Wednesday, March 5, 2008

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Identity politics and the irony of the 2008 campaign

MoDo's column about identity politics in the Democratic Party today actually got me thinking. Particularly this part:

Dianne Feinstein onto the Fox News Sunday-morning talk show to promote the idea that Hillary should not be forced out, regardless of the results of Tuesday’s primaries, simply because she’s a woman.

“For those of us that are part of ‘a woman need not apply’ generation that goes back to the time I went out to get my first job following college and a year of graduate work, this is an extraordinarily critical race,” the senator said.

With Obama saying the hour is upon us to elect a black man and Hillary saying the hour is upon us to elect a woman, the Democratic primary has become the ultimate nightmare of liberal identity politics. All the victimizations go tripping over each other and colliding, a competition of historical guilts.

People will have to choose which of America’s sins are greater, and which stain will have to be removed first. Is misogyny worse than racism, or is racism worse than misogyny?

As it turns out, making history is actually a way of being imprisoned by history. It’s all about the past. Will America’s racial past be expunged or America’s sexist past be expunged?

This leads to a central irony about this campaign. I don't doubt that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have suffered a multitude of small slights in their professional and personal lives because of their gender or race. However, if you think about this as a contest to see who has suffered the greatest because of their identity, it's not even close.

The candidate who has suffered the most in his lifetime is.... John McCain. As an individual, he has paid a much higher price for his identity as an officer in the United States military than Obama or Cinton has individually paid for their race or gender. And there's simply no way to spin it otherwise.

As a collective entity, of course, African-Americans and women have white males beat on the suffering front. It is interesting, however, that the avatars of identity get all jumbled up once we look at the candidates' individual biographies.

posted by Dan on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM


Hmm. This is a really interesting point. You are, I presume, referring to his torture as a POW in Vietnam. And you are assuming that Clinton has never suffered gender violence, though if she had she'd hardly be in a position to exploit it politically as McCain has done; and that Obama has never been the victim of violent hate crimes (probably true).

But the debate is not about the individuals, it's about broad patterns in society. Your argument's validity would rest on the assumption that US military officers are likelier than other identity groups to suffer lethal violence. But officers are the most protected class in the military. They have more extensive protections under the Geneva Conventions, and do less of the dangerous dirty work than enlisted men and women. Upon demobilization, they also get the best benefits and have the most promising prospects of political careers, relative to enlistees or civilians.

Oh, and the privileged officer corps also happen to be largely composed of upper class white men.

posted by: Diodotus on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

But officers are the most protected class in the military... and do less of the dangerous dirty work than enlisted men and women.

Except for aviators, which is the applicable example. There's an old joke that the Air Force is the only service branch smart enough to send the officers out to get killed while the enlisted men stay on base.

None of which gets negates the original point, however, which is the utter ridiculousness of granting moral authority on the sole basis of who has suffered the most.

posted by: Independent George on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

"As a collective entity, of course, African-Americans and women have white males beat on the suffering front."

Really? Wow - I must have missed those photos of white women being lynched, while families brought their picnic baskets out to watch bodies dangling from tree limbs. Plus those images of white women being hosed down and set-upon by police dogs. Plus, I don't recall instances of redlining that kept white women out of certain neighborhoods.

A couple of months ago, Chris Rock joked on SNL - "Sure, white women did not have the vote for awhile. And they held a couple of marches. And when they got on the bus to go to those marches, guess who had to give up their seat?"

posted by: KXB on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

Off topic: half your site is in italics. [/i]

posted by: Italian job on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

Wow, I hope that you don't lose your tenure for having the audacity to imply that a woman and a black man may have suffered fewer injustices in their lifetimes than some white guy from an affluent family. John McCain's vacation to Vietnam, where he lived the good life in the Hanoi Hilton, getting fat off of cockroaches and ants, and only getting a few bones violently broken, does not compare to Barack Obama suffering through the racism and oppression of Harvard Law School. Nor does it hold a candle to the horrors of sexism and servitude that Hillary endured at Yale.

posted by: Joseph Sixpack on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

Dan's point is well taken but irrelevant in the context of an American election campaign.

Listening to Democratic candidates on the stump, one could be persuaded that the United States is "this republic of suffering," with all manner of people nursing terrible injustices, slogging through life under insupportable burdens, needing above all things a champion who understands the pain and despair of their lives. In reality, though, most Americans (and especially most Americans who vote) have things pretty good. They have anxieties about keeping what they have and being able to pass it on to their children, and have in some cases various resentments and grievances. They have no context in which to evaluate genuine suffering.

There are many Americans who can sympathize (or "identify") with Hillary Clinton because her husband cheated on her (a lot), and who can see Barack Obama's skin color as symbolic of the persecution and indignity heaped for generations upon Americans of a similar skin color (to whom Obama is, coincidentally or not, not related). Of course, both Clinton and George Bush regularly appeal for, and get, public sympathy because unkind things are said about them in the media. This is the kind of suffering most Americans think they can understand.

What McCain endured in Vietnam -- torture, solitary confinement, humiliation, and of course terrible physical injuries -- can be admired by Americans, but few of them can empathize with him or understand the role that experience had in shaping his character. This isn't to say McCain is a better person than anyone else, only that few Americans can see in his experience something they recognize in their own.

Robert Dole had this problem as well. It was a significant disadvantage for him as a Presidential candidate, in 1996 but especially in 1988, running to win votes from a complacent Republican primary electorate against a candidate whose complacency was central to his personality. It isn't just that Americans who have not suffered have difficulty grasping the personalities of those rare people who have; the lack of comprehension is a two-way street. The modern American electorate rewards ostentatious public displays of concern and compassion, not only toward people laboring under genuine hardship but (especially) toward people who think they are. Such displays are liable to be seen as phony and contrived by someone like McCain, or Dole. More conventional politicians, whose experiences are less radically different from the people whose votes they want, won't see this as a problem.

posted by: Zathras on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

If there is one thing that the OJ Simpson jury taught us it is that race trumps sex in the victimhood sweepstakes.

Is it even possible to be a self-respecting white, heterosexual, Christian male and still vote Democrat? It seems if though it is an admission of guilt in this context.

posted by: chris canell on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

John McCain had the opportunity to leave Vietnam; he simply had to sign a false confession. He refused. He didn't use the treatment he got as an excuse. That is a huge contrast to playing the victim based on the suffering of previous generations.

posted by: Bernie on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

If Obama gets credit for all the suffering endured by previous generations of African Americans, doesnt that mean Hillary gets credit for all the indignities suffered by women since the beginning of time?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.05.08 at 08:34 AM [permalink]

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