January 2008


It’s been a busy week here at the rift, between wedding anniversaries, endless administrative tasks, lingering head colds, contentious departmental discussions, and avalanches of papers to grade, and I’m not halfway through the pile yet. It’s been so busy that I almost forgot the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday. But I snapped to it in time to click “refresh” compulsively on my browser, its tabs set to nytimes.com, cnn.com, and dailykos.com respectively, until the results became clear…

…and they were just about exactly what we all were expecting. I was looking for some dramatic reversals. You know the type: Edwards steals the entire undecided vote and comes out on top. Clinton becomes black by association and takes the African American vote. Obama loses, but retains a majority among white women. Wine and cheese liberals (if they have those in the Carolinas; in my personal experience, they have more of the ‘headcheese conservative’ type) rally for Kucinich, provoking him to rescind his decision to drop out.

Instead, South Carolina proved something else entirely: that this election is about identity politics, and that it’s too much to expect that your average voter will resist the heady influence of race. Something like 81% of the African American vote went for Obama, and this was the first time in a while more Democrats than Republicans voted in South Carolina’s primary. It’s not really surprising. If you’re a member of a group that has been oppressed historically, that has been marginalized, victimized by law enforcement, educationally disadvantaged, socially isolated; if you’re part of a people still seen as likelier candidates for success in sports or entertainment than in the more dignified (ahem) role of Chief Executive, then it may not be reasonable, or even desirable, to expect that you won’t elect a candidate who appears to stand for your race and its potential. The presidency is a symbolic office as much as a real one. The president is seen by many as the face of America. How wonderful, how unexpected, if the face of America were black!

I’m on board with the last statement (see post on Shirley Chisholm). But I’m not sure about the symbolic nature of this office. It’s all over the news that the Kennedys have endorsed Obama, and Caroline Kennedy’s op-ed piece “A President Like My Father” is currently wildly popular. In it, Kennedy stumps for Obama and stumps hard, glossing over policy points and voting records, and focusing instead on the soft’n’fuzzy aspects of the race for nomination: Kennedy is “deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.” Aw. Caro. Let me get you a tissue. Kennedy is a patriot, she tells us, and her appeal is both personal and political. She has a dream, and its name is Barack Obama. Because only Obama “has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves,” and because, apparently, the presidency is not about heading up the executive branch of our government, but is about making everybody feel special. In Kennedy’s world, the symbolic nature of the office trumps policy any day, and image trumps action. It’s all so postmodern — I’d be applauding, except that I’m too busy gagging.

Because — and call me old-fashioned — I’m of a stripe that happens to believe that what the president does is more important than how he or she makes me feel about myself. I’m happy for Caroline Kennedy. It’s awesome that she thinks Obama is as charismatic as her pops. It’s great that she feels that, with Barack at our country’s helm, we’ll all be ‘inspired’ enough to “reach for what we know is possible.” But I want a president who’s going to do some reaching, too. I want a president who’s going to deal with all the other slime-coated politicos on Capitol Hill and come out on top. I want a president who doesn’t ‘have faith’ that if health insurance is available, people will buy it, but who understands that health care has to come along with citizenship, has to be mandated whether you want it or not, in order to be universal (seriously: how did “free market” health care become Obama’s “universal [sic] plan”?). I want a president who’s going to fix the damage inflicted by No Child Left Behind. I want a president who has more than ‘vision’ and ‘charisma;’ I want one who has a plan. And who understands its details as well as its vision. Most of all, I want a president who’s smart, who’s principled, and who’s not afraid to work hard — not just charming or alarming the public, like Bill or Barack, but behind the scenes.

So, Caroline Kennedy: this is for you. I’m glad that you feel inspired. It’s awesome that a person who spends more money on handbags than I make in a year is telling me that from her white, upper-class perspective, Obama is the best presidential candidate because he can make me believe in myself. I won’t even go into how incredibly patronizing that is to me and all the rest of the brown people of our country who not only want “change,” but flu shots and foreclosure relief. But you’re not convincing me. Because you’ve summed it up yourself when you say “I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it” (emphasis added).

And I want more than that. I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to show me he’s more than a blinding grin and a figurehead. I want a president who respects Americans enough to know that they have plenty of courage, and what they need is strong leadership. I want a president who’s going to do some achieving himself.

Or herself.

Our Barbary Coast book-dealing friend brought us Richard Wilbur‘s charming kids’ book A Pig in the Spigot (which, like much early Dr. Seuss, is really pretty sophisticated wordplay and designed to appeal more to adults), and as we were reading it this morning, we got to the devil page, in which the guy with the horns and the cape marauds through Mandeville, Louisiana. Since, as you know, I’m trying not to neglect Thing One’s Judeo-Christian cultural literacy, I made sure to point out to Thing One, “That guy is the devil!”

“He is!” said Thing One.

“He’s Christian,” I added.

“Yeah!” said Thing One.

Call me a pessimist, but I’m getting a little tired of what one of my colleagues might call “the election jiggery-pokery,” especially as I slog through the dozens of pages of South Carolina debate transcripts hoping to find a nugget of truth or a kernel of sincerity (I don’t watch the debates for three reasons: 1)at that hour, Thing One is still marauding around this house, and I’m asleep before the reruns, 2)I don’t have cable, and the TV is in a closet somewhere, which is why my children are not going to have ADD (insha’Allah), and 3)I can’t actually stand the strident tone of candidates’ voices when they’re going at each other like rabid pit bulls and/or whining for the favor of the camera. I need my politics “affect lite”; the neutrality of print helps me evaluate the choices based on what candidates actually say, rather than the fact that they probably want to drop-kick each other, especially HRC and BHO, and if I had had to watch John Edwards’s face while he was smarmily referring to himself as “the white male candidate,” I might have had to break out the Courvoisier — I was already wearing a rhinestone-encrusted pinky ring).

So I’m trying, this morning, in between grading papers and supplying my two-year-old with healthy, low-sugar snacks, to make sense of the debates so that I can confirm or dispute what I think I already know, but even I recognize this as a losing proposition, because as much as I and a bunch of other people deny how much election choices depend on identity politics and first impressions, that is exactly what they depend on. David Brooks makes that point in his op-ed, “How Voters Think.” This little tidbit pretty much sums it up: “In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.”

America, you are not objective. Those of us who prefer to think we are, are of course just engaging in higher-level self-deception and post-hoc grandiloquence, which is, I suppose, true for the candidates as well. And while I believe it happens that a candidate’s words can alienate the voters, I think it’s much less frequent that his or her words can win voters over for exactly that reason: we have already made up our minds. It remains for us only to be dissuaded.

That actually explains why Clinton spent much of the debate trashing Obama’s integrity and he and Edwards spent most of it tag-teaming Clinton, fangs out, when Obama wasn’t taking polite digs at Edwards and Edwards wasn’t trying to look morally superior to the other two. Because their constituencies are with them now, and they’re going to stick. The real question is: how many of the other guy’s people can they confuse or disillusion?

Or maybe the real-er question is: is John Edwards going to reprise his role playing second fiddle in the national election this year? Let me be the first to say that, if he is, I’m happier with either of the front runners than I was with Kerry, to whom I threw my vote for one reason only. And the media machine certainly seems to be trying to promote that idea: after Iowa, there were whispers of “Obama-Edwards 2008,” and this morning, the headline “Clinton, Edwards hold private post-debate meeting” appeared on the Cnn Political Ticker blog. The entry features a photo of Clinton and Edwards looking chummy and sincere.

Of course, the photo was not taken at the alleged “private” meeting, which several aides have described as “accidental” and “consisting of light chit-chat.” But who cares? We’re being groomed to think that Hillary and John are either colluding against Barack, or experiencing a meeting of minds that might usher them both into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Together. Which, again, would do little more than placate Edwards’s tiny share of the vote, and which is probably based on the fact that — thanks to massive friction between Bill and Barack — there’s no way Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are teaming up for anything but a Bush-trashing session.

I’ve been feverishly polling my friends and relations about who they’re going to vote for in the primaries, mostly because I can’t vote in the primaries and am thus desperate to live vicariously through them, and partly because I like arguing with whatever their choice is. It’s actually not been much fun on the devil’s advocate front, because most of the people I know are relatively privileged and relatively young and in stereotypical liberal careers, like teaching or urban planning or perpetual adolescence graduate school, and so they all wishy-washily tend to probably kind of like Obama, so I’m honing that argument but not getting a lot of practice knocking Clinton or Edwards (and my Kucinich-supporting friends have either given up or long since shut up, judging from the lamentably Dennis-free state of my inbox).

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I hurried to meet my father for lunch, leaving the first (and perhaps only) baby shower I have ever attended (for two mothers from Thing One’s preschool, and even though the invite said “families welcome” and I brought mine, it was like a coven of witches, if witches cooed instead of cackled and amused themselves by flinging miniature pastel outfits at each other while charging tables full of jalapeño dip and chocolate bundt cake, and K. was the only man there and was desperately ill-at-ease even though I reassured him that, since he not infrequently wears pink and reads Vogue, he should feel right at home). Both feelings could be traced to the same source: I was bubbling with curiosity about how the author of my days would be voting, and just as fearful that I wouldn’t want to know. Why, you ask? Because my father, the Sr. to my Jr., the person probably most intellectually and temperamentally like me in all the world, voted for George W. Bush.

Twice.

Now, apart from the obvious chagrin any designer-college-educated liberal such as myself might have at a family member who’d support a quasi-literate warmonger, my basic objections were just that: basic. My dad is not supposed to vote Republican. My dad is an immigrant, a scientist, a person of color, a product of public schools and the University of California (though he did go private for grad school). He should be a Democrat. I’m comfortable with the notion of him being a faintly socially conservative centrist Democrat, like a lot of the rich people I know, but he should, nonetheless, vote donkey.

I didn’t really discuss the Kerry election with him, but I remember very clearly his rationale for voting Dubya in 2000 (and the only argument that might have convinced me to vote Gore instead of Nader was the argument that it would cancel him out): character. Oh, he was concerned about the economy, and he wasn’t thrilled with how the Dems were taking care of him financially, but the crux of his argument was that the single most important factor in choosing a president was character, honesty, basic goodness and humanity, and he thought Bush edged out Gore. Yup, he had decided Bush was more pure of heart, which may have something to do with being exponentially dimmer, but the tragic part of it all was that his hierarchy of Existential Goodness went like this (first pick to last):

Bradley

McCain

Bush

Gore

–So in the race as it turned out, his vote went to the man who sent thousands upon thousands of troops to Iraq to kill and be killed, commit war crimes, and generally destroy their own humanity and that of their hapless victims. He was pretty much manifesting that old Winston Churchill chestnut about how everyone ages conservative if they know what’s good for them, and it was making me want to eat nails.

So today I was pretty worried, mostly because I think John McCain is the antichrist, which you understand is a figure of speech because I’m not a Christian. But I was sure my pop was going to be helping propel McCain to the GOP nomination, and this alarmed me because I’m pretty sure the American public is more likely to elect Craggy War Hero than it is Bug-Eyed Evangelist or Mormon “Hair Club for Men” Model. I’m really hoping Romney gets the nomination because my concept of reality won’t admit that the entire country could elect him, and that means the Dems will win. I’m afraid if McCain is the nominee, we’ll see another four or eight years of social conservatism and warmongering, and no, I am not reassured by the fact that McCain is against torture. Yeah. Is he going to go hang at Guantanamo Bay and make sure no waterboarding takes place?

So all this was present in my mind when I asked how my dad was going to vote. And just imagine my surprise when he said, “I think both your stepmother and I will be voting for Hillary Clinton.” Her I expected (my stepmother practically is Hillary Clinton, and is a staunch Democrat to boot), but he threw me for a loop. His reason? Because he thinks Clinton will be better for the economy, and he thinks she’s competent and observant, and he imagines she’ll have the sense to keep sending Bill to Africa (he loathes Bill, mostly because he sees Bill as a silver-tongued Evader of Consequences, and he’s not wrong).

So today I’m going to crack a Bud* and toast my dad, who has executed an amazing feat today: he’s articulated a preference for Hillary that has nothing to do with her gender or her spouse, something the rest of America seems to find impossible. In fact, all of my semi-young and reasonably cool ‘liberal’ friends keep citing Bill, or “the idea of Clinton dynasty in the White House,” as a reason not to vote for Hillary, and I am continually dismayed by this, because the idea that you could sincerely believe that you were a Populist Crusader by trying to Keep a Clinton Out of the White House strikes me as delusional and idiotic. And on the flip side, 56% of her supporters polled in New Hampshire said they would’ve voted for Bill if he could run again (presumable, Hill was the next best thing).

The idea that a person (woman) is necessarily so heavily influenced by her spouse as to make her independent thoughts and actions irrelevant in the face of his (witness the way people responded to this story about Bill’s Nevada exploits) is not just disrespectful and depressing, it’s indicative of an inability to see women as actors. It seems much of America suffers from this limitation. I’m wondering if maybe my dad not being among them has been an enormously freeing force in my life, one that I am only now coming to appreciate.

I’m thinking maybe it is. I’m thinking that a lot of the women I know have families who give lip service to the idea that women have brains but still embrace a lot of insidiously misogynistic ideas, and a lot of these women grow up with the nagging conviction that they can’t really do or think or be anything without a man in charge, and I’m thinking I’m damn lucky not to be one of them.

*A figure of speech; naturally, I only drink microbrewed beer (when pressed), and prefer single malts, Sapphire, and Bordeaux.

So I finally read Meghan Daum’s little essay about how we, the American public, are subjecting Hillary Clinton and her candidacy to The Rules, and it irritated me intensely until the last two sentences (which were more mitigating than redemptive). If you don’t remember The Rules, it was a dating advice book that advocated manipulation and concealment of one’s true motives as the best strategies for marrying Mr. Right for those women so desperate to marry Mr. Right that their frothing mouths scared all the boys away (me, I’m of the post-rules generation, and I like to think of myself as more of a Kelis girl than a Rules girl: my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard). Daum uses Rules philosophy as a framework for explaining why much of America is put off by Hillary: because she’s hungry. But so effectively does Daum subject Clinton to this retrenched Father Knows Best and The Little Woman Can’t Get Around Him attitude that it’s unclear whether she even objects to its unfairness until, at long last, she writes, “The problem is, political campaigns aren’t won by following “The Rules.” That’s why we may be further from electing a female president than we’d care to admit.”

Well, as my ex would say (and when he said it, it was at least three syllables): “Duuuuuh.” And more fuel to the burning pyre of remarks that attest that, at least in the world of politics, the testosterone card trumps the Anglo card, because masculinity is politics’ stock-in-trade. I don’t have much truck with the mainstream media, but yesterday I actually begged my chiropractor to take her time getting to me so I could finish the election coverage in Newsweek, much of which predictably focused on identity politics of this primary, including a piece detailing one black woman’s vacillations: gender? or race? or gender?

Now, I happen to think that voting your gender or your race is a crock of shit, but I guess it’s a more appealing crock than voting your religion, which is what those voting in the Republican primary seem to be doing (even if, at least temporarily, their religion is the Detroit Tigers — hey! Maybe Romney could get an endorsement from Tom Selleck!). But since that’s what people seem determined to do, and since I hate to see poor John Edwards continually befuddled by questions like how it feels to be part of a three-way with the first viable black candidate AND the first viable woman candidate, I have found for you a solution, one which comes from the annals of history:

Shirley Chisholm.

For those of you who don’t remember, Shirley Chisholm was a candidate for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 1972. (Apparently a lot of you don’t remember, a fact which I would like to lay directly at Bush Jr. and Sr.’s doors, because American education has been circling the drain for the last 20 years; nonetheless, she’s been hovering in the forefront of my mind since this brouhaha all began, and I wasn’t even born when she ran). Let’s run down some of her attributes:

1. Woman.

2. From New York. In fact, from Brooklyn! (Could use Beastie Boys as victory party act.)

3. African American!

4. The Hair. Nobody can compete with The Hair. The Hair is awesome.

5. Working for the common man: she fought for minimum wage.

6. Compassion for others: visited her rival, famous bigot and pro-segregationist George Wallace, in his hospital bed when he was shot during the campaign.

Chisholm was, to paraphrase another prominent black woman (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Dr. Bailey), a poster child for “rising above.” She was a pioneer, a brilliant and charismatic figure, a snappy dresser, and a tough broad. She ran for president in 1972, people! Big ups to Shirley!

So what I’m proposing isn’t really that more far-fetched than cloned White Castle burgers. Chisholm for President 2008. All we need is a time machine.

When my grandparents-in-law came to visit a week ago, they brought two enormous boxes full of toys, toys they’d been keeping since my husband was a small boy and his impoverished parents came to live in the garret of their house. Included among these toys were several luxurious Fisher Price play sets — “Main Street” and the doll house — that I remember from my own childhood; the plastic dollhouse hinges open so that you can access all the rooms and comes with little people that resemble plastic clothes pegs (cylindrical body, spherical head) and fit into the depressions in the armchairs, etc. We’ve been having fun playing with them, and I’ve made sure to name all the girly-looking ones male names so that Thing One will grow up open-minded about gender identity (or metrosexual, or gay, depending on whom you ask). But the pièce de résistance, the biggest hit with Thing One and his father before him, is the Fisher Price plastic tugboat. It has a captain, complete with sailor hat, shaved head, and blue jersey, who resembles the thumb-sized dollhouse people but on a much larger scale, about the circumference of a Red Bull can, and she (yes, she!) fits into a specially made extra-deep (in case of capsizing) cylindrical hole in the cheery red-and-white boat. It provides endless hours of bathtime entertainment; you can hook up the chain to the tug, pull them both around, anchor, disembark, etc.

But of course the best use is one not sanctioned by Fisher Price. Yesterday, when Thing One got in the bath, he immediately grabbed the boat in one hand, dumped the hapless captain into the engulfing sea, took his penis in the other hand, and began to pee in the captain’s seat. “Look, Mama!” he crowed. “This is yellow water! I’m gonna dump it in the bath!”

“What color is the bath water?” I queried.

“White!” he replied.

“And what color is the pee?” I asked.

“Yellow!” he replied.

Right!” I said, “And that’s why we’re going to dump it in the toilet.”

It’s the aesthetics of the thing, really; I have no particular objection to his seasoning the bath water a bit, and anyway urine is the cleanest body fluid there is. But I figure I have to maintain some standards so that when he hits the public swimming pool he doesn’t immediately flip open his Sippy cup, pee in it, and empty the contents onto an unsuspecting bather. Otherwise, I’m happy for him to pee in the tub, and in fact, I’m thrilled that he’s taught himself to pee in a cup so efficiently, because that is a skill that could come in handy. Back when I was regularly making multi-hour trips up I-5, I got to the point where I would pee in an empty gas station drink cup (from Big Gulp thou hast come, and to Big Gulp thou shalt return). While driving. A stick shift. In traffic. In Fife. Because Fife is really close to Seattle, and Fife also happens to consist almost entirely of car dealerships, and the idea of stopping to find a bathroom when you’ve got your eyes on the prize is pretty unappealing.

So really, Thing One is carrying on a proud family tradition. I just have to make sure that the first time we try it in the car, he dumps it out the window and not on the floor.

In the wake of a flood of gender-politicking around the election and the attribution of Hillary’s New Hampshire win to her “emotional outburst,” especially by the likes of Maureen Dowd, who manages to not only misread and misinterpret Gloria Steinem‘s Op-Ed piece in the Times but also to evince that she is, in fact, as screeching harpy who has no greater insights to offer than a bad parody of Chris Matthews, I started to feel, with no little exasperation, sick of the whole misogynistic, jeering refrain about Hillary’s gender, because what it really indicates is that we so readily accept the notion that being male is normative and being female is being sub-normal (despite genetic/evolutionary evidence to the contrary) that we accord male voters a respect we wouldn’t dream of giving women, who are clearly always led by the estrogen coursing through their veins. A charming little post at Bitch, Ph.d expressed my sentiments exactly: “pundits and other commentators insist on acting as if we’ve just admitted people with vaginas to the electorate, and it’s just so crazy because how will this affect the election?!…But no, we never talk about how men will vote, because it’s just not as interesting. Or scary. Men have been voting for years! They are the average voter! They don’t vote based on little things like crying episodes or whether someone is black. They vote the issues. (…) From now on, I will be presenting analysis of the man vote. Will they vote with their penises? Are they indignant? Do they want to see a man in the White House?”

Do they, indeed. Who can’t answer that? And where is the cause for the grotesque Hillary-focused rubbernecking and prurient desire for questionable motives and/or failure? Well, according to Bob Herbert, it’s simple: we are a society that delights in dehumanizing women, in causing them pain, in observing their sufferings with dispassionate fascination. And although his piece makes some pretty big leaps of logic, it’s pretty obvious he’s not wrong — just as it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the men out there whip out their Johnsons to mark up those ballots.

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