There they are on the cover of Us magazine, a teenage mom who managed to get her high school diploma after her baby’s birth, and the father of her child, a high school dropout. They apparently intend to get married and live happily or unhappily ever after. Bristol Palin and her fiance, Levi Johnston, are what you get when you combine the religious right’s dedication to abstinence as the only way to avoid teenage pregnancy, a celebrity culture that exalts and pays for these teenagers’ dumb choices, and the contempt for education and “elitism” spouted throughout the country by Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin, who looks to be a much less happy mother of the bride-to-be than Hillary Clinton.
Actually, the nuptials may not be soon, although the happy couple was paid by Us for the photoshoot. Bristol recently confided that she and Levi are not living together and plan to abstain from sex until their wedding night. Who knows? It may have occurred to Bristol that if Sarah strongly disapproves of the match and won’t cough up some of her lecture royalties to finance the whole enterprise, a high school graduate and a high school dropout might have a slight problem supporting the child they already have. And what if abstinence fails them a second time? It had better not, because Bristol reportedly receives $15,000 to $20,000 a pop for delivering her anti-teen pregnancy speechs.
Although the children of politicians are generally off-limits, Bristol is an exception for two reasons. First, she has made herself into a public figure not only by sharing her personal life with the world but by her loopy performance as a spokesperson against teen pregnancy. (I wonder how it promotes the message that teen pregnancy is a bad idea when a young woman is financially rewarded and glamorized by the media precisely because she was a pregnant teen lucky enough to be the daughter of a famous mom.) Second, Bristol was used by her mother as an asset to placate the religious right-wing base of the Republican Party during the 2008 campaign. She was a living demonstration of Sarah Palin’s opposition to abortion: Look at my teenage daughter, she made a mistake and did the right thing by having the baby. The only more shameless aspect of Sarah’s campaign was her constant exhibition of her Down Syndrome son. Look at me, I didn’t have an abortion like those terrible elitist women who make fun of me for not reading books.
What all of this has to do with religion is that fundamentalism is one of the three major components–an Unholy Trinity–of the right-wing rage that Palin clearly thinks could make her the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. The two other elements are anti-intellectualism and class resentment that serve as an accompaniment to and a mask for racism. (Think, for a moment, about the filth that would have been spewed if the first black presidential candidate had a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter.)
There has always been a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education, although saying so leaves you open to charges of “elitism,” now the dirtiest of words. The better educated Americans are, the more likely they are to be affiliated with religions that have made room for secular knowledge (even if the latter contradicts some “sacred” book) or adherents to no religion at all. About 45 percent of Americans who have no education beyond high school believe in the literal truth of the Bible, while only 19 percent of college graduates do. Two-thirds of college graduates, but only one-third of high school graduates, believe that living beings have evolved over time. This is the main reason why fundamentalists are supporters of kindergarten-through-college right-wing schools: in those institutions, fundamentalists can control the message. The sneer in Sarah Palin’s voice when she calls Barack Obama a “professor” is most evident when she speaks to people who share her enthusiasm for old-time religion and her contempt for education and learning.
No, one can’t judge political candidates–or people in general–by their children’s behavior. But it is instructive when someone like Palin spouts off constantly about “family values” and the horrors of “the elites”–including a first-rate education. In this view, a daughter who becomes an anti-teen pregnancy spokeswoman is better than a daughter who applies herself to an education that will prepare her for the rest of her life.
Sarah, who attended four different colleges and universities before she finally got her degree in journalism, resents public figures who earned scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, Columbia or Yale–like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s apparently The American Way to get a college degree only if you do it by bouncing around from one community college or state university to another. In the Alice-in-Wonderland universe inhabited by the queen of the Tea Party and her subjects, people who can’t make the grade at top universities are not only better Americans but are morally superior to those who can.
Here is what a less ignorant anti-abortion candidate might say about teenage pregnancy:
“I’m proud of my daughter for having her baby instead of an abortion, and I think all girls should have the courage to make that choice. But we can’t pretend that teen pregnancy isn’t a major problem in this country. One thing that young pregnant women should know is it is more, not less, important to continue their education if they become mothers. Neither a high school graduate nor a high school dropout is in a good position to support and raise a child, and all teens–of both sexes–should know that bringing a child into the world means that they are going to have to educate themselves even as they try to educate their child. Teen pregnancy cannot be allowed to put an end to, or used as an excuse for, failing to become an educated adult.”
Instead, Sarah Palin pushed her pregnant 17-year-old daughter on stage, displayed her next to her boyfriend, and fed the fantasies of every deluded teenage girl in America by suggesting that the two were “engaged.” Now, since Levi left the Alaskan oil flelds to make an easier living by posing for Playgirl, Sarah has apparently had second thoughts about the high school dropout as her daughter’s knight-in-shining armor. You can be sure of one thing: if Sarah should become the Republican nominee: She’ll have cleaned up the Bristol-Levi-baby trio into something more suitable for middle-class consumption. Because the truth is that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are most middle-class American parents’ worst nightmare, but they are a nightmare that arises directly from the daily dream world propagated by politicians like Sarah Palin and her supporters.
Whenever I hear liberal-to-centrist pundits saying that even if Sarah gets the Republican nomination, she will only ensure Obama’s re-election, I shudder. That this representative of pure ignorance, retrograde religion, and class envy is being taken seriously at all speaks volumes about the dumbing down of America. The Bristol-Levi story, promoted by dumbed-down media, is what you get when you put Sarah Palin’s values into action. Will Americans refudiate this stupidity, or will they, in 2012, show that no ignorance is too ignorant if it is cloaked in reflexive anti-elitism and dubious family values? That is a question the pundits should be taking seriously.
Note:This is the finished version of the piece I started to write last week, which someone accidentally published while I was still working on it.