Friday, May 30, 2008

It's Not Sexism, Stupid or, a feminist struggles with Hillary Clinton

This February I attended my first ever Democratic Primary caucus, well actually my first ever caucus of any kind. The caucus for my district was held in an elementary school cafeteria which smelled like decades of cooked onions and boiled green beans, and we were bursting out of the room.

I was told by some long time caucusers that during the last Presidential Caucus there had been 12 people there, and they had a hard time finding anyone willing to volunteer to go up to the next level caucuses for the county. This time, there were close to 200 people there. Many of us had no freaking clue what we were doing, and some incredibly kind good natured people with experience quickly tried to organize us, make sure we all signed in on the correct forms for the correct district, and gently herd us into some semblance of organization.

The atmosphere was congenial and jolly. It was a mixed group of age, race and gender. The organizers suggested we sort ourselves into our candidate groups while they counted the signatures so we could move on to selecting our delegates. In the midst of this jovial chaos I noticed a woman sitting arms firmly crossed. She appeared unhappy, unhappy enough that when a seat opened up next to her, I thought about sitting down and then decided the wall I was leaning on was fine. I saw her speaking seriously to one of my neighbors, a woman named Mary who is one of those kind clear eyed people you turn to when you need something fixed.

Mary stood up and hollered to get the organizers attention. "It's been observed by ----- ," Mary said to the leaders, "that you are referring to Barack Obama as "Obama" in your directions, but you are referring to Hillary Clinton as "Hillary"." Mary explained that this was being interpreted by some to be disrespectful and demeaning, and could we please use consistent respectful forms of address for all the candidates?

Various things ran through my head when I heard this, some of which do me little credit, and suggest that it's best that I was not one of the people in charge instead of the kind good natured ones who were, who replied "Oh, of course. No problem!" I was irritated by the implication that these very nice overworked people who were patiently suggesting that Obama supporters from district 242 should sit at this lunch table, and Hillary supporters from district 242 should sit at that lunch table were behaving in a sinister fashion, or that there was any disrespect in the room for anyone.

It is in fact entirely normal and common for people to come up with shorthand to telegraph the difference between prominent political figures that share the same name. No one just says "Roosevelt". It's FDR or Teddy Roosevelt. It's really only been in the last few years that one feels ok saying "Bush" without specifying "G.W." or "W" or "Shrub" to differentiate Bush fils from Bush pere. So one reflexively says "Hillary" to make sure that everyone knows of which Clinton one is speaking.

At the time, the most coherent of my thoughts, which sounded much like a very impatient sigh, was "this is why I'm not voting for Hillary Clinton". Of course "this" was not the only reason I was not inclined to vote for Clinton, but it was reflective of something I was already sensing, growing and emanating from the Clinton campaign and her supporters.

You could call it making mountains out of mole hills, but that implies that there were actual mole hills there to begin with. This was something more like scavenging the land to find moles that one then carries around with one, along with sacks of dirt, and then releasing the mole, and the dirt, in the midst of otherwise reasonable discussion and then standing beside the theretofore non-existent molehill with a bullhorn screaming MOUNT EVEREST!!! MOUNT EVEREST!!!!

I also felt something that I'd felt a lot over the past months or even years when contemplating a Hillary Clinton Presidency, which was fatigue; perhaps even a Carterian ennui. A sense of being offered something reheated, with some new sprigs of parsley, which nonetheless had not gone down great the first time. I was irritated when I heard Hillary Clinton referred to as a fait accompli, when I read newspaper article after newspaper article insisting that a majority of everyone everywhere wanted her to be the next President when, in fact, no one had asked me. I felt shoved, bullied. It was the same kind of feeling that emanated from the Bush (the 2nd) campaign back in the day.

And what, really, was the difference between the two? In the case of Bush II, Republican insiders sat down and flipped through their Rolodex and decided to back the charming born again son of a pillar of the Party. The Republican machine put all its weight and money behind this fortunate son. When an extremely popular, highly experienced veteran and Senator began gaining momentum among the general population, the machine came down with all its might, stopping the McCain campaign cold with nasty fake controversies about the Confederate flag and a dark skinned baby.

In the case of Hillary Clinton, Democratic insiders sat down and flipped through their Rolodex to decide which state should give a Senate seat to the retiring First Lady. Illinois, a state that might have made some sense since Hillary Clinton is actually from there, ironically, but thankfully, was discounted because the party didn't want to interfere with the promising career path of an up and coming politician named Barack Obama. Arkansas seemed unlikely since Clinton had never really thawed the hearts of Arkansas residents like her husband had. So they gave her New York, and a healthy pot of money which became the seeds of her Presidential race fund.

And as Hillary Clinton's campaign took off, and the pundits and newspapers discussed her "inevitability", she began to remind me of another notable Republican; namely Bob Dole. Not the cheerful retired Bob Dole of the Letterman Show and (god help us) Viagra commercials, but the crotchety pissed off Bob Dole of the 1996 election.

Bob Dole was mad at his own party for making him fight so hard for the nomination. Bob Dole was mad at the media for asking impertinent questions when it was clear that his (actual!) 30 years of elected public service ought to speak for itself. Bob Dole was mad at you, the voter, for not being smart enough to realize his value over the pipsqueak he was being forced to run against. Bob Dole had carried the freakin water and Bob Dole had put in his time and Bob Dole had taken the back seat to lesser men for thirty god-damned years and Bob Dole had given his god-damned right hand in service to this country and god-dammit all to Hell if it wasn't HIS GODDAMN TURN. As the Hillary Clinton campaign rolled forward I began thinking of Hillary Clinton and Bob Dole more and more, spiritual twins on the "It's About God Damned Time" Express, flying election banners inspired by Charles Schulz: "I Want What's Coming to Me! I Want My Fair Share!"

But I'm not allowed to say such things, right? To compare a privileged man like Bob Dole to Hillary Clinton, a woman who has had to overcome an upper middle class upbringing, an expensive Ivy League education, a successful law practice, marriage to a governor then President leading to a glass elevator trip straight to the top of the America political machine....well, the truth is, I'm not sure what she's had to overcome, except being in a position of power which has led some people to dislike her, but Elton John assures us it was wretched.

I'd like to not talk about sexism when it comes to Hillary Clinton, but that seems to be impossible. The Clinton Campaign wants you to know that Hillary Clinton is losing because of sexism. Geraldine Ferraro would like you to know that not only is Hillary Clinton losing because of sexism, but Barack Obama is winning because of racism. Geraldine Ferraro would also like you to know that Barack Obama is actually sexist, which is why she will vote for John McCain if Hillary Clinton is not nominated, because apparently Ferraro would rather vote for a man who called his wife a cunt to her face in front of a press buss than vote for the man who was so sexist, he interfered with the ascension of her chosen candidate.

Be it sexism or racism or vast right wing conspiracy-ism, some horrible "ism" is always standing in the way of the Clintons doing what they need to do for the good of mankind...I mean personkind. It's true, for whatever reason, the Clintons make a certain segment of the population go completely ape monkey squirrel shit bananas. The whole Ken Starr impeachment lunacy was unarguably unnecessary bad behavior and abuse of authority designed to legitimize certain people's ape monkey squirrel shit bananas opinions.

That was the bad news for the Clintons. The bad news for the American populace is one that we're still reaping the benefits from today. Namely, it made the Clintons hair trigger defensive, irritable at being challenged, disinclined to listen to other points of view and, god help the person who requests justification for any of their decisions. It has also given them an easy out which they use inexcusably often: those who disagree with them, or ask for explanation, are part of the vast ape monkey squirrel shit bananas conspiracy. The once wretched behavior of their opposition justifies anything they may have to do now; an excuse which never worked for you on the playground, but what have you done for personkind lately?

As I researched to help me write this piece, I encountered one of the problems that comes when one attempts to write about the Clintons in a calm, reasonable way. Because I'm not cookoo ape monkey squirrel shit bananas, I don't think the Clintons are the worst thing to ever happen to the country. I think they actually have managed to do some good here and there. I don't think they killed their good friend in a public park in Washington D.C., and I don't think there's a person on earth who is clear about what sort of malfeasance they were supposed to have been up to with Whitewater, but certainly no one has convinced me it was worth bringing our government to its knees over. But you start to do research, legitimate research involving the reading of mainstream magazines and newspapers like Newsweek and The New York Times, and you start to be reminded of things that make you feel like screaming a little bit.

Like the fact that one of Bill's last acts in the White House was to pardon 15 Puerto Rican nationalist terrorists, actual terrorists who had set off bombs in our country that had killed and injured people, against the advice of the Justice Department, the FBI and the relatives of the people who got themselves exploded, but conveniently in time for his wife's campaign for a Senate seat in a state with the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the country. And when he started to get flack for it, he cheerfully threw Al Gore under the bus, claiming he'd done it to help Gore win Florida, and what a help it was too! And now we find ourselves years down the road with Hillary Clinton insisting that she will stay in the race until the bitter end or, at the very least until Puerto Rico votes, and suddenly I'm feeling a little queasy, like someone flipped on a light and I caught a glimpse of something I didn't want to see scurrying under the counter.

In this campaign Hillary Clinton has done what the Clintons do best, which is to fight hard and dirty. This is why we loved them in the beginning, right? They bested the Republicans at their own game. It doesn't matter if you get yourself covered in mud as long as your opponent drowns in it. Unlike Bill, who played dirty with a kind of insouciant, almost Reganesque "Teflon" flair, Hillary Clinton has played dirty while wrapping herself in the shroud of victim-hood. From the beginning Hillary Clinton was a feminist martyr, even when she was leading by a mile and the media discussed her as if she were already President. The spectacle of her complaining that debate mediators always asked her the first question was shameless and ridiculous. As a feminist, I was embarrassed and enraged by her behavior. It was the Platonic ideal of that fake mole hill mountain.

Since then we've been confronted with things like the transparent insistence on seating the Michigan and Florida delegates, but only the way she wants them seated, which is to say given entirely to her, even though it was her own campaign manager who helped draft the initial ruling that stripped them of their delegates in the first place. Or transforming herself into a race baiting Annie Oakley. Or discovering, after Barack Obama's profound and historic speech about race in America in which he defiantly did not condemn his pastor for speaking his own truth, that it was an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter who invited Jeremiah Wright to the National Press Club to give a speech which seemed intended to have a catastrophic effect on Obama's campaign. The surprise to me is not that she's doing these things, The surprise to me is that anyone is surprised, or that anyone is fooled. That anyone can look at Hillary Clinton and see a victim is the biggest mystery to me of all.

In the dark days of Bush II's Presidency, it was easy to fall into a kind of nostalgia for the Clinton White House. Believe me I was a guilty as the next person. The stumble from "My Fellow Americans, the State of our Union has never been stronger," to "Mission Accomplished" was too hard a fall to take without a nostalgia cushion. But time and distance begins to reveal hard truths about not only the Clinton White House, but the Democratic Party the Clintons left behind. Bill Clinton may have left the White House on a high note, but the Democratic Party still struggles to mend the destruction visited upon it during the Clinton years. The Clintons fumbled the National Health Care Plan, Travelgate and Don't Ask Don't Tell, but it was 54 Congressmen and 8 Senators who paid the price. Bill Clinton may have floated out of the White House on a cloud of approbation, but he left behind a Democratic Party unable to withstand the Republican onslaught that followed.

And now, true to my sense early in Hillary Clinton's campaign of being offered some reheated Salisbury steak, Hillary Clinton seems determined to leave the American people with a similar legacy: one destroyed Democratic Party and eight more years of Republican nightmare-ism. I don't believe she'll succeed. I truly believe that Barack Obama is a great and good man who can win this election. But I'm sad for the people Hillary Clinton is using to wreak whatever destruction she has left to wreak.

I understand the importance of finally having a woman President of the United States. It's time that our country break that practical or psychic barrier that has prevented us from considering a woman as up to the task. I don't blame the people who are excited by what Hillary Clinton represents, but I do blame Hillary Clinton for being an inadequate receptacle for their dreams. I blame her for taking their passion and twisting it into victim-hood and anger, and trying her best to divide this party down whatever fault lines she can exploit. I blame her for making me, an intelligent, reasonable, sensible, practical feminist into someone she and her supporters would rather dismiss as ape monkey squirrel shit bananas than acknowledge and respect, despite our differences.


I've read several pieces in which Hillary supporters bemoan that she is somehow their last best chance at getting a woman in the White House. If she fails, feminism has failed, set back a dozen generations. This view really puzzles me. Is our vision of feminism so narrow that we believe there is only one single female in all the land capable of winning the White House? I believe the success or failure of Hillary Clinton says nothing about the state of feminist progress, except revealing that some people are profoundly insecure about the real and actual success of their own revolution. Hillary Clinton's success or failure only says something about Hillary Clinton and the people she chooses to surround herself with.

I am confident we will have a woman as President, and it will be someday soon. It is truly inevitable. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Have you seen these new generations of young women? They are awe inspiring. They are going to rock this planet to the foundations. It may not look the way we imagined. I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if the first female President is conservative. But that's the thing about revolutions. Truly successful revolutions take on a life of their own far beyond what its early revolutionaries imagined.

No comments: