Bristol Palin is a nineteen year old single mother who has learned ballroom dancing on network tv. The premise of Dancing with the Stars, her current network home, is that people will want to watch celebrities who have achieved notoriety in one field undertake the difficulties of learning another discipline. ABC’s bet has paid off big, and many people tune in to watch.
Of course, casting the celebrities is the big trick, and putting Bristol on stage was a smart move. But how to introduce her? Dancing is generally filled with actors, athletes, and even an astronaut. The “a” for Bristol is “activist.” Add another A for abstinence.
It’s not a very good description for Bristol, but they may not have anything else (half-term governor’s daughter?).
Bristol’s activist resume is pretty thin–not surprising for a nineteen-year old mother. (She hasn’t had time to do a lot.) For a fee, Bristol will speak on behalf of sexual abstinence. Two issues: Bristol’s credibility on the topic; what do activists really do?
Bristol ostensibly learned about the wisdom of abstinence by abstaining from it. As a high school student, she conceived her son with her on/off/on/off fiance, Levi Johnston (surely, every parent’s nightmare boyfriend). Will her experience dissuade young people from having sex? Bristol’s choices have given her a cute son, network television exposure, the chance to meet Tom Bergeron, and maybe even a source of income. That’s not what the manual predicts for teen pregnancy, and it’s hardly a cautionary tale.
What about activism?
Working on a college campus, I see 19 year old activists all the time. They hand out leaflets, organize events, attend demonstrations, ask questions at lectures (sometimes, not very politely), and issue demands on matters of policy. Activists go door-to-door to meet people and talk about issues, they sell baked goods to raise money for causes, they hold signs outside polling stations and on street corners, they write articles to promote their ideas, and they go to meetings. (Oh so many meetings!)
Activists work hard to try to change the world, often sacrificing time, money, and convenience in the process.
Most aren’t professionals, and some of the actors and athletes who might appear on Dancing devote some of their time to causes. Last month, for example, I received robocalls from Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, suggesting how I should vote in November. Lady Gaga has been vigorous in pushing for the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell. You can think of scores of other examples. What’s notable is that these part-time activists is continue to derive their income and their reputation from their professional identities as actors or singers. They’re amateurs, just like millions of other American activists who are far less visible most of the time.
There are, of course, professional activists as well. They become expert in a set of issues, raise money, and organize, organize, organize. It’s important and difficult work at the core of American politics.
“Activist” can’t just be a leftover category for people who have no other sign of gainful employment.