Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Palin

This is how the Washington Post has described the media frenzy that has blown up since McCain picked her to be his running mate.

It's quite impressive - the storm has crossed the Atlantic and reached corners of the British blogosphere, which we'll come to in a mo'. Impressive because hitherto people have tended not to pay so much attention to the views of potential Veeps. I've been wondering why this is? After all, Al Gore has some fairly spaced-out views about the elimination of the internal combustion engine but I don't recall many people getting quite so excited about this. Perhaps it's a realisation through the experience of Dick Cheney that Vice Presidents really can exercise a significant influence within an administration. More likely though it's that the views of someone like Gore, while fairly whacky, can be slotted into a general position that is deemed by liberals of various hues to be on the right side of the culture wars.

Ms Palin's views, on the other hand, cannot be. Here, for example, is one self-confessed 'friend of hope' on Palin's attitude to abortion:
"Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly and categorically clear. There is no such thing as a 'pro-life' feminist. You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman’s right to choose. Let me repeat that for the brainwashed and hard of hearing:

You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman’s right to choose."
Very strict, this young lady. I like that. Unfortunately the argument - actually it's just a strident assertion - is complete bollocks. While I accept there's a strong sociological correlation, there is no philosophical connection between the belief that women should be treated equally in society - in employment and relationships - and the one that insists that the foetus is merely an extension of a woman's body.

I'm not interested in defending Palin's views on abortion, Palin herself, or indeed the McCain campaign in general. I hope he loses and by extension she loses. But I get the impression that the critics here have rather misunderstood the way the American system of government works.

Roe vs Wade was a decision by the Supreme Court that based abortion rights on an interpretation of the US Constitution that assumed it gave Americans the right to privacy. Despite long periods of GOP control, of the White House and/or Congress, the twenty-five year consensus on the legality of abortion in America remains. Vice-Presidents do not determine policy in this area - nor do they do so in education, which brings us to Oliver Kamm's criticisms here and here. Oliver is dismayed that Palin a) has no apparent interest in foreign policy and b) advocates teaching Creationism alongside evolution in the classroom.

Now while I would agree with him in his identification of these shortcomings, again I think there's a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the American constitution here. It's not just that the Vice President has no influence over education policy or that she, or he, will soon have to get acquainted with foreign policy - it's that the two are related: whether Vice-Presidents or actual Presidents, those who occupy positions of power within the American executive get interested in foreign policy because they have so little influence over domestic policy. Bush Snr, Clinton and Bush Jnr were all elected promising to focus on domestic issues. But it didn't turn out quite like that, did it? I think it would be a mistake to assume that it has been purely events that have driven the course of these political careers. I'd argue you can draw a direct line, for example, from Clinton's failure to reform healthcare at the beginning of his Presidency to his involvement in the Middle East peace process towards the end.

But beyond this, I think there's a misunderstanding of political character and by extension human nature that I find difficult to put into words - but it has to do with the idea that the public life is to be a revelation of the complete personality. For reasons I feel I can't explain properly, I sense a whiff of something deeply illiberal about this. The idea that someone is either one thing or another - and if someone is irrational in one area of their life, this bleeds into every area, if someone is reckless or immoral in their private life, this has necessary and comprehensive implications for everything else; I just don't think this is true. Human beings are capable of compartmentalising to an extraordinary degree. How can we trust someone to be loyal to their country when they can't be trusted to be faithful to their spouse? Dunno - but the historical evidence would suggest that the relationship being drawn here is artificial. Martin Luther King had extra-marital affairs; Hitler didn't. Discuss.

I think the same can be said of rationality to some extent. In discussing Oliver Kamm's piece, Chris Dillow had the following to say:
"Possession of rationality is not a binary 1-0 property; it’s not something one either has or not. Instead, we are all irrational in some contexts - though rarely in all. There are no general-purpose experts."
This is dismissed in the comments as a 'relatively small point'. My own view is that it is an important point, the significance of which is frequently missed. Let me put it this way: no ordinary person is one thing - entirely rational, completely liberal, consistently orthodox. And I'd take this further and argue that those who are - or more likely pretend they are - are usually either stupid, fanatics or profoundly cynical. These are attributes in a politician that are as least as worthy of our criticism as inconsistency and hypocrisy, I would have thought.

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