Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Least Valid Reason To Vote?

Strange things to do with gender are afoot in this election.  The blatant misogyny coming from the front-runner on the Republican side is contrasted with a debate among Democrats over whether or not women should vote with their vaginas.  It's the "vagina voter" issue that is most curious to me.

It started, I guess, when Susan Sarandon said she felt like women were shaming her for not supporting a woman.  She responded by saying she did not vote "with her vagina."  True, some have suggested that a vote against Hillary is a vote against women.  Susan Sarandon thought they were saying that you should vote for Hillary just because she's a woman. That doesn't seem like the right way to look at it, though.  It's not a question of whether or not Hillary should be supported just because she's a woman.  It's a question of whether or not support for Hillary is support for women.  It's a question of whether or not Hillary represents women.  And looked at that way, the question of "vagina voting" is a lot more complicated.

Some say Bernie Sanders is more of a feminist than Hillary, and that he represents women's interests better than Hillary does.  That is debatable, but Hillary has a distinguished record of standing up for women's rights all over the world.  She has earned the support of feminist leaders and institutions devoted to serving women's interests.  Bernie has a great record on civil rights, but he has not shown as much leadership when it comes to women's issues in particular.  And, as it happens, he is not a woman.  He can represent women's issues, but he cannot represent women as such.

There are two related issues here:  Who is more of a feminist and who better represents women?  I think Hillary is the answer to both questions, but it's the second question that really matters here.  You may still think Bernie is a better feminist, and we can debate that (see the comments below), but considering leadership on women's issues and having the right gender, it is obvious to me that Hillary is the one that represents women.

Does that mean that a vote against Hillary is a vote against women?  Can't Bernie represent women a little bit?  Why is it all or nothing?

To address those questions, let's look at some other issues.  First of all, while gender is clearly a significant factor in the current election, it does not have to be the deciding one.  You can think gender is important but still think other things are more important, like Wall Street or the 2002 Iraq vote.  Personally, I think the heat Hillary gets from those issues is often unfair.  Unlike Bernie, Hillary does not believe Wall Street is inherently corrupt.  She sees the financial sector as a problem child that needs a firm hand, but also care and support. This is why I don't support the movement to pressure her to release her paid speech transcripts.  Nothing in those speeches is going to win her any "Progressive Of The Year" awards.  Obviously she was fostering a friendly, working relationship with big banks.  That does not mean she is in their pockets, and it doesn't mean she is lying when she says she is going to be tough on Wall Street.  She has nothing to gain from releasing those transcripts:  It would only validate the witch hunt and give her opponents tools to spin against her. True, her position on Glass-Steagall is questionable, but her economic plan has been praised by Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman and other liberal economists.  As for Iraq, Hillary has been clear that her one mistake was trusting that the Bush Administration would follow the letter and the spirit of the law.  I admire and respect her 2002 speech explaining her vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq and I don't think it should be held against her.  Other people disagree, and that's fine. Maybe you think her ties to Wall Street and her 2002 Iraq vote are more important than her ability to represent women.  I don't.

Maybe you just think Hillary is slime, an untrustworthy politician who would say and do anything to get elected.  Bernie, in contrast, is pristine and incorruptible.  I disagree strongly, and I believe that the people who promote this view are responding to years of smear campaigns which have more than a hint of sexism to them.  Hillary is far from perfect, but she is the most qualified, experienced and intelligent candidate for President I have seen in my lifetime, and I believe her heart and mind are leaning in the right direction--which is to say, towards the left.  Yes, she has made mistakes, but part of her appeal is her willingness and readiness to learn.  (Bernie's record isn't so pure, by the way.)

"Okay," you say.  "Hillary may not be the Devil.  That doesn't mean a vote for Bernie is a vote against women, does it? It certainly doesn't mean gender is a good reason to vote for Hillary."

I've heard it said that gender can be a good reason to choose a candidate, but only if everything else is equal.  In other words, if anything puts one candidate above another, no matter how slightly, then gender is no longer a valid reason.  This view makes gender the least valid reason to vote for a candidate.

That is unacceptable.  When sexism is a national problem of dire proportions, womanhood cannot be the least valid reason to vote.

As bad as it is, the "least valid reason" argument is one step above Bernie Sanders' comment that, unlike Hillary, he would never try to win votes by appealing to his gender.  Bernie says elections should be voted on issues, not gender.  On that view, gender is not the least valid reason: It is not a valid reason at all.

Bernie and many of his supporters are undermining Hillary's ability to represent women.  They are denying that there is a need for women to rally behind a woman.  If you claim that women don't need a woman to represent them, you hurt women.  If you do it while flying the banner of feminism, then you hurt feminism, too.

You can say that Bernie was just being tone-deaf and that, if you look at other statements and his overall record, you will see that he really is a feminist.  Maybe so, but my point remains:  Bernie's response to the "vagina voter" issue hurts women and feminism.

So here is the context:  On the Republican side, we have a male front-runner who is dangerously misogynistic, and on the Democratic side, we have a female front-runner who has fought for women's issues while being subjected to sexist smear campaigns for decades, yet whose supporters are shamed for rallying behind her womanhood.  In that kind of political climate, yes, a vote for Hillary is a vote for women.

I'm not saying gender is the most valid reason to vote in the present campaign.  I'm not saying it trumps every other reason, and I am not claiming it should be the deciding factor for anyone.  But I do take seriously the proposition that a vote against Hillary is a vote against women.

Friday, February 26, 2016

White Male Privilege in the Democratic Primary

A lot of the Bernie-Hillary debate has recently centered on issues about racism and feminism. The election cycle began with Clinton expecting to win the majority of women and non-white votes.  Bernie's appeal was originally seen to be strongly limited to white males.  Now Bernie's supporters argue that he is more of a feminist and less of a racist than Hillary, hoping he will attract more non-white and non-male voters. The facts paint a different picture, however.  Bernie's supporters are willfully ignoring how white male privilege has supported him in the present campaign and throughout his career.

If you have a few minutes, please peruse this penetrating look into Bernie's career in Congress.  It doesn't shy away from praising Bernie where appropriate, but it exposes several reasons to question the new, pro-Bernie narrative about race and gender. (The section on marriage equality is particularly enlightening.)  The following commentary is meant to complement what is written there.

First up: feminism.

Hillary has suggested that voting for her would be a vote for change, because she is a woman.  Many of her supporters (including myself) see her womanhood as a good reason to vote for her--not the only reason, mind you, but a significant one.  When Bernie was asked about this, he showed a profound inability to understand sexual politics. He said
"No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand together, vote for a man.’ I would never do that, never have. I think in a presidential race, we look at what a candidate stands for and we vote for the candidate we think can best serve our country."
Bernie does not understand that women need to stand together in a way that men don't.  Bernie doesn't understand that he is privileged.  Bernie does not understand feminism.  Yet, despite this, and despite the fact that Hillary has a long and distinguished record of standing up for women's rights all over the world, Bernie's supporters think that he is more of a feminist.  That is depressing.

(I have a lot more comments on feminism and the role of gender in the present campaign here.)  

And what about racism?

Yes, Hillary referenced the "super-predator" theory to promote anti-crime measures against gang violence in 1996. The phrase "super-predator" was a new term for young, violent sociopaths.  Hillary was implying that the surge of gang-related crimes involved severe sociopathic tendencies among black youths. And she was clear that she was more interested in enforcing law and order than she was in addressing the systemic causes of that behavior, though she acknowledged that the causes did need to be addressed.

Hillary's critics are absolutely right to point out that there is racism inherent in her comments.  However, let's be clear about what kind of racism this is.  It is systemic racism.  It is the racism that does not recognize when double standards are being applied.  It is the racism that does not recognize when systemic inequality is at play.  And it is the racism that Hillary acknowledged at the start of her current Presidential campaign, and which she wants to overcome.

Her critics still want an explanation for that fifteen-second soundbite from 1996.  That's fair enough, but it's not like there's a great mystery here.  The explanation is obvious:  Hillary was responding to a perceived need for a tough-on-crime position with respect to gang violence.  This perception was widespread in African-American communities, and it was based on well-documented increases in gang activity.  And, you know, Bernie did the same thing.

Yes, in 1994, speaking in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bernie Sanders praised the same bill, acknowledging the need to crack down on the severe problem of gang violence.  Of course Bernie had strong concerns about it, and spoke passionately about them in April of the same year.  He saw the bill as overly punitive and was rightly concerned about the death penalty and mass incarceration, but that didn't stop him from voting for it.  And even when he was criticizing the bill, he acknowledged the need to lock up those who are "deeply sick and sociopathic."  He didn't use the phrase "super-predator," but that could just be because the phrase hadn't been coined yet.

Hill and Bern both supported the same bill.  They both advocated punitive measures for violent sociopaths.  Hillary used a hip, new word for it which has since become a red flag for systemic racism, but they both sympathized with the African-American communities that wanted a tough response to gang violence.  Hillary emphasized the need to be tough on crime while Bernie emphasized the need to look at the broader socioeconomic causes of crime, but that is a difference of emphasis, not ideology. So what difference matters here?   

Here's one.  When we look at Bernie's views on socio-economics, we do see ideology come into play, and it reveals one way systemic racism and white privilege have informed his own political views.  Immediately after praising the 1994 anti-crime bill in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bernie went on to claim that the real cause of crime--the real reason African-American youths were in violent gangs and dealing drugs--was because there weren't enough jobs.  He said, and I quote, that black youths need to "get back to work."  He explicitly said that there is no difference at all between poverty in poor African-American communities and poverty in 98-percent-white Vermont.  This is the "class first" ideology that erases the difference between white and black poverty, and which Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized not so long ago, winning him severe criticism from Sanders' supporters.  Well, Coates was right.  When it comes to race issues, Sanders comes off as severely tone-deaf, at best.  His appeal to class differences has consistently led to a failure to squarely address salient racial issues.  Case in point:  Two years ago, when Ferguson was in flames and the country was reeling over the murder of Mike Brown, Bernie responded by saying that black youths need to get jobs!  

When class is privileged, white males are privileged.

I've been told--by esteemed university professors, no less--that the "class first" approach has a long, reputable history in the labor movement.  True enough, Bernie is an ideological child of the labor movement, and he has inherited its racism, too.  

Here's a little historical context:  In 1892, the Democrats won back the White House, solidifying the racial injustice that defined the Jim Crow era.  In that election, the Populist Party (aka "the People's Party") made an unprecedented (and yet to be equaled) showing.  They were riding heavily on the waves of the growing labor movement.  However, Frederick Douglass had strongly urged Black Americans to stick with the Republican party, to maintain their political unity under the party that had led them out of slavery.  Yet, the Republican party became lily-white and could no longer be trusted to represent racial justice. Black America was divided and without strong political representation.  Some even flocked to the Democrats who had violently opposed Reconstruction, thinking that there was no way out but to make friends with the enemy.  The populist movement was also racist, though.  Major unions were excluding non-whites.  Outspoken leaders in the movement, such as Frances Willard (who chaired the People's Party national convention in 1892), were more interested in women's suffrage and prohibition than in racial justice, arguing that the rapid increase in lynchings against African-Americans was the understandable result of increasing "outrages" against white women by black men. (More African-Americans were lynched in 1892 than in any other year, before or since.) Ida B. Wells came to national prominence that year for challenging the "white purity" myth, and went on to greater notoriety for standing up against Willard's racism.  Yet, the Populist Party and the labor movement refused to take up the banner of racial justice.  Indeed, the labor movement did not challenge the single most dastardly labor issue facing Black Americans:  the convict lease system. Far too few Americans were listening when Wells and Douglass lambasted the convict lease system, widespread lynching and other forms of systemic racism in protest of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  By the end of the 1890s, Plessy v. Ferguson had been decided and the Populist Party had joined forces with the Democrats.  The labor movement helped ensure a Democratic victory in 1892, the establishment of Jim Crow segregation, and the demise of a national political party for racial justice.  Racial justice would not again be identifiable with a national political party until the Democrats took up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's.  When Bernie was coming of age in the mid 1950's, labor unions were still resisting systematic attempts to make them more racially inclusive, and the struggle continues today.

I'm not knocking Bernie's civil rights record.  However, when it comes to race issues, Hillary and Bernie have decidedly different approaches. Hillary emphasizes humility and the need to listen to minority communities.  This was a big part of her discussion with members of the Black Lives Matter movement back in August:  After being asked how she, as a person, has changed since she supported mass incarceration in the 90's, she responded with two main points: First, she is and has long been committed to helping the disadvantaged, especially minorities and children; second, she thinks the community activists need to tell the politicians what needs to be done.  She does not want to impose her own point of view on the Black Lives Matter movement.  She fully supported what they were doing and saying, but implicitly criticized her interlocutor for asking her to sell "lip service."  Hillary wants to listen, learn and grow, and that is one of the ways she excels.  She does not have the answers for Black America, and doesn't claim to.  She does not offer a "one size fits all" approach to progressive change.  In contrast, Bernie thinks jobs are the answer for everything.  We can thank the labor movement and white male privilege for that.  Bernie does not show humility, patience or a desire to learn from the underprivileged. As a white male representing Vermont, he has not had to.

Bernie's privilege has not only influenced his position on black poverty in America.  It has also influenced his attitude towards immigration and trade as well.  He is not interested in establishing trade partnerships with other countries that could help improve the working conditions of poor laborers all over the world.  He cares only about American jobs.  Bernie is happy to open the door to immigrants, so long as they don't compete for jobs with Americans.  Bernie does not have a vision for global inequality.  He only sees the world that sustains his privilege.  Whatever happened to "workers of the world unite"?

White male privilege serves Bernie well as a representative from Vermont, but it is a liability for one who wants to represent the United States of America.  Yet, as a national candidate reviving the waves of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Bernie's impatience and stubborn-mindedness excite millions of progressives.  Some of his most outspoken supporters share his intransigence, which may be part of the reason they like him so much, and why they don't notice (or don't mind) the double standards Hillary Clinton has faced--not only in the present campaign, but throughout her career.  It disgusts me the way that Hillary's reputation and integrity are casually smeared, and yet so many of Bernie's supporters seem blind to his own limitations.  Many people act like it is safe to assume that Hillary is lying, like Hillary is guilty until proven innocent (a la the email scandal, and now the speech transcript scandal), and that Bernie is innocent no matter what.  They impugn the motives of anyone who questions Bernie's integrity or principles.  I am sure I am not the only one who has been ridiculed on Facebook for merely presenting a critical point of view about Bernie.  I am not the only one who has had friendly comments deleted because they question Bernie's ability to save America from doom.  It makes hope hard for democracy.