Friday, September 19, 2008

The Elementary Structures of Political Kinship

There have been some questions concerning my previous post where I suggested that John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running "mate" was both profound and perverse. By selecting a woman who is both unknown and unqualified to serve in national office, John McCain is not asking us to view his choice in terms of her own personal merits or any pre-existing attitudes we may have towards her known accomplishments. McCain's "message" is that knowledge, experience, even temperament are not necessary qualifications for Presidential office.

The thunderclap of attention that has accompanied Palin's political ascent is not the admiration appropriate to an accomplished public sector administrator but rather the adulation due a mother-goddess figure. Republican groupies and media sycophants reacted to Palin as an archetype, not as an individual. By suggesting this political liaison, McCain used Palin's gender to achieve his political ends and in doing so reified age-old practices where women were treated as commodities that are exchanged to balance and confirm the social order.

In his study of pre-modern cultural practices, Structural Anthropology, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called the marriage arrangements of pre-literate societies a type of "slow" communication:

"Each human society conditions it own physical perpetuation by a complex body of rules, such as the prohibition of incest, endogamy, exogamy, preferential marriage between certain types of relatives, polygamy, or monogamy--or simply by the more or less systematic application of moral, social, economic, and esthetic standards. By conforming to these rules, a society facilitates certain types of unions or associations and excludes others." (Structural Anthropology, p. 353)

When we define appropriate marital liaisons, we determine the course of human evolution and complete the transition from nature to culture. By the way, Lévi-Strauss' characterization of kinship strictures as a type of communication is not totally unfamiliar to Media Ecologists. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman wrote:

"Children are the message we will send to a time we will never see."

By describing children as a "message," Postman challenged us to imagine what medium is being used to convey these messages. Though Postman's focus was on our education systems and how electronic media redefine notions of childhood, a broader view places children "messages" within the "medium" of kinship systems and matrimonial proscriptions.

Marital restrictions have loosened in our post-industrial society, though they have not disappeared entirely. But clearly, as women approach social equality with men in our era, the archaic limitations placed on women's aspirations, the so-called glass ceiling, has developed cracks. John McCain's attitude towards women, as manifested in his partnership with Sarah Palin, is an attempt to cement over those cracks.

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