May
23rd 2008
Hark! A voice from the future, today.

Posted under: American history, Gender, unhappy endings, women's history

Andrew Stephen in The New Statesman.  Just read it.  (H/t to Corrente.)

The one point I don’t agree with is his claim that Obama is “perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever.”  That seems to be hyperbolic at best, living as we are in the shadows of the wreckage of the George W. Bush Presidency.  (Obama, wasn’t a drunken partyboy until the age of 40, and didn’t have a father whose wealth and connections he could coast on.)  But I think Stephen’s analysis of this primary election season’s dynamic is dead on.  And, I suspect his prediction that “history. . . will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes” will come true, sooner rather than later.

While I am not an American political historian (as the field is traditionally defined), the political uses of gendered rhetoric are an important part of my intellectual agenda.  My first book was a study of how ideas and language about gender and the family were used to describe people’s observations and experiences of cross-cultural warfare and politics in seventeenth and eighteenth-century North America.  So, I know quite a lot transhistorically and cross-culturally about the ways in which ideas about gender are interwoven into political discourses in the modern West.  (And, as an “early modernist,” please understand that “modern” here means post-1492.)  People reveal themselves in the language they use, consciously or unconsciously.  Both Cotton Mather and Chris Matthews are spokesmen for their time and place as people favored by an eminent position in the culture.  We should listen to the words they say, not because they’re necessarily intelligent or “true,” but because they can tell us a lot about ourselves.

In many ways, the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton this year–the blowback of which will probably be felt by women in all walks of life for years to come in thousands of discouraging ways–is part of an old story best documented by Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler.  Somerby has been on the case of the insular corporate media since 1999, when he noticed the power of the preferred media narrative about Al Gore’s candidacy for the Presidency, and its curious imperviousness to the facts.  And as Somerby points out regularly–you’ll never see or hear the media tell the truth about its own role in shaping our political and cultural discourses.  (John Judis’s recent admission in The New Republic that the media hated Clinton and picked Obama as the Democratic winner is one of the few times when we’re permitted to see The Great Oz operating behind the flimsy curtain.)

In my adult life, the corporate media has repeatedly gone off the rails and created an alternative universe that bore little resemblance to reality.  First, in 1993, it was the cheerleading for NAFTA, and the insistence that fair trade would lift all boats equally.  Then in 1998-99, it was with l’affaire Lewinskyand the impeachment of Bill Clinton, in which the corporate media convinced itself early on that Clinton was a goner.  Then in 1999-2000, it was the internet bubble, and Dow 36,000, and the breathless insistence that the U.S. economy was a perpetual wealth-making machine that had figured out a way to grow forever.  And, of course, we were told what a vile fabulist Al Gore was.  When Bill Bradley failed to beat Gore despite Bradley’s favorable press advantage, the media entrusted the task of destroying Gore to George W. Bush.  The consequences of this media echo-chamber/bandwagon became more serious than ever, when in September 2001 the corporate media told us that Bush was Winston Churchill reborn, the greatest “war President” ever.  With the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2002-03, no dissenting voices were permitted to be heard, either from expert commentators or among the obedient stenographers in the press corps themselves.  This bubble was only burst by the malign–nay criminal–indifference and incompetence of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricaine Katrina in 2005.  This winter, with the nutcrackers, the comparisons to monstrous fictional characters, the unwarranted attacks and blatant disrespect (“you’re likeable enough,” “Sweetie,”), all backed up in perfect harmony by the “iron my shirt” and the “bros before hos” chorus, it all felt too sadly familiar. 

In every one of these cases, not only was the corporate media wrong, but in most cases it was wrong in ways that were disastrous for people who aren’t the blow-dried, pancaked, made men (and women) of the corporate media.  That is to say, all but about 500 Americans.  All of them have high-paying jobs, with health insurance.  None of them lost their jobs because of NAFTA, or lost their pension plans and 401K’s as a result of the stock market bubble bursting.  None of them marched off to fight a war designed more to prop up George W. Bush’s poll numbers and help him win re-election than to make any part of the world safer, freer, or more just.  None of them saw their houses and families drown in New Orleans.  This year, with Bush’s approval ratings in the toilet, the corporate media decided that it didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be the next President.  That may be the decision Democrats would have come to on their own through the primary process–but her tremendous success at playing it to a draw suggests that with even occasionally fair press coverage, she may well have been triumphant.  Sadly, Democrats haven’t defended one of their own candidates–too many of us stood by and enjoyed the drubbing Hillary was taking because it benefited our preferred candidate, and many of us piled on too, repeating and amplifying some of the most vicious lies about Clinton that the “vast right-wing conspiracy” ever dreamed up.  As I have argued here repeatedly since February, that was short-sighted at best, given Somberby’s documentation of the preferred corporate media narrative for all Democratic presidential candidates for the past thirty years.  And yet, we have let the corporate media choose our candidate, when they have been so wrong, so consistently and disastrously wrong for the past fifteen years.

This post is not an argument for the flawless perfection of Clinton as a candidate, nor is it arguing that Clinton is the only or most important victim of this poisonous misogyny, nor is it suggesting that all Obama supporters are guilty.  (Historiann has said repeatedly that there are plenty of good reasons to prefer Obama for the Democratic nomination.  This blog has never trashed him, but rather has come to his and Michelle Obama’s defense several times.)  It’s a Jeremiad lamenting the fact that once again, Democrats have permitted a corrupt and wrong-headed media to select our candidate instead of insisting on the sovereignty of Democratic voters, and that we’ve allowed them to do this using language and ideas that the vast majority of us officially repudiate.  (Aren’t we the party for feminists?  Isn’t this party the one that defends women’s bodily sovereignty and civil rights?  Whisky Tango Foxtrot?)  We don’t know yet what all of the consequences will be for this media blanket party for Hillary Clinton in 2008.  We surely know, from bitter experience, what the consequences were for the media takedown of Gore in 1999-2000.  Remind me again:  how’d that work out for us?

UPDATE:  Gee, could this be a problem?  I dunno!  (Via Echidne.)

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Hark! A voice from the future, today.”

  1. David on 23 May 2008 at 11:24 am #

    Thank you for writing this provocative and interesting post. I have a few thoughts, observations, and questions.

    1. To what extent does the corporate media influence voters? Does your argument suggest that many or most Obama voters have been seduced by the media, whereas Clinton’s supporters have successfully seen through the hype? Also, how does your argument relate to the non-corporate sources of information, such as the Internet, where many of Obama’s key demographics–young voters, more educated voters–now turn for most of their information. A lot of people I know who follow politics very closely don’t even watch MSNBC or CNN anymore. They get everything through a fairly diverse array of blogs.

    2. To what extent is this “corporate media” a homogenous entity? Why have some outlets in the corporate media obsessively followed the Reverend Wright story, if they are secretly all in the bag for Obama?

    3. How does your argument account for the period right before Texas and Ohio where SNL basically started echoing Clinton talking points in their skits, and also for the Pennsylvania debate?

    4. Why do you think misogyny has been a more important feature of this campaign than racism? The nutcracker you feature is the sort of commodification of a stereotype that Obama has experienced in equal parts as well. Have you seen the t-shirts of the monkey eating the banana? Or the fact that someone has managed to convince 10 percent of the United States population that Obama is a dangerous Muslim radical?

    5. Finally, to what extent do you think the Clinton campaign openly encouraged the above stereotype, that she is a castrating female? The campaign insisted on playing up her masculinity, her toughness. Her surrogate talked about her having three balls to Obama’s one. Clinton endorsed an SNL skit in which Tina Fey called her a “bitch.” (Because “bitches get things done.”) At some point, didn’t the Clinton campaign make a decision that this narrative helped them?

    Also, at some point your narrative of how Clinton got her draw needs to account for the assist she got from white racists in Appalachia. She was getting creamed until the Ohio primary. Judging by exit polls, her campaign was aided considerably by racism in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. And Hillary will have her own statements to regret later on, particularly her comment on “hard working white Americans.” Some of the recent national polls now suggest that her advantage among Latinos may now be gone, and I have to think the image of her as a champion of the white working classes may have done her in with them as well.

  2. Historiann on 23 May 2008 at 11:57 am #

    Well, either you think that people on cable TV and in newspapers, magazines, and blogs all using misogyinistic language and frames about Clinton is important, or you don’t. (Andrew Stephen’s article, which was the inspriation for this post, does a nice job of cataloging the insults.) Because I’m a historian, and we use texts and language to analyze past societies, I happen to think they matter a lot. The precise influence the media has on voter behavior is hard to quantify, but my point in this post is less about the electoral results than it is how troubling it is for our culture as a whole.

    I don’t have time to address your lengthy list of questions now. But as to your question #4, this is a post about the corporate media’s use of language and framing, not what’s in the hearts and minds of all Americans. I’m not making a claim here in the “oppression olympics.” In the media discourse, there’s no question but that sexist language and ideas were given free reign, whereas racist language and ideas were more often than not quickly repudiated. Also, that nutcracker was apparently for sale in airports in CNBC shops, whereas the “Curious George” T-shirt was one yokel’s idea to sell at his own restaurant. One product was mass-produced and mass-marketed, the other was not. I think that says a lot about the free reign that misogyny has had in this political campaign.

  3. ej on 23 May 2008 at 12:19 pm #

    Whether or not the media influenced voters, they certainly felt that it was completely acceptable to speak about Clinton in openly sexist terms-which revealed how ingrained sexist language is in our society and how we continue to accept sexist behavior in a way that we would never accept racism.

    Although there are clearly some who will never vote for Obama because of his color, I’ve been encouraged by the country’s response to him. On the contrary, the response to Clinton has been appalling, and I disagree that the glass ceiling has been broken. I don’t feel optimistic about my daughter’s future. If a woman as intelligent, successful, charismatic and politically savvy as HRC couldn’t break that glass ceiling, I don’t know who can.

    I think its also been telling how quick the mainstream media has been to dismiss the charges of sexism leveled by the campaign. They’ve clearly refused to see it as a real problem, and I fear are dismissing her remarks as excuses, which doesn’t give me much hope about them changing their ways anytime soon.

  4. Knitting Clio on 23 May 2008 at 12:53 pm #

    The blowback against a woman candidate goes back even further, to the nineteenth century, when Victoria Woodhull ran for president on the Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate. I use this historical example in my modern U.S. women’s history class this semester to illustrate the ways in which things have not changed all that much when it comes to the way female political candidates are treated by the media.

  5. Historiann on 23 May 2008 at 1:04 pm #

    KC–great point. You should do a post comparing the language and rhetoric of 2008 to that of 1872.

    And ej–you’re right that media stories about the sexism of the 2008 campaign coverage are stories in which they examine and (usually) summarily dismiss the claim, or at least suggest that it’s only angry Hillary supporters who care.

  6. David on 23 May 2008 at 1:06 pm #

    The Stephen piece is overheated and hyperbolic. There’s no doubt that sexism has been thrown at Clinton during this campaign, but Stephen seems to imply that every attack against Hillary was unfair and unnecessarily malicious. He also claims that no one will admit Clinton is smart, and that no one else will say of a male candidate that he is “cool and collected.” But people say that about Obama all the time, and people also, even her most bitter enemies, always say she is incredibly smart. Further, Obama’s remark at the South Carolina debate regarding “not being sure who he is running against” was entirely fair, given that in the days immediately prior to that debate, the Clinton campaign had been putting Bill front and center in their attacks on him.

    I think Hillary is not the best choice for making the glass ceiling argument. She’s a multi-millionaire who won a seat in the U.S. Senate based almost entirely on her name recognition (and pushed aside a more qualified female candidate in order to do so, I might add.) She spent too much time during her Senate career tacking to the middle and supporting Bush’s wars to keep my respect. She ran a poor campaign and lost to a better candidate. Stephen’s conclusion almost makes it seem as if he is implying that Democrats will regret nominating a black man when he loses in November. Is that why he is seriously flawed?

    Does this al-Jazeera report best express his flaws?

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/05/race-in-kentuck.html

  7. Historiann on 23 May 2008 at 1:48 pm #

    Well, like I said: you either think language is important, or you don’t.

    And, David–you’re right! Clinton is totally unique in being “a multi-millionaire who won a seat in the U.S. Senate based almost entirely on her name recognition.” I mean, no other men have gotten into politics that way (except Kennedys, Fords, Macks, Jacksons, Chaffees, Gores, Bushes, Udalls…and the list goes on and on.) Moreover, she wasn’t a multi-millionaire when she ran in 2000–I think most of their money came from Bill’s book, published only after he left office. They weren’t nearly as wealthy as the Obamas are when Bill Clinton ran for the Presidency and during his terms in office.

    The problem with saying that “Hillary is not the best choice for making the glass ceiling argument,” is that NO WOMAN will be right for making that argument. Misogyny discounters and deniers will always find a reason to say that this or that prominent woman isn’t a measure for anything. And yet, we have no problem seeing Obama’s candidacy as a moment of great aspiration for African Americans, or Kennedy’s presidency as a big moment for American Catholics (especially Irish Catholics).

    And: which part of “This post is not an argument for the flawless perfection of Clinton as a candidate, nor is it arguing that Clinton is the only or most important victim of this poisonous misogyny” did you not understand? (Which means, essentially, that this will not be a comment thread on how vile you find Clinton.) You don’t need to state yet again all of the reasons you hate Hillary Clinton. Give it a rest, OK?

  8. David on 23 May 2008 at 5:21 pm #

    Well, in your blog you’ve never really criticized her on any substantive issue. So, naturally, you chalk up her defeats to the shortcomings of others: their misogyny, for example. You’re already blaming the media for her defeat, thereby assigning almost no agency to the millions of voters who went to the polls over the last several months.

    If you were more critical of your own candidate’s campaign, you would see that the “hatred” of Hillary Clinton (and I do not hate her), is not “blind” and it is not necessarily gendered in the simplistic ways your narrative suggests. You would see that while, yes, sexism plays a role in this campaign, it is complicated by the candidate’s own shortcomings and failures. In short, your analysis would become more nuanced and persuasive. Instead, you continually offer up a narrative in which these homogeneous entities constantly unfairly attack this strong and powerful woman. By reifying these narratives, you simply make Clinton out to be a perpetual victim of misogyny; by connecting her experiences to those of all women, you make all women out to be perpetual victims. I don’t think that does either Clinton or American women any credit.

    I don’t hate her, Historiann. I feel sorry for her at this point. Watching her this evening having to apologize for a stupid gaffe, I just felt sorry for her.

  9. Historiann on 23 May 2008 at 5:37 pm #

    Once again, what part of “This post is not an argument for the flawless perfection of Clinton as a candidate, nor is it arguing that Clinton is the only or most important victim of this poisonous misogyny” did you not understand?” Where does your sense of entitlement come from that you think you can make every thread on my blog about your disgust for Hillary Clinton?

    I’d like to point out that your comments to a widely published author are extremely condescending. I wonder if you would attack a man with my publication record and academic rank in such a manner, insinuating that my analysis is not nuanced or persuasive? (No–actually, I don’t wonder!) Some might say that you’re offering evidence of the pervasive misogyny that is in fact the topic of this thread.

    It’s clear that you’re playing the old trick that anti-feminists play, which is to say that pointing out injustice is creating divisions, rather than analyzing them, and that talking about it injustice is turning people into “victims.” So, henceforth, you can keep to your own blog. This is a feminist blog for feminist women and men. If you can’t respect that basic fact, then you’re gone.

  10. Teh Ruelz : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 24 May 2008 at 8:31 am #

    [...] posts about keeping the comments here on topic and specific to the points raised in my posts were apparently too subtle, this blog is now instituting formal ruelz for comments and commenters.  (I always wondered why [...]

  11. Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » The Sexism In The Democratic Primary on 25 May 2008 at 9:17 am #

    [...] Historiann amplifies this point, noting: In many ways, the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton this year–the blowback of which will probably be felt by women in all walks of life for years to come in thousands of discouraging ways–is part of an old story best documented by Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler. Somerby has been on the case of the insular corporate media since 1999, when he noticed the power of the preferred media narrative about Al Gore’s candidacy for the Presidency, and its curious imperviousness to the facts. And as Somerby points out regularly–you’ll never see or hear the media tell the truth about its own role in shaping our political and cultural discourses. (John Judis’s recent admission in The New Republic that the media hated Clinton and picked Obama as the Democratic winner is one of the few times when we’re permitted to see The Great Oz operating behind the flimsy curtain.) [...]

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