Shallow Hopes


You might think this post is about Hillary Clinton. Actually, it’s not.

An argument I’ve read more than once recently goes something like this: “I don’t know if I will have another chance to see a woman President in my lifetime. I don’t know if my daughter (or granddaughter) will have another chance. But I see a new excitement in her eyes, just having a viable woman candidate running for the White House. And I can imagine what having a female President will do for the pride and self-esteem of millions of women and girls in this country.”

My initial response is to sympathize with this view. As a man, I can only imagine what it’s like to have my gender so unrepresented and discounted in public life, and in the narratives we’re presented with as well. The misogyny of the culture is so deep-seated that I can well imagine how a woman President could represent something of a psychological breakthrough for many women, and for that matter, many men.

But when I further consider the implications of this statement, I find it—much against my inclination, I must say—shallow and naïve.

When we think this way, we invest the office of the Presidency with a magical power and prestige that is just what the proponents of untrammeled executive power have sought for it since the last century. “The President of the United States” has been awarded such obsequious adulation—wholly independent of the qualities of the individual holding office—that this public servant is treated more like a king or an emperor, or (in a more vulgar sense) like the ultimate American celebrity. And this is a big part of why we’re in trouble as a country. The executive has essentially usurped the power to make war from the Congress, and acts nowadays as if it were completely above the law. We might think this is solely Bush’s fault, but the tendency has been building, and reinforced by the establishment and its media, from way before Bush was even born.

The notion, then, that the fact of a woman possessing this office has an absolute value in itself, as reflected, moreover, in the aspirations of our daughters and granddaughters, essentially buys into this idealized vision of the Presidency, a vision that unfortunately does not fit with reality. The reality is an ever-expanding national security state waging imperial wars of hegemony around the world.

The question is: does the assumption of power in this imperial system by women—what is in effect the exercise of authority by women in an unchanged patriarchal structure—constitute progress in feminist terms? I say it does not. There is no lack of examples of powerful women—such as, for instance, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice—whose government careers represent no real challenge to an imperial or patriarchal system, and in fact quite the contrary.

If we had a woman President who was bombing Iran, would that be a source of emulation and pride for our daughters or granddaughters? If so, it would be a virtually meaningless pride, a pride unconnected to actual social conditions. The symbolism would merely reinforce the dominant ideology.

Behind the argument I sense a lack of connection with the world situation today. Inside a bubble of privilege, we may talk about whether we have a chance to see a woman President in our lifetime. But I look around me and I wonder, will there be a survivable world left in our children’s lifetime? The situation is so dire that I can only judge such identity-based arguments as blind and out of touch.

The question, therefore, in a campaign for President, is how the candidate proposes to help us. In pragmatic terms, that means the candidate’s position on the issues. In a wider sense, it also means the philosophical approach of the candidate—what is her world view, her vision of society, of government? What does she support, and what is she against? What has she done in the past, and how does this indicate what she will do in the future? And so on.

Fundamentally, this is a more respectful stance towards a female candidate than to posit her gender as a value in itself. That is like saying, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what you say, or how good a President you might be. You’re a woman, and that’s enough.” That’s actually insulting, I think. It implies that the female candidate can’t withstand an equal consideration on the issues involved.

Of course, in the real world, women candidates face a revolting double-standard, especially in the media, that tends to put them at a disadvantage. This is especially true of progressive women, who are attacked—subtly or not-so subtly—on grounds that a man would never have to endure. This always needs to be condemned. And in a society conditioned to hate women and treat them as trivial and secondary, misogynistic thinking pops up all the time, sometimes even in the words of progressives. We’ve all internalized it to some degree.

But this is different than arguing that we should elect a woman just because she’s a woman. Hell, there are women who participate in political decisions and structures that victimize women. There are pro-war women, anti-choice women, wingnut women. It seems obvious to me that we need to judge a candidate on her merits.

Yes, this applies just as much to race. I can’t fathom arguing that someone should be President because of his or her race any more than because of gender. In the contest between Clinton and Obama, the gender and race of the candidates have been emphasized beyond all importance. Like just about every other aspect of elections as they’ve been packaged in the media, this has turned the political process into trivial, small-minded junk.

I started out by saying that this post is not about Hillary Clinton. I say that because if Senator Clinton’s statements and actions really convince you to vote for her, then by all means vote for her. But if you haven’t bothered to pay attention, and you just want to vote for the Senator because she’s a woman, I don’t really think that’s feminist. I think that’s dumb.


~ by cdash on April 18, 2008.

10 Responses to “Shallow Hopes”

  1. Hey Dashiell, I won’t repeat what I said on your blog (I didn’t realize this was going to be a cross-post) other than to say … SPOT ON.

  2. This is the most intelligent post I’ve read on the issue of gender and race in the political process. I am female, 63, feminist, poor, and Hillary scars the shit out of me. I have no damn idea who she really is as a candidate–I have seen so many different faces of her in this political season. But it was her bungling of health care as first lady, then her wrong vote on the Iraq war, and then the justification and rationalization and her refusal to simply say, I was wrong, my vote was a mistake, I’m sorry, that convinces me she is so stubborn, so unwilling to admit mistakes, that she would be as bad a president as Bush. And then also her behavior as a campaigner so appalling–the Bosnia debacle, the lies, etc. that has made me an ardent, enthusiastic supporter of Obama.

  3. Bravo Dashiell.

  4. Yes, Dash, your piece is, in a word, graceful. For me, this campaign from my vantage point as an American-born, Jewish man, permanent resident of the Republic Of Panama, has just been baffling.

    If you think the racial and gender element to all this is weird, imagine how I feel? In 2000, when they tried to ram that jive down my throat with the “historic” Joe Lieberman, I vomited and voted for Nader. Easy decision. A Jewish Vice-President of the United States didn’t mean anything to me. I found his politics loathesome. Morevoer, I always considered it a toss-up between whether the USA would see a Jewish president or another exodus first. I always assumed a Gentile woman and/or a Black man would be elected president before a Jew or Asian of either gender would. There are lots and lots of reasons for this, the simplest being that neither Jews nor Asians will ever be considered fully “American,” and all variants of Jewish and Asian American culture contain elements that play very poorly in the greater American electorate. If anyone cares, I’ll elaborate, but I’d prefer to leave it there for now.

    OK, now having lived in Panama whose current president, Torrijos, has darker skin than Barack Obama does, whose previous president, Mosocoso, was a woman and whose next president is likely to be a woman (Herrera) I was completely baffled by the meaning so many Clinton and Obama supporters were investing the her gender and his “race.” More so than you, Dash, I could not understand the fuss. There weren’t huge numbers of left-wing Panamenian women who voted for Moscoso. There won’t be huge numbers of right-wing women voting for Herrera. Dark-skinned Panamanians take no particular pride in Martin Torrijos and in the upcoming election will vote how they feel they should vote: for Martinelli or Varela (both White) if they lean right, for Herrera (about Obama’s shade) or Navarro (White) if their politics lean left.

    Balbina Herrera won the PRD leadership election easily in all categories including White men.

    So, I worked hard on cracking this one. I bugged every female and Black American blogger I respected endlessly on these questions. And so very many clung steadfsatly to the gender or race factor as something very important. To everyone I queried on this: “thanks for your patience.” My criteria for choosing people whom to query were simple: they had to be bright and politically-aware. Yet, they were coming up with a different answer on this one than I was.

    Finally, I realized WHY this isn’t such a simplistic reason for choosing a candidate. Racism and sexism in the United States is like nowhere else in the developed world. They permeate the American culture deeply. Americans, I believe, are so sophisticated at marketing and publicity that it can seem otherwise. Instrumentally, materially, and statistically the story is rather different.

    I’ll use Panama again as an example because what the appearance of the culture would seem to American eyes and ears is vastly different from how life is lived. There is no such thing as “political correctness” in its misbegotten American meaning down here. In its place we have the concept of “educacion” which doesn’t mean education; it means “manners.” More than that it means knowing how to speak and in what environment and to whom.

    The kind of everyday conversation people have here at times would not be considered “politically incorrect” in the extreme to American ears. Another kind of everyday convsation people have here would be considered overly formal to American ears.

    Yet, the instrumental, material, statistical and especially cultural sexism and racise does not exist. No ambitious Panamanian girl would ever consider for a second that she has 0 chance of becoming president. No darkly-complected Panamanian boy would every consider his chances at being President were beyond the realm of possibility.

    Panama’s only been a democratic, republic for 19 years and has only been free of US military bases and an American Enterprise Institute-drafted constitution for 9 years. What do you imagine is going on in Western Europe? Yes, there’s prejudice and bigotry of all kinds everywhere. But nowhere is it as deep and as toxic as it is in the USA. Forget the marketing.

    That’s why thinking people will commit to Clinton or Obama on gender and race. Considering that there’s not a huge ideological gulf between the two, given this opportunity, I don’t think it’s a bad reason at all to pick one or the other.

  5. Amazing post!

  6. I wish to god we could all be judged on our merits. How ideal would that be?

  7. I am going to vote for Hillary Clinton not because she has a vagina but because between Obama and her, I think she is the better candidate. Not the perfect candidate, no not even close. Another thing I like about her is that she DOES advocate for women’s issues and YES that IS ISPORTANT to ME. I wouldn’t vote for someone just because they have a vagina. I’d NEVER in a million years vote for Rice or Coulter or someone like that. You say that people who decide to vote for Clinton because she is a woman, as if that is the only thing they are looking at is in this presidential campaign, goes both ways. Those who vote for Obama just because he is black are doing the same thing. But I wouldn’t insult anyone by saying that is the only reason they might vote for Obama. After all, people who are progressive wouldn’t vote for Clarence Thomas and he is black.

  8. Thanks as always to everyone for the great comments. To liberality: I was responding to actual arguments I have heard made about maybe this being the only chance in a lifetime to elect a woman President. Gloria Steinem, for one, whom I respect, went to some length explaining why women have been more oppressed than blacks, and so forth. It is only this argument that I am criticizing.
    I mentioned race also in my piece, but the reason it wasn’t emphasized as much was that I haven’t encountered the argument from Obama’s race as much. It’s very likely that I just haven’t been reading in the right places, and that there are lots of black people saying that Obama’s race is a good reason to vote for him. The argument about women is the one I’ve heard over and over, though.
    My personal impression is that Clinton is very centrist establishment and will do what big business wants her to do. Obama’s rhetoric is more progressive, but I have no illusions that he’s not an establishment figure as well. However, I would have to vote for either one of them over McCain or any Republican candidate. It makes sense to me that Clinton would represent a general improvement on women’s issues, as well. To be honest, the current administration is so despicable that just about any Democrat with even a trace of a mind or a conscience would be an astronomical improvement, so my primary concern regarding the election is that the Republicans lose.
    You seem to have more faith in the good sense of the electorate than I do. I talk to people all the time who give me what I consider naive, simplistic and uninformed opinions on whom to vote for. That includes people voting for all three candidates. My impression is that there are a lot of folks who don’t know too much about what’s going on politically beyond a surface level, and they can be swayed by the most trivial things.
    In any case, I would never argue that someone voting for Clinton must automatically be voting for her because she has a vagina, as you say. I was countering a very specific argument that I have read or heard more than a few times.
    But I hope you’re right, and that voters are generally better informed than I tend to give them credit for.

  9. most people I know who don’t care about politics don’t bother to vote. I have heard, on NPR, that there are voters who are going to, or have, voted for Obama mainly because he is black. But that was on NPR so take it with a grain of salt. I know that come this November I will be voting for whoever is on the Democratic ticket. Our country won’t survive another neo-con in office.

  10. Libs: I tend to agree with you.

    I slightly favor Clinton on some issues material to me and I believe that you’re right with regard to women’s issues. I’m personally a little more “feminist” than she is in terms of pay-equity, abortion and contraception, child-care, the need to deal with correcting the social inequities at all levels of “the mommy track,” etc., but Clinton has addressed these issues at a deep level. Obama has not.

    The last three weeks have been a maelstrom, though, no? Forced for the first time to pick sides on issues, Obama has made all the choices I would have hoped for but never expected he would. Given a narrow path to victory, Clinton has neglected emphasizing the issues of importance to me and has adopted a posture I’ve never seen from her before. Once precise and prepared, she seems now to have chosen or to be committed to a careless and volatile frontal attack on ONE ISSUE.

    I do still believe she’d make a better president and I wish that given the time left and a need to attack — this is politics after all and they both want to win — that she’d go back to some of her stronger issues such as women’s rights and gay rights.

    I’ll probably write a post about all of this following PA but, for example, while all of this “commander-in-chief” jazz was going on, Obama has re-defined himself rather clearly as the “gay-rights” candidate, when clearly until three waeks ago he had no end of problems with that crucial segment of the Democratic electorate.

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