Palin Changed Everything, Too
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 6, 2008
Barack Obama made history when he became the first black president of the United States of America but it is Sarah Palin who changed it for all women.
Not that her candidacy hasn’t been controversial. The unabashedly fecund, pro-life Palin was perceived by some in the culture wars as a well-placed gotcha blow to the nihilistic orthodoxies of the secular left while for those of us who, on a less abstract level, passed on having children to pursue careers, her candidacy was a reminder of what we missed. Her religious affiliations and Annie Oakley style made it easy to dismiss her as an unsophisticate with few qualifications though even Camille Paglia, a cultural analyst and dissident feminist who supported Obama, felt Palin represented “an explosion of … muscular American feminism”. The absence of experience had some validity but that did little to mitigate reminders about the growing absence of children in most of our lives.
There was a time when overpopulation was the world’s biggest problem. Today, when high population numbers reflect increased longevity rather than increased births, the opposite is true in both rich and poor countries. As the authoritative 2004 Phillip Longman study The Empty Cradle explained, aging populations and plummeting birthrates are now a fact of life everywhere, including the Middle East and other underdeveloped regions.
Canada has long since abandoned replacement rates while the U.S. only barely maintains its own. This despite surveys showing that if women had born the number of children they wanted, the West would be experiencing no population losses or their impacts on economic growth and the tax revenues needed to pay pension and healthcare costs.
So why aren’t we having children? Longman suggests the major factors are urbanisation and industrialisation. Since children are a costly impediment to material success, people in this environment will tend not to reproduce themselves, he says.
Demographic Winter: the Decline of the Human Family, is more specific. The independent American documentary released earlier this year cites delayed marriage, high divorce rates, delayed pregnancies, the influence of a popular culture that emphasises instant gratification, and growing secularization. Bottom line: anyone desiring a large family must start in their twenties; after 35, fertility declines precipitously. Anything less and like the nuclear winter that is still possible, we also face a demographic winter.
Demographic Winter also reveals the futility of immigration as a remedy since it is a form of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The birthrates of developing countries have been halved since 1970 so they can ill afford to lose their own human capital. Financial incentives to encourage higher birth rates hasn’t worked in Russia and western Europe.
Where will the children of the future come from? The answer, says Longman, may well be from people who are at odds with the modern urban environment, where the so-called diseases of affluence such as obesity and substance abuse also flourish, either because they don’t understand it or because they reject it. This includes those with strong religious convictions which has a strong correlation with high fertility rates.
“Those who reject modernity would thus seem to have an evolutionary advantage, whether they are clean living Mormons or Muslims…” the religiously unaffiliated Longman concludes.
Has the secular left irretrievably forfeited any hope of psychological, genetic or generational influence? Only to the extent it has abandoned the successful strategies of the religious right, the experts seem to say. Intact biological families is a minimal requirement. Having a belief and support system helps.
Longman hopefully invokes a future culture of lifelong learning that restores the lives of young adults to their reproductive purpose. But with annual abortion statistics at 42 million worldwide and widescale family breakdown, the mountain has so far appeared insurmountably high.
That has now changed. For those many women who want fulfilling work as well as the very children who will save us from a demographic winter, there’s Sarah Palin. Arriving on the Republican ticket as the vice presidential candidate, she held her brood in one arm and, with the other, reached for the brass ring.
In one gesture, she signalled to women everywhere that denying motherhood in order to penetrate glass ceilings is itself now history.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.