politics is to want something

fredag, mars 14, 2008

Jeremiah and Geraldine

Barack Obama is a black man. Hillary Clinton is a white woman. I'm sorry to break this news, but it's true. Ask them.
In recent weeks, two figures affiliated with the rivals have engendered passionate denunciations for essentially stating the above uncontested truths. True, some of what has come out of Geraldine Ferraro's mouth has been appallingly insensitive to the realities of racism in the United States, and Pastor Jeremiah Wright's now infamous sermon about Obama and Clinton made it seem as if gender simply didn't exist. However, the controversial kernels of both of their controversial statements are unimpeachable.

First, let's take Ferraro's bitter complaints on behalf of Senator Clinton. There is a truckload of sexism at the core of the current election season, and no serious proponent of Obama's campaign could or should deny that his racial identity is crucial to his appeal, his experience, his soul and, yes, his success. I mean, come on. Duh. What's galling and blinkered about Ferraro's statements is that she implies that this is a bad thing, and that, somehow, Clinton's race and gender aren't also shaping her life in important ways. Clinton, in Ferraro's assessment, is primarily a victim of sexism, and isn't also a beneficiary of racial privilege. One strikingly honest thing that Ferraro did say, about herself and about Clinton, is that their gender played a huge role in their advancement to the top (or possible top) of the Democratic ticket. Clumsily, and with a blindness toward race that is sadly typical, Ferraro has said what a lot of people won't say. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and that accounts both for a measure of her success, but also for the particular and vicious attacks on her personal worth and character that have plagued her since she entered the race.

In many respects, Pastor Wright has done the same thing. Speaking in the language of black Christianity, Wright has worked to remind black congregants, and black voters in general of the simple truth that Barack Obama is also black, and that he has shared many of the experiences of other black people in America. The fact that this simple reminder has shocked and awed so many white pundits (and, anecdotally, potential voters) is distressing but predictable. Just as Clinton has had to be very careful in walking a line between being "too" or "insufficiently" feminine, Obama's got the same problem with his blackness. Wright's comments are a reminder that just because there is a mainstream black candidate for president does not mean that black people have forgotten about the realities of racism in the United States.

Of course, a lot of what Wright has said in his sermons sounds extreme to many Americans. "God Damn America" is not something I'd want ringing around my campaign. No doubt, it's a PR problem for Obama, and is part and parcel of the fact that as a liberal politician in Chicago, he's rubbed shoulders with parts of the left that have been effectively shuttered out of the mainstream. We can all look forward to more of such attacks based on Obama's "associations", something that Clinton doesn't have to worry about because she didn't have to move up from the grassroots of big city politics. Incidentally, there's nothing about Wright's sermons that is any more "radical" than what comes out of the Evangelical movement churches that Republican candidates frequent, but Obama's not going to be able to fix the ideological and discursive double standard in national American politics in the course of one campaign.

I don't envy either Obama or Clinton for having to walk these treacherous lines. At the same time, I'm pretty fed up with watching both of their campaigns pounce whenever there appears to be the potential of point-scoring.

We live today in the shadow of the reductive and destructive “debate” over “political correctness” that emerged in the 1990’s. That framework helped to reduce the realities of racialized and gendered inequalities to sparring over word choices and speech. The problem of racism, sexism or homophobia became one of hurtful, offensive statements, as the popular imagination merged concepts of bigotry and plain old rudeness together into a useless mishmash. In the end, simply mentioning the existence of race or gender, or class or sexuality as real factors in the real world experience of real people becomes a lightning rod. We can't talk about any of it in a serious way because the only way that people know how to talk about oppression is by denouncing someone's speech.

This is not to say that discourse isn’t important, or that words do not have power. However, actions by both the right and left during the “culture wars” over political correctness helped create an environment in which the stupid rantings of a comedian on stage was nearly as big a story as the horrific crimes of New Orleans.

Perhaps it is utopian folly to wish that mainstream public discourse around race, gender and class would be anything other than superficial in the United States. But in this election season, faced as we are with the most sociologically complicated set of choices imaginable, the superficiality of our discussion is as stark as it is dangerous. The campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing themselves, their party and their natural constituencies no favors by choosing to score points amid the maelstrom instead of concentrating on issue differences and together denouncing racism and sexism.

The Republicans are taking notes.

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Blogger lidija said...

So very well said. I agree with your sentiment 100% and I think many a good interested voter is being worn out by some of this shallow stuff. I too am very scared we're writing the playbook for the GOP.

lørdag, mars 15, 2008 6:02:00 p.m.

Blogger fredrik said...

It would be interesting to know in what degree the voters care about these things.

I watched "60 minutes" a few days ago (the show probably aired in the US a couple of weeks ago) about the then coming primaries in Arkansas. And they talked to a few Democratic voters that had been hit quite hard by the deindustialization (is that a word?) in the state.

And one of the voters leaned towards Obama even if he was slightly worried about the (false) rumours that Obama was a closet muslim. If we put aside the horrible notion that being a muslim means that you're some sort of fifth column (something that reeks of the same kinds of sentiments as 1930s antisemitism in Europe). He still thought that Obama was the better candidate.

So are these kinds of questions just something that the pundits discuss, or is it something that really matter among the public?

mandag, mars 17, 2008 5:10:00 a.m.

Blogger fredrik said...

I mean Ohio. Not Arkansas.

mandag, mars 17, 2008 6:01:00 a.m.

Blogger Bob said...

I think it would be naive to think that voters in this country don't care about race/gender/religion. This is the same country that elected Bush in 2004 on the strength of his "folksy personality," not to mention scaring people who thought gay people were going to steal their kids.

I'm with you on this Daraka. This is a good opportunity to talk about race and gender in this country. Sure there will be some stupid talk mixed in, but at the same time, let's hope that this really gets some people to search their minds and souls as to why we are basically the last country on earth to have a woman run for the highest office or why Barak's blackness actually does matter.

tirsdag, mars 18, 2008 9:22:00 a.m.

Blogger hillary b said...

i find it interesting that the really nasty stuff hadn't fully bloomed until about a month ago. Conventional wisdom was that the whole election would be over on Feb 5. I guess it would have just ended without knowing what the campaigns were capable of when it comes to the nastiness.

And to be clear, I don't think the discussion of race and gender is nasty or unimportant, but in the frames it is discussed at this point, we're getting no where.

Now that we finally got the black candidate to talk about race in a real way, who's ready to talk about class now that Edwards is gone?

onsdag, mars 19, 2008 10:23:00 a.m.


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