Thursday, December 29, 2016
The Forgotten Topic of the 2016 Elections. Or How Echidne Almost Got Gaslighted.
We hardly discuss one of the most interesting aspects of the 2016 US presidential elections: That the long picture gallery of all American presidents remained hundred-percent male. Neither do we discuss why so many of us, both women and men, failed to see anything wrong with that, even while some others celebrated the Trump victory by open pussy-grabbing or its verbal equivalents.
Imagine some other demographic groups, more than half of all citizens, calmly accepting (1) that none of its members has ever governed the country, and is very unlikely to do so in the near future! It's not possible, my friends, except when it comes to women.
But when it comes to women, the majority of Americans, equal representation is not an important goal. Rather, it's outdated identity politics, at best only of symbolic worth. The strength of that message is mind-boggling, unprecedented and unpresidented.
How did it come about?
I argue that it is the result of gaslighting, a term which the American linguistic left adopted from psychological literature, and then adapted to political speech, often to silence someone. Gaslighting is
manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent to is sow seeds of doubt in the subject, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.
My friends, we have been gaslighted, through denial, misdirection, contradiction, lying and more. It is particularly easy to gaslight those who are prone to self-inspection, to careful scrutiny of their own ideas and to careful attention to how others criticize them. Indeed, I have eagerly abetted my own gaslighting!
It took Mark Lilla's New York Times article "The End of Identity Liberalism," on the horrors that is identity politics inside the Democratic Party to drop the scales from my eyes. He wrote:
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the "first X to do Y" — is told and retold.Notice the gaslighting in the sentence I have bolded: The story of, say, the first female president, ever, would be a lazy story. If we pick from the terms of the quote which defines gaslighting, this would be misdirection. Yet nobody would have stated that the story of, say, the first black president in South Africa would have been a lazy story.
Later, in an uplifting appeal, Lilla wrote about the values we all can share:
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.
That might qualify as a lie, using the list of terms which define gaslighting, because pre-identity liberalism was identity liberalism of the type where Lilla's own group had all the power, and because most issues do not affect the vast majority of Americans in exactly the same way.
Take Trump's infrastructure improvement promises (which he might renege on, as is his wont): Those jobs are not going to go to all American adults, in their population proportions, but overwhelmingly to men, because construction industries are almost completely male (2).
My heartfelt thanks to Mark Lilla. He opened my eyes and then I directed them to all the other material which almost got me gaslighted into believing that it doesn't really matter if women hold political power on the highest levels. The rest of this post addresses some of them.
Let's begin by pointing out three important aspects of this topic:
First, the gaslighting comes from both sides of the political aisle and even from people not that easily categorized. Not all is intended to damage women's equality goals, though some of it certainly is (3). But all of it damages the idea that women's high-level political power might matter.
Second, and related to the previous point, valid criticisms have been made about assigning too much weight to the idea of a female president, about expecting too much from one person who, after all, would be among the most privileged in the world. But those criticisms, too, gaslight us into a blindness about what a fair society would look like and how to work towards it.
Third, the story about the first woman who almost became the president of the United States is unavoidably the Hillary Clinton story. I have struggled in the past, and in vain, against the knee-jerk assumption by many that if I write about topics such as this one I'm a fanatic for Hillary Clinton and am really writing in her defense.
The fault, my friends, is in the stars. Or, rather, in that powerful and prominent women in American politics are almost as rare as hen's teeth. That makes writing about their treatment as women impossibly intertwined with them as individuals. A bizarre consequence of that rarity (which in itself is linked to the gaslighting) is that the few who do hold real power are in the news so often that their actual rarity becomes obscured.
Thus, I cannot avoid addressing Hillary Clinton as a politician in this post. But my goal is much wider than that, and has to do with the question why we suddenly don't find the idea of the first female president at all important, while others (including one Vladimir Putin) find that idea so frightening.
My central explanation for the successful gaslighting of so many is this:
Hillary Clinton became the candidate of the Democratic establishment, the candidate of status quo, the Wall Street candidate, the face of the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party. She was "normalized" by her long presence in Democratic politics, she was even normalized in the traditional sense of entering it first as the sidekick of a man, using the one global avenue which has long been open for some women to reach political power: family connections.
By the time the 2016 elections came by, Hillary Clinton stood for nothing new. She was a known figure, a distrusted figure, the last representative of the dying centrist policies of the Democratic Party, the corrupt and crooked opponent for the Republicans. She seemed to have nothing exciting to offer, in terms of women's rights, several feminists told me. Her achievements in that field were somehow hidden from view, her age and her privilege worked against her. For young women, she seemed to have always been around, on top, with power, and that might have made the lack of women in politics disappear from their sight.
In short, she became a run-of-the-mill politician in that normalization process.
Except that she was also "abnormalized" by the Republican message industry. This abnormalization began during her years as First Lady in Bill Clinton's realm, initially because she was an uppity woman, too big for her breeches, too mouthy, liable to push into places where she was not wanted.
The Republican propaganda industry of the 1990s blamed her for everything imaginable, including for murder and for acting as a procurer of rape victims for Bill Clinton. The plots against her came so fast that they were impossible to respond to. Only tedious research in the annals of history tells us how many of them were built out of foul-smelling air and ultimately fell flat.
But the taint remained, and later, when circumstances changed, that label of "abnormal" stuck to her. She was crooked and corrupt, as one Donald Trump told us repeatedly, she should be Locked Up, as Trump's supporters still believe.
Rush Limbaugh and other similar conservative pundits spent years building up a picture of Hillary Clinton as very much resembling Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler, as something utterly out of the normal in politics. Even the email scandal was seen through some enormous magnifying glass, one which was not applied to earlier email scandals of very similar nature.
There is no doubt in my mind that this abnormalization would not have been so vigorously and viciously applied to an otherwise identical politician with the name Harry Clinton. No, Hillary Clinton's sex mattered, her role as the prominent public specimen of the uppity woman mattered, because of the fears that provoked in the hind-brains of many.
None of this means that she was an angel, that she doesn't make idiotic political mistakes, that she couldn't use power wrong, that she is not good at campaigning or that she wouldn't hold policy positions with which I differ. But her girl cooties did play a role in how that abnormalization was allowed to become common wisdom.
One example of that are the frequent mentions of her "naked and self-serving ambition" in the comments sections of even left-wing political blogs, and the common meme that she felt entitled to the presidency, that it was Her Turn.
But the political arena is the one where naked and self-serving ambition is usually rewarded! Just look at Donald Trump. And surely Jed Bush acted as if it was His Turn? In terms of family dynasties in American politics? Accusing Hillary Clinton of naked and self-serving ambition works particularly well, whether she indeed holds such ambition, because as a woman she is not supposed to.
The combination of normalization and abnormalization made Hillary Clinton's potential role as the first female president of the United States more than invisible from most: It was in poor taste even to mention, because then one might be accused of defending a horrible, untrustworthy and corrupt candidate. (See why it took me so long to write this post? But this post is not about her, it's about women with political power, so onwards and upwards.)
This country has never had a female president, only 27 states have had female governors, some states have not yet sent a woman to the US Congress, and the US Senate, with a hundred members in each term, has had a total of 46 women over its history.
Indeed, that is one of the main reasons why the United States ranks only 45th in the Global Gender Gap Report for 2016: It ranks 73rd on the political empowerment subindex, right behind LeSotho, Tunisia and Indonesia.
This is not acceptable.
(1) Or perhaps not. We shall see.
(2) This doesn't mean that women wouldn't benefit from them at all, though most seem to assume that it's sufficient to consider the benefits to the wives of the men who get the work. But any infrastructure project will benefit more men directly, just as any project aimed at improving nursing homes or schools or hospitals would benefit more women directly. To ask us not to see the gendered nature of the "shovel-ready" projects is to ask us not to see identity politics at work.
(3) The messages from the extreme right were intended to not only damage Hillary Clinton's candidacy, but to keep women away from the public sector. Messages from Rush Limbaugh veered across that spectrum, and so did the messages from the white male supremacists, politely called Alt Right. The messages from the left had varying purposes, depending on the time they appeared, but most of them were not directly aimed at making us blind to the pictures depicted in that gallery of American presidents.
(4) She contributed to this herself, of course. My point is that her position as the first woman who had a chance at the US presidency became invisible. She didn't look like an outsider, she didn't gain her position in ways which looked like outsider ways, and in the primaries she campaigned against someone who was seen as the real outsider candidate in terms of issues. Yet at the same time Bernie Sanders belonged to the very ancient male establishment, Hillary Clinton did not. That latter aspect lost in much of the media coverage.
(5) This link is meant for the economic policies part of the article, the need to support unions and labor market policies which benefit all women, including the poorest.
I dislike the trickle-down feminism meme in that article, for several reasons:
1. I have now met it several times online, wielded by conservatives.
2. It feeds right into the keyboards of those who wish to take female candidates down in the future.
3. And because its father is the "trickle-down economics" meme, which is about something quite different: The idea that income given to the wealthy (and not to the poor) will have trickle-down effects through job creation and the purchasing power of the rich. If we apply the same logic to the "trickle-down feminism" meme, then it would only apply to patriarchal countries where the masses don't want gender equality. That's not quite the case in the US, though gaslighting might make it a better fit.
(6) The breaking of the color barrier in American major leagues baseball in 1947 is an example of that. Jackie Robinson was carefully chosen, not only because of his great talent as a player, but also because he was a generally talented and emotionally mature individual who had the ability not to react to racist slurs or incidents. In that sense he was probably superior to most of his new team-mates who were never going to be tested in the same way, and that superiority helped in integrating the game.