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Moralisers on a PC witch-hunt

By Frank Furedi - posted Thursday, 11 September 2008

As an advocate of choice in reproductive matters and in the conduct of personal morality, I strongly disagree with Sarah Palin. However, I find myself in the strange position of disagreeing even more with those who seek to cast her in the role of a 21st-century witch.

Feminists used to complain that in medieval times it was mainly women who were accused of being witches and burned at the stake. Now many of them have signed up to a vicious, internet-driven witch-hunt. She "returns to work three days after giving birth", exclaims one feminist, before adding that Palin is "living the life of a caricature of the feminist who 'wants it all"'.

Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer prize-winning essayist, asks: "How does she square her role as a mother and a politician?" Her lament is echoed by minister Debra W. Haffner, who finds it "hard to imagine how a new mother of a five-month-old baby, no less one with special needs, is running a state, no less a national campaign". With a distinctly mean-spirited tone, she adds: "Maybe it's gotten a lot easier since I had mine."


Fervent advocates of women's rights have no hesitation about adopting outdated chauvinist morals and rhetoric when targeting a woman they don't like. Smiley castigates Palin for her "bitchy and arrogant point of view", which is "characteristic of all conservative women". Many supporters of the pro-choice lobby have adopted a radically new definition of choice. It now means "choose what we think is good", otherwise you will be denounced as a feckless breeder or an irresponsible mother.

America's cultural elite is rarely inhibited from expressing its contempt for ordinary folk. But when it comes to circulating rumours and conspiracy theories, it can outdo the most gullible, poorly educated trailer trash. The virulence of the language adopted by the anti-Palin crusade reflects the contempt with which the American cosmopolitan elite regards common people. The direct and transparent denunciation of ordinary people's morality and lifestyle by self-confessed progressive and liberal commentators is rare in a culture that professes to be non-judgmental and tolerant.

Such vicious stereotyping would meet with condemnation if it were directed at minorities or another section of society. That is why such contempt usually is transmitted through euphemisms and through nods and winks.

In the US, such attitudes are expressed through terms such as NASCAR dads, Valley girls, Joe six-pack or redneck. In Britain, NASCAR dads have a different name. They are dismissed as chavs, white van man, Worcester Woman or tabloid readers. These are people who do not write for the Huffington Post and whose lifestyles are alien to those of the very high-minded cultural elites. Some may even resemble those folk in Australia who voted for Pauline Hanson. That they breed, are unashamedly carnivorous, are not on a diet, drink beer, sometimes smoke and partake in the cruder pleasures of life disqualifies them from being treated as the moral equals of their cosmopolitan superiors.

The invective hurled at Palin is not so much directed at her politics but principally at her lifestyle. It shows that the real dividing line in the US election is not between Left and Right but between lifestyles.

Indeed, the politicisation of lifestyle has become one the most distinctive features of public life in contemporary America. Some seem to take their lifestyles so seriously that they do not simply disagree with people who have a different outlook from them; rather, they heap contempt and loathing on those who possess different manners, habits and values.


What is most striking is the passion and force with which certain individuals are attacked if they take a different position on, say, the right to abortion or the right to bear arms. These denunciations suggest some people, most notably those in the liberal elite, feel their identity - as expressed through their lifestyles - is being called into question by those who dare to disagree on the environment, abortion, sexual behaviour or any other issue. That is why the denunciation of Palin has assumed such an intensely personal and bitter character.

When lifestyle becomes politicised, the new breed of politically correct moral crusaders can not help but embrace the language and outlook of the witch-hunt.

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First published in The Australian on September 5, 2008.

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About the Author

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Britain.

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