.e. South Ossetians to whom Russia started issuing Russian passports a few years ago while still formally recognizing South Ossetia as Georgian territory) were attacked on August 8 just as U.S. citizens were on 9/11. On the website, commentator Andrei Piontkovsky caustically noted that when Russian state TV embraces the notion that 9/11 was cooked up by U.S. imperialists as a pretext for war, "our 9/11" sounds "rather ambiguous" coming from the President of Russia.

There are other dangers for Russia in peddling 9/11 conspirology for domestic consumption. Many Russians still have questions about the explosions of two Moscow apartment buildings in 1999, blamed on Chechen terrorists but viewed as an FSB inside job by a number of critics. (Unlike the 9/11 attacks, these bombings were never properly investigated.)

That aside, Condoleezza Rice might want to bring up this disgraceful broadcast -- clearly meant to fan the flames of anti-Americanism in the Russian public -- next time she has a chat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

More Palin: The other side of the culture war

Yes, more Palin. Bear with me.

We all know that there have been some very nasty attacks on Palin from some feminists, as well as a lot of condescension from the Maureen Dowd types who look down their noses at a small-town, gun-owning, Walmart-going, Bible-believing mom with five kids. But it takes two to do the culture-war tango.

For instance, in The American Spectator, one Jeffrey Lord rightly deplores the feminist attacks on Palin. Then he goes on to say:

This election is now being fought openly between, as Whittaker Chambers once described the same fight in a different era, "those who reject and those who worship God." Between those who believe "if man's mind is the decisive force in the world, what need is there for God?" -- and America's own Joan of Arc, Sarah Palin.

If Barack Obama is an atheist, that's news to me. And I certainly hope that Palin doesn't actually see herself as Joan of Arc on a God-given crusade. (It's interesting how the left-wing caricature of Palin is barely distinguishable from the right-wing icon.)

Praising Palin's decision to keep her baby with Down's Syndrome and to encourage her pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol to bear her child, Lord writes:

Twice over in two now ongoing and very public situations, Sarah Palin has focused on the love of God rather than herself. To those who have vested their life and career comfortably believing there is little need for God because what of what rolls around aimlessly in their heads and those of their like-minded friends at any given moment, to those who view government and the power of the state as an object of worship, this is taken as a serious, gut-level threat. A threat to the existence of their own very carefully structured non-religious secular value system.

Glossing over Lord's apparent assumption that Palin expects to have no personal joy or satisfaction from her special-needs child or her grandchild, and that her decision was solely a sacrifice to God, this is a pretty nasty portrayal of secularists. Further down, it is compounded by nasty swipes at insufficiently masculine liberal men ("Glutted with Hollywood pâté, Al Gore would have a coronary trying to keep up with Palin, who probably wouldn't be bringing along any seriously good wine as he races through the backwoods. Once off the basketball court, Obama would be clueless on snowshoes with a gun and a charging moose").

On a less hysterical note, Jonah Goldberg in National Review defends Palin against the "she's not a real woman" attacks ... and then sneers that the same people would consider "a childless feminist who looks like a Bulgarian weightlifter in drag" a real woman. On, Kevin McCullough speculates that "modern feminists" hate Palin because she's a real woman:

She has a manly, and (according to several women I've overheard) handsome husband. She is content in their life together as a couple where each goes out and works hard. As a mom she is parenting her kids giving them what mothers give best, and her husband, gives what only a father can.

She's not afraid to don some lipstick and use her comely attraction to romance "her guy" one night, and turn around and beat back corruption as a fierce defender of what is right the next day.

As opposed to, say, the notoriously unwomanly Geraldine Ferraro (married mother of three) and Nancy Pelosi (a married mother of five whom a poster on Michelle Malkin's blog charmingly described the other day as "the result of mixing June Cleaver with Code Pink, Steroids and a strap on")?

And a final item, by Jim Brown at OneNewsNow:

A pro-life activist suggests one of the reasons liberals despise Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin so passionately may be because she gave birth to her son despite a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

... Mark Crutcher, the president of Life Dynamics Incorporated (LDI), notes that in America today, 90 percent of all Down syndrome children are killed in the womb.
"I wonder what the people who are doing that -- the parents who are 'choosing' to have their child executed -- what they think when they look at Sarah Palin and her family, when they see the example of that family welcoming a Down syndrome child in and loving that child. I wonder what those people think," Crutcher contends. "I also wonder whether this is where you're seeing some of this hatred and venom that's coming from the godless Left directed at [Palin]. I'm beginning to wonder if Sarah Palin isn't rubbing their noses in their own shame."

What hateful tripe. If 90 percent of people who find out they are carrying a fetus with Down's Syndrome terminate their pregnancies, there must be quite a few non-liberals among them (and even, I daresay, quite a few conservatives). And frankly, if Sarah Palin's example is going to be used as a moral club to beat those who make the choice to terminate a pregnancy under those circumstances, an angry response will be justified.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah and the hypocrites

So far, I've been pretty hard on feminists who have bashed Sarah Palin in often sexist terms and have refused to acknowledge that, agree or disagree with her politics, she's a great model of female achievement.But now, let's hear it for the conservatives.

Exhibit A: the silly "lipstick on a pig" controversy. Which looks particularly bad considering that conservatives have always been the ones to mock "politically correct" sensitivity to words that could be interpreted as sexist or racist slights (and, as a number of commentators have pointed out, even worse considering that Palin has decried "perceived whining" in Hillary Clinton's complaints about sexism toward her).

Here's a lame defense from David Frum:

Frum Mobilization through the inflammation of imaginary grievances is an ugly trait of modern American politics. It will only stop when it stops all around. So long as media ground rules make such mobilization profitable for Democrats, it is inevitable that Republicans will follow suit.

Aha, the familiar "they started it/everyone does it/you knock it off first" defense. Which is especially lame in this case, considering that conservatives have (almost) consistently deplored the "inflammation of imaginary grievances."

Exhibit B: Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, giving advice to Obama:

You must aim your fire at the top of the ticket, John McCain, and not at this beautiful girl, Sarah Palin, about whom you can do nothing.

Beautiful girl? Way to describe a vice presidential candidate. Later, Noonan writes that the attack on Palin "offended the American sense of fairness. And—it still lives!—gallantry."

In other words: You can't beat up on a girl, Democrats. A beautiful girl, no less.

Sexism, anyone?

(Noonan goes on, amusingly, to say that "the Democrats were up against Xena the Warrior Princess." As a Xena fan who sees at least some good things about Sarah Palin, I'm tickled by the Sarah/Xena comparisons. But Peggy, please. "Gallant" protection from rough treatment because you're a "beautiful girl" is the opposite of what Xena was all about.)

Exhibit C: This bizarre piece by Harvey "Mr. Manliness" Mansfield in Forbes, who contrasts Palin to the "bad" feminists who want women to be like men.

[S]he showed none of the features that betray the feminist in action. On the contrary: She spoke proudly of "my guy," grateful to the man who was hers--implying that she needed him, and that any woman needs a guy of her own. She introduced her children, especially little Trig, the one with Down's syndrome. She was displaying a mother's unconditional love, as opposed to the conditional love that insists on a "wanted" child. She did these things unapologetically, quite unafraid of seeming to be a normal, healthy sexist female: one who knows what it is to be a woman and enjoys it.

All Sarah Palin did was to claim her equal opportunity to a job once held exclusively by men. This sort of equality--the opportunity to take on public careers outside the home--is something liberals and conservatives agree on. ... Now, why could the women's movement not have taken advantage of this bipartisan agreement from the beginning? ...

An obvious difference between the women's movement and the civil rights movement is the ease with which the former triumphed. Of course there was malechauvinism at the start, but it was complacent, passive and ineffective. No man could look a woman in the eye and say "you are not equal to me" once the issue was put. There was nothing like the "massive resistance" to racial desegregation in the South; instead, there was a massive movement of women into jobs and careers.

Prof. Mansfield doesn't tell us that he was one of the conservatives who, not that long ago, did no subscribe to this supposedly universal goal of equal opportunity in the workforce. This is what he wrote in a November 3, 1997 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

The protective element of manliness is endangered when women have equal access to jobs outside the home. Women who do not consider themselves feminist often seem unaware of what they are doing to manliness when they work to support themselves. They think only that people should be hired and promoted on merit, regardless of sex.

(The castrating harridans!)

Now, apparently Prof. Mansfield later mellowed out a bit. In his 2006 book In Defense of Manliness, he concedes that careers and equal opportunity are okay as long as appropriate sex roles are preserved in private life. Such as (he suggested in interviews) the wife earning no more than a third of the couple’s joint income and doing no less than two-thirds of the housework. (How do Sarah and Todd Palin fit into that prescription?) Even today, the kinder, gentler Mansfield notes, "You may be sure that I am not the first one to notice that feminist women are unerotic."

Now, leaving aside these particular examples of ridiculousness, there is a broader doublethink at work.

Simple question: If the Democratic veep candidate was a woman with five children, four of them minors and one of them a special-needs infant, does anyone think conservatives would be praising her as a female pioneer? Or would many of them be denouncing the selection as an example of liberal contempt for family values?

Conservative hostility or at least ambivalence toward career women, particularly career women with children, is not entirely a thing of the past. Consider, for instance, this text from It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a leading social conservative:

Many women have told me, and surveys have shown, that they find it easier, more "professionally" gratifying, and certainly more socially affirming, to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children. ... Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism... Radical feminists have been making the pitch that justice demands that men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace.

(page 95)

Now, to be fair, the full context of these statements is that full-time mothering deserves equal respect and that "radical feminism" is to blame for the attitude that careers outside the home are "more socially affirming." (See more here.) But the passage still drips with disapproval for women who don't want to "give up their careers to take care of their children" because it's "easier" and "more 'professionally' gratifying" (note the scare quotes around "professionally"). On the previous page, Santorum scoffs that "for some parents, the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home."

Consider, too, that conserative heroine Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the famous talk radio scold, is notorious for her anti-working-mother diatribes. Interestingly, "Dr. Laura" has been one of the few "pro-family" conservatives to stick to her anti-working-mother guns in regard to the Palin nomination. In a September 4 blogpost, Sarah Palin and motherhood, she wrote:

I am extremely disappointed in the choice of Sarah Palin as the Vice Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. ... I’m stunned - couldn’t the Republican Party find one competent female with adult children to run for Vice President with McCain? I realize his advisors probably didn’t want a “mature” woman, as the Democrats keep harping on his age. But really, what kind of role model is a woman whose fifth child was recently born with a serious issue, Down Syndrome, and then goes back to the job of Governor within days of the birth?
When Mom and Dad both work full-time (no matter how many folks get involvedwith the children), it becomes a somewhat chaotic situation. Certainly, if a child becomes ill and is rushed to the hospital, and you’re on the hotline with both Israel and Iran as nuclear tempers are flaring, where’s your attention going to be? Where should your attention be? Well, once you put your hand on the Bible and make that oath, your attention has to be with the government of the United States of America.

Schlessinger expressed appreciation for the fact that both Palin and her daughter carried their pregnancies to term, but then delivered an additional slap to Palin for having signed a "Family Child Care" week proclamation in April praising child care professionals.

Child-care facilities are a necessity when mothers and fathers (when they exist at all) are unwilling or incapable of caring for their offspring. Unfortunately, they have become a mainstay of the feminista mentality that nothing should stand in the way of a woman’s ambition - nothing, including her family.

Any full-time working wife and mother knows that the family takes the short end of the stick. Marriages and the welfare of children suffer when a stressed-out mother doesn’t have time to be a woman, a wife, and a hands-on Mommy.

I suspect that this preachy, sexist, treacly intolerance would have been pouring forth from many of Schlessinger's confrères had Palin with her five kids been on the other side of the political divide. "Dr. Laura," at least, is consistent. (Other than being a working mother herself.) Not like Dr. James "Focus on the Family" Dobson, who once penned a column that seems particularly amusing in light of his Palin enthusiasm -- suggesting that mothers of teenagers should not go back to work because, among other things, handling a job, teenage crises, and menopause was liable to prove too exhausting.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is it only about abortion?

("It," obviously, being many feminists' near-pathological hatred of Sarah Palin.)

Obviously, Palin's anti-abortion views (which don't allow even for the standard rape and incest exceptions) do not endear her to most feminists. And for that, I actually don't blame them. I believe the right to abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy, is an important and essential freedom for women.

But the reality is that party-line feminists have not been very kind to pro-choice conservative women, either. They hated Margaret Thatcher (see this 2006 column by David Boaz on the subject). In 1993, Gloria Steinem called pro-choice Republican Senate candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison a "female impersonator" and declared that "Having someone who looks like us but thinks like them is worse than having no one." (Anticipating the feminist sexism of clearly gender-based slurs against Palin -- "It Girl," "pinup queen," etc. -- the late columnist Molly Ivins dubbed Hutchison a "Breck girl.")

One major reason for this, I think, is the one I discussed in my Wall Street Journal article. It's the belief that feminism must support not simply equal rights and opportunities for women and men, not just cultural approval for nontraditional gender roles, but extensive government programs to enable women to combine career and family. See, for the most explicit statement of this view, this article by Katherine Marsh in The New Republic:

Feminism is not just about having the opportunity to do it all. It's also about having the support to do as much as you can. This is why, in the end, feminism needs to be tied to not just an identity, but to an ideology that encourages that support.

Marsh earlier says that Palin "an incredible support system--a husband with flexible jobs rather than a competing career, a close-knit community, and a host of nearby grandparents, aunts, and uncles to lend a hand on the domestic front" -- but apparently none of that counts as "support." Only the government.

It is, in my view, exceptionally bad for feminism to argue that female equality must depend on big government and extensive government involvement in markets and social processes. First of all, such a position automatically turns all proponents of limited government against feminism, associating feminism with the "Nanny State." In a paradoxical way, it also sends the message that women's roles as the primary caregivers in the family are rooted in nature and impervious to change: the only way to lighten the domestic load on women is to get government or government-supported programs to pick up some of it, not to get men more involved. It is also worth noting that in many European countries that have generous social programs and benefits for working mothers (such as extensive paid maternity leave), women's career advancement tends to lag further behind men's than it does in the U.S. The entitlements can make women less desirable employees and turn into a society-wide "Mommy Track."

There is another, more insidious idea at work as well: the idea that conservative ideas on things like free markets, the welfare state, the environment, or gun rights are inherently "unfeminine," because "feminine" values are rooted in compassion, interdependence, peaceful resolution of conflict, caring, sharing, and so on; and that women whose political views are too individualistic, too "harsh," and insufficiently humane, are not "real women." See, for instance, this comment on the Gurdian blog in response to David Boaz:

Thatcher showed only that a woman can survive in politics if she explicitly shows to act nothing like one. I do not believe that she furthered the cause of women in politics, instead she furthered the status quo of the time, and showed that a properly 'de-gendered' woman can do what a man does. So, men can do it well, and women can do it fine too, as long as they forget about what they have in their panties.

See, too, the assumption at that any pro-guns, pro-hunting female politician is merely "playing by the boys' game."

Somehow, according to some feminists, it's sexist to tell women that their job choices or family roles must be shaped by their gender -- but not sexist to tell them their politics must be shaped by their gender, even on issues that have nothing to do with gender. There would be howls of outrage if a woman with a "masculine" career was branded an unwoman -- "de-gendered," a "female impersonator." Yet it's okay, evidently, to do the same to a woman with what some considered to be "masculine" views.

Who's afraid of Sarah Palin?

My interview on this topic, on Greta Van Sustern's show On the Record on Fox News, can be seen here.

For more on the topic see my articles in The Wall Street Journal, "Why Feminists Hate Sarah Palin" (like Ann Althouse, I think the title is too generalizing, but I didn't write it, and I have to concede it's eye-catching) and in The Boston Globe, "A Great Moment for Women" (not too happy about that title either).

My position on Palin's candidacy, in a nuthsell (from the Globe column):

Is Palin - whose image as a tough woman has evoked comparisons to historical and fictional female fighters like Joan of Arc and Xena, Warrior Princess - a feminist hero?

To some feminists, the answer is a clear no. Novelist Jane Smiley brands her "a woman who reinforces patriarchal power rather than challenges it."

But the charge is unfair. Unlike right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, to whom Smiley compares her, Palin is not known for attacking the women's movement; she credits it with breaking down gender barriers and creating the opportunities she has enjoyed. While antiabortion, she belongs to a group called Feminists for Life.

As a social issues liberal with strong concerns about religion-based public policy, I have some serious disagreements with Palin, though it's often hard to separate the reality of her views from the caricatures painting her as a zealot. But I also believe that her candidacy is a great moment for American women.

First, more representation for feminism across the spectrum of political beliefs is a good thing. Women, like men, should be able to disagree on gun ownership, environmental policies, taxes, even abortion while agreeing on gender equity.

Second, the biggest feminist issue in America today is the career-family balance. Despite remaining discrimination, motherhood is at the core of the "glass ceiling" holding back female achievement. How inspirational, then, to see that the "mommy track" can be a road to the White House. Palin is a mother of five who resumed an intensive work schedule days after giving birth, and whose husband seems to be a full partner.

Palin's candidacy may also be a watershed moment in conservative politics. The right has long been ambivalent about working mothers; a number of conservative politicians and pundits have been given to chiding "selfish" women who pursue career ambitions after having children. Now, a mother with a high-powered career is a conservative hero, and full-time motherhood may be forever gone from the roster of "family values."

Meanwhile, Neo-neocon has an interest post on the "Palin Derangement Syndrome" that has gripped some, I repeat some feminists.

And here's a good example of this syndrome, from the blog. This one actually attempts self-examination, conceding that many left-wing feminists fly into irrational fits of hatred at the mere mention of Palin and citing some rather hair-raising and stomach-turning examples of such fits (the readers obligingly provide many more in the comments section).

And the question now is why? Why does this particular pitbull in lipstick infuriate — and scare us — so viscerally? Why does her very existence make us feel — and act — so ugly? New York Times columnist Judith Warner calls Palin's nomination a "thoroughgoing humiliation for America’s women," because "Palin’s not intimidating, and makes it clear that she’s subordinate to a great man." Palin, who obviously is incredibly ambitious, masks that ambition behind her PTA placard and "folksy" talk.

... [F]or a certain kind of feminist, Palin is a symbol for everything we hoped was not true in the world anymore. We hoped that we didn't have to hide our ambition or pretend that our goals were effortlessly achieved ... We hoped that we could be mothers without having our motherhood be our defining characteristic, as it seems to be for Palin. We hoped that we did not have to be perfect beauty queens to get to where we wanted to be in life, that our looks, good or bad, wouldn't matter.

The blogger adds that for many feminists, Palin embodies the stereotype of the "homecoming queen" from high school: "pretty and popular ... catering to the whims of boys and cheering on their hockey games." And so the idea of being bested by the "homecoming queen" in the area of achievement induces "white hot anger."

As I said on Fox, I find this description (from both Warner and the blogger, Jessica) baffling. Who is this Sarah Palin they are talking about? Where does Palin "make it clear" that she is subordinate to her husband? How does she downplay her ambition or suggest that she has effortlessly achieve her goals? How is the woman who calls herself a pitbull in lipstick and talks about taking on the "old boys' network" trying to be non-threatening and non-intimidating? The real-life Sarah Palin was not a homecoming queen or a cheerleader in high school -- she was a basketball star who still proudly wears her "Sarah Barracuda" nickname from those days.

My hunch is that the real reason for PDS is the opposite, in a way, of the one given by Warner and Sarah Palin does not fit the left-wing feminist stereotypes of the conservative woman. She's very obviously not a "Stepford Wife," as the execrable Cintra Wilson calls her on She's not a man-pleasing cheerleader. She's not a self-effacing, non-intimidating hausfrau.

Try as they might, they simply can't fit Sarah Palin into that box. And that drives them nuts. Almost literally, in some cases.

And more PDS here: a Shakesville post asserting that Palin is a patriarchalist who cares about her sons more than her daughters.

This is not to say that conservatives don't have their own Sarah Palin-related hypocrisies. More on which later.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Putin, in Munich, with a knife

And now, a relatively light interlude from Russia ... or is it?

On September 5, viewers of Russia's tamed TV were treated to the unusual spectacle of Putin being fingered as a murder suspect on live television.

Only as part of a game, of course. Specifically, a psychic named Alexander Char, appearing on a TV show called Phenomenon on the state channel Rossiya (Russia), telepathically feeding three "witnesses" randomly chosen from the audience clues to a "detective story" he had written and concealed inside a safe. Those clues were then written down with a black marker on a large board by Char's assistant Victor, also randomly selected from the audience.

Watch what happens.

The bald gentleman who strides out onto the stage asking that the name of Putin be erased is Phenomenon host and fitness guru Denis Semenikhin.

The scandalous segment was apparently disappeared in those markets where the show did not air live. Nonetheless, it quickly ended up on Russian websites and on YouTube and its Russian equivalent RuTube.

Conspiracy theories have not been far behind. Some Russian posters refuse to believe that the incident could have been a spontaneous screw-up. A hodgepodge of interesting theories is offered, apparently in earnest, by one Vadim Nikitin at

... Russia’s current media climate makes the spontaneity of what transpired on stage inconceivable.

There is no way that the show would have remained on the air for even a second longer had the management really been nervous about its proceedings. No one at home would have batted an eyelid; after all, Russian TV brims with technical difficulties.

Which leads inevitably to ask: why did it occur?

Who had written the script, and who was its real intended audience?

Why did state television consider it necessary to show the words “Knife”, “Munich” and “Putin, Vladimir” together on a blackboard for minutes of airtime, the memory of which would be reinforced further by the manufactured commotion/controversy?

The possibilities are tantalising.

1. We have a strong visual of a young girl trying unsuccessfully to erase Vladimir Putin’s name.

Was this a message to the young Medvedev? ie. “if you’re getting any ideas, drop them right now! You couldn’t rub me out, even if you tried”.

2. We have a TV presenter publicly censoring his own show, saying that Putin’s name is inappropriate and that ‘management’ are ‘getting nervous’, without any attempt to hide it.

Was this a staged show of force to the media, and the public, that the state emphatically reserves the right to control what is shown on TV?

Was it an FYI to journalists that Putin’s name is now officially out of bounds?

3. We have an undeniable reference to Hitler’s night of the long knives, the ruthless and surprise purge, on June 30th 1934, of the SA storm troopers led by Ernst Rohm.

Was it yet another signal to the West that Russia is prepared to attack Poland and the Czech Republic over the US missile defence shield?

Was it a threat to Nashi, the crypto-paramilitary youth organisation headed by Vasili Yakemenko? (That seems unlikely, as Nashi are already looking like a spent force, and Yakemenko harbours little ambition).

Was it another ’subtle’ piece of advice for Medvedev, whose personal proximity to Putin strongly parallels that of Rohm to Hitler, to remember his place?

Was it, like the Night of the Long Knives, an announcement of the return of extra-judicial killings at the highest level?

A premonition of a ruthless cabinet purge, or even Putin’s return to the presidency?

The idea that a psychic show on TV would be used to send covert messages to Medvedev, Nashi, the West, or the Russian media is rather amusing. (I'm sure Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Condi Rice are all devout viewers of Phenomenon.) The Putinistas aren't that subtle. And if the segment was meant as a (completely unnecessary) reminder that the state controls what's shown on TV, then that lesson was not conveyed very well: the offending (incriminating?) name stayed on the slate for all to see, the show was not immediately yanked off the air, no arrests or (as far as we know) even firings followed, and the studio audience laughed. (In Stalin's day, an audience that witnessed such a sacrilege would have stampeded for the exit.)

It's tempting, actually, to scrutinize this phenomenon for evidence of a plot from the other side. Was someone sending Putin a message that his crimes are known and cannot be erased? Or that freedom of the press cannot be crushed? Consider, ladies and gentlemen, the startling elements of this mystery! For instance: The show was co-hosted by the famous spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller, who has dual Israeli-British citizenship. (Geller is seen onscreen in the full version of the clip, just prior to the "Knife -- Munich -- Putin" segment.) The Russian co-host, Semenikhin, spent several years studying and working in the United States in the 1990s. Israel, the UK and the US -- there's the unholy trinity of the Kremlin's foreign policy. To top it off, Geller informs the psychic, Alexander Char, that he looks a lot like Agatha Christie's detective, Hercule Poirot, who is Belgian. Belgium -- Brussels -- NATO, right? All of them joining forces to tell Putin to know his place.

But there's more! The "witnesses" were selected from the ranks of men in the audience named Boris (for leading Russian mystery novelist Boris Akunin) and women named Darya or Tatiana, for best-selling mystery writers Darya Dontzova and Tatiana Ustinova. Since Darya is a fairly rare name, chances are the female witness was named Tatiana. Could the ominous message to Putin be that he was being denounced as a murderer by his own late predecessor Borias Yeltsin -- whose daughter and top political aide was named Tatiana?

But wait! Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a Georgian! Could there be a hidden meaning in that?

Yes, I'm joking, of course. A much more likely explanation is that when it comes to non-political shows, state control of Russian TV is not as absolute as some think; it could be the good old Russian tradition of absolute control made ineffective by sloppiness. Yet some intriguing questions remain. Why did the man who named Putin, and the psychic's handpicked assistant, look so mischievous? Could they have played a trick on the host?

At the end of the segment, the paper was removed from the safe and turned out to contain the words, "Vladimir committed a crime in the city of Munich, using a knife." Being a skeptic about psychics who do TV shows, and finding it rather hard to believe that Char really telepathically fed those words to the "witnesses," I'm inclined to believe that the "witnesses" were plants and the whole stunt was arranged in advance. But what, then, to make of the "Putin"? A little improvised mischief by the "witness," who was supposed to say "Vladimir" but made a slight alteration to the script? Perhaps.

The host's unseemly nervousness at the sudden appearance of Putin's name (jokes about "He Who Must Not Be Named" already proliferate on Russian blogs), and the plea to remove it, speak volumes about Russian authoritarianism. And yet the segment continued, the camera lingered repeatedly on the "Knife-Munich-Putin" on the slate, and the public laughed. A far, far cry from the communist era, indeed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Russia readings

In the April issue of Reason, I examined the question: Whither Russia after Putin. (Or should that be "Russia after still under Putin"? That depends on what the meaning of "after" is.) Of course, I could not have imagined that the answer to this question would be: To war with Georgia and the triumph of Putinism, a triumph that has pushed the soft-spoken Medvedev to ape Putin-speak and refer to Georgia's leadership as "morons" and "psychos", and ratcheted up the level of brazen lies and propaganda in the official Russian media to Soviet-era high watermarks.

I hope to say more on the subject soon, but for now, I offer those of you who may have missed it my article in The Weekly Standard, Don't Cry for Russia. It's a response to arguments (see here, for instance) that Russia was driven to violence by ill-treatment from the West and the United States in particular.

As Russian tanks rumble through Georgia, and Western pundits talk of the "new Cold War," one trope keeps reappearing in their discourse. Russia's newly aggressive stance, we are told, is partly our fault: After the fall of Communism, the West went out of its way to humiliate and trample Russia instead of treating it as a partner--and now, an oil-powered Russia is striking back.

"Russia's litany of indignities dates to the early 1990s when the Soviet empire collapsed," Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former Barack Obama adviser, wrote in Time. "A bipolar universe gave way to a world in which the 'sole superpower' boasted about how it had 'won' the Cold War. Russia was forced to swallow the news that NATO would grant membership to former client states in Eastern Europe, along with former Soviet republics." This theme, particularly NATO expansion as an affront to Russia, has been echoed by many others, from Tom Friedman in the New York Times to Pat Buchanan in his syndicated column.

By contrast, few of the Russians who lament their country's slide into belligerent authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin blame it on "humiliation" by the West. "Russia humiliated itself," says human rights grande dame Elena Bonner, widow of the dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov. "It spent 70-plus years building Communism, and reaped the results."

Victor Davidoff, an independent Moscow journalist and former Soviet political prisoner who became a U.S. citizen but returned to Russia in 1992, told me in an email exchange that he was "nauseated" by talk of Russia's humiliation. "How did the West humiliate Russia? Gave it money--much of which was pilfered? Sent humanitarian aid? Paid for the dismantling of missiles? Invested in Russian businesses? The Germans don't consider the Marshall Plan a humiliation; why is aid to Russia humiliating?"

Davidoff's mention of the Marshall Plan is fitting, since Samantha Power explicitly contrasts the West's treatment of post-Cold War Russia with that of post-World War II Germany: "On occasion, Western countries have consciously avoided humiliating militant powers.  .  .  . Having neutered Germany following World War I, the Allies showed West Germany respect after World War II, investing heavily in its economy and absorbing the country into NATO."

This is a breathtaking inversion of reality. If ever a defeated power was "humiliated," it was postwar Germany--forced to endure several years of occupation, de-Nazification, a massive education campaign promoting the idea of collective German guilt for Nazi crimes, reparations to countries affected by the war, and loss of territories accompanied by the expulsion of millions of Germans. There was also the small matter of the country being split in half.

The contrast with the West's treatment of post-Communist Russia is stark indeed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and Europe eagerly embraced Russia's young democracy. Western economic aid to Russia totaled $55 billion from 1992 to 1997 (not counting private charity). While some aid was conditioned on the continuation of market-oriented economic reforms, none of it was tied to political demands for a formal condemnation of the Soviet legacy. Russia was not required to dump the Lenin mummy from the mausoleum in Moscow, to put former party apparatchiks or KGB goons on trial, or to restrict their ability to hold government posts and run for public office. Nor was it forced to pay reparations to victims of Soviet aggression, or surrender territories such as the Kuril Islands, seized from Japan after World War II.

What about the much-maligned NATO expansion? Friedman asserts that it was particularly galling to Russians since Russia itself was disinvited from joining NATO, sending a message that it was still seen as an adversary. Ira Straus, founder of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, tells a more complex story in a paper for a 1997 George Washington University conference on Russia and NATO.

Russia first expressed cautious interest in NATO membership in 1991, when NATO was not prepared to admit any Eastern Bloc countries. By the time the admission of former Communist states was seriously considered, Boris Yeltsin's administration was already backing away from its embrace of the West, mainly as a result of pressure from the neo-Communists and nationalists who scored victories in the 1993 and 1995 Duma elections. In 1995, pro-Western foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev was replaced by Evgeny Primakov, who, Straus writes, emphasized "multipolarism" and (foreshadowing the leitmotif of the Putin-era Russian political elite) criticized "American attempts at unipolar domination of the world through NATO."

Initially, supporters of NATO expansion envisioned Russia's eventual inclusion, and Yeltsin seemed receptive to the idea. But NATO enlargement soon became a bone of contention. Straus writes that in the mid-1990s, the United States often misinterpreted Russia's opposition to the fast-track admission of smaller states into a Russia-less NATO as opposition to expansion per se. Russia in turn sent many conflicting signals. Above all, it was clearly unwilling to commit to a broad acceptance of NATO strategic policy, one of the main criteria for membership set in the organization's 1995 "Study on NATO Enlargement." This was a serious hurdle, since NATO operates by consensus, giving every member country a de facto veto over the alliance's policies.

Samantha Power dismisses Russia's inclusion in NATO's 1994 "Partnership for Peace" as "largely symbolic." Yet the partnership's framework document not only provided for extensive military cooperation but gave each member guarantees that it would be consulted by NATO about any perceived threats to its security. Straus wrote, in 1997, that Russia "held back from full participation" in the Partnership "due to domestic pressures [and] to suspicions of NATO." This was followed by the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Its work included not only joint anti-terrorism efforts but programs that provided job training and other assistance to discharged military personnel in Russia.

Bonner believes that, far from treating Russia as an enemy out of habit, Western politicians and pundits have been too prone to "wishful thinking" in treating it as an ally in the war on terror. Says Bonner, "Russia wasn't even treated as an equal partner but a favored child who was petted and given treats."

One such treat was an invitation to join the G7 group of industrial democracies in 1998. Despite Russia's dubious qualifications for membership in a club based on such criteria as economic performance, political stability, and low level of corruption, the group became the G8. In January 2006, after Putin had crushed his independent media and political opposition, Russia actually assumed chairmanship of the G8--just as its Freedom House ranking slipped from "partly free" to "not free." (According to a December 2005 National Public Radio report, some eternal optimists hoped that giving Russia G8 leadership would encourage liberal tendencies.)

Much Western hand-wringing over Russia's wounded pride seems to accept the premise that Russia is entitled to dominate its smaller neighbors and to have its ego coddled as no other former empire has had. Such entitlement is also deeply entrenched in the mindset of many Russians. "At least they used to be afraid of us" is a sentiment I heard repeatedly on my trips to Russia in the early 1990s. Another popular phrase in those days, "za derzhavu obidno," can be roughly translated as "makes you feel bad for the country," but really means much more: derzhava has overtones of "great power" and "autocratic state"; obidno conveys shame, hurt and resentment. With such a mentality, Putin's bully rhetoric--"Russia can rise from its knees and sock it to you good and hard," he remarked in 1999--found an eager audience.

The painful humiliation of Germany after World War II had one major positive aspect: The Nazi virus was purged from the nation's system. Russia never truly confronted or rejected the evil of its Communist past. Yeltsin, to his credit, sought to do just that. He outlawed the Communist party (which successfully challenged the ban in court) and spoke of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire." This changed under Putin, whose idea of resurgent Russian pride includes celebrating Soviet-era "accomplishments" while treating the crimes as deplorable, but fundamentally no worse than the blots on any other nation's history.

The new Russia bristles at any effort to account for those crimes, be it Ukraine's attempt to have the state-engineered famine of 1932-33 recognized as genocide by the United Nations or Estonia's prosecution of veteran Communist Arnold Meri for his role in the deportation of Estonian "undesirables" in 1949. In July, the Russian foreign ministry issued a peevish protest against President Bush's Captive Nations Week proclamation that mentioned "the evils of Soviet Communism and Nazi fascism," decrying it as an attempt to "continue the Cold War." "But how can it not continue," asked Soviet-era dissident Alexander Podrabinek in an article on the website, "when those in charge of Russia's foreign policy openly try to whitewash Communist ideology?"

National humiliation is not a thing to wish on anyone. But perhaps, after Russia's 20th-century history, a few lessons in humility would have been useful--and well deserved.

Where I have been

Obviously, not blogging, for several reasons.

Due to no longer having a regular slot at The Boston Globe, getting published now takes more time and effort. For financial reasons, I have also taken on some fairly time-consuming translating work. Between that and possibly frivolous but nonetheless satisfying fandom hobbies, I have not had much time or energy available for unpaid commentary. Until recently, I also haven't been very inspired to blog.

That may change now, with two stories in the news in which I'm keenly interested: the latest events in Russia, and the feminist firestorm around the Sarah Palin nomination for vide president. I will be posting several items this weekend. After that -- we'll see.

My apologies to the readers I've left in the lurch, particularly those who were concerned about my well-being.