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.

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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.

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.

Earlier this week, I was going to write a post about how Obama’s victory in Iowa cast a whole new light on the primary, and, in fact, how it gave me hope where previously I had had none: not hope that America would see its first African American president, per se, but hope that America’s social politics had evolved to such a point where that would be possible.

You see, I am a Gen X person of color, and as such (both of such!) I’m cynical. Not only am I cynical, but I’ve had my cynicism honed to a surgical-quality blade by the many instances of casual racism I witness and experience every day. The effect of having this experience — of experiencing racism primarily as a victim or potential victim, rather than as a perpetrator — is a constant state of watchful pragmatism, a mentality of survival and of hoping for likelihoods rather than possibilities, the avoidance of false hope for fairness, or an equal opportunity in favor of an attachment to the notion that unequal opportunity will have to do (and while I thought Obama’s whole “false hope” rebuttal was great campaign strategy, even he must acknowledge that the social realities for the community he is cast as representing are such that avoiding false hope is crucial to survival). I recently heard a theory that part of the reason for the African American community’s higher rates of heart disease and stroke is that members of the community are in a constant state of stress causes by de facto racism everywhere they go, and this theory makes perfect sense to me. The connections between stress and heart disease are known, and it doesn’t take a big leap to understand that the tension of maintaining a reasonable level of self-protective vigilance, which is a condition of the lives of people of color and women in America, might well put undue strain on the system.

So my constant state of vigilance didn’t allow for the hope that America was ready for an African American president, a fact which many of the economically and socio-racially secure white Baby Boomers I know failed to understand in their rampant, privileged idealism; they were like, “Hey! How ’bout that Obama!” and I was quelling them with the Voice of Pessimism and Despair. And when Obama won Iowa, I felt the relief that comes when you realize that your world is a little more open, and little roomier, and little brighter than you had thought. And I wasn’t the only one. Just the other day, I dragged the family to IKEA to buy the sister-in-law a bed; as we went down the escalators discussing Obama’s “You’re the wave, and I’m riding it!” comment, and how that was simultaneously charming and corny as hell, an IKEA employee (demographics: young, white, chubby), interjected, “Yeah!” and we simulated surfing. Now, I’m not a big fan of the Midwest (sorry), primarily because whenever I go there, I feel overwhelmed by large blond persons who overflow into my bus seat and prefer to stock their restaurants with Beck’s and brats rather than Tsing Tao and har gow, and I hate brats, and then there was the time I drove from New York to Chicago on the 80 and passed innumerable “Meat: It’s What’s for Dinner” signs, which made me crave wheat germ and seitan. So Iowa really surprised me. It’s a wonderful feeling to think that the people of the Middle West have progressed so much farther than I’d thought. Maybe the next time I visit I can even find some food that involves neither pig intestines nor melted Velveeta.

Of course, I’m not the only cynic out there. Mihow expressed exactly the views I feared would dominate in a January 4 post. Here’s a quote: “I really believe that if it comes down to a white guy like Huckabee and a white woman or a black man, the knee jerk reaction, Democrat, Independent or Republican, will be to vote for the white guy. I agree with many that Obama is great, I may even vote for him. But is he electable? Put your personal feelings aside and really ask yourself that.” The gist of her post is that Huckabee must be stopped, and Edwards is a white guy, so everyone should vote for him because he’s electable and we all know, if we “put our personal feelings aside and really ask ourselves that,” that black men and women are not.

That’s the fear talking. And Mihow later amended a bit (maybe she, too, was influenced by the wave of optimism that Obama was riding). But fear is a powerful thing. Fear makes people ask for what they think they can get rather than what they really want. So when my well-fed white Baby Boomer colleague said, “I’m just so in love with Obama!” and I scoffed, that was the fear talking, my attempt at bringing his crashing idealism and naiveté back down to the bitter reality of my experience. And I was wrong, at least a little, because I never thought Obama would win Iowa, and while I view Hillary as a much less threatening (racially; she ain’t gonna start stealing all the white women!) and more establishment (Bill! Come on; Bill Clinton is everything we love about America: brash, big, expansive, idealistic, energetic; he’s also smart, even if he does, like America, have incredibly poor impulse control). So maybe I should listen more closely to the crashing naiveté of the Baby Boomers, because I’m really not in favor of acting on the fear that drives posts like the one above, and I’m underwhelmed by Edwards.

In fact, even Hillary’s New Hampshire win today has put me in a good mood (there is always the possibility that I took one of K’s happy pills instead of my multi this morning). And now that we’re seeing the softer side of Sears on that front, maybe she’ll even get elected, if she can tread that fine line between bitch and wimp. A dear friend of mine refers to her as “Cruella,” and I’m not sure where that comes from, except that I can’t dismiss the obvious explanation of it having to do with the fact that he is a white male probably at this very moment eating at the Country Buffet in rural P.A., maybe followed by some deer hunting or a belching contest, and therefore thinks that all women trying to ascend to power are castrating bitches. Probably the explanation is more complex than that, but if it isn’t, all I can say is I hope someone sics that castrating bitch on the Republican frontrunners on her way to the Oval Office. Because Bishop Romney, Mike “I Heart Medieval-style Patriarchy” Huckabee, and Big “We are a Christian Nation” Mac’s politics are so far on the flip side of the social progress that both Obama and Clinton’s leads evince that I wonder just how schizophrenic our nation has become — and when it’s going to get that lobotomy.