April 13, 2012

ideophobe-deactivated20130818 asked: Howdy. You wrote: "It’s always easy to sacrifice the abstract interests of other people to vindicate equally abstract personal notions of equity and justice. That calculation inevitably becomes less attractive, however, when it’s your head on the chopping block." Is this wisdom, if I may call it such, not also applicable to Bristol Palin?

Fine question.  I received a couple messages that were critical of my assessment of whether politicians’ families are off-limits or fair game for public discussion, so I’ll try to address them all here.

First off, I’m not sure that the quote you mentioned is directly translatable to the realm of rhetorical abstention in the setting of political discourse.  However, I think your objection can be formulated as: “If it was me (LTMC) who was going to be targeted by the media as an object of political discussion, I would probably not be so quick to call myself ‘fair game’ for the judgment of the public.”  The thing is, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

To a certain extent, Bristol Palin can be viewed as an innocent victim.  She is not the one running for office; her mother is.  As such, it seems unjust to use her experiences as a fulcrum of discussion to evaluate or criticize Sarah Palin’s political positions.  This is especially relevant given that one of my guiding moral principles is that an innocent person should never suffer on behalf of holding a guilty person accountable.  Admittedly, this seems directly applicable to Bristol Palin’s situation, and suggests that one should refrain from disparaging her to criticize her mother.

But one need not disparage Bristol Palin in order to discuss her circumstances, insomuch as they are relevant to her mother’s policy positions.  Obviously, some statements will be naturally disparaging regardless of how tactfully they are made; there are certain rhetorical penumbras in which the implication of denigration is unavoidable (e.g. the stigma of teen pregnancy).  But it is precisely because I want other young women to avoid what happened to Bristol Palin that I think it’s ok to discuss her circumstances, insofar as they are relevant to her mother’s political platform. 

And that is my limiting principle.  As I said before, I do not think that discussing the family members of politicians is fair or appropriate under all circumstances.  What distinguishes the Palin example, in my view, is that Palin is making a policy suggestion that directly affects my family, and that has directly failed her own.  I have a young niece and nephew who will be entering primary school soon.  Sarah Palin’s policy suggestions threaten to place the same policy burden on my family that so clearly failed hers.  

That burden is far more odious than any burden I impose upon Palin’s family by simply asking the question: if abstinence education has failed your own family, why would you ever suggest it for mine?  Certainly many people take their discussions of Bristol Palin well past the point of comity and into the realm of vitriol; it is not my intent to condone ratify these excesses.  But the inquiry itself; divorced from excessive anger or passion, is a fair one; yet I say again, it is fair only to the extent that Sarah Palin’s own experience contradicts the policies she wants to impose on me.  I don’t think it is appropriate to ignore that experience when it comes to imposing national obligations on everyone else.  

If this schema of proposed policies did not exist, then the analysis would change.  For example: there is a world of difference between pointing to Bristol Palin’s presidency as evidence that abstinence education did not work for the Palin family, and Rush Limbaugh calling Chelsea Clinton the white house dog.  What I am advocating for is not a personal attack, but merely a permissive rhetorical distinction that finds its authority in the unique nature of political candidacy.  Those who would reign over me and my loved ones must, at a bare minimum, be able to say with a straight face that their policy proposals can pass some form of Benthamite felicific calculus for those they care about most.  It is the “would you send your own son to war?” inquiry dressed in different garb.

Another issue here is that it’s difficult to create a limiting principle for this sort of rhetorical abstention; surely there must be exceptional circumstances where it is ok to discuss a Public figure’s family?  To wit, what if Sarah Palin had abused her children growing up?  That would certainly be relevant information, but most abused children don’t want to be publicly labeled as such.  Should we ignore it for her daughter’s sake?  Or do we discuss that information, in as minimally invasive, and as respectful manner as possible, because keeping someone like that out of office could be relevant to preserving the safety of our own children down the line?

There’s not necessarily a right answer to that last question.  And the best case will still be laden with conjecture.  But that does not place upon us an inexorable command to ignore what is staring us in the face.  When it comes to discussing the family members of politicians, tact and rhetorical restraint are absolutely warranted, but complete abstention?  I think there are too many instances in which that would be more harmful than helpful to our national discourse.  And if restraint and tact are employed in equal measure, I think that collateral damage to innocent parties can be made negligible as compared to the value of pointing out inconsistencies between a politician’s rhetoric, and their life experiences.

April 13, 2012
"My general view is those of us who are in the public life, we’re fair game. Our families are civilians."

President Obama.  No.  As a blanket rule, this is 100% wrong.  Families of politicians can be and often do become relevant to public discussion of a political candidate’s policies.  Not always, but often.

For example: when Sarah Palin was running for Vice President, she advocated abstinence-only policies as a solution to unwanted or unplanned pregnancies.  Soon after her candidacy was announced, it was discovered that her daughter, Bristol Palin, had become pregnant when she was 17.  That is absolutely relevant and fair to bring up in a national debate about Sarah Palin’s policy proposals.  If the policies you’re running on don’t even work for your family, why would you ever try to force them on mine?  That abstinence education clearly failed the Palin family is absolutely relevant to the national discussion about abstinence, especially when she is the one suggesting it.  She’s essentially recommending a product that she knows doesn’t work; but we’re being asked to ignore the evidence because it’s impolite.

Mind you I am not advocating unrestrained and completely unscrupulous scrutiny of politicians’ family members.  But when a politician makes a policy proposal that affects my family, and that policy has clearly failed within their own household, that failure is relevant to determining the veracity of that politician’s claims.  It’s fair to make that observation; even more-so when the observation is true. 

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