Last night I went to see Sarah Palin here in Jacksonville. Rather than repeat the details of the event I’ll just make these observations.
As I drove across the bridge there was (seriously, I’m not kidding) a huge dark cloud over downtown.
The gritty details: This was a fundraiser for Heroic Media, a faith-based non-profit that publicizes alternatives to abortion. Originally planned for an auditorium that holds over 2000 people, it was moved to a smaller venue (600 seats) and ticket sales remained low even after ticket prices were cut in half. There were still probably 80 empty seats, and it was clear that some number of attendees had free tickets.
The largest financial supporter of the event was a local news/talk radio station and its representatives were the only media allowed in. As I arrived with my Religion Dispatches press badge they stopped me before I even got to the door. I chatted with an AP reporter and he said AP had been trying for weeks to gain media access—but that he was there to see if he could talk his way in.
By then a torrent of rain had descended on the Times Union Center and I had no choice but to hang out in front until it stopped. That’s where I learned that the ticket prices had been reduced to $25 and I seriously thought about just buying one; but after about an hour a woman, who had been milling around, suddenly decided she wasn’t going in and offered me her ticket. Even then there was a drawn out decision as to whether to admit me. Someone, somewhere decided that they would—but insisted that they “search thoroughly” for cameras and recording devices.
My seat was three rows back in the center of the room, in the middle of a block purchased by another of the event sponsors and an active Catholic. In fact, the Catholic quality of the event was remarkable. Speakers and honorees were mostly Catholic, local Catholic churches were noted. Yet video clips honoring “right-to-life” leaders were mostly the religious right types: Mike Huckabee, and of course Sarah Palin. Catholics and religious right leaders have long made common cause on abortion but the cultural differences between the two groups is strongly discernible.
Heroic Media uses television, websites and billboards to promote alternatives to abortion. Compared to much of the pro-life movement, theirs is “soft.” That is, as an organization, they are not explicitly working to end legal abortion (I’m not arguing they don’t support this, only that that seems not to be what their campaign is about.) In fact, the television commercials previewed last night had a character that was quite distinct from the rest of the religious right’s anti-abortion efforts. They emphasized the availability of help without “judgment” of women in “crisis” pregnancies. They embraced the notion of “choice” on the abortion issues but challenged the way choice is currently construed. Several of the commercials were framed in terms of speaking to women who had been given a “choice” by their male partners: “it’s the baby or me.” They focused on fostering what was repeatedly referred to as a “culture of life,” as in another commercial that showed a serried of children saying “I am a life…” and “I want to be a doctor,” and even “I want to end global warming.”
Particularly, the noting of global warming is significant in pulling apart these two distinct cultures that make up this movement as the wing of it tied to Sarah Palin still does not even believe in global warming. And Palin and the political leaders present were more clearly interested in focusing on politics, creating even more tension . . . a point to which I’ll return next week.