Bristol Palin’s pregnancy arouses America’s bipartisan meanness toward youth
September 11, 2008
When Rosalynn Smith was just a few months older than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter Bristol is now, she married Jimmy Carter. Rosalynn Carter was a teenage bride and a pregnant teenager—like five other First Ladies. I’m guessing Democrats would have been aghast if Republicans had played the “teen pregnancy” card to question the morals of Jimmy Carter’s presidential run in 1976 or to suggest their current nominee, Barack Obama, is a low-quality human being because he’s the product of a 17-year-old mother in 1961. But back then, meanness toward teenagers and the exploitation of prejudice against them to score political points was not the American reflex it is today. The myths about teenagers and what we mislabel “teenage pregnancy” are documented elsewhere on this site.
Particularly disturbing is the unhealthy obsession with “teenage sex” and pregnancy among liberal and left-wing media commentators that have led to their vicious attack on Bristol–ones they continue even amid powerful evidence that they only win sympathy for Gov. Palin’s candidacy. Right-wing moralists attack minority and Hollywood “teen pregnancy;” left-wing moralists attack Hollywood and white “teen pregnancy” in identically savage, voyeuristic crusades that reveal the deep moral sickness underlying America’s “culture war.”
Not one commentator I’ve read or heard knows Bristol Palin, even superficially. They’ve never met her, never said word one to her. They display no familiarity, and certainly no concern, with her as a person. Yet, commentators have freely indulged all manner of cruel, generic assumptions about her, her pregnancy and its causes, her plans to get married, and by extension, her family—often in direly apocalyptic tones cynically suited the commentator’s pet politics. Bristol has been coldly commodified as a symbol, devoid of individuality, forged from the self-serving Right-to-Left crusade to vilify teenaged women(especially those who become pregnant or mothers) with one-size-fits-all epithets. Images of deformed babies, thuggish offspring, ruined lives, children corrupted by the mere mention of Bristol’s evildoings, hordes of envious Bristol-incited teenage girls rushing to get pregnant, a moral society wrecked by Bristol’s wantonness—Bristol is being blamed for all of these.
Why? Solely because she’s 17 years old, all the “evidence” these commentators need. It’s a cowardly and sickening spectacle. The worst offenders have been Huffington Post, Alternet, and Fox News, though hundreds of others (I’ll put together a shame list soon) could be named as well. It’s hard to believe these commentators could even be described as adults.
If Gov. Palin’s political critics wanted to make an issue of her family’s reproductive decisions (perhaps to counter her strident moral “values” rhetoric), why didn’t they attack her directly? After all, Sarah Palin became pregnant and chose to have a baby at age 43, when her risk factors for low birthweight (the best predictor of poor infant health) and other natal complications were much higher than for a 17 year-old.(Among white Alaskan women in their early 40s, 9.6% of births are underweight, compared to 7.1% for white teens). Why, then, didn’t the moralists and critics vent their righteous disapproval and anger directly at Sarah’s “stupid,” “ignorant,” and “thoughtless” decision to become pregnant and to have a baby at her risky age—which at least addresses the relevant issue of Gov. Palin’s judgment—rather than against daughter Bristol?
The answer, of course, is the commentators’ abject cowardice. Gov. Sarah Palin is middle aged, a powerful political figure backed by powerful allies, and member of a middle-aged constituency certain to become enraged at such a cruel, insensitive, bigoted attack. After all, Sarah Palin is an important figure entitled to respect for her individuality. Likewise, the Obamas could have been attacked for getting married and having children, given the statistically worse outcomes for marriages and childbearing by African Americans (much worse than for teenaged marriages or childbearing). Real outcomes—that the Obama’s marriage and children are by all accounts exemplary—mean little in today’s amoral culture war; none of the self-righteous commentators have expressed any interest as to whether Bristol, like millions of teenagers before her, turns out to be a fine mother.
If citing the personal behaviors of candidates and families to demean their “family values” pieties is legitimate, why haven’t we seen widespread Campaign 2008 attacks on the sordid marital infidelities of John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, and Bill Clinton, or Cindy McCain’s drug thefts and abuse? Off limits! The merest, tentative whispering about these much more relevant misbehaviors (assuming any of this is relevant) has been quickly and squashed in outraged and horrified tones. The real reason is that today’s culture warriors only attack the personal behaviors of those who are too politically weak to fight back—and that means kids.
It was much safer for the craven critics of Gov. Palin to attack Briston, a teenager who has no political power and occupies a second-class young demographic easily demonized and subjected to exaggerated, often manufactured, mass stereotypes. Commentators’ goal was not healthy babies or responsible motherhood. It was alternately to exploit Bristol first to attack teenagers as a class while smugly affirming the commentator’s personal superiority; second (by critics), to use her as a vehicle to attack Gov. Palin’s candidacy for vice president; and third (by defenders), to shield Palin’s candidacy from attack by pronouncing her blameless for the stupid way all teenagers act. Many critics assumed Bristol’s pregnancy resulted from her ignorance resulting from having been taught “abstinence only” instead of comprehensive sexuality education, although none presented any information to support that claim.*
Of course, it’s legitimate politics to question what policies Gov. Palin would advocate for prenatal and perinatal care, support for mothers, families, and children, and reducing the high rate of adolescent poverty and disinvestment in education that makes childbearing during teenage years a rational economic choice for poorer women. By emerging evidence, Palin’s record on these issues is abysmal, and those points could have been raised without whipping up a media lynch mob against Bristol. It may also be legitimate to raise candidates’ own personal misbehaviors, since so many powerful miscreants from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich have a way of instituting harsh public policies (particularly against poor people and youth) to compensate for their own moral failings. But commentators’ sustained, vicious public assault (the phoniest ones are framed as moral “concern”) against Bristol Palin has nothing to do with any of this or any legitimate campaign issue. It simply reflects the growing cruelty and cowardice of an American “culture war” that beats up on powerless young scapegoats to mask its unwillingness to confront the rampant deterioration among the grownup and powerful.
*In fact, Wasilla High School, where Bristol Palin attended, does not teach “abstinence only” education. The Matanuska Susitna Borough School District policy governing its schools states: “The family life/human sexuality program shall encourage students to be abstinent and to conceptualize sexual behavior in the ethical and moral context of marriage. The program shall be age-appropriate and shall address a full range of topics, including parenting and birth control, and shall emphasize that abstinence from sex is the only totally effective protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” and authorizing appointment of a “Family Life/Human Sexuality Advisory Committee representing a divergence of viewpoints to participate in planning, implementing and evaluating the district’s family life/human sexuality program.” That is the standard sexuality education (as opposed to abstinence only) program language, which prioritizes abstinence but provides information on birth control. The policy can be found here.