Teen mom and abstinence spokeswoman Bristol Palin has risked the disapproval of two feuding families to romantically reunite with Levi Johnston, the repentant, formerly spurned (and spurning) father-of-her-child. Ironically, the glee that this clandestine second betrothal causes among Palin detractors (her mom must be so pissed!) contrasts with the fact that once again, the pair have embraced one of the cornerstones of conservative family values: the shotgun marriage, or in this case, the really, really long rifle marriage.
It’s hard to resist the saga of the Palin clan. Rivalries, teen pregnancies, breakups and makeups, rumors of meth-dealing relatives, tabloid gut-spilling and facebook name-calling. A young couple who embrace abstinence, reject it, then embrace it again. For the liberal media elite, the pursuit of this Alaska-to-Washington soap-opera has been intense and unyielding, encompassing both scorn for the clan’s seemingly-lowbrow ways and absolute fascination with same. That attraction-repulsion far eclipses any reaction to other conservative political foes who might pose a more substantial threat at the ballot box (Tim Pawlenty… eh).
As we debate whether the young Alaskan parents’ brand-new return to affianced bliss is for real or for reality TV, whether it’s an act of rebellion or Sarah Palin herself is its scheming puppet-master, what we’re actually left once again facing is the cultural threat that the Palins and their proud way of life seem to pose. This, in my opinion, is the true reason they get under our skin. It’s not so much that Sarah Palin will be president–she probably won’t–but we’ve now learned that are millions of people who embrace the Palin method, melodrama, accidental babies and all. It’s a way of life that, like anti-choice policies and hatred of government programs, rejects reason and evidence for dogma, even when confronted with the failure of that dogma in everyday life. Hot-button political disagreements like birth control, abortion, even the nature of marriage have real life consequences for the health and wealth of families–and the Palins and their ilk don’t seem to care.
Bristol and Levi, detours aside, represent a life-path that’s far from foreign or alien to conservative Americans–in fact it’s intimately familiar. This is why, when Bristol’s pregnancy was discovered, no eruption of fury or cry of “hypocrite” from within the conservative movement materialized–it was to be expected, and even applauded for not ending at the abortion clinic. This is how the Palin way generally proceeds:
1-Grow up without sex-ed, with abstinence touted and contraception only marginally available.
2-Initiate sexual activity at a hormonally-appropriate time, without consistent or proper protection.
3-Get pregnant, but don’t consider abortion because of religious values, lack of access, or parental notification laws.
4-Attempt to do “the right thing” by getting married or engaged.
5-Nevertheless experience a higher poverty, divorce, and single parenting rate, and lower educational achievement and health index as a result.
This cheeky little rundown of mine is actually borne out by the numbers. In Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, (Oxford University Press) the authors tease out the way our vast cultural differences translate, statistically. In an excerpt for Alternet, they write (emphasis mine):
Driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt and based in communities whose social life centers around married couples with children, the red family paradigm continues to celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation… Yet, red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages, and lower average ages at marriage and first birth.
Cahn and Carbone point out the “paradox” in the heart of so-called family values territory: family stories often include sins like divorce and out-of-wedlock births. The other side of the paradox? Rhetorically open-minded, pro-sex, love-makes-a-family blue state clans model stable, two parent (gay or straight) homes with parents who have waited until adulthood and the arrival of financial stability, rather than the onset of sexuality in the late teen years, to begin having babies. These two factors–more than one caretaker and slightly older parents– of course, are proven by the numbers to be strong indicators of the emotional, financial, physical and education health of families. (The authors stress, and I repeat, that this is statistically-based generalization, and in no way negates the many real stories we’ve all seen of triumphant teen and successful single parents and two-parent, financially stable households that wreak havoc on their kids’ well-being.)
This paradox ultimately, is what provides the frustration for Palin-watchers–and conversely, the fad of Palin-mania and the success of shows like “16 and Pregnant,” which show the workings of the red-state family up close, uncensored, and personal. But our way works, we think. Why do people keep choosing the other way? With our abundance of sexual freedom and contraception and abortion and gay-friendly policies, we actually have more solid family structures than you do, and yet somehow you still see us as sinful!
Carbone and Cahn believe that our ideological differences can’t be smoothed away. So they posit that more important than differences over sexuality and abortion should be the common goal of delaying marriage and childbirth. They suggest practical (and for the most part, feminist-friendly) solutions which they believe are more likely to help people on both sides of the gap than sparring does. For that reason, they support government and social programs focusing attention on contraception instead of abortion, promoting family-friendly workplaces instead of arguing over the ideal family, and expanding relationship and marriage education instead of arguing over sex vs. abstinence education. They note that:
New efforts at marriage promotion suggest that delayed marriage, financial planning, more-effective communication, mutual respect and commitment, shared interests, and recognizing the warning signs of domestic violence (both in oneself and in potential mates) all enhance relationship stability.
Levi and Bristol have actually achieved some of the desired results here: they’re older, more financially stable thanks to their careers as celebrities and spokespeople, their shared experience as teens thrust into the spotlight is uniquely theirs, and they’ve now weathered a few life-experience storms that they wouldn’t have encountered even a few years back. Now that their red-state values have merged with media savvy and exposure to the wider world, they have a little more blue state flavor in their union. Whether or not they will buck trends and forge a successful family on either paradigm, is obviously a complete mystery–but we’ll all be watching. As Salon’s Amy Benfer writes, “their private choices will eventually be served back to us as political parable.”
For those of us on the blue side of the divide, theoretically if not geographically, the Palin family saga reminds us that we’re not just fighting an abortion war, but we’re up against an entire way of life built on a deep foundation of contradiction.