Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Forgotten Topic of the 2016 Elections. Or How Echidne Almost Got Gaslighted.

We hardly discuss one of the most interesting aspects of the  2016 US presidential elections:  That the long picture gallery of all American presidents remained hundred-percent male.  Neither do we discuss why so many of us, both women and men, failed to see anything wrong with that, even while some others celebrated  the Trump victory by open pussy-grabbing or its verbal equivalents.

Imagine some other demographic groups, more than half of all citizens, calmly accepting (1) that none of its members has ever governed the country, and is very unlikely to do so in the near future!  It's not possible, my friends, except when it comes to women.

But when it comes to women, the majority of Americans,  equal representation is not an important goal.  Rather, it's outdated identity politics, at best only of symbolic worth.  The strength of that message  is mind-boggling, unprecedented and unpresidented.

How did it come about?

I argue that it is the result of gaslighting, a term which the American linguistic left adopted from psychological literature, and then adapted to political speech, often to silence someone.  Gaslighting is

manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent to is sow seeds of doubt in the subject, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.

My friends, we have been gaslighted, through denial, misdirection, contradiction, lying and more.  It is particularly easy to gaslight those who are prone to self-inspection, to careful scrutiny of their own ideas and to careful attention to how others criticize them.  Indeed, I have eagerly abetted my own gaslighting!

It took Mark Lilla's New York Times article "The End of Identity Liberalism," on the horrors that is identity politics inside the Democratic Party to drop the scales from my eyes. He wrote:

Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold.
Notice the gaslighting in the sentence I have bolded:  The story of, say, the first female president, ever, would be a lazy story.  If we pick from the terms of the quote which defines gaslighting, this would be misdirection.  Yet nobody would have stated that the story of, say,  the first black president in South Africa would have been a lazy story.  

Later, in an uplifting appeal, Lilla wrote about the values we all can share:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.

That might qualify as a lie, using the list of terms which define gaslighting,  because pre-identity liberalism was identity liberalism of the type where Lilla's own group had all the power, and because most issues do not affect the vast majority of Americans in exactly the same way.

Take Trump's infrastructure improvement promises (which he might renege on, as is his wont):  Those jobs are not going to go to all American adults, in their population proportions, but overwhelmingly to men, because construction industries are almost completely male (2).

My heartfelt thanks to Mark Lilla.  He opened my eyes and then I directed them to all the other material which almost got me gaslighted into believing that it doesn't really matter if women hold political power on the highest levels.  The rest of this post addresses some of them.

Let's begin by pointing out three important aspects of this topic:

First, the gaslighting comes from both sides of the political aisle and even from people not that easily categorized.  Not all is intended to damage women's equality goals, though some of it certainly is (3).  But all of it damages the idea that women's high-level political power might matter.

Second, and related to the previous point, valid criticisms have been made about assigning too much weight to the idea of a female president, about expecting too much from one person who, after all, would be among the most privileged in the world.  But those criticisms, too, gaslight us into a blindness about what a fair society would look like and how to work towards it.

Third, the story about the first woman who almost became the president of the United States is unavoidably the Hillary Clinton story.  I have struggled in the past, and in vain, against the knee-jerk assumption by many that if I write about topics such as this one I'm a fanatic for Hillary Clinton and am really writing in her defense.

The fault, my friends, is in the stars.  Or, rather, in that powerful and prominent women in American politics are almost as rare as hen's teeth.  That makes writing about their treatment as women impossibly intertwined with them as individuals.  A bizarre consequence of that rarity (which in itself is linked to the gaslighting) is that the few who do hold real power are in the news so often that their actual rarity becomes obscured.

Thus, I cannot avoid addressing Hillary Clinton as a politician in this post.  But my goal is much wider than that, and has to do with the question why we suddenly don't find the idea of the first female president at all important, while others  (including one Vladimir Putin) find that idea so frightening.

My central explanation for the successful gaslighting of so many is this:

1.  The first viable female candidate for the presidency was simultaneously "normalized" and "abnormalized" (4). 

Hillary Clinton became the candidate of the Democratic establishment, the candidate of status quo, the Wall Street candidate, the face of the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party.  She was "normalized" by her long presence in Democratic politics, she was even normalized in the traditional sense of entering it first as the sidekick of a man, using the one global avenue which has long been open for some women to reach political power: family connections.

By the time the 2016 elections came by, Hillary Clinton stood for nothing new.  She was a known figure, a distrusted figure, the last representative of the dying centrist policies of the Democratic Party, the corrupt and crooked opponent for the Republicans.  She seemed to have nothing exciting to offer, in terms of women's rights, several feminists told me.  Her achievements in that field were somehow hidden from view, her age and her privilege worked against her.  For young women, she seemed to have always been around, on top, with power, and that might have made the lack of women in politics disappear from their sight.

In short, she became a run-of-the-mill politician in that normalization process.

Except that she was also "abnormalized" by the Republican message industry.  This abnormalization began during her years as First Lady in Bill Clinton's realm, initially because she was an uppity woman, too big for her breeches, too mouthy, liable to push into places where she was not wanted.

The Republican propaganda industry of the 1990s blamed her for everything imaginable, including for murder and for acting as a procurer of rape victims for Bill Clinton.  The plots against her came so fast that they were impossible to respond to.  Only tedious research in the annals of history tells us how many of them were built out of foul-smelling air and ultimately fell flat.

But the taint remained, and later, when circumstances changed, that label of "abnormal" stuck to her.  She was crooked and corrupt, as one Donald Trump told us repeatedly, she should be Locked Up, as Trump's supporters still believe.

Rush Limbaugh and other similar conservative pundits spent years building up a picture of Hillary Clinton as very much resembling Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler, as something utterly out of the normal in politics.  Even the email scandal was seen through some enormous magnifying glass, one which was not applied to earlier email scandals of very similar nature.

There is no doubt in my mind that this abnormalization would not have been so vigorously and viciously applied to an otherwise identical politician with the name Harry Clinton.  No, Hillary Clinton's sex mattered, her role as the prominent public specimen of the uppity woman mattered, because of the fears that provoked in the hind-brains of many.

None of this means that she was an angel, that she doesn't make idiotic political mistakes, that she couldn't use power wrong,  that she is not good at campaigning or that she wouldn't hold policy positions with which I differ.  But her girl cooties did play a role in how that abnormalization was allowed to become common wisdom.

One example of that are the frequent mentions of her "naked and self-serving ambition" in the comments sections of even left-wing political blogs, and the common meme that she felt entitled to the presidency, that it was Her Turn.

But the political arena is the one where naked and self-serving ambition is usually rewarded!  Just look at Donald Trump.  And surely Jed Bush acted as if it was His Turn?  In terms of family dynasties in American politics?  Accusing Hillary Clinton of naked and self-serving ambition works particularly well, whether she indeed holds such ambition, because as a woman she is not supposed to.

The combination of normalization and abnormalization made Hillary Clinton's potential role as the first female president of the United States more than invisible from most:  It was in poor taste even to mention, because then one might be accused of defending a horrible, untrustworthy and corrupt candidate. (See why it took me so long to write this post?  But this post is not about her, it's about women with political power, so onwards and upwards.)

2.  The Value Of Having Women In Political Power Is Questioned 

The conservatives have never seen much value in having women in politics.  The Evangelicals in the party believe that women belong in the home, under male guardianship, and the free market conservatives believe that women can get into politics if they fight hard enough, despite any discriminatory barriers that might stand in their way.  Well, as long as they do that after having done all the hands-on child-rearing.

Thus, this device for gaslighting came mainly from the left side of the aisle.  It ranged from the arguments that such a victory is purely symbolic, signifying nothing for the majority of women, to carefully constructed (and valid) arguments about the need for more than having women at the helm: (5)

For real economic policies which help women, including poor women and women of color, and for policies which do not privilege only the already (relatively) privileged, educated, wealthy and predominantly white women, the group which is most likely to be close enough to political power.

But those arguments can be misused to argue that, say, an all-male US Congress would be perfectly fine, forevermore,  what with the possibility that women in high places wouldn't help women in general.  If we use that argument by going down the power ladders, rung by rung, at what point would the presence of women start mattering?  At the floor level?  But what kind of power would those women then have?  And how likely is it that an all-male Congress or Supreme Court, say, would understand everything about those aspects of life which women generally share with each other?  That the correct laws would be created about, say, rape, or the need for subsidized childcare or better parental leaves?

This was the point with which I had a lot of sympathy, the point at which I was almost gaslighted (though not intentionally by anyone else), because surely it was true that Margaret Thatcher as Britain's Prime Minister didn't do anything for women's rights?  Rather the reverse, given how she once stated that she owes nothing to the feminist movement?  (Except, of course, the right to stand for office...)

In other words, having a woman run the country doesn't, by itself, turn it into a paradise of equal rights.

But reverse that sentence:  Would a paradise of equal rights have all political power in men's hands?  I doubt that, even if most men intended to be fair in their decisions.

And what would we deduce about some other country which had never had a woman president?  We would certainly not see it as a wonderfully gender-egalitarian place, but would like to know why there's such a dearth of women in politics.

These arguments need a more nuanced treatment:  Having women in political power is not a sufficient condition for improvements in women's position, but I believe that it is a necessary condition, that we must strive for equal representation, and not only for that reason, but for the reason that the slight majority of its people should play a bigger role in how a country is run than is the case today in the United States.

Or take the "merely a symbolic victory" argument:  Many symbols are tremendously important.  Think of the Christian cross or the American flag.  A symbolic victory is not nothing.  At least it would give future generations a different image of what a president might look like, who is capable of that job.  It could be used as a counterargument in those nasty conversations I still  have which are all about how women cannot be in charge, for various religious or evolutionary psychology reasons.

Some arguments that fall under this category were explicitly about Hillary Clinton, not about having a woman governing the country.  Those tended to argue that she is the wrong type of woman for the job, that her victory would not be a victory for feminism, that she is an establishment candidate, that she is a faux feminist, that of course it's a disgrace that all US presidents have been (and are going to be, in January) men, and of course one would very much wish to see a woman in that role, only the right kind of woman, one day, when someone else has worked very hard for that goal.  Perhaps in our grandchildren's time?

This point angers me.  It angers me not because someone wouldn't want to vote for Hillary Clinton and not because someone would view her as a bad candidate.  

No.  I'm angry at the facile way the very idea of a woman at the helm is discounted in so many of these conversations, with the promises of some far-distant future era when a woman good enough will be unearthed (and somehow left pristine after the expected attacks from the other side), even though we currently have great difficulty even getting women to run for office.  

I wouldn't be surprised if the way the 2016 elections went made many young women and girls decide never to voluntarily undergo the kind of treatment they saw doled out at women in American politics:  Pussy-grabbing was just locker-room talk, the female candidate was repeatedly called crooked and even a nasty woman in televised debates.  Yet the media treated the two candidates as equally flawed.

3.  A Female Candidate Is Held To Higher Standards And Then Found Wanting

In one sense this is almost self-evident:   "The firsts" in anything will be held to higher standards, because of the added uncertainty their appointment or election entails (6).  They come without precedent.

But in another sense women are often held to higher standards of behavior in the public sphere than men, and that comes from our deeply ingrained beliefs about gender:  Women are the cleaning sex, if you like, and historically have been allowed entry into politics in that role, to clean out some moral mess or other.

If you doubt me, just think of how the media would have treated a female presidential candidate who had children by three different men.  Yet even the Evangelist fundamentalists preferred the man who has children by three different women and who openly admits to sexual escapades.

Where gaslighting enters is in the views from the left that Hillary Clinton had to prove her feminist credentials, over and above any kind of proof demanded from male candidates.  I read about this in 2008 and again in 2016, and noticed the different standard she was held to.

I also noticed that the economic privilege of almost all politicians, their high incomes and their considerable perks, were only grist for concern when it came to Hillary Clinton but not when it came to your general run-of-the-mill politician.  From that angle women who run better be very poor, or they fail the test.  Given the way American politics is currently financed, passing that test would be difficult.

If we hold women to higher standards than we hold men, women are going to fail more often than men, and the very idea of women in political power becomes tainted with the feeling that there aren't any good ones, out there, that the project of having more women in politics is likely to fail.

Or consider the warning that one shouldn't vote for a woman just because she is a woman.  I'm sure you have heard that, and in a trivial sense it is of course a good reminder.  

But we don't hear that warning about male candidates; that we should check if we prefer one just because he is a man.  

And that difference matters.  The dance floor is slanted already, and Ginger Rogers is dancing backwards and in high heels, but we should still ask ourselves if we like her dancing just because she is female, whereas Fred Astaire doesn't provoke such questioning.

In Conclusion

The central message of this very long post is a very simple one: Do not be gaslighted by the interpretations swirling around the 2016 presidential elections or by whatever you thought about Hillary Clinton as a candidate.

This country has never had a female president, only 27 states have had female governors, some states have not yet sent a woman to the US Congress, and the US Senate, with a hundred members in each term, has had a total of 46 women over its history.

Indeed, that is one of the main reasons why the United States ranks only 45th in the Global Gender Gap Report for 2016:  It ranks 73rd on the political empowerment subindex, right behind LeSotho, Tunisia and Indonesia.

This is not acceptable.



(1)  Or perhaps not.  We shall see. 

(2)  This doesn't mean that women wouldn't benefit from them at all, though most seem to assume that it's sufficient to consider the benefits to the wives of the men who get the work.  But any infrastructure project will benefit more men directly, just as any project aimed at improving nursing homes or schools or hospitals would benefit more women directly.  To ask us not to see the gendered nature of the "shovel-ready" projects is to ask us not to see identity politics at work.

(3) The messages from the extreme right were intended to not only damage Hillary Clinton's candidacy, but to keep women away from the public sector.  Messages from Rush Limbaugh veered across that spectrum, and so did the messages from the white male supremacists, politely called Alt Right.  The messages from the left had varying purposes, depending on the time they appeared, but most of them were not directly aimed at making us blind to the pictures depicted in that gallery of American presidents.

(4)  She contributed to this herself, of course.  My point is that her position as the first woman who had a chance at the US presidency became invisible.  She didn't look like an outsider, she didn't gain her position in ways which looked like outsider ways, and in the primaries she campaigned against someone who was seen as the real outsider candidate in terms of issues.  Yet at the same time Bernie Sanders belonged to the very ancient male establishment, Hillary Clinton did not.  That latter aspect lost in much of the media coverage.

(5)  This link is meant for the economic policies part of the article, the need to support unions and labor market policies which benefit all women, including the poorest. 

I dislike the trickle-down feminism meme in that article, for several reasons:
1.   I have now met it several times online, wielded by conservatives.
2.   It feeds right into the keyboards of those who wish to take female candidates down in the future.
3.   And because its father is the "trickle-down economics" meme, which is about something quite different:  The idea that income given to the wealthy (and not to the poor) will have trickle-down effects through job creation and the purchasing power of the rich.  If we apply the same logic to the "trickle-down feminism" meme, then it would only apply to patriarchal countries where the masses don't want gender equality.  That's not quite the case in the US, though gaslighting might make it a better fit.

(6)  The breaking of the color barrier in American major leagues baseball in 1947 is an example of that.  Jackie Robinson was carefully chosen, not only because of his great talent as a player, but also because he was a generally talented and emotionally mature individual who had the ability not to react to racist slurs or incidents.  In that sense he was probably superior to most of his new team-mates who were never going to be tested in the same way, and that superiority helped in integrating the game.