Obama surfs a wave of misogyny

Obama surfs a wave of misogyny
Feb 11, 2008
Like many Democrats at the beginning of the primary season, I felt the happy rush of having "so many wonderful choices." And, yet, as time has worn on, I have become more and more disillusioned with the process, and throughout this last week, I have felt my anger and bewilderment at Obamamania spiral to a depressing peak.

I was born in India, and moved to the US with my family at a young age. I have lived as a woman torn between two cultures. In many ways, my native culture is a generation behind American culture in all things related to women and feminism. I have always related better to the American feminists of my mother's age than to the feminists of my own age. I know the sexism of the work place and the social scene that many young women face today, but I also know a deeper, life-threatening, soul-searing sexism that I think most American women of my generation have never experienced. They express their gratitude and then expect the older women to stop complaining and "get over it already." The struggle that feels like ancient history for many of my peers is not yet history for most women alive in the world today.

First of all, there is obviously a double standard applied to Senators Clinton and Obama. If Senator Obama faced the same constant tirade of racially motivated attacks we'd never hear the end of it, but somehow it's okay to heap hatred and sexist epithets on Senator Clinton - on a woman. Of course Senator Obama can run a squeaky clean campaign - everyone else slings the mud for him! By staying quiet and reaping the benefits of misogyny, he is exploiting sexism while still appearing innocent.

One of my good friends started a conversation off last week by telling me that not only does she support Senator Obama, but she hates Senator Clinton and she would never vote for her. When I asked why, she said essentially, "she is too ambitious, she comes off as 'smarter than everyone else,' and Bill [Clinton] destroyed Gore's chances in 2000." Not a single one of those answers is a substantive, rational reason to not vote for Senator Clinton. I'm proud that Senator Clinton has joined a very small handful of women who have steeled themselves for decades to brave this vicious political landscape. When I have a daughter, I would be proud if she decided at twenty years old that she wanted to be President and then worked for it her entire life. Doesn't every mother secretly suspect that her newborn son could be the president someday? Why then the double standard for a woman with that same ambition? Isn't Obama even more ambitious, who, at the age of 45 and with just two years of Senate experience, decided that he was more prepared than anyone else to become President of the United States? He moved to Illinois because Illinois is one of the few states that has historically elevated African American politicians beyond the local level - isn't that naked ambition (and all the more power to him, but let's call a spade, a spade, please)? Obama's polished speeches and impeccable vocabulary (which, by the way, I admire) not only sound intelligent but occasionally elitist. And aren't we beyond the point where we blame women for their husband's infidelity? There can't be many women who still believe it's fair to lose a job that she's otherwise qualified for because her husband cheated on her. It's a lose-lose situation for Senator Clinton. If she stays with him, half the people hate her; if she leaves him, the other half hate her. And who the hell are we to judge? Our viciousness and our accusations sound eerily like metaphorical equivalents of the stones cast at women under the Taliban regime - after all, they deserve to die for crimes committed against them by men, right?

If you say, as many do, that you support Senator Obama because you don't agree with Senator Clinton's vote on the authorization to go to war or her mandatory health insurance plan, then I say, "okay, I respect that." If you say that you are impressed by his tenure as President of the Harvard Law Review and his work as a community organizer, a Constitutional Law lecturer, and a state legislator in Illinois, then I say, "okay, I respect that." If you say that you support Senator Obama because you read one or both of his books and were impressed by the depth of his analysis and clarity of thought, I say, "okay, I respect that." If you believe that Senator Clinton might be too beholden to special interests, I respect that, but I also believe you need to take a long, hard look at Senator Obama, whose list of political obligations grows as big donors come out of the woodwork with every electoral success.

I also fully respect the deep, visceral longing that many voters feel when they think about having an African American (or bi-racial) family in the White House. What an amazing symbol of hope he could be for young black men, the most disenfranchised members of our society. What a powerful sign that our country is finally learning and growing beyond its past prejudices and into a post-racial era (of course, the exit poll breakdowns are an immediate reality check; identity politics are as "in" as ever). It's the same yearning I feel as a woman when I think of President Hillary Clinton, and it's the same hope I want for my future daughter. But I also support Senator Clinton because she's brilliant, hard-working, experienced (and, no, I don't think the past is something to run away from - see below), specific, thorough, and, yes, inspirational. I agree with her that mandates are the only route to truly universal (and affordable) health care, and I believe that she is more knowledgeable and better prepared to deal with both our economic and foreign policy challenges. I forgive her for her vote to authorize the war, knowing the pressure she was under both as the country's most prominent woman needing to prove her street cred (let's face it, she would have been lambasted either way) and as the freshmen senator from the state that suffered the greatest casualties on 9/11, the state that continues to be one of the prime targets for terrorism in this country. I don't always agree with her on everything, but I do believe she is the most qualified person to lead this nation forward.

But when I hear interviews with groups of college voters who can't articulate a single specific reason for their support of Senator Obama; when I can find very little of substance in the same stump speech he delivers everywhere; when I hear people calling Senator Clinton a warmonger or a conservative sell-out even though she and Senator Obama have very similar Senate voting records; when I know that it is indeed a 26-year old speechwriter (according to a glowing feature in the New York Times) masterminding those luminous speeches (everyone has to have speechwriters, of course, but if that's what he's MOST widely known for, then it begins to feel like the guy behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz); I have to wonder what in the world is going on in this country? I wish his speeches had more meat. I wish he would more consistently show us the nuanced, sharp-as-tack insight I came to love in his books. I want to believe he's got substance, and I want him to demonstrate it, to apply it more directly and consistently during this campaign. I don't want to feel like I have to join the group-think brigade and simply have "faith" that he'll be a good President because I read somewhere that he's capable.

I, too, worked as a community organizer and was trained in the same school of urban organizing that Senator Obama was (Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation; Alinsky was also one of Senator Clinton's early influences), and that is precisely why his calls for unity strike me as disingenuous. What I learned from my years in organizing is that the more privileged you are, the less tolerance you have for conflict. Conflict is uncomfortable; it's threatening; it's not polite. The refrain we most often hear from well-to-do liberals is "why can't we all just get along?" I'll tell you why: people who have experienced oppression directly are ANGRY. Not go-out-and-shoot-people-at-the-mall angry. It's a slow-burning anger that says, "I don't care if you're uncomfortable with my demands, with the pitch of my voice, with the intensity of my commitment." Fundamentally changing the balance of power is hard (or we would already have a just society!), and no one, not even we well intentioned, well-to-do liberals, can afford to pretend that it won't require a fight (with our own souls, in fact, not to mention with those whose reach extends to the very roots of power in this country). By its very nature, change at a fundamental level is going to mean that the Haves have to give up some of their privilege, and they won't be doing it willingly. That doesn't mean coalitions aren't important; on the contrary, they're critical to success. But it does mean that conflict and discomfort are unavoidable - unity for the sake of unity is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst, especially in a nation fundamentally organized around tensions, around a "balance of power." We were meant to argue, disagree, take different perspectives, negotiate, and, by doing so, moderate each other's views. I take exception to Senator Obama's campaign because I believe that he's co-opted the tools of broad-based organizing and is manipulating them to promote a political process that is more appealing to privileged elites, and by doing that, I think he is indeed offering false hopes that will ultimately undermine the social justice movement. To the extent that this narrative is about race, it's also very much about class.

We see this in the very fact that he's won 9 out of 10 of the caucus states (and arguably, he won Nevada, too. In Nevada, Senator Clinton, despite her campaign's fears, did relatively better than in other caucuses, I think, because working-class employees were allowed to caucus at work). After working as a community organizer for over five years, I can guarantee you that the vast majority of people who can and will show up for a 2-3 hour political process are college students and the upper middle class. This is Senator Obama's prime demographic (especially in the caucus states, where there have been relatively low African American populations). Senator Clinton's main demographic, low-income and blue-collar voters, simply do not have the time and luxury to participate in such a process. For example, without transportation, childcare, and meals, many low-income voters would not even be able to attend. And even with those resources, caucusing can be very intimidating. Many people have very little experience with the type of overt, political discourse a caucus requires, and without preparation, support and relationship-building, they are likely to remain silent and invisible. I'm not implying that we need to change the process NOW, just for Senator Clinton, but I do believe that we owe it to all voters to create a process that is indeed more equitable and democratic. We also have to keep this bias in mind when we analyze Senator Obama's victories in those states. No doubt he has a phenomenal political machine in place, but he's also got privilege working to his advantage.

Anyway, in the end, it isn't going to matter how poetically Senator Obama calls for unity. It isn't up to him. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, and his dance partners aren't going to willingly sway to his tune. The Clintons know this first-hand after twenty years of partisan attacks. We often forget that despite everything the Kenneth Starr Republicans tried to pin on Senator Clinton, she was found INNOCENT of all charges. Senator Clinton didn't lead our country down a path of bloody fueds during the 90s. The Republicans did. Even one of our very first attempts at Universal Health Care, however flawed, has been tainted as somehow immoral and deceptive. By spewing such hatred toward her now, we are punishing Senator Clinton for being attacked in the first place, and we are letting the Republicans manipulate our worldview.

Finally, I am distressed by the way that Senator Obama's campaign has capitalized on our culture's obsession with youth and all things young. He is essentially calling upon us to discard the past and to throw Senator Clinton away with it. But as the first woman president, she would not be the past. She embodies the future. Though I am not much older than Senator Obama's college voters, I have to admit a certain impatience with the arrogance they display. You have to be somewhat privileged to be attending college nowadays, and for them to assume that they alone know what's right for the rest of the country (the world!) is naive at best and narcissistic at worst. Perhaps because I come from a culture that respects its elders far more than this one does, I find many of his supporters to be self-indulgent and overly righteous. The contrast was made stunningly clear in an interview on Larry King Live of young surrogates from both Senators Clinton and Obama's campaigns. Senator Obama's young celebrity representatives were not able to provide any specific answers or concrete policy proposals when asked pressing questions about the future; on the other hand, Senator Clinton's representative, America Ferrera, was amazingly articulate and knowledgeable. And, again, this doesn't apply to everyone, but the media does tend to focus on Senator Obama's screaming mobs more than the thoughtful, well informed students. I suspect, in this and other ways, the media has done a disservice to all of us.

I am fully willing to acknowledge that there are many intelligent, thoughtful Obama supporters out there (like my fiance) who have weighed their decision very carefully, and I respect you and I am thrilled by the energy of democracy in action. Senator Clinton is certainly not perfect, either, and I think this dialogue could be fabulous and enlivening. However, you must understand that what we see in the media are the Obama "rock concerts," with thousands of swooning young people in the throes of their Obamagasms. We see Senator Clinton's breathtaking grasp of policy and detail, and her thoughtful, specific speeches, and, in contrast, his airy rhetorical flourishes and his slightly bumbling debate responses. We see videos like Obama Girl's (which I find tasteless for the way it reinforces both our hypersexualization of young women and black men) that emphasize Senator Obama's youthful attractiveness, and, in contrast, have to put up with constant, offensive Hillary-hating rants and critiques of her clothing, thighs and ankles. We've heard Senator Clinton apologize for the insensitive comments made by her surrogates (at least a few of them); we've never heard Senator Obama apologize for the avalanche of sexism dumped on Senator Clinton by the voters in his camp. We've never even heard him call them out on it, not even when a pundit recently accused Senator Clinton of "pimping out her daughter in some weird sort of way" because Ms. Clinton was willingly campaigning for her own mother. You have to understand that it begins to feel that, if Senator Obama wins this nomination, his political machine will have done so largely through charisma and by exploiting a tidal wave of youthful narcissism, privilege, and, most of all, misogyny.

I think Senator Obama needs to carefully rethink his arrogance when he claimed, "I am confident I will get her votes if I'm the nominee. It's not clear she would get the votes I got if she were the nominee." Not only is his confidence dangerously presumptuous, but by promoting his own electability based on irrational Hillary-hating, he's legitimizing both the misogyny and the political blackmail that his supporters are threatening us with: either pick our guy or we sink the whole ship. By doing so, he's polarizing the party and alienating the rest of us. If his and Senator Clinton's policy positions and Senate voting records were considerably different, I'd understand why each group of supporters would be reluctant to crossover in the general election; but since they are virtually identical, it appears that he is more interested in promoting himself than in insuring the success of the Democratic party and the much needed reforms that this country needs.

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