Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Battle Between Race and Gender (Again, But Different)

I'm getting tired of hearing pundits and Republicans complain that Obama should have been dominating and winning this election in a landslide and that somehow the fact that polls have been tight for months, states that he can't "seal the deal."

A more mature look at the electoral landscape of the US, and the tendencies that we can find in terms of race, gender, class, political ideology, all of these factors make clear that we should actually be shocked beyond belief that Obama is close at all. That if anything he should losing this election horribly, because of America's unwillingness to deal with issues of race and racism, and the extra criticism it forces upon those from marginalized groups when they emerge into the "mainstream."

If we actually take into account much of what the media and the American people refuse to accept, we see a country which will elect the worst possible, least qualified and most intellectually crude "white people." I have to say white people now, since Palin is in the race. But will not allow the same "freedom" to a black man. Despite all the ridiculous questions about whether Obama is "black enough" the political answer that we have received this year is that he can only be elected by America if he is not black enough, not black at all.

It is the same old story about the universal and the particular. Whichever particular identity is deemed to be universal in a given context, it can stand in and govern all others without been assumed to have bias or prejudice towards its particularity. In other words, white men have traditionally been the universal in American politics, and regardless of how terrible they might govern, there are never any questions of whether or not we could ever trust a white male to lead again. The life of the particular is not as easy, and as we have seen over the past two years of political campaigning, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were put through incredible never ending political gauntlets to test whether their particularities, their gender, their race, would be able to become universal, would not lead them to sacrifice the whole, the greater good, the universal care of society, for their narrow prejudiced interests. As Jon Stewart said to Larry King several months ago, the nation seems anxious over fears that if Barack Obama is elected he'll let the black people do whatever they want, and if Hillary is elected men won't be allowed to drive!

Obama received some help in his campaign, because although the media and the Democratic party may have advertised the primary as a battle between two awesome types of awesome, it was ultimately a referendum on which history of oppression is America less interested in dealing with. And the answer was that it was much less willing to deal with sexism in America, than it was with race.

As I wrote a few days ago, the election might now appear to be about gender again, but this is not at all the case. We are in much trickier territory now, in terms of explaining the dynamics. I hadn't intended this post to be very long this morning, so I'll try to explain this in as succinct a way as I can (yanggen un tungo' yu', siempre esta un tungo' na mappot este para Guahu).

With the selection of Sarah Palin, the Republicans have given America the same choice between race and gender, and which they will allow the dominate how political ideas are shaped for the next two months. Which will shape more on the surface as something which people claim they are dealing with, supporting, pushing for, and which will shape possibly far more by being suppressed, displaced, dismissed and rejected?

Palin's pick has meant resurgent of alot of "feminist talk" often times from the most ridiculous choices, Republican media and political hacks, who sound like they've just gotten their talking points from The Sexual Contract for Dummies. But this feminist talk is diluted first by the ramifications of McCain picking a white women for his ticket, thereby making a tokenist gesture towards change, while still "maintaining" the white core of America and the Republican party. The race is still about race, and how much "race" people can handle. If Americans aren't ready to relinquish the whiteness of their nation, then Obama will lose, and they will pretend that they've moved their country forward with the selection of Palin. A fake form of progress, since as I wrote last week, she could never have been elected through the primary, so the idea that America can take credit for her elevation is as stupid as when Republicans argue that they are the party for black people and minorities since Bush picked Condi Rice and Colin Powell for his cabinet.
In other words, no actual progress is being made here. What Palin instead does is revive a very old story in American history, that of the rescue narrative, in which white women would be "stolen" by black people or Native Americans and violent posses would need to be formed to retrieve them and thus protect the honor of their family and keep pure their bodies.

I've been shocked in recent weeks at how little Obama has actually talked about Sarah Palin. Watching his town hall meetings and his stump speeches, he is still talking about Bush-McCain, everything is remarkably the same. But you wouldn't know this from the media, which is either full of calls for him to start attacking Palin, or remarks that he is already attacking her too much, that he is going to far and he is being distracted by her. In addition to this, there is an almost ludicrous amount of discussion going on about how people (and him in particular) need to leave her alone, or stop picking on her, stop holding her to a higher standard, or stop getting distracted by her.

The several days traction that the "lipstick on a pig" scandal received are an indication that there is a clear willingness on behalf of most Americans and not just the media, to link Obama and Palin together, and not just in a combative way, but in a predator-victim dynamic. We heard some of this with regards to how careful Biden will have to be during the single VP debate, so as to not appear to be "mean" or overly harsh. But this warning is made for an actual interaction, must of the "angry noise" that we will hear about Palin, defending her, protecting her and counter-attacking Obama will be about simple association, will be taken from off-hand remarks, will be almost completely out of context. One could say that this is just politics, but depending on the level of indignation and anxiety it produces, it could very well be derived from the racial/ideological DNA that Americans get from their weaning on those racially charged rescue stories. Its important to remember that in the South a century ago, a black man could be lynched or assaulted for simply being in the same room as a white woman, or that many lynch mobs were formed just because of a errant "look" or casual point of contact. Over the next few weeks we will most likely see a similar thing take place, as the desire to protect and defend Sarah Palin, her whiteness and the purity that she represents, will lead to more angry discursive mobs being formed, and not just from "red meat Republicans," but from all facets of American life. While Obama might want to continually attack John McCain, America if it becomes caught up in this desire will not allow that to happen and will continually make this a race against Obama and Palin.
It will constantly be brought back to this point in order to experience those feelings of mastery, safety, sovereignty, purity, etc. This brings me to the next point. That although gender is in this race now, it has been brought into the debate in such a way that it is sealed within a horribly patronizing masculine drive. The constant defenses of Palin, the unwillingness to let her speak, let her campaign on her own, to hold her hand, and to overdefend her lack of qualifications, the inability to let her be vetted, to let her be criticized, all of these point to a sort of patronizing male defense of a mystical, pure, but untouchable female capability. All of the flurry of defensive tactics that the Republican party is taking in the past few weeks are point to Palin being some forbidden, secret treasure. It is incredible, it is determined, it is real, gritty, something that ex-urban moms will go crazy for, but alas, it is only powerful if you do not touch it!
This sort of patronizing behavior is one of the further things from feminism, because its all based on the unrealness of the woman. That she cannot "really" stand with the "boys." We may have all these talking points that say she does, but ultimately she cannot. So, again, we see America unwilling to deal with the gender issue, or determined to take yet another short cut in dealing with it. Gender is out there, its close to the level at which it could represent the sovereign spirit of the United States. But its position is such that should your or even my daughter (who will be 17 months tomorrow) were to try to become President, they might make it, but they would still be faced with this ugly, disgusting choice between being a pristine sort of empty ideological Barbie like Sarah Palin, or a gender neutral, never-whining, feminine bulldog like Hillary Clinton. Any idea that the glass ceiling has been broken, that the playing field is levelled is not indicated in anyway with the pick of Palin as VP or with the way she has been handled in the time since. Things will have changed, the field will be levelled, and the "ceiling" shattered when a female candidate, and not just a white one, can not only run for President, but can do so as a woman, and can speak to that position, and frankly, whine about it, and talk about sexism in society and not be dismissed as particular, as gender biased or limited in her scope by her gender.

Unless the glass bubble around Palin is shattered and she is treated like a "real candidate" then she may be the first Republican white female VP pick, and possibly the first white female VP ever, but nothing will actually have changed. If she is inaugurated in January of next year, the fresh smelling sweetness of the history that has just been made, will be completely overpowered by the reeking stench of the racism and sexism that got her there.

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