Saturday, June 14, 2008

Clinton and Obama, Sexism and Racism

The topic is unavoidable, since so much ink and hard feelings are being spilled all over the blogosphere, in the mainstream media, and over family dinner tables. I think it's important that we try our best to get this one right, since the understandings we reach now could have a real impact on the outcome of this year's elections. Here are my thoughts, for what they're worth.

I think a big part of the problem we Democrats are having with one another arises from the fact that we have been conflating several very different questions and talking around all of them without fully realizing that we're doing so. Some of these questions, I think, are pretty easy to answer; others not so easy. Distinguishing them from one another may be a helpful first step. Here are the questions, as I see them.

1. Is there a lot of sexism in American society today?

Obviously yes. I won't bother with the proof--if any of my readers want to argue this one with me, we can do that at some future date. But I think the majority of Democrats, no matter which candidate(s) they supported this year, would agree on this one. (I'm sure there are some who would disagree. But I think we have to stipulate that any large group of people will include some who are ignorant or foolish. Let's not got sidetracked by focusing on them but instead stick with the mainstream for the purposes of this particular discussion.)

2. Was Hillary Clinton treated in a sexist fashion during the Democratic primary campaign?

Again, this is an obvious yes (despite the fact that many in the media are in denial). I think the main culprits were the news media, as well as some Republicans, conservative pundits, and others with an anti-Clinton axe to grind--abetted, unfortunately, by the same media. Like many other observers, I've been appalled by this for months (and wrote about it here, here, here, here, here . . . well, that's plenty of examples). Those who have been complaining about this--including both Clinton supporters and others--are completely right, and it's important that we work to make overt sexism as taboo in our society as overt racism (usually) is. (After that, we can tackle covert examples of both, which are plentiful.)

3. Did Clinton lose the nomination because of sexism?

Here we get to a hard question--one that I think is really impossible to answer, because there are so many imponderables. Obviously in a race this close, you can point to almost any single factor and decide that it was the crucial one. Sexism was certainly an obstacle that Clinton had to battle against. But one can also point to several other factors that arguably were at least as important in costing her the nomination: Obama's superior electoral game plan, especially in managing the caucuses; his ability to raise more funds than Clinton, especially from small donors; various gaffes and mis-steps committed by Bill Clinton; Obama's personal charisma and oratorical skill (which Clinton almost managed to match, though not till late in the process); and, perhaps most crucial, Clinton's vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, which created the initial opening for a challenge to her supposedly "inevitable" nomination.

If there had been no sexism in the media, it's possible that Clinton would have overcome all those things. On the other hand, at least some portion of Clinton's support derived from her appeal to women as a ground-breaking female candidate--just as some portion of Obama's support derived from his appeal to his fellow African-Americans. So if Clinton had been a man--or if we lived in a completely gender-blind society--the opposition to her candidacy would have been weaker, but so, I think, would some of its appeal. How would those things have balanced out? It's hard to say.

I don't think it's reasonable to assume that Clinton "obviously" would have won if sexism hadn't been a factor. Those Cwho contend that sexism is the only logical explanation for Obama's victory--that Clinton is (was) the overwhelmingly qualified, unquestionably most attractive candidate in the Democratic field--are going a bit far. Her resume is good, and her policy stances (with the big exception of Iraq) are mostly very strong. But her governmental experience--one and a half terms in the US Senate--is actually on the modest side, and her years as First Lady aren't really as strong a credential as she sometimes has claimed. (And after all her biggest policy initiative in the Clinton White House--health care--was a failure.)

I think her credentials, on paper, are comparable to those of John Edwards, who I also found a very attractive candidate but who I would never claim to have been overwhemingly qualified. There were perfectly sound arguments to be made for several other Democratic candidates, including not only Edwards and Obama but also Richardson and Dodd, and I don't think we can assume that sexism is the only possible reason that someone might have favored someone other than Clinton.

4. Did Obama or his campaign contribute to the sexist assault on Hillary?

Here is the toughest question of all. As a man, I wouldn't presume to tell any woman how she should feel about it. If you as a woman feel that Obama has treated you with disrespect, then I have to take you at your word (and try to learn from your reaction, since as a man I constantly have to work on outgrowing my own latent sexism).

But I have to say that, while I observed lots of sexism directed at Hillary during the primary campaign, I really didn't see any coming from Obama or even from his surrogates. And the examples of offensive behavior I've seen raised by enraged Hillary supporters seem puzzling and, in some cases, based on factual errors.

"You're likeable enough." This remark by Obama during debate in January infuriated many people. (And as this New York Times article suggests, it helped to galvanize the support of some women for Clinton--an example of how sexism was a double-edged sword in this campaign, working against Clinton, of course, but also in her favor to some extent.)

It was certainly a silly and awkward comment by Obama. But why "sexist"? It didn't refer to any physical, psychological, or emotional characteristic supposedly linked to women. If anything, it was just the kind of ill-conceived off-the-cuff comment people make during a grueling series of public events. (I think Clinton's later remark that many people took as implying that "hard-working Americans" are equivalent to "white Americans" was another example--not a "dog whistle" designed to appeal to racists.)

"Sweetie." Obama used this word when asking a female reporter to wait a moment before asking her question (he was speaking with someone else at the time). I wouldn't use this word (and I'm sure Obama won't any more, either), but I think the furor over it just reflects a cultural gap between different styles of talking. I've certainly been called "Sweetie," "Honey," "Darling," etc. by some women (and I understand there's a difference between a woman saying something to a man and vice-versa). I see why many people would consider this language tacky and over-forward. But I also know that 99 percent of the people who talk this way are not trying to be arrogant or condescending, just friendly.

In any case, if "likeable enough" and "sweetie" are examples of the worst things Obama has said to or about women during this campaign--and these are certainly the examples I've seen most frequently cited--does he really qualify as a hard-core sexist? Is this the kind of person we want to declare an "enemy of women"? I think that's a pretty harsh standard. Especially considering that Obama's stands on issues of importance to women are generally conceded to be excellent ones and that he earned (for example) 100 percent ratings from NARAL for his pro-choice votes every year in the Senate.

And what about things supposedly said by Obama supporters?

"Iron my shirt!" This was the offensive "joke" screamed at Clinton during a rally in New Hampshire. I've heard this remark attributed to "Obama supporters," and it certainly got a lot of publicity during the months that followed. But the stunt was actually the work of two employees of a Boston radio station known for its "shock jock" antics. (They'd done similar stunts at other feminist events.) No one connected with Obama had anything to do with it.

In a similar way, one of the online commenters on the recent Nick Kristof column suggesting that Obama give a speech about gender writes:

Father Pfleger's rant against Clinton was as shocking a display of woman-hatred as you could see within an institution (a church of all places). Pfleger was Obama's spiritual guide for nearly 20 years!
This commenter is evidently confusing Father Pfleger with Rev. Wright. Obama knows Pfleger only slightly (he was never "Obama's spiritual guide"), the priest was merely a guest preacher at Trinity Church, and Obama broke all ties to the church right after Pfleger's appearance. Yet this commenter feels that Father Pfleger speaks for Barack Obama. I don't see why.

There were sexist remarks made by anonymous Obama supporters in various venues, such as blog comment threads. But I wouldn't consider it fair to hold Obama responsible for these, just as I wouldn't hold Clinton responsible for the racially-charged remarks about Obama that some of her supporters made. I haven't seen any sexist language attributed to official Obama spokespeople, staffers, or surrogates.

I recognize and respect the anger many people, especially women, feel about the sexism with which Hillary Clinton has been treated. But it seems that at least some of the linkage people are seeing between sexism and the Obama campaign is based on assumptions that aren't true.

I would point out that Obama did in fact devote time in practically every debate and in many speeches to praising Clinton extravagantly, and repeatedly said she was well qualified to be a fine president (something Clinton pointedly did not say about Obama--remember
the "commander-in-chief threshold" argument?) All in all, it's very hard for me to see any pattern of disrespect shown by Obama toward Hillary during the campaign.

5. Should Obama have denounced the sexism?

"Well," some Clinton supporters might say, "Obama may not have said anything that was overtly sexist himself. And he can't be held personally responsible for the sexist things Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson, Keith Olbermann, and others in the media said. But he should have spoken out against the sexism and refused to accept support based on sexism."

I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing Obama go out of his way to make a speech denouncing sexism--and I suspect the vast majority of his supporters would feel the same. But let's get real. Obama and Clinton were competing for the nomination. They were battling one another, criticizing one another, attacking one another. Is it realistic to expect one of the candidates to leap to the defense of the other in the middle of the campaign?

Did Clinton leap to the defense of Obama against the various slurs he suffered--the "madrassa" insinuations, the scurrilous emails, the "elitist" and "Muslim" attacks, the month-long pile-on regarding Reverend Wright? No--if anything, she encouraged some of them. And that's normal political behavior.

Notice, I am not accusing Clinton of being "racist" for abetting some of the unfair attacks against her opponent. It wasn't her job, in the heat of a campaign, to defend her opponent. And I would suggest it wasn't Obama's job to defend her, either.

And what if he had? What if Obama had given a speech decrying sexism and talking about the problems of gender bias in America in the midst of the primary campaign? Would this have delighted all of Clinton's supporters, and all the women (and men) who oppose sexism? Or would a sizeable fraction of them have said, "How dare he presume to lecture us on sexism! What makes him assume that a man has to step up to defend Hillary Clinton--as if she can't defend herself?! How arrogant and condescending!" etc.? I think many would.

If you think this is pure fantasy on my part, look again at the comments Kristof received after suggesting Obama make just such a speech. Many of the women say it would be a terrible idea for just these reasons.

For all these reasons, I think it's somewhat unrealistic and unfair to criticize Obama for not speaking out against the sexism directed at Hillary.

6. Which is worse in our society--racism or sexism?

As for this question--which has been injected into the conversation by people such as Gloria Steinem--I think it's basically meaningless and pointless. Obviously the answer depends on exactly how you define the terms, which sectors of society you choose to focus on, what forms of deprivation, oppression, or abuse you choose to consider most egregious, whether you choose to emphasize "breadth" or "depth" of impact, etc. etc.

It's hard to see what useful purpose any such parsing could serve. Are we supposed to be choosing which form of prejudice we will fight and which one we will accept? Clearly both are unacceptable and both must be fought. Are we supposed to decide whether to vote for Clinton or Obama based on which oppressed group "deserves" it more? That would be a silly basis on which to choose a president.

The only possible result of engaging the question of "which is worse" would be to drive a wedge between advocates of women's rights and advocates of racial justice. And who do you think would benefit from that?

If you believe, as I do, that sexism is a terrible problem and that too many people have their heads in the sand about it, then speak out. But let's not pit sexism against racism as if there's a zero-sum contest going on, with only so much freedom, equality, and dignity to be parceled out. And if you are tempted to think of Barack Obama as "part of the problem" for women in our society, and therefore to treat him in ways that will improve John McCain's chances of winning the White House, I would respectfully ask you to reconsider.

We win when we support one another.

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