I really respect the honesty in Rebecca Traister’s Elle piece on Hillary. I admire how she was willing to just “put it all out there” and take whatever criticism comes as a result. It’s a generous thing to do, really, to sacrifice yourself that way to make an important point. I mean, she’s not pretending that we can’t come along and poke holes in her arguments and point out where she’s being very emotional and a bit irrational. She’s okay with that as long as we have to listen to how she feels and maybe learn a little bit what it’s like to be really invested in the idea of a woman president for its own sake.
It’s a feeling and a sentiment that ought to be respected. And part of me just wants to say, “Okay, I hear you, I respect that” and be silent.
But, look, the thing is that part what’s going on is that white liberals like myself are being put on the defensive in a way that really isn’t fair. And we have feelings, too, which deserve the same kind of respect. So, when I read something like the following, I do feel like I need to respond:
There will be sexism, veiled and direct, from the right and the left. Democratic women will feel screwed by their friends all over again, as I did in August when I saw a poll showing Clinton ahead of her Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders by a mere 6 points with the party’s men and 44 points with its women: a 38-percentage-point gender gap that seemed to speak volumes about how much men on the left care about women’s leadership.
And oh, those guys—my friends, my colleagues, my professional sparring partners—make me mad. Not just because they’d never in a million years admit that their preference for a white guy has anything to do with gender, or because they suggest that I’m the regressive one for caring that Hillary’s a woman. I mean, obviously those things make me mad too. But the real bitch is when I hear her attacked by men who claim to be feminists but actually despise her with inexplicable intensity, when I hear her supporters belittled for their cute investment in a non-male presidential power. It makes me spittingly angry. It transforms me into a knee-jerk defender of a candidate about whom I actually feel very torn. I’m allowed to criticize Hillary all I want, but damn if another round of sniping from liberal white boys isn’t going to radicalize me in her defense all over again.
Again, when someone comes right out and tells you that they’re being “a knee-jerk defender” of someone or something, they aren’t actually trying to convince you of the intellectual merits of their argument. They’re telling you how they feel and asking you to respect the legitimacy of their feelings.
And I’m willing to do that, so long as we’re clear that knee-jerk reactions are not ideal. That’s the way you react instinctively before you’ve had a moment to process what you’ve just seen or heard. I’m in favor of processing stuff.
As for how I feel, all things being equal, I’d prefer a woman president to a male president and I’d prefer a Senate with 80 women instead of 80 men. But I also know that there’s something about Hillary Clinton that I can’t warm up to, and I’m not just talking about her politics. I examine those feelings all the time because I’m suspicious about those feelings. They are, in some sense, inexplicable, even if I would never describe them as terribly intense or anything like “despising” her. So, no, I’m not a “hot mess” about Hillary, but I am conflicted and I do wonder how my feelings about gender enter into the intellectual, conscious part of my political analysis.
What I don’t like is having these feelings, which I freely admit that I don’t fully understand myself, reduced to me being a “liberal white boy” who doesn’t give a damn about “women’s leadership” and is willing to “screw over” my fellow liberal female friends.
To Traister’s credit, she acknowledges that she’s loading Hillary’s candidacy up with a bunch of values that have little to nothing to do with anything specific to Hillary, but people are reacting to a real human being, not a gender. How I feel about Hillary is completely different from how I feel about Amy Klobuchar or Claire McCaskill or Barbara Mikulski. Maybe Klobuchar presents herself more like how I subconsciously want a woman to present herself, and maybe I like Mikulski’s form of combativeness better than I like McCaskill’s or Hillary’s. How I feel about their positions on issues also colors how I feel about them as people. I like Barbara Boxer’s politics but don’t have much respect for her as a politician, while I dislike Diane Feinstein’s politics but think she’s very effective and influential. You know, I can trust Elizabeth Warren and revere Paul Wellstone while not trusting Alan Grayson and not revering Dennis Kucinich. I make judgments about politicians based on everything I can bring to the table, and some politicians I just don’t quite feel comfortable with even if I can’t precisely describe my reasons.
In any case, it matters much less to me how I feel about Hillary as a person than it does how I feel about her position on Syria, and I’m not ready for the quagmire candidate. I feel like I should be able to make that point without getting lumped in with a bunch of jerks who are genuinely uncomfortable with female leadership. I should be able to say that having a woman president is important to me, but not as important as the distinctions between Hillary and Bernie, and probably Joe, on what to do (or not do) about the Middle East.
And I think I ought to be able to say that maybe gender does enter into it for me, a bit, even if I’m not really aware of quite how it does, but that this isn’t what’s driving my skepticism about and reluctance to see a Clinton restoration. You know, there’s also this guy Bill who is part of the package here, and perhaps how I feel about him is nearly as important as how I feel about her.
To be honest, I’ve been reconciled to a Clinton restoration for several years now, as readers here can attest. What I always say, though, is that the foreign policy piece is the hump I can’t quite surmount. I can’t just say, “well, look, if she doesn’t win the nomination all these people I care about are going to feel really disappointed and betrayed” and let that be the end of my decision making.
In closing, let me make a point about Jackie Robinson. When he came up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, some of the players threatened to sit out rather than suit up with a black guy. Here’s what their manager Leo Durocher had to say about that, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
The Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey carefully chose Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier because he had the right temperament, in his estimation, to put up with all the hatred and hostility that he knew would accompany the move. Maybe that’s the best argument for Clinton being the first female president.
On the other hand, maybe it’s wrong to treat her like Jackie Robinson. After all, who’s Leo Durocher in this scenario? Who’s the one with the clear moral authority to tell us that we have to get on board or we’re going on the trading block?
The presidency isn’t a baseball game, and it’s not whether or not Hillary can hit a curveball or has zebra stripes that we’re worried about. I know some good people will feel terribly if she isn’t our nominee, but we can’t let that be decisive. There’s a bigger picture to consider.
And that’s just how I feel.