Thursday, April 17, 2008

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.


Anita said...

Wow, Dashiell, you hit it SPOT ON. Let me repeat. Absolutely SPOT ON.

The process by which race and gender as either a roadblock or a step up is being worked out in our society on many levels. There is an awful lot of work to be done before we can actually report back that there is, in fact, now a 'level playing field.' We are a long way from that goal, but we are closer to it than we were, say 10, 20 or 30 years ago. And that's a good thing.

I think what you say about (excuse me if I paraphrase here) the crisis that is America today and the skills and expertise we need to "vote into office" in order to solve these intractable problems should not be subject to affirmative action goals. We need the RIGHT PERSON. Not the person who makes us feel good about being a woman or makes us feel good about being black, hispanic, native american or or any other ethnic group. That should not be the reason why one casts his or her vote.

At the same time, I believe that this country absolutely must continue its commitment to achieving affirmative action goals in education, hiring by corporations and public contracting. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the system is often corrupt (truth in advertising: I have a small firm that is a "certified woman-owned business" --- a legitimate one) but those systemic problems can and should be fixed.

I'll stop here, but I just wanted to add that the "Founding Fathers" would probably be rolling over in their graves were they to know that all their hard work fighting to extricate themselves from the imperial government of England only to find that we now have something close to the Imperial Government of the United States

Chris Dashiell said...

Thanks, Anita. The real work means working and fighting for justice, equality and self-determination for women rather than just becoming part of the oppressive system.

Mauigirl said...

Very well said. I have a friend who used that exact argument about this being the one chance we have to see a woman president in our lifetime and I just don't buy it. For one thing, we don't know that. Some other woman could come from nowhere (just as many previous presidential candidates who were men did, including Bill Clinton) and take us by storm in another election year.

And anyway, to all of your points, voting for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman is just as bad as not voting for her because she is a woman.

In a way, her way of dealing with things in many ways is more like that of a man anyway; Obama is the consensus builder, the one who wants to build bridges. She is the one who wants to fight. So the very reasons I've often thought that a woman would be a good chief executive are not there in Hillary Clinton.