osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

An Ugly Gloria Steinem Piece -- And Why I Wish the "Old Guard" Would Retire Already

I will savor for a moment the problem of a (now) middle aged white guy commenting on this piece by Gloria Steinem in the Sunday NYT complaining that it's unfair that black men get to have a president before white women do, along with general complaints about how sexism remains the real problem for Clinton's struggling campaign, dual standard issues, etc., etc.

But hey, I read it, I got opinions, and this is my blog. More below the cut.

I should spend more time doing my real work, but am still caught up in election fever and analyzing this sort of thing is actually rather relevant to my job. Because the Steinem piece illustrates one of the biggest problems for the "big tent" progressive approach. It is a classic of the "I got it worse so I should get mine first" whining that shatters movements. As Steinem writes:
That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).
Shall we now compare the number of black men in prison to the number of white women, or even black women? Shall we observe that there are more women in the Senate than black men? More women governors? That a woman got to be Speaker of the House before a black man? Shall we then retort that a black man (Thurgood Marshall) was appointed to the Supreme Court before the first woman (Sandra Day O'Connor)? Not to mention the number of black men who would argue that no white woman worries about "driving while black" and that if black men had really gotten the vote "a half century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot" we would not have needed the Voting Rights Act a century after the 15th Amendment prevented states from abridging the right to vote on account of race and almost fifty years after the constitution prohibited restrictions based on gender.

All of which women could counter with tales of different sorts of oppression -- if this were a good conversation to have. But it isn't. Steinem herself, after leading with "I'm more oppressed than you are," then explains why this is really about substance not whining:
I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.
The problem, of course, is that this sounds like "I get to say what I want, but you can't argue because that will shatter the movement." Uh-huh. Let me explain from experience how well these arguments play with black progressives, who feel that they always, always end up needing to sacrifice their issues and complaints on behalf of the greater movement while the white folks get to say whatever they want and set the priorities. Answer: not...friggin'...well.

Steinem concludes with:
But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

Steinem's complaint has been echoed at various times by Clinton supporters and her campaign, especially after the debate where Edwards and all the other candidates went after Clinton in a calculated move to bring down the front runner. But Steinem's arguments are both refutable and disturbing. Obama and Clinton have campaigned differently on the race/gender issue, and have received different reactions. In Obama's case, he has always campaigned on his "one America" theme: that Americans need to stop focusing on our differences and join together, and that he is uniquely positioned to bring everyone together in a post-partisan post-racist America where he is, to quote his constant refrain "President of All the people of the United States."

Clinton, by contrast, has used the gender issue to show her strength and determination against all obstacles. "I'm a strong woman, who has fought against those who hate strong women, and that shows I'm tough enough for anything." That's not a bad pitch. But it is as much a fighter/further battle pitch as Edwards' "Two Americas" and his vow to fight special interests. Indeed, many Edwards supporters point to Obama's "unity" theme as a reason to prefer Edwards (while distrusting Hilary Clinton for the same reason they came to distrust Bill Clinton -- they regard her as too cozy with the corps). If it were just a question of "white men get to be strong, while strong women are bitches and strong black men are threatening," as Steinem argues, Edwards should be leading. But he and his "strong fighter" rhetoric are holding in the 15%-20% range. It would appears that male and female voters are not so much repulsed from Hilary's combining "strong" with "woman," but are drawn to Obama's "strength does not need confrontation" approach.

More women than men find Clinton's brand of toughness from gender struggles unifying, as reflected by polling data. Why not? Tribalism is a powerful thing, and it spreads its wealth around quite equally. The black/white distinction and the male "anti-Hilary" idea have also gotten their share of press. Heck, here is Steinem devoting an entire op ed to how the very notion of voting for Obama is anti-woman and merely a reaction against Hilary. It is difficult to square the notion that it is a double standard to portray women as being unduly loyal to Hilary, while arguing that men voted against her because of male solidarity against strong women.

Worse, Steinem then makes the contradictory argument that women should unite behind Clinton precisely because they are women, and that only by standing united to vote for Clinton can women "escape the Sexual caste system." She singles out young women voting for Obama (or by extension any or the male candidates) as deluded or in denial of their oppression. If a woman voting for Obama is a case of gender betrayal, how is it even possible to escape the characterization that a woman voting for Clinton is a case of gender loyalty? And while Steinem may win points on consistency -- such rhetoric on the need to raise class consciousness has been a staple of the women's movement from its inception -- it will shock the educated and independent women in the Obama movement to hear that they are deluded participants in their own degradation if they vote for Brother Barak over Sistah Hilary.

Obama has consistently tried to get past the race question from the first day of the race, when the press was abuzz with whether Obama was "black enough" for the African American community. I therefore find Steinem's complaint that Obama has somehow gotten an easy ride or been judged on some favorable double standard unfathomable. Rather, I wonder how Steinem can simultaneously complain that its unfair and sexist for black men to get their liberation first, that any woman who doesn't support Sistah Hilary is deluded or denying the essential nature of the sexist caste system, and then wonder why on Earth anyone finds Clinton (or her supporters) divisive.

Leaving the election aside, Steinem's piece is a prime example of why the liberal movement has lost so much ground over the last 20 years, and why the modern progressive movement must continue to divorce itself from the "Old Guard" leaders and organizations that will not let go. It is this attitude that allows former Black Panther Bobby Rush to shill for AT&T because they spend money in his district, and the movement is about getting liberation for me and mine ahead of anyone else. Because, as Steinem demonstrates, whatever supposed allies may say when they want your help, they are out to get theirs first. It has made the Old Guard a group of leaders that refuse to change tactics or rhetoric, refuse to vary their approaches, refuse to conduct new research or revisit old battles and conclusions. It is a movement that eats its young, by providing no place to rise and by branding those who disagree or question as heretics and traitors that undermine "the Cause." And it is a movement that refuses to play well with others, and thus fails to build allies or develop new sources of political or social capital.

My worst nightmare on a professional level is a campaign along the lines illustrated by Steinem -- where we are all one big happy progressive family until it looks like Clinton (or Obama) is going to lose and we revert to "back off, this is supposed to be MY TURN to win the prize!" If Steinem really believed her own words that "The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together," the triumph of Barak Obama would be just as liberating, just as essential, and just as critical for the overall success of the Progressive cause.

Other folks in the movement won't forget Steinem's kind of "double standard," where someone says we should all get our just reward as long as I and mine get it first. They won't forget in the general election, or in the long struggles that will follow after no matter who wins. If we still want to change the world, rather than just make it a better place for me and everyone like me, then Steinem and other old guard who think everyone ought to fall in line because "it's MY TURN" need to step aside an let a new generation take a turn.

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