Friday, September 12, 2008

Of being deferential

As you may have guessed via my previous post, I don't hold Sarah Palin in very high regard for having agreed, without blinking, to be John McCain's running mate, nor John McCain for selecting her in the first place, and I see her ignorance (which is, of course, something different from being stupid, and I do not think she is that) of the Bush Doctrine as only one of the more compelling of many pieces of evidence I can offer in support of that opinion. As the proud father of two daughters myself, I have other reasons for that opinion that are, shall we say, more informed by the passions than by the intellect; and seeing as the blogosphere already has more than enough rhetorical frothing to go around, I'll spare you that.

But seeing as the linked-to post touches on women, I'd like to say a few words about two closely-associated words that have been used by Palin's defenders as they characterize the criticism her candidacy has received, "deferential" and "respectful." And to do so, I'll write about a time when I submitted my own 13-year-old daughter to unmitigated ridicule.

Made you look! Made you look!
Actually, "very gentle ribbing" is a much more accurate description--and only for a brief while.

Some background: G. (the 13-year-old) and C. (who is 10) are beautiful, intelligent and thoughtful, strong girls. Even better, that's not just their proud parents' opinion: their friends' parents seem genuinely to agree with that assessment, and they know this about themselves but without being arrogant about it (about which more in a bit). They are entering the treacherous territory of adolescence, so, you know, their mother and I are knocking on wood whenever any is handy. So far, though, so good.

The other day, my older daughter G. and I were talking on a theme which I understand is a matter of all-consuming importance to most adolescent girls: her friends, and friends of her friends. Well, actually, it was more like my listening to her offer up a monologue on this theme, but that's okay. I want, as much is possible, for topography to be the only distance between us. I was happy that she was eager to share all that with me. Anyway, at one point she was describing a circle of friends which she is not a part of whom she described as "sedated--which means, you know, they're very calm, they don't get excited about much."

Me: Um, I don't think that's the word you want--at least, I hope it's not.

G: "Sedated" doesn't mean that?

Me: No--that describes someone who's been tranquilized.

G (laughing): No--that's not what I meant!

Me: I think the word you want is "sedate."

G (still laughing): Oh--okay.
Sorry if this makes me sound monstrous, but I'll say it anyway: G., despite my loving her and despite her recently scoring quite well on the ACT, is not someone I would defer to in matters of vocabulary. The rate she's going, though, I might find myself doing that one of these days. She's smart as a whip. But, for now, I'm still ahead of her in the book-larnin' department. I sincerely look forward to deferring to her one day. But that day has yet to arrive.

My choosing to defer to someone means that I have come to recognize that that person knows at least as much as I do, if not more, about a given subject. Sure: all people, until or unless they show they don't merit it, deserve our basic respect as fellow human beings. But it does not follow that I should defer to them just as a matter of course. It is reasonable to expect a person to demonstrate his or her credentials before we can make a fair assessment of that person. G., to her credit, had a good laugh at her own expense because of her confusion over "sedated"--that laughter made me respect her even more than I already do.

Now: lest you leave here thinking that G. is a buffoon or that I regard her as such, earlier this week she and I talked about an acquaintance of hers whose behavior indicates she may have anorexia. G. was a full--and intelligent, informed and sensitive--participant in that discussion. She has read articles about eating disorders in a girls' magazine that she subscribes to, and she displayed to me that she understood and took seriously what she had read--and her acquaintance's condition. She was so well informed, in fact, that I couldn't really add to her understanding, apart from encouraging her to talk to a teacher or a counselor about this girl.

It is at times like that when I find myself briefly forgetting that she is only 13. That forgetting, I would submit, is a sort of deferral. Certainly, it was a silent acknowledgment on my part that G. indeed knew whereof she spoke.

I cannot, yet, say the same thing of Sarah Palin. Though I respect her as a fellow human being, as a mother who indeed made a difficult but informed choice regarding her fifth child, and as an obviously-skilled politician, I simply have no reason to be deferential to her as a vice-presidential nominee. Nor does anyone else for that matter, with the exception of the person(s) who thought it would be a good idea for her to be the nominee. They are welcome to defer all they want, but no one else is otherwise under any obligation to. I don't say that because she is a woman, or I disagree with her politics or religion, or I am a low-information voter; it's because there is an exceedingly small body of information (never mind accomplishments--I'll settle for ideas and opinions attributed to her) available that would allow reasonable people, partisans or not, to assess her abilities, here and now and not in the future, as a potential Chief Executive. That's just demonstrably so, and it is no insult to her or to any woman--any person--to say that sort of thing when it's simple fact. Yet the McCain campaign asks us to believe that to protest this lack of information and to see to want to know more is not being deferential.

Emerson famously said, "I hate quotations; tell me what you know." Until yesterday, all we'd had from Governor Palin are quotes; to a certain extent, even after yesterday, we still don't have much more. There has to be something to defer to. When that shows up, then we'll talk; then, we won't be arguing about someone who, at least as regards her fitness for the office of Vice-President, remains a cipher.


Doc said...

With a single caveat I agree wholeheartedly.

(Nicely written, by the bye...)

I am also the father of 2 lovely girls, ages 5 and 3. My eldest, Asta, is deathly allergic to peanuts. So, of course, there is a total ban on peanuts, tree nuts and their byproducts in our household. More, we read each label of each foodstuff we buy, each and every time we purchase groceries, to make sure something otherwise innocuous has not suddenly decided to use peanut oil, or has switched plants to another location where peanuts are used on the same ‘line’, et cetera et cetera; Baskin & Robbins is right out –as is most ice cream products in general – because of the extremely high likelihood of contamination; dining out is a unique adventure every time; pets are out as so much of their food has peanuts or peanut byproducts in them as filler. Obviously we limit her contact with dogs –which breaks her heart- as even a dog lick could send her into anaphylactic shock; Asta carries a set of EPIs with her, is instructed in their use and has practiced injecting oranges herself with blank cartridges – of course both her mother and myself carry individual sets with us always; her teacher carries them with her while she is at school and the school nurse also a set.

Asta sits at a separate table at school for lunch with ****, another peanut-allergic child. Ideally, this works out so that neither child feels overly ostracized by their allergies. Of course, neither child would accept food from any of the other children, and every parent is aware that they should not send peanuts or peanut byproducts in their children’s lunch - the rule is strictly reinforced throughout both the class and school.

Imagine my consternation yesterday when Asta informed me that ***** offered her some of his M&Ms.

No, they weren’t the peanut M&Ms. But from my perspective *****’s folks lost any standing with me in regards to their ‘parenting’ credentials because:

1) I know that all M&Ms are made at the same plant, a plant that Mars uses to make other peanut/candy products.
2) Kathryn knows better than to offer any identified peanut allergic child any food, much less food that she knows is manufactured at a place that also makes peanut laden products: so should *****.

Judgmental? Possibly, however everyone makes judgments every day and the life of my child is at stake.

By ‘not blinking an eye’ or hesitating at John McCain’s offer, and thereby condemning her 17-year old unmarried, pregnant daughter to a public living hell she is obviously less ready for than the Governor herself was prepared for the Gibson interview, not only are Palin’s ‘parenting’ creds fair game, but her basic ‘crisis’ decision making process is open to criticism, also.

I would also suggest that whatever empathy creds she had going for her went right out the window except that would undoubtedly be perceived as ‘disrespectful.’

R. Sherman said...

Your comments about deference to the members of the political class are spot on. Unfortunately, our history of having broken away from the European aristocratic model notwithstanding, too many Americans view politicians as part of an elite class above the rest of us. Hence the inclination to "defer" to members of that class by the rest of us.

In truth, such deference is nothing less than questioning our own capacity of self-government. The moment we begin to defer to others, either by virtue of the political skills or their "education," or their money/influence, is the moment we lose the capacity to understand what personal liberty is all about.


Pam said...

This entire Palin 'saga' has me just...floored. And disappointed. I so agree with you. What is there, as of yet, to defer to?

(But then once I hear that someone has tried to ban books - I tend to write them off.)

And on a separate note, thanks for the Wallace posts. I've read one of them, but will read the others - and more importantly, will take up your suggestion on where to start with respect to reading his work. I did start Infinite Jest when it came out, but must confess to not finishing it - I think it was early summer, I was living on the Florida coast, and started sailing all of the time. But I would like to go back and read his work. So - thanks for that.