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?

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