14 January 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner!

What a strange trip this year promises to be. I’m not sure which is more hallucinogenic, the fact that as of this writing there is an actual race going on between the candidates for the Democratic nomination, or that the acceleration of the noise and smoke around the primaries signals, finally, a possible end to our long national nightmare induced by our velvet coup d’état of 2000 and oddly affirmed by the disastrous vote of 2004. It has been a long, strange trip, and the concept of the trip seems key to making it through this year with any semblance of sanity. Just let go and surrender to the surreal, slipping downwards into distortion, wild colors, and bad object-subject choices.

After the Iowa caucuses and the surprise upset in New Hampshire, even a political mole like me has awoken to the kerkuffle, the loud debates over lukewarm apple pie, the passion of a gazillion hotheads. Don’t get me wrong: I vote, I’m a decent citizen, I wear the dorky sticker afterwards, but ever since night has fallen on our society, I have been, frankly, numb. Up until very recently, I knew that whomever won the primaries and gave whatever ridiculous speech at the podium in Denver in August would get my vote, but I really didn’t care very much as to who it was, in particular. An “Anyone but…” sort of position, I suppose. And I am still not terribly engaged on a partisan level. What has drawn my attention lately is the increasingly antagonistic tone between the two leading Democratic candidates, arranged tellingly around race and gender.

Of course, as a professor that specialises in these fields in my teaching and research, I have my opinions, although I have yet to be asked them by anyone, surprisingly, much less invited to pontificate on television. But it does not surprise me that as we slide towards Super Tuesday, and for all intents and purposes the deciding factor in the nomination, the tone has gotten a lot less civil. Although I’m sure dedicated political watchers would be able to trace out a more complex genealogy of campaign slights, missteps, and gaffes, for me the first sign of trouble, the darkening of the sky, the warbling of the siren, was Gloria Steinem’s ham fisted attempt at subtlety of argument in the New York Times last week sometime.

Now, firstly, this is where we are in the United States in 2008: politically exhausted, economically in crisis, and hopelessly divided on any number of issues, with two peculiar, viable, and historically significant candidates vying for the office of the President of the Republic. So, the greater point for me is that this is, ultimately, a win-win situation, even if the Democratic candidate loses the election. The United States has finally moved to a place where a white woman and a black man can be considered, however tendentiously, for the putative highest office of the land. But race and gender cling to their auras like a bad suit. Steinem’s intervention attempted to negotiate this tricky pathway between Scylla and Charybdis, with piss poor results.

Coming from the “I’m not trying to rank oppressions” school of second wave good intentions (and we know where that all ended), Steinem then proceeds to rank, including the myopic use of that old red herring that black men were awarded the vote 40 years before women (not to mention strange unqualified assertions of black male power). Gender beats race in her equation. We don’t live that way, however, unless we have a rather uncritical view of ourselves in time and space. We are all raced and gendered, as well as sexualised, in ways that work together and simultaneously, not to mention the economic dimensions of money power in an unequal and brutalist society devoted to the unmitigated worship of Mammon.

Look, these things are hard to talk about, much less parse. I understand that. But frankly, I was surprised that Steinem didn’t so much, and her attempt to examine the delicacies of race and gender in a patriarchal white supremacist society were about as subtle as Joan Crawford trimming her rose garden ("Tina! Bring me the AX!"). As I argued over at Bitch PhD, in a brief comment, it might have been more prudent, not to mention strategic, to examine how the two leading Democratic candidates are being interpellated into race/racist and gender/sexist paradigms by a mediagenic socio-cultural political system that is both bankrupt yet surprisingly resilient in its devotion to the Other machine.

And no matter which way you cut it, Hillary and Barack are coming out of the Other machine, albeit with different degrees of insider statuses, but still. The cynic in me would want to say that, aside from Hillary this and Barack that, the choices are still circumscribed within models of Otherness and devotional assimilation that are insipid, in the race to appeal to demographic lowest common denominators and focus groups. But maybe that speaks to my own exhaustion.

Of course, ridiculous paradigmatic expressions are equal opportunity gaffes. The latest, about Hillary’s reported commentary on Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Junior, and the struggle for Black Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s, reveals its own strange elements of lock-step historical misapprehension. Since the last redoubt of mild-mannered white supremacy is now located seemingly in the figure of Saint Martin, it should come as no surprise that an opine on the complicated record of the end of formal white supremacy in our society in a difficult time should engender such a cheap opportunity for political potshots, not to mention soft answers to difficult questions. It's hard for us to look in the mirror.

There is a real opportunity here for the explosive discursive forces of race and gender to erupt within the candidacies of the two contenders who most evidently represent these difficult and painful historical and social conditions, throwing the election to the latest white guy in a suit and bad tie, meek shellacked-haired wife at this side. What a bore! If Hillary and Barack can keep it together with no media-generated pseudo scandals and appropriate payment and/or obligatory “holiday” to a telephone-free island someplace for ex-lovers and hungry, meth-addicted call boys and girls, then we might be in for an interesting ride along the rim of the active volcano of the deepest, most secret places in our national psyche. Most likely, it won't be pretty.


Maggie said...

Oso, would you please just send this to the Clinton and Obama campaigns? Or better yet, to the candidates themsevles? Because I have been biting my nails about this very last scenario that you're painting here, and I'm frightened. Especially frightened if Huckabee ends up being the R nominee, because I think he's the only one who can mobilize the evange-crazies.

Gah. In many ways (and probably not just in regards to politics) numb is easier.

Lesboprof said...

What about the role of the media here? We can send your excellent essay (SOOO much better than Steinem's disaster) to the candidates, but the media seems to me to be a huge part of the problem. As soon as Barack was in the race, the question of whether he was "black enough" was erupting everywhere. The media was doing polls and asking all manner of black leaders about his blackness.

Similarly, the media was freaking out about what we would call the female president's spouse and whether the men in the debate could attack Hillary without seeming ungentlemanly. And the media focus (and Edwards' focus in one debate) seemed to spend a lot of time on Hillary's hair, makeup, and clothes.

I agree that we need to raise questions and challenge these deployments of racism and sexism and require the media to go further. Perhaps one of the best things that may come out of the simplistic approach is that more black and female (and a few black female) political reporters and commentators will find themselves outlets to speak about these issues. The best moment for me of news coverage of New Hampshire was when Chris Matthews noted to Keith Olbermann that they should have had more women to comment and reflect on the night. Or perhaps more people of color... It was sad and telling that he was surprised by the oversight, but maybe they will realize that there are some differences simply based on experiences that lend individuals different insights.

GayProf said...

Great essay. I have been interested in the ways that white feminists have recently found it (once again) useful to pretend that gender always trumps race. Steinem is just the latest example. Perhaps, though, it is not unrelated to the fact that all her books remain in print, but This Bridge Called My Back may only be secured through diligent searching.

Maggie said...

I don't think that many (2nd wave?) feminists ever got over the 14th & 15th amendments. Seriously. And I don't think some of them truly get -- Steinem included, or especially-- how deeply racism has been a part of white feminism's history, and part of its reason for its (limited) success.

adjunct whore said...

agree, and thank you for the entertaining trip along the current political landscape--

have you read lorrie moore's op-ed in the Times about last year's role model? she's quite pissy, but also quite funny and astute in parts. i'd love to hear your thoughts....

Cero said...

Ai ai I hope we don't end up with a Republican. It is interesting though that we do indeed appear to be ready to countenance a white woman or a Black man but not a woman of color as a "serious" candidate ... and that said white woman and Black man have to be pretty conservative, really, to be considered "serious." I'm for whoever doesn't support the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act (for example) ... and watch both Clinton and Obama either support or evade voting on such things.