This primary season was bound to create a national dialogue about any one of a number of deep divides in the U.S. -- class, ideology, race or gender. What I am finding interesting is that in declaring Obama the winner, we haven't really opened up a dialogue on racism, but on feminism.
Witness the cluster of blog posts and articles that have emerged since Tuesday:
"Death of a Saleswoman" (Slate, June 5, 08) -- "You can't be a historic first unless you act like one, and Hillary Clinton has not. In the Wellesley commencement speech that made her famous before she got to Yale Law School, she spoke about "searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living." Yet Clinton ran away from the revolutionary aspects of her own candidacy. There's been nothing of the ecstatic in her presidential bid—that mode, instead, has been embodied by Barack Obama. He appealed to voters' desire for liberation and revolution, and on the strength of that appeal won them over."
"The Other 18 Million" (Salon, June 5, 08) -- "I even think when this is over, some number cruncher somewhere might tell us that the backlash against sexism helped Clinton more than sexism hurt her, by turning out more women voters. In fact, tapping into that backlash, and into a feeling of female pride about her quest, saved Clinton's candidacy. Clinton herself bears a lot of blame for the fact that the historic nature of her presidential bid has been taken for granted, because it wasn't what she emphasized in the early phase of her campaign."
"Women in Charge, Women Who Charge" (NYT, June 5, 08) -- "How antithetical Hillary’s earnest, electric blue pants-suited whole being is to the frothy cheer of [Sex and the City], which has women now turning out in droves, a song in their hearts, unified in popcorn-clutching sisterhood to a degree I haven’t seen since the ugly, angry days of Anita Hill and … the first incarnation of Hillary Clinton. How times have changed. How yucky, how baby boomerish, how frowningly pre-Botox were the early 1990s. How brilliantly does “Sex” – however atrocious it may be – surf our current zeitgeist, sugar-coating it all in Blahniks and Westwood, and yummy men and yummier real estate, and squeakingly desperate girl cheer."
"3 A.M. for Feminism" (TNR, June 6, 08) -- "Obama was probably smart not to bring up more of his opponent's shortcomings; doing so would play into the narrative of victimization that became the dominant theme of Clinton's campaign in its final weeks. "Without question," Susan Estrich, author of The Case for Hillary Clinton, wrote in late May, "there is serious disaffection right now among many women about the sense of being shunted aside, told to pipe down and line up, the sense that the Hillary campaign, and Hillary herself, has become a mirror for the frustrations the rest of us have faced as we battle subtle and no[t]-so-subtle discrimination.""
I have to admit, I have been really taken aback by the vitriol that Hillary Clinton's supporters expressed. Perhaps each candidate inspires a dominant characteristic in its base; since I was for Kucinich and then Edwards, maybe we few were just ... prone to goony idealism. Reading through the comments on the Salon piece -- a fine way to kill a few hours -- or on the Judith Warner piece in the NYT lends weight to the theory that Hillary Clinton's most ardent supporters embody self-destructive bitterness.
Look, there's no other way to characterize some of the alleged "reasoning" coming from the pro-Hillary side.
-- There is the "I'll screw reproductive rights for all women, and then you'll all be sorry!" reasoning of voting for McCain.
-- There is the "You can't scare me with Roe because Congress will keep the Supreme Court in check!" fiction. I have news for you, the Senate's track record of standing up to GOP judicial picks can be summed up thusly: the non-coastal Democrats coming to Congress are not terribly, how you say ... "liberal." You really think they're going to be concerned about the gradual shift of the federal judiciary toward the right?
-- There is the "None of the other candidates bothered to stand up against the sexism!" complaint, which boggles my mind. It's an election. Is anyone forgetting the whisper campaign HRC tried to start about alleged secret Muslim Barack Obama?
Look, Hillary lost. It's a sorrow and a pity for her supporters, and it's an eye-opener for people in this country regarding how much overt sexism is permissible in allegedly polite society. The talking piles of hair on the cable "news" channels were pretty much given carte blanche to be sexist douchenozzles, and it is my fervent hope that future generations viewing this footage are as astounded by the dirty borders of acceptable discourse as any of us are over the casual racism and even more risible sexism that appears in earlier pop culture.
But you cannot lay the blame for her losses at the feet of the media, the nation's chauvinists or the insufficiently grateful Gen Xers and Gen Yers who failed to strike a blow for sisterhood. At the end of the day, Clinton was a candidate who squandered a formidable war chest and a presumptive nomination. She did so thanks to a combination of bad political instincts, personnel mismanagement and an unwillingness to deal with all the information in a situation. Those three traits alone suggest that perhaps she's not the best person to occupy the highest elected office in the land. That doesn't mean she's not bright, accomplished and a good senator. It just means she's not the best one in this particular race.
This is a line of reasoning that the people commenting on several of the articles seem incapable of grasping. Instead, they're slamming Obama in crypto-racist terms (They're calling him "arrogant." "Arrogant?" What's next, "uppity?") and tearing him down on weak grounds. For example, the same people who cannot let go of Obama calling a female reporter "sweetie" are perfectly willing to go vote for McCain, a man who called his wife a cunt in full view of reporters. Which do you think is more indicative of a lack of respect for women?
And this is where I lose sympathy for the angry and disappointed supporters. At this point, they're reminding me of one of pop literature's ugliest caricatures of feminists: the Ellen Jamesians.
For those of you who may not have read John Irving's The World According to Garp, one of the big narrative themes that runs through the work is the difficulty of negotiating a gender identity in a world that wants to impose one upon you. One of the novel's protagonists, Jenny Fields, becomes a feminist icon with her book A Sexual Suspect, and attracts a group of radical feminists who cut out their tongues as a protest against a little girl's having been raped and rendered mute by her attackers. The little girl, Ellen James, wants nothing to do with the Ellen Jamesians, but they persist -- and eventually kill her adopted father. The Ellen Jamesians are consumed by an inchoate and unproductive fury, destructive and completely selfish in its sense of assumed victimization. When I first read the book, I was outraged by the way Irving seemed to trivialize women's anger at a society that's fine with them being voiceless victims.
And this week, I'm sorry to say, I was reminded of the Ellen Jamesians over and over in reading comments from Clinton supporters. I do not begrudge these women their anger. What I do object to: the deployment of their rage. It's just stupid and shortsighted.
In the Salon and TNR pieces (and in a chat transcript following the Slate piece), the idea that Obama needs to reach out to these angry women is presented as fact. However, if Clinton's any ounce the stateswoman her supporters think she is, she should also make an effort to reach out to Obama and offer him her ardent base. Sometimes a true act of leadership lays in sacrifice -- in being able to articulate the necessity of acting in the interest of a long-term gain, and to convince the people to follow that sentiment. Without that forward-thinking of optimism, anger produces nothing more than the mute futility of the Ellen Jamesians. All of us should be better than that.