Deborah Orr: A lesson for all sides... you can win votes just because of your gender

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The Independent Online

John McCain promised in his speech to the Republican convention that "change is coming". It has already arrived. Suddenly, right-wing cheerleaders are thumping about like teenage lefties yelling "Sexism!" and "Misogyny!". Suddenly, they believe it is appalling to be critical of a woman because she leaves her baby at home while she pursues her career. Suddenly, they see that a woman is not a man-hating twerp because she describes herself as a feminist.

For the first time in history, a woman is included on a Republican presidential ticket. It's about time too. The surprise explosion on to the world stage of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin has already prompted both right and left to examine its own attitudes, and find them wanting. Her very presence has been galvanising – there can be no doubt of that.

The awesome intensity of the attention Palin has received this week is in itself powerful evidence that women in public life are treated differently, simply because they are still such a novelty. And at last the right is clear in its conviction that this special attention is not healthy, even as it takes advantage of the noise that it makes, and revel in the consternation of so many of those women who don't like Palin's views. Only a couple of months ago, Republicans hated the idea that someone might attract votes simply because of their gender. Now the boot is on the other foot, and Democrats don't like it one bit. You have to laugh.

Liberal female commentators have been first in line to suggest that as a "social conservative" Palin ought to be "putting her family first". They suggest that no woman who really cared about her 17-year-old daughter would take up such a high-profile and sensitive position, when she knew the girl was pregnant and that her pregnancy would come under global scrutiny. However, they certainly don't show much concern for Bristol Palin's privacy themselves.

On the contrary, they argue also that Bristol's pregnancy is "an issue" because it calls into question Palin's beliefs about the teaching of "abstinence", and pontificate about how Bristol is keeping her baby by choice, when her mother would deny that choice to other young women. They ask what sort of "fucking redneck" of a young man Palin is hustling into a "shotgun marriage" with her daughter. They put Bristol Palin on the podium, even though she is a pregnant young girl. They should listen a little bit more to Barack Obama.

Asked about the "issue", he had this to say: "I think people's families are off limits, and I think people's children are especially off limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics; it has no relevance to Governor Palin's performance or her potential performance as vice-president. And so I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories." Then he spoiled it with a little bit of family mythology of his own. "You know my mother had me when she was 18."

Maybe Obama should listen a bit more to himself. Only the other week, he put his wife and her brother on the Democratic convention platform, and doled out placards bearing the legend "Michelle". His whole family is up for election, it seems. Does it make you a better president if your spouse is a decent public speaker? Does it make you a better president if your wife thinks you're great?

Obama may have been bounced into making his wife an election "issue" because the media decided she was the last Black Panther standing. But he'd already shoved her into the public domain himself by eulogising her in his memoir The Audacity of Hope, and boasting that he could count on her sterling support. The US demands an arc and a narrative. All US politicians are glad to oblige when it suits them. But it is their own willingness to be judged on their family background that fosters the febrile rumour mill that has been such an ugly aspect of the presidential race.

Smears don't get much uglier than some of those Sarah Palin has been subjected to. The story that she was really the grandmother of her Down's syndrome baby was even grosser than the one which said John McCain's adopted African daughter was really his secret love child.

That Republican nominees' family portrait, with little Trig Palin and teenage Bridget McCain part of the rainbow alliance of Republican inclusivity, might have been one in the eye for all those who prefer "tolerance" to remain the partisan concern of the left. But it is also an open invitation for the media to carry on doing what both parties say they despise: raking around in the closets of everyone connected to a candidate. John McCain says that the affair the National Enquirer accuses Palin of having is fictitious and that "the American people will reject it". But why would the American people reject the National Enquirer, when both Republicans and Democrats demand to be judged on their private lives as much as the nation's favourite scandal sheet does?

Victimisation on a London bus

Yet another investigation into what the hell is going on in Britain's schools has uncovered "institutional racism" against intelligent black boys. Astounding. Astounding that the Government always needs an investigation before it can discern the bleeding obvious. Why would there not be institutional racism in schools? Look at the reputations all young black boys live with.

I beg of them not to launch an investigation ascertaining whether "institutional racism" exists on buses. My friend John has rooted it out already himself, and so have those thus discriminated against. There he was, literally on the Clapham omnibus, and all was well except for the annoying electronic voice that kept booming out the location of the next stop (and which we all have to remind ourselves must be useful to the blind).

Then the bus stopped at a school and a couple of black teenagers got on, perfectly quietly, and sat near my friend. Suddenly, the announcements changed and the voice started saying: "Anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated, and miscreants may be banned from carrying bus passes." There were several other variations on the same theme.

"Goodness," he thought, "The driver's switched to that message just because those kids got on." At which point one boy, quite calmly, said to the other: "They change to those announcements when we get on, you know." What a miserable, shameful thing for an intelligent young person to understand about his place in the world.

* I'm not sure quite why it is that British politicians, who agree that globalisation is good, and quail before the might of cut-price airlines, now feel obliged to holiday at home. Gordon Brown went to the States every year before he became Prime Minister, and he must now be heartily wishing that his own Chancellor had followed his example.

Yet in all the minute examination of Alistair Darling's interview with The Guardian, one detail has not been mentioned. Darling, surely, was leading by example and urging us to buy British when he returned from the Hebrides sporting that fabulous tan.

How happy he must have been, there in the bosom of his family, but still managing to fit in some relaxed and informal work, a journalist and a press secretary holidaying with him, a photographer at the ready, and everyone having such fun round the scrubbed pine table.

"How simply perfect this is," he must have mused. "How can I persuade everyone in Britain that they should be vacationing on these clement shores? Oh, I know, I'll just say a few little words that will send the pound crashing against the euro. Margaret Hodge will never see Tuscany ever again, and nor will anyone else."

Job done, chum.

* As for all that stuff about making tiny Trig an "issue", it's just horrible. Palin had a Down's baby. That's all. She didn't knowingly give birth to a certified psychopath. Happily, the medical science and specialist teaching that the Palins have access to allows atypically abled people to live fulfilled and healthy lives, as long as the will and the support are there. And we're all in favour of that, aren't we, whatever else we may believe?