The Palin Doctrine & The Culture Wars: Seeing "Spring Awakening" Through Sarah's Eyes

Cover image for  article: The Palin Doctrine & The Culture Wars: Seeing "Spring Awakening" Through Sarah's Eyes

Spring Awakening, the Tony-award-winning Best Musical for 2007, launched the first leg of a national tour in San Francisco earlier this September. Far headier than the jukebox musicals lately filling the Rialto, this re-imagining of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play mashes-up its German fin de siècle setting with a lyrical vernacular that would be right at home in Juno (see Act Two's showstopper "Totally Fucked").


It's not for nothing that Wedekind is held to be the Father of Expressionism; Spring offers a far truer look at teen angst than Diablo Cody's candy cane of an indie flick served up earlier thisspring. While coverage of Spring has been obsessed with the show's take on sexuality, religion and freedom of expression are actually on equal footing here. It's no wonder then that the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater collaboration of a rock musical manages to channel the Zeitgeist of this presidential election cycle.

Deaf. Dumb. Blind.

As Spring opens, fourteen-year-old Wendla Bergmann has just been made an aunt twice over. She begs her mother to tell her where babies come from, adding that she knows the stork doesn't make deliveries. Frau Bergmann is struck dumb. She wrestles with an answer but ultimately postpones it, hoping against hope that ignorance is bliss. In the first song of the musical, Wendla sings "Mamma who bore me, who gave me no way to handle things." Later in the play, the adolescent conceives – in the original Wedekind text it's rape; in the Steve Sater/Duncan Sheik adaptation, it's an act of love. In either case, she is condemned. A back alley abortion follows, then… the abyss.

It's impossible to tune out Bristol Palin here. The first daughter's name is like a Billboard Top 40 song that finds and seizes a shelf on your cerebellum. Three days after Gov. Sarah Palin was named McCain's running mate she revealed that the seventeen-year-old was pregnant. Cunningly, she invoked the word "choice" in describing Bristol's decision to carry to term. It's all well and good that the Palin family has chosen to support their daughter, but what of those teenaged women without any visible means of support? What's Palin's record here as governor?

Not so good. While The Washington Post inaccurately reported that Gov. Palin slashed the 2008 budget of Covenant House, she did line-item veto its $5 million allocation, cutting it by over 20%. This faith-based organization for at-risk youth includes Passage House, a program that provides transitional housing for young mothers. The Governor took pen to paper in April, just as Bristol Palin was conceiving her child.

In a sense, the candidacy of Sarah Palin is a throwback to the 19th century world that Spring Awakening satirizes. Until she switched to the more mediagenic Wasilla Bible Church, Palin was a member of her hometown's Assembly of God church – which believes in the Pentecostalist speaking in tongues and laying-on of hands.

The Times Online reports how in a June 5th speech, Gov. Palin credited the ecstatic prayer of Kenyan witchhunter Thomas Muthee with the clinching of her 2005 gubernatorial bid. Remember when media sharks and surrogates alike were all about the excesses of Revs. Wright, Parsley, and Hagee? From where I sit, Sarah Palin's a two-fer: pastor and politician rolled into one.

This Pentecostal follower believes the Bible to be the Word of God. Not that it's a cult like Scientology. Almost the chronological peer of the New York debut of Spring Awakening, century-old Pentecostalism is now the 10th largest Christian denomination; look for 500 million true believers by 2020. In Sarah Palin's September 6th speech at her former Assembly of God church, she reiterates a central conceit of her flock, that Alaska has a "divine destiny," and that we are in Iraq as a "task from God."

What we have here, folks, is Bobby Jindal with lipstick without the Hurricane (and exorcism) experience. So what do you get when religious dogma drives policy? Sex Panic. Bristol Palin's condition not only runs parallel to 19th century shame over the body, but also to 21st century Bush Administration policies that have decimated comprehensive sex-ed. And in Sarah Palin's Alaska, women's reproductive rights aren't a priority.

No Sex, We're American

Rep. Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has been probing federally sponsored Abstinence Only programs for the past two years. This spring, not only did he reveal that this cottage industry has received over $1.3 billion in federal funding over the past decade but - even more troubling -- over made notorious this spring by Gloucester high schoolers' seemingly trying to get knocked up, there is one sex-education coordinator for the entire State. Given this context, it shouldn't come as a shock that the Centers for Disease Control reported in March that, nationally, 26% of women aged 14-19 have at least one STD. Another local triumph: Alaska has the highest per capita incidence of Chlamydia and in the nation.

Abstinence Only, then, has been more than a fiscal boondoggle. It has re-inscribed Victorian and fifties-era messaging that the body is taboo. If the Bush Administration considers this progress, Sarah Palin has a track record that is positively the Manhattan Project of sexual repression. Here's a stat for McCain/Palin to tout: According to FBI crime statistics Alaska is # 1 nationally in forcible rape. Back in April, 2007 Amnesty International admonished Alaskan state and federal authorities for maintaining "a maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions" that allow sexual offenders to act with impunity.

Troopergate supporting player Walter Monegan was fired from his position as

Public Safety Commissioner for having gone "rogue." What gained him this honor?

Allegedly he went to Washington without proper authorization. It has since been confirmed that he did receive approval for the trip -- in which he was lobbying for federal monies to aid victims of sexual assault.

Under Palin's watch Wasilla was the only town in the state of Alaska to charge the cost of rape kits to the victims. That is, until the practice was banned statewide by its last governor. There is consensus among medical experts that it can re-traumatize a rape victim. What reasons, then, might Palin have for supporting this largely punitive measure? There's no case to be made of taxpayer burden -- we're only talking some $15,000 a year. The Violence Against Women Act, a bill authored by V.P. nominee Joe Biden and voted against by none other than… John McCain, mandated that these kits be made available free of charge to rape survivors. Might the inclusion of the "morning after pill" – given the Governor's abortion stand – permitting no exception even in cases of rape and incest – be the crux of her resistance?

This environment has buoyed for a national movement of Christian pharmacists who wish to deny contraceptives on the basis of their religious beliefs. There's a Federal law in the works that would enable them to do so despite their Hippocratic Oath – the comment period for it ended Thursday, September 25th.

Halfway through the first act of Spring, schoolgirl Martha admits to being beaten and sexually abused by her father. Her song carries perhaps the most plaintive stirrings of the musical. In "The Dark I Know Well" she shares her secret:

You say all you want is just a kiss goodnight,
Then you hold me and you whisper:
"Child the Lord won't mind--It's just you and me.
Child, you're a beauty."

During last week's avalanche of attack ads, the McCain campaign chose to resurrect a leftover smear first concocted by wingnut Alan Keyes during his 2006 Senate contest against Obama. As putrid as a used condom, it purports that Obama voted for a program that would offer sex-ed to kindergarteners. Actually, it was a bill to head off inappropriate touching.

What allowance does Palin make in the case of a child conceived by incest? None.

She'd turn back the clock, appointing judges that would overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal even in the case of rape and incest. Finally, this week, Obama is making this an issue and aggressively. I know that abortion is the Third Rail of politics, but what took him so long?

(No Child) Left Behind

Wedekind was writing at a time of exciting discovery: Freud was giving voice to the subconscious, Nietzsche famously announcing "God is Dead," while Darwin painstakingly presented his Theory of Evolution. Spring Awakening lead Melchior Gabor is his academy's star pupil. With his mother's tacit approval he's reading Faust; Wedekind himself was known as a "radical atheist", and Melchior is clearly his doppelganger.

Just as sexuality is fraught – and tragic – for Wendla Bergmann, free-thinking Melchior Gabor is at odds with the hidebound teachings of his academy. After enduring corporal punishment at the hands of Rektor Sunstroke, Gabor breaks that fourth wall and sings,

"All that's known in History and Science. Overthrown, at school and home by blind men. You doubt them and soon they bark and hound you. […] All they say, is trust in what is written. Wars are made and somehow that is wisdom."

Melchior Gabor might just as well have been reacting to No Child Left Behind's "teaching to the test" or, for that matter, our misadventures in Iraq. The most intellectually gifted student of the school is summarily expelled for "thinking bad thoughts." When he answers best friend Moritz Stiefel's hormonally-dictated need to know about human sexuality in the form of a frank "how-to-manual," he is branded morally corrupt by his own father and sent to the Reformatory. Flashforward: On a questionnaire by the conservative Eagle Forum during her gubernatorial run, Palin noted that "explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support."

Shame and secrecy are two sides of the same coin. Censorship is a scaffolding that preempts dissent and debate, as we see with Sarah Palin. Although that initial e-mail about banning books was apocryphal, Palin has far from a sterling record in upholding the marketplace of ideas. In 1995 Focus on the Family – whose "Love Won Out" conference was promoted by Gov. Palin's church earlier this month -- was on a mission to nationally ban books such as "Daddy's Roommate" and "Heather Has Two Mommies." Sarah Palin went on record saying that the former didn't belong in the local library. The following year, Wasilla Library Director Mary Ellen Emmons recalled, Mayor-Elect Palin asked her outright whether or not she "could live with censorship of books." After three such queries it became a public matter and Palin quickly backpedaled, insisting that hers was merely a rhetorical line of questioning. Apparently librarian Emmons crossed that rhetorical line: Now governor, Palin asked for her resignation, but the town faced the executive down in a grassroots effort. And during her tenure Gov. Palin refused to support funding for a badly needed new library expansion while putting her executive stamp on a sales tax increase for a new sports complex.

In Palin's September 6th address to her church she declared that Alaskan's need to be "Right With God" for His support. How does that play out? How can a Muslim or a Jew be "Right With God" if she doesn't worship the right Deity? What about this non-believer?

Here's a possible answer: Palin's anointed spiritual warrior, Thomas Muthee, is shown here blessing the Governor. Last weekend, journalist Max Blumenthal paid a visit to the Wasilla Assembly of God to pay homage to the Minister. Muthee referred to non-believers as pythons. He urged Christians to crush "the python spirit," and to infiltrate the "Seven Kingdoms" including schools, business -- and you guessed it --- government.

We have every right to be furious when a Holocaust denier like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tries to undermine historical veracity. But what about a candidate who refutes scientific consensus for global warming, not to mention the Theory of Evolution? When Pres. Bush was asked if he ever consulted "41," he answered that he sought counsel with a "Higher Father." There's every evidence that not only would Sarah Palin follow his intelligent design but that – unless otherwise indicated – she believes we're in End Times. If so, pray tell us of the policy ramifications.

Seeing Spring Awakening during the final breaths of the general election reminds us that America has one foot wading into the 21st century and other mired deep in the past. Not that there's anything wrong with tradition or nostalgia, but clinging to "guns and religion"

is not a holistic rhetorical strategy as our nation grows more and more heterogeneous. This election is not about "Republicrats" – as Ralph Nader might suggest. It is about those who would return us to an era of mysticism over science, institutionalizing shame and secrecy, and policing our personal lives. The real tragedy of Spring Awakening, with its frank talk of masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, incest, and suicide, is that the 1891 source text is so damned timely today. The optimist in me demands that it be a clarion call to leave our superstitions and prejudices behind, and to finally embrace Bill Clinton's Bridge to the 21st Century, not Sarah Palin's Bridge to Nowhere.

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