Reference: Maureen Dowd, My Hero

Actually not, since half the time I think Dowd substitutes irratibility for thoughtfulness. Still, I thought this article was an interesting reflection on some of the gender issues I’ve also been taking up the last couple of days. According to Dowd:

“There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing. “

This strikes me as unfairly harsh. Clinton is a few country miles from Nixonian. But it does suggest that Clinton’s own construal of the gender war that’s going on over emotion is suspect. Clinton defended herself by saying male leaders are allowed to cry while women aren’t. All tears are not, in fact, equal, nor do they communicate similar things.

Men do, in fact, cry on the campaign trail. Strategically, no less. Cynically, no doubt. But the prospect of a man gaining points by crying because the trail is so hard and the people so unheeding is unfathomable.

Dowd goes on:

“Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)”

“Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.”

Author! Author! Of course, I’m always most impressed with Dowd’s brilliance when she agrees with my own brilliant opinions.

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Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.

Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.

According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .

Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.

(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)

Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.

What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.

There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.

The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.

The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.

I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.

The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.

The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.

Still, it’s not too far from ugly.

Side bar: Hillary’s Tears: Human all too Human.

I was pretty harsh on Hillary yesterday and today she goes and cries. I’m sure there’s a connection.

I’m fascinated by the media’s decision to say that she didn’t cry; her eyes merely filled with tears. (What? They are going to zoom in on her face and, if one of those brimming tears falls, suddenly she’s weak?? ) Somehow too, this made her miraculously human for the reporters in the room. I’m not mocking it. I felt it too. After 35 years of hard work it finally seemed like maybe it was just a little too much. Indeed, I was appalled that some in the media questioned whether the tears were pre-planned. Probably a reflex action from a campaign that has seemed buttoned down and machine-like from the beginning. I suspect she’ll get a five point bounce in the polls. Not to be cynical about her tears, but this is the kind of thing that was missing from her candidacy—the sense of spontaneous humanity that Obama pulls from the air with the greatest of ease.

In a just world, perhaps hard work would be all that matters. Not our world, I’m afraid.

Picking up on yesterday’s post, I’m also struck by the way this stuff is so thoroughly gendered. It is almost absolutely impossible to imagine Obama getting away with tears in reflecting on how hard it is to campaign. Or even the brink of tears. We could forgive Edwards if he got brimming eyes while talking about his wife’s cancer, and probably even if he watered up while talking about a young girl who couldn’t get a liver transplant. But if he started dripping over how hard it is to fight the fight, you can be sure his fight would be over. Hillary, of course, doesn’t have it easy; she’s expected to be hard and tough and a man among men, but she’s also got to be soft, got to reassure us that she hasn’t lost the woman within even while she’s going toe to toe with the bad guys. Tears do it for her.

Men would not be forgiven it, as Ed Muskie wasn’t. Men have to show their humanity in different ways. By playing bass guitar for a rock band at the local bar. By reading books that suggest depth but not weirdness. By hunting for geese in Iowa in below zero wind chill.

It’s hard on everyone.