I'm in trouble already. On a national television talk show I referred to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain's choice to be his running mate, as a nice "young lady" who's probably not the best choice. That night I received three e-mails accusing me of sexism not for opposing McCain's choice of Palin but for calling her a "young lady."
America, we're in sad shape if a lady who happens to be young cannot be called a "young lady."
After all, I did not use "lady" in a diminutive version of her distinguished titles, like "lady governor" or "lady moose hunter" or "former lady mayor of a teeny town in Alaska."
Nor has anyone, as far as I know, objected when I have called, say, Sen. Barack Obama, McCain's Democratic opponent, a "young man" or a "young guy." He's 47. Palin is 44. I have more than a decade on each of them. To me, they're kids.
Nevertheless, after a primary election season that was marred by such male chauvinist piggyness as the "Hillary Clinton Nutcracker" sold in novelty shops, the Thought Police are on as full alert as the Louisiana National Guard before Hurricane Gustav.
Three days after McCain named Palin, a Google search of the words "Sarah Palin sexism" brought 54,000 hits. Leading the headlines: "Sarah Palin Sexism Watch #1," "Sarah Palin Sexism Alert" and "Laura Bush, 'thrilled' by Palin pick, warns of sexism."
At least I didn't call Palin "good looking," even though she is. That faux pas to feminists goes to that master gaffe-maker, Sen. Joe Biden. Back when he was Obama's opponent instead of his running mate, you may recall, the Delaware senator virtually grounded his own presidential campaign on the day of its birth by complimenting Obama as "clean" and "articulate."
In case you didn't know, such faint praise strikes the ears of many African Americans, including yours truly, as more than a wee bit condescending. Nevertheless, on an umbrage scale of 1 to 10, I give it a zero-point-five. After all, Biden surely meant no offense. In a society that has long been separated by race, we should not be surprised that various peoples have widely different views of racial etiquette.
When someone commits a breach of racial etiquette out of ignorance, not malice, it should be viewed as what diversity counselors call a "teachable moment," not a racial "gotcha."
Still, Biden has not been living in a cave for the past 40 years, so I am as surprised as anyone else that he did not know better than to describe his female opponent for vice president as "good looking," even though she is. Truth is not necessarily a defense against the Thought Police.
As sexists go, I'm pretty third-rate. I don't always catch it in myself, but I'm quite prepared to see it in others. For example, it took barely more than a nanosecond after McCain had announced his pick of Palin to be his running mate than commentators asked whether a Vice President Palin would have the time to care for her five kids, including a baby with Down syndrome.
When CNN anchor John Roberts raised that question, congressional correspondent Dana Bash responded delicately, "My guess is that ... the line inside the McCain campaign would be, if (the candidate) were a man ... would you ask the same question?" Answer: Hardly.
And no sooner did her 17-year-old daughter's 5-month-old pregnancy make international news than skeptics asked whether Palin would be able to handle the extra burden. Why should we presume that a working mom must bear more of her family's burden than her able-bodied husband does? Because society has conditioned us to think that way. At least that's what my wife tells me.
On the other hand, some sexism charges strike me as bum raps. The liberal media watchdog site Media Matters for America has condemned commentators who say that Biden will have to crank down his tone in debates to avoid the appearance of bullying Palin or condescending to her. In fact, he will have to do just that, if history is our guide.
Democratic veep candidate Geraldine Ferraro turned the tables on then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1984 when she accused him of thinly veiled condescension.
Hillary Clinton sealed her first Senate election victory when her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, waved a paper pledge to shun unregulated campaign contributions in her face and demanded that she sign it. He looked to many eyes like a husband who was angry about a credit card bill. Such images are not helpful to a growing political career.