As an introductory sidebar, I’m immensely grateful that I’m Canadian right now, since from where I sit, the Democratic primary looks to be bringing out the ugliest in a lot of people, and I imagine that offline, when you have to discuss your vote, your reasons, and the potential prejudices it reveals ad infinitum with family, friends and strangers on the bus, it’s even less pleasant.
The charged emotion and people taking positions on one “side” or another is bringing to the surface something that I see a lot during strong disagreements among passionate people – the tendency to create idols of various individuals (sometimes the candidates, sometimes just figurehead individuals involved in movements or political parties). In the narratives, these people are no longer human beings, but rather representatives of entire categories of ideals, faces attached not to bodies, but to concepts, statements, actions; in these cases, always to That Which Is Unquestioningly Good. On a grand scale, MLK is treated with this kind of pedestal-placement, and much analysis has gone into how this serves to whitewash his record, at the same time as a great deal of time has been spent trying to root out his imperfections, his possible infidelities, his missteps. If he can be proven imperfect, none of us will have to listen to him.
Since it isn’t possible that That Which Is Unquestionably Good is wrong, criticism of the figurehead, the representative, the idol becomes criticism of the ideals. I really liked this post of Octogalore’s on ageism, and how many feminists and other anti-oppression activists seem to miss that particular locus of privilege. I made a comment, but very shortly after I did, another commenter (smmo at 11:33 a.m.; Firefox seems to hate the idea that I want to link directly to the comment and crashes whenever I try) linked back to the debate between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell that took place after Steinem’s much-criticized editorial on race/gender oppression. After this comment, I honestly felt it was useless to try to weigh in on the conversation altogether (emphasis mine):
I remember watching it then and being enraged by H-L’s disrespect for Gloria Steinem. This is a lion of a woman, a hero, a legend, and she’s being told she hasn’t sufficiently considered questions of race and gender? Really? The hostility and dismissive attitude really comes out in the video. It worries me that this is coming from an Obama supporter. Move out of the way, old hags, we got NEW IDEAS here.
Now, I’m far too conflict avoidant a lot of the time, and my immediate reaction to dismiss the whole conversation out of hand is a classic example of my own tendency to throw babies aplenty out with all kinds of bathwater. But there are two factors in that very brief comment that are characteristic of so much of the conversation/commentary around this primary and around race/gender oppression in general (not just now). If Gloria Steinem’s arguments hold water, they need to hold water on their own, based on their own merits, not because they come with her name attached to them. Her legendary status and past heroics don’t change the content of what she said, and it really frustrates me that this comment was packaged around the issue of ageism. Steinem’s editorial and the commentary she gave during that debate were problematic at best, and it’s total bullshit to suggest that she’s beyond reproach – that makes her beyond humanity, an idol, an icon, a legend. For about the billionth time, an idol, an icon, a legend is not a person. The second reason that comment was so frustrating was the statement that “it’s worrisome that an Obama supporter should speak this way”, with its accompanying tones of presumed Kool-aid consumption or strategic willingness to dismiss others, and what I wouldn’t GIVE right now for people to be talking about American politics rather than American idols, icons and personalities who happen to be running for president.
I didn’t rewatch that debate just now, so maybe there’s a dismissiveness that I missed back in January, and Harris-Lacewell does, in fact, adopt a tone of “move aside, third wave coming through”, but honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if a relatively young academic weren’t just intimidated to be debating with the aforementioned “lion of a woman”, suddenly receiving a much larger stage and audience as a result of the name, and coming out more aggressively in order to compensate for that. The point is that Gloria Steinem deserves respect not because she’s a legend, not because she’s lived a certain length of time, not because she’s accomplished x number of things, but because she’s a human being. I’m not denying that ageism is a real phenomenon, but as was noted in the comments at Octogalore’s, it’s equally common for younger women to be dismissed as flighty, not capable of understanding complex ideas, not knowing their place, and for these women to be told to hold their tongues while the important folk do all the teaching.
What I can’t help but notice is that nobody’s talking to people anymore; they’re all talking to thoughts and ideas and faces tenuously attached to concepts, concepts as broad as “race” and “feminism” and “hope”. Sometimes people are being attached to attachments, as Harris-Lacewell is here, to that increasingly vague and nebulous concept called “Obama”. It’s all a series of interchangeable masks, each representing That Which Is Unquestionably Good, and the only point of the political process is to get more “people” wearing your mask.
I find the whole damn thing exhausting.