Friday, May 23, 2008

Sexism runs very deep.

Make no mistake about it, sexism is alive and well in America and throughout the world.  Yes surface progress has been made, but we have not eradicated fundamental bias, nor are we likely to do so any time soon.  Part of the problem is that the genesis, and I use that word intentionally, is ancient and deep-seated.  We may say all the right things, and that goes for both women and men, but we can’t hide the reality that billions around the world accept as a matter of faith and fact a he-God who, Christians further believe, sent a son, not a daughter, as an extension of himself.  That’s something you won’t hear much about in discussions of sexism other than in the most superficial way.  Committed feminists may have devised ceremonial that enhances (sometimes stretching to do so) women’s role in religion.  They lobby for women clergy including priests, and rightly so. Talk all you want about your Deborah’s, it was still a man named Moses who brought those commandments from the mountain.  At the end of the day, most women and men dutifully invoke the he-God and/or his son in prayer.   We shouldn't underestimate the message that sends and how early it is put into our heads.

I write all of this not to question faith, but as the most vivid reality check that can be put forward when it comes to the still seemingly incurable disease of sexism.  I do it now because in the last few days, sexism as an issue, has raised its head with regard to the Presidential race, and done so with such consistency of message that one has to assume coordinated not spontaneous outrage.  Without having any proof of that, it smells like yet another effort by the Clinton campaign to upend what is the likely outcome of the nominating process.  It’s just another of what have been a series of attempts to change the rules midstream or alter the victory criteria when things are going in the wrong direction.  The sad part is that it reads like sour grapes, diminishing the very legitimate problem it raises.  It plays politics instead of engaging the voters in the kind of discussion that a woman’s candidacy might have so productively provoked.  I think, in a profound way, it also casts further light on why Ms. Clinton is falling short of her goal.

Racism raised its ugly head fairly early in this campaign, and looking at both the Indiana exit interviews and the NY Times story about elderly Jews in Florida, it is likely to play its role in November.  It took some time and considerable provocation for Obama, who had assiduously sought to avoid being labeled a Black candidate, to respond.  But respond he did in the Philadelphia speech, widely considered one of the most important statements on race ever made by a public figure.  Did it eliminate race as an issue in America.  Absolutely not, but neither did it hide from a problem.  More importantly, it was a message from a potential President, demonstrating how he might use the Bully Pulpit to address to the nation.  It, more than all of those other very moving speeches, may be why he is winning.

Those who have complained in the last days, much of their anger pointed at the press, have said that sexism has been rampant from the start of the campaign and run systematically throughout.  I’m not totally sure that they are correct, but readily admit that even a proclaimed male feminist’s ears and eyes are not as sensitive to these signals as those of a woman.  No Christian fully understands subtle and sometimes not so subtle slights against Jews, no Caucasian the sub-rosa dissing of Blacks or, for that matter, Latinos and Asians.  So I stipulate that sexism has played throughout and that the media (among their many disservices to this process) sometimes had a starring role.  That said, where was the Clinton speech on this pervasive and continuing problem.  If she is effectively the standard bearer of women, much as Obama is of African Americans, where was her bully pulpit?  Ironically just as his candor on race gave us some clue as the substance of the man, a speech by Hillary Clinton on an equally important and sensitive topic might well have put her over the top.  Certainly, a talk on sexism was no less needed.

One of the problems we have as human beings is that we pass injustice by every day of our lives.  Even worse we become its fellow travelers, sometimes in acts that may speak a kind of self-loathing.  We tread lightly when we should be blasting our trumpets.  We are all so correct, so polite, so “hear no evil, speak no evil…”.  The issues raised in the last few days are real, and I would submit still urgent.  But they are also too important to be used as a campaign tactic or to instill fear in us that women just won’t vote for this man (who happens to be Black).  Perhaps it’s not a fear card analogous to that red phone, but it get’s pretty close.  The odd thing, which I heard on NPR this morning, is that women who are so turned off by sexism say they won’t vote for Obama but will cast their ballot for John McCain.  Isn’t he a man?  By the way, have you noticed the dutiful helpmate, carrying out the proper she-role, always at his side?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Divided but Unitied

Bill Clinton won the White House with only 43% of the popular vote.  The electorate has been deeply divided ever since.  Seen in this context alone, it’s not at all surprising that the race for the Democratic nomination is still going on and that the vote is so close.  Voters are torn, but not because they are choosing the lesser of two evils but between two excellent and compelling candidates.  They also happen to be the vessels for something much larger than themselves.  This year the Democrats are on their way to redressing historic wrongs.  Who would have thought they would have to choose between electing the first woman or the first African American?   Taking the wide view of history, there is little doubt that women have suffered inequality more than anyone else.  In that sense, their time has not only come, it is long overdue.  When it comes to American history it’s more of a toss up.  In some respects, one could argue, the deprivation of Blacks has been greater, and most certainly more mean spirited.  In truth, who deserves it more, is a silly argument.  Being a woman or being a person of color has been decidedly a disadvantage when it comes to the reigns of power, public or private.

So this election has put many of us in a bind.  It’s divided families and friends.  My college classmate Letty Pogrebin, a founder of Ms Magazine, supports Clinton; her writer daughter Abigail, Obama.  They were interviewed some months back by the PBS Now program.  Their choices were, to a large degree, generational.  Letty and hers, and I have other friends with similar views, have been fighting the battle all of their lives.  They understand how much progress has been made, and also how little.  Abigail, the beneficiary of their struggle, feels in a sense more confident.  Her feminism, no less fervent, allows her the freedom to select, even a man.  Most of us find ourselves in the same situation, taking sides often with strong conviction, but absent the hard choice presented, we could easily be in the other’s camp.

At this moment, it appears as I have consistently believed, that Barack Obama will win the nomination but by a very close vote.  Pundits will glibly tell us why and historians will have their say in the years to come.  While the victory will be numerically slim, it seems to me that, given the odds at the start, its an accomplishment that can’t be underestimated.  Here comes a still relatively unknown African American up against a field of distinguished long time public servants including the best known woman in the country, perhaps in the world.  She is not merely known, but the presumptive nominee with a commanding, seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls.  She is articulate and well schooled, the better debater, and she has as her surrogate the most popular and iconic figure in the party.  It’s the two for one in reverse, and Bill has spared no effort in making it possible for her to virtually be in two places at one time.  Against all of this, not to mention the assumption that an African American could never come close much less win the nomination, Barack Obama is taking the prize.  In that sense, one has to look at his win as a relative landslide.

I started out by saying that both candidates are vessels for something larger than themselves.  How they handled that has also made the difference.  Clinton’s most unshakable support is coming from women who think their time has come.  They are absolutely right.  In some respects, I think their candidate has made too little of that, except defensively.  The diner scene in New Hampshire and being the victim of male (Obama and Edwards) abuse in debates.  But in the end, she seemed to be more committed to the “me” than to the vessel.  It isn’t that women are entitled at long last, but that she (who suffered such indignities at the hands of that surrogate) is entitled.  It is a subtle but huge difference, one that may account for the margin of loss.  In many respects, Clinton would have been better off not running on experience, but more overtly as a woman.

Barack Obama, I would suggest, was much more in tune with the vessel thing.  He, as an African American living in a still color-aware country, required a totally different strategy.  He had to run a color-agnostic campaign.  It made him initially suspect in the Black community and, as noted in an earlier post, among traditional leaders like John Lewis (who subsequently changed sides).  He resisted being the Black candidate while never hiding who he was or where he came from.  He most certainly references the struggle in his speeches, but only as one of many points.  I’m not suggesting that Obama’s run isn’t about him – ego comes with the candidate territory – but that not once has that come across as his primary motive.  Clinton’s, I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up, sends a different signal.  Perhaps it’s marginal, but in a close race every little difference counts.

We have two top tier candidates who engender passionate support.  The media will tell you that they reflect the deeply divided electorate that we’ve lived with these last years.  They will be wrong.  Ideologically there is little light between Obama and Clinton, between his supporters and hers.  They will find a way of coming together and so will we.  And John McCain?  Take note in that ’92 campaign George H.W. Bush who had been much admired for his foreign policy including the deft management of a war in Iraq, lost the election over “the economy stupid”.  In retrospect, some argue, perceived much weaker than it was.  There’s no doubt about this economy and no one would call his son’s handling of diplomacy or the war, supported by John McCain from the start, deft.   Bush got only 37% of the vote in ‘92.  John McCain, remember that number as Barack Obama and a unified Democratic party catches a glimpse of you in the rear view mirror.

Hillary and Barack, thank you for making us all proud to be Americans.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

60 yes, but 120?

Israel is 60.  When Jews celebrate a personal milestone, rather than a happy birthday they are wished 120 years of life.  The reference is to Moses who purportedly lived to that advanced age.  I remember vividly as a child when my parents returned home from witnessing the United Nations vote for the partitioning of Palestine and participating in the celebrations that followed.  It was clearly one of the great days in their lives.  I remember too as a child singing the Hatikvah, just adopted as the official state anthem, with a new lump-in-the-throat meaning.  Despite a rocky and violent start, we had great hopes for this newly minted Jewish homeland.  Among others, as a family that survived Hitler, we saw it as a special vindication and, although we did not live there, a kind of safety net.  After all, Jews had been persecuted throughout much of history in lands to which we could never lay claim.  My family, residents of Germany since at least the 17th Century, was treated as illegals in the 1930s destined to either be exiled or extinguished.  They experienced both.

Israel is 60.  If only I could be confident that it will reach 120.  I no longer am.  Time is running out and, admittedly looking from afar, nobody seems to have any urgency about the clock.  It makes no sense to point fingers or to recount the missed opportunities or mistakes.  There is enough blame to go around, and many times over.  Israelis and Palestinians seem stuck, captives of the extreme and victims of too many words and too few actions.  I rue the day that Israel conquered the West Bank and more so the unending days of occupation that followed.  My parents celebrated partition.  It wasn’t an easy concept and, some will argue, a historically unnatural one.  Perhaps the day that a Jewish State was declared but not a parallel Arab state made where we are today inevitable.  Few in the world wanted the Jewish one, surrounding Arab countries absolutely would not permit the other.  Both are suffering the bitter consequences.

At our family Seder some weeks ago, a participant who is one of my parents’ oldest friends knew that I was supporting Barack Obama.  She, with a daughter living in Israel, asked me with some urgency if Obama was “good for the Jews?”  Her question reflected one of the whispering campaigns that have dogged his candidacy up to now and are likely to follow him into the general election.  It also reflected the mindset of another generation, and as one of those escapees from Hitler, an understandable one.  Of course the translation of her question was whether he was going to be supportive of Israel, both a globally Jewish and personal question.  I have little doubt that he will.

In contrast of course George W. Bush, who visited Israel to share in its celebration, is often described there and by some American Jews as one of the State's best friends.  Some friend.  Part of our current problem is that until a few months ago in what Catholics would call a legacy “Hail Mary Pass”, the Bush administration has paid lip service to, but largely ignored, the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Bill Clinton may not have achieved his goal, but at least he tried spending a lot of personal and political capital in the process.   But it isn’t what Bush failed to do that has been so hurtful.  No American President in history has done more to destabilize the Middle East.  Thanks to their great friend, Israelis (not to mention Americans) are less safe than they were on January 1, 2001.  What’s going on in Iraq, with Al Qaeda and in the Holy Land are all intertwined, and the last seven plus years have only complicated the puzzle and diminished the possibility of a happy solution.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media and elsewhere about Israel’s 60th and the conflict that hangs over its head.  In recent years we’ve heard more talk about two states, finally.  To his credit, George Bush did speak of Palestine early on even if he did little to make it a reality.  What was so striking in listening to the views of thoughtful Palestinians in recent days is that their focus has turned to a one state solution, toward the inevitability of demographics that run heavily in their favor.  I admit to having become increasingly pessimistic about prospects for peace and reconciliation, but not without hope.  The question I ask myself today is whether, with all the posturing and submission to extremists on both sides, a tipping point has been reached.  We in the West take the short view of life, we live in the now and want instant solutions and gratification.  Other cultures, in some cases because they have less, patiently take the long view and are willing to wait for the inevitable, no matter how long it takes.  That’s true for Asians and probably for Arabs as well.  Israel is a Western country situated in the East.  Time, it pains me deeply to say, is not on their side.

Is Barack Obama or for that matter Hillary Clinton or John McCain good for the Jews, for Israel?  Let’s hope they are which may mean, beyond adopting a sense of appropriate urgency, that they will suggest paths or solutions that those asking that question may not always like.  One thing is clear, what we’ve been doing to date, that great friendship, hasn’t worked and may indeed have been destructive.  Israel at 120?  Oh, I hope it will come to pass, but it won’t by itself.  Prayers of thanksgiving may be appropriate on this 60th anniversary, but only humans can come to the table and reconcile their differences.  Hopefully, that will come to pass, and it better be soon.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Voting Exit Thoughts

In two days, voters in both my new home state and in Indiana go to the polls.  To their great surprise, the votes cast could make a difference in selecting the Democratic nominee.  As they emerge, a “representative” number of them will be stopped for interviews by an army of researchers.  The cumulative results will be reported that evening, exit polls that will be grist for the ever-present talking heads.  Well in North Carolina they have early voting.  So I’ve cast my ballot and, while we’re waiting for the final results and treasured analysis, I have some exit thoughts.  They may surprise you because they are unlikely to be reflected in any of those researcher’s intercepts.

Remember the setting.  This is North Carolina a state with a proud Confederate history, full throttle participant in the subsequent segregation and the political base of Jesse Helms, perhaps the most reactionary rightist ever to serve in the Senate.  Even its fabled Sam Ervin who dazzled the nation during the Watergate hearings had a lifelong commitment to keeping the nasty old ways in place.  Fast forward to 2008 and here is how I (admittedly a newcomer from the North) cast my vote: for President, an African American; for Governor, a woman; for Senator, an openly gay man.  I most assuredly won’t be the only Carolinian voting in that way.  Let me repeat, this is North Carolina where my friend Cyril Tyson couldn’t move about or grab a meal freely in the still segregated towns near Ft. Bragg where he was stationed while serving his country.  Here in tobacco land, I can’t help but remember that old Virginia Slims tagline, we’ve “come a long way baby.”   Yes we have!

With the over covered nastiness and silliness of this race, we seem to be forgetting what we all acknowledged at its start.  This is a remarkable year with an unparalleled opportunity to break historic ground.  Having been involved in the civil rights and poverty battles of the 1960s and long a supporter of the women’s movement, I often despair at how limited our progress has been.  People of color continue to lag badly behind in educational, economic and political opportunity.  We can still count and name the few women in high places and not everyone feels free to come out of the closet.  But, if anything, the 2008 election cycle is proving me too pessimistic.  Who would have thought voting on one ballot for a Black, a woman and a gay, all viable contenders for powerful offices, would be possible in the South?  So while we all complain about the length of the contest and, partisans like myself, about the Clintons take no prisoners tactics or the pass John McCain is still getting in the press, let’s take a deep breath and say hurrah for the big progress playing out before our eyes.

I hope and expect Barack Obama to prevail now and in the fall, but I don’t know how Tuesday will turn out and for that matter what surprises might lie ahead for whoever wins those two races.  Regardless, at some point the pregame tryouts will be over and we’ll move on to the real matchup.  Despite all the pundits’ predictions of trouble ahead, the Democratic Party will come together because all of its members know the stakes are enormously high.  Just look at the turnout in each of these contests and don’t fall into the trap of assuming it’s all attributable to Obama or, for that matter, Clinton each of whose supporters will be left so dispirited that they won’t vote.  Democrats are mad as hell and they are not about to replay 2004 when they blew it.  Let’s also remember that the Presidential choices I had here in North Carolina and others had in previous primaries did not exist on the Republican side.  There was no African American, no woman nor, no Hispanic on their ballot.  It’s still largely the Grand Old (White Guy) Party.   I’m not sure that will last much longer, and while reveling in their present distress, think it will be a good thing for both them and the country.

Considering the real issues that face us, and that seem to have faded from the front pages in the last weeks, one can’t envy the next President.  What a colossal mess.  Whether or not a federal gasoline tax holiday makes for good policy or opportunistic pandering, the challenges facing a country and world that has not seriously addressed its energy needs are daunting.  We may bicker over whose health plan is the best and who will extricate us from Iraq most quickly, but there will be no instant solutions to either.  Congress will ultimately have to sort out the healthcare options and it will be very messy.  Many of the best experts believe we need a total overhaul and, if nothing else, the much overstated and inaccurate bragging about having the world’s “best” healthcare, will in itself get in the way, big time.  Much as we should get out of Iraq without passing Go, that kind of speed may to be thwarted by realities on the ground.  Barack Obama says we have to be more careful about how we get out than how we got in.  I don’t envy him executing on that seemingly sensible formulation if he ultimately ends up in the place where the “buck stops”.

One of the mantras of Hillary’s campaign has been that words and hope don’t count.  I agree that they alone are insufficient, but words set the mind and the mind is, after all, a miraculous thing, unquestionably underused in the last seven years.  We’re pretty overwhelmed with what we can’t do and the steepness of the road ahead.  That isn’t paranoia; it’s reality.  In that context, words can give us courage to move ahead in the face of the seemingly insurmountable.  Being able to vote as I did, for whom I did, in the place I did, North Carolina, doesn’t mean that the struggle for equal rights, for tolerance and the full embrace of all, no matter who they may be, is over.  But it’s a real start and we should not underestimate what it, and this historic election, portends for the future.