As you’ve likely seen Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol have now spoken out about their notorious boozy family brawl, recasting Bristol’s attack on the event’s host as a morality tale about violence against women and media bias. We should note that probably no one in American public life better embodies the echo-chamber of digital life. Most prominent public figures say their piece and then various memes and jabs and more bubble their way up from Twitter or blogs or whatever other parts of the digital commons. With Palin, they’re always packaged together as a single product. So in talking about themselves they’re already railing about Hunter Biden and Chelsea Clinton and media bias and the ‘war on women’ and the rest. As she has since she stepped onto the national stage six years ago, Palin is the ultimate avatar of base Republican culture since she views herself as an eternal victim, with all the grievance and resentment that entails.
So now, liberals, the media, Democrats, apparently anyone who thinks Palin is a buffoon of almost world historic proportions (which gets you to something like 80% of the country) are all abominable hypocrites for ‘laughing’ at what is now fairly preposterously portrayed as a violent assault against a woman. If you listen to the police interviews, which occurred just as the brawl had barely ended, all the witnesses beside Bristol said she attacked the homeowner. Indeed, even Bristol’s younger sister Willow backed up the these other witnesses’ account. She just said Bristol missed with her punches.
I think it kind of goes without saying that if news emerged that Bristol had been assaulted by a boyfriend or spouse or really anyone else, no one would be laughing. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone now is laughing so much as standing back agape and marveling. But advocates who are trying to alter public perceptions about and stiffen penalties against violence against women are, I do not think, saying that female bodies are inviolable in every case if you barge into someone’s party and start swinging punches at them.
To cite this as an example of the scourge of violence against women is really to make a mockery of it.
But this is actually a common tendency on the right with issues of gender, race and much else. If you don’t actually take the issue seriously in the first place, it comes naturally to flip it around in a cookie cutter kind of way. You say we are hostile to women? Well, I saw you be mean to a woman, too! So there! Whether it’s treating women by different standards or bearing animus toward women as a group doesn’t really matter. If you don’t really care about the issue in the first place it’s easy to turn it on its head. Because you don’t see it as a problem but a cudgel, just another weapon in the brick-a-bat of partisan or ideological combat.
Conservatives routinely accuse liberals of jumping to accusations of racism or sexism with no cause or when other explanations are equally plausible. And sometimes they’re right. But it has always been the case that the self same people are the first to scream sexism or racism in cases where it is demonstrably false. Again, if you don’t care about the issues in the first place or don’t think they’re real, it comes naturally.
In very broad terms, the origin of Fox News is analogous. Conservatives in the ’70s and ’80s looked at the mainstream media and saw it as liberal and against them. That was largely bogus but not entirely. The mid-late 20th century elite ‘media’ did generally buy into a series of cosmopolitan assumptions about public and private life. That worldview generally aligns more with liberalism than conservatism, but the two are by no means identical. And this did shape coverage in significant ways. But many conservatives genuinely believed that most people in media were and are little different from Democratic political operatives writing propaganda. So when they went to create “their” media, that’s basically what they created, a propaganda network. The reality is as much a matter of genuine misperception as bad faith, though it’s both and together they make for a toxic brew.
But again, if you see these issues as just a cudgel that people hit each other with, it’s easy to say things that are basically nonsense. Because who cares? None of it means anything anyway.
So no. Bristol is not a battered woman. She is a battering woman, which may give her some claim to being a feminist icon, as she suggests. I don’t blame or care if the Palins are defending themselves or making up stories or doing whatever else. That’s just the drama and involuntary performance art that makes up their public lives. But their dead-ender defenders need to accept that if you’re a public figure, a recent candidate for national office, and you crash a party drunk and the fists start flying and the police have to show up to sort everything out, people may end up hovering over the details and getting a chuckle out of it. That’s life.