I was going to steer clear of the whole Sarah Palin thing—her children, her gender, and certainly her go-go boots. But I just heard a guest on Radio Times accuse a caller of being “sexist” for saying Palin was a “distraction,” and it’s got me thinking about this whole messy business of naming sexism (which is often unconscious) and how it is different from “playing the gender card.”

I start with two assumptions: 1) There is plenty of sexism left in the world, including among women who have absorbed many of the stereotypes about us; and 2) a great deal of politics is about “spin,” so not every accusation of unfairness you hear during a political campaign is true. With that said, let’s take this little example of the caller and the radio guest, both of whom were women, by the way. Is it sexist to say that Sarah Palin is a distraction (as Arianna Huffington also said on Larry King a few hours later)?

Words carry emotional connotations (as explained in the book I reviewed last post), and many of them tap into unconscious metaphors that we all carry. I would say that the word “distraction” brings to mind other words and phrases, like “trivial,” “less important than,” “dismissible.” These are words that have often been applied to women and their concerns, so I can understand how a female Palin supporter could feel that Palin was being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, the VP is always less important than the person at the top of the ticket. Is the word really inappropriate or unfair in this circumstance? The uniqueness of Palin’s story has certainly distracted the press and much of the public from issues like health care and the war, a distraction which, as Huffington points out in her blog, benefits the Republicans. Palin has also diverted attention from John McCain (unless you count the articles questioning his judgment for choosing her at the last minute, with little vetting, and despite the fact that he really wanted Joe Lieberman). Trying to silence debate about these points by crying sexism is unfair and manipulative.

It is not so different from the debates about racially coded language in this election. The question of whether Barack Obama is “unqualified” is another case of a word having two aspects. On the one hand, it taps into stereotypes about black people benefiting from affirmative action and getting advantages they don’t deserve. Some even explicitly suggest that no one would have voted for Obama if it weren’t for his color, a smear that overlooks his great oratory skills, the political acumen that put together a campaign able to beat the Clinton machine, and the fact that most Americans agree with him on the issues, including the occupation of Iraq. On the other hand, it is certainly legitimate to ask about the qualifications of someone who wants the most powerful job in the world, or who wants to be a heartbeat away from it, for that matter. That is why I think the Obama campaign has been wise not to comment on the racial undertone to the word “unqualified” and instead focus on showing Obama as someone who can do the job.

Sometimes there are not two sides to the story, however, as in the recent case of a Republican Congressman calling Obama “uppity,” a word historically applied to any blacks who aimed higher than slave or share-cropper. (In case you don’t know the history, uppity blacks were lynched, a fact not lost on African Americans.) I can imagine a male vice-presidential nominee being called a distraction if his family soap opera ended up on the cover of People Magazine, but I can’t imagine a white candidate being called uppity for attending an Ivy League university and running for president. Was Bush uppity for going to Yale on a legacy, or does the fact that he got bad grades there somehow make him more “like us,” which has suddenly become a qualification for becoming president?

Palin’s supporters are claiming that she is qualified to be president precisely because she is like us, and they are dismissing questions about her resume as “demeaning to women” (as someone did on CNN recently). So let me say clearly that despite whatever sexism I may have internalized over the years, my objections to Palin do not have to do with her gender. Two of the biggest challenges facing our country are global warming and restoring our relations with other countries. I am personally horrified that Palin does not believe humans are contributing to climate change and in fact has one of the worst environmental records I’ve ever heard of. Experience cozying up to big oil is not the kind of experience we need (Been there, done that.). Even more shocking is the fact that she has only been out of the country once and by her own admission hasn’t focused much on the war in Iraq. I’m sure being mayor of a small town would help in some aspects of the job, but not in understanding international relations. I also haven’t heard anything that makes me confident in her ability to restore the constitutional rights that have been stripped in the last eight years. In fact, she was interested in banning books and apparently tried to fire the librarian who told her she couldn’t. If she wants to know if that’s constitutional, perhaps she should consult Barack Obama, who was after all the president of the Harvard Law Review (a highly esteemed journal for those uppity constitutional lawyers).

As far as what kind of mother Palin is and how she did as a beauty queen, those are all distractions. Let’s get back to the issues.