Hating Hillary

Gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which

History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which - sooner rather than later, I fear - will have to account for their sins. The chief victim has been Senator Hillary Clinton, but the ramifications could be hugely harmful for America and the world.

I am no particular fan of Clinton. Nor, I think, would friends and colleagues accuse me of being racist. But it is quite inconceivable that any leading male presidential candidate would be treated with such hatred and scorn as Clinton has been. What other senator and serious White House contender would be likened by National Public Radio's political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Or described as "a fucking whore" by Randi Rhodes, one of the foremost personalities of the supposedly liberal Air America? Could anybody have envisaged that a website set up specifically to oppose any other candidate would be called Citizens United Not Timid? (We do not need an acronym for that.)

I will come to the reasons why I fear such unabashed misogyny in the US media could lead, ironically, to dreadful racial unrest. "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed in 1776. That equality, though, was not extended to women, who did not even get the vote until 1920, two years after (some) British women. The US still has less gender equality in politics than Britain, too. Just 16 of America's 100 US senators are women and the ratio in the House (71 out of 435) is much the same. It is nonetheless pointless to argue whether sexism or racism is the greater evil: America has a peculiarly wicked record of racist subjugation, which has resulted in its racism being driven deep underground. It festers there, ready to explode again in some unpredictable way.

To compensate meantime, I suspect, sexism has been allowed to take its place as a form of discrimination that is now openly acceptable. "How do we beat the bitch?" a woman asked Senator John McCain, this year's Republican presidential nominee, at a Republican rally last November. To his shame, McCain did not rebuke the questioner but joined in the laughter. Had his supporter asked "How do we beat the nigger?" and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke. "Iron my shirt," is considered amusing heckling of Clinton. "Shine my shoes," rightly, would be hideously unacceptable if yelled at Obama.

Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, American men like to delude themselves that they are the most macho in the world. It is simply unthinkable, therefore, for most of them to face the prospect of having a woman as their leader. The massed ranks of male pundits gleefully pronounced that Clinton had lost the battle with Obama immediately after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, despite past precedents that strong second-place candidates (like Ronald Reagan in his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 1976; like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown) continue their campaigns until the end of the primary season and, in most cases, all the way to the party convention.

None of these male candidates had a premature political obituary written in the way that Hillary Clinton's has been, or was subjected to such righteous outrage over refusing to quiesce and withdraw obediently from what, in this case, has always been a knife-edge race. Nor was any of them anything like as close to his rivals as Clinton now is to Obama.

The media, of course, are just reflecting America's would-be macho culture. I cannot think of any television network or major newspaper that is not guilty of blatant sexism - the British media, naturally, reflexively follow their American counterparts - but probably the worst offender is the NBC/MSNBC network, which has what one prominent Clinton activist describes as "its nightly horror shows". Tim Russert, the network's chief political sage, was dancing on Clinton's political grave before the votes in North Carolina and Indiana had even been fully counted - let alone those of the six contests to come, the undeclared super-delegates, or the disputed states of Florida and Michigan.

The unashamed sexism of this giant network alone is stupendous. Its superstar commentator Chris Matthews referred to Clinton as a "she-devil". His colleague Tucker Carlson casually observed that Clinton "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." This and similar abuse, I need hardly point out, says far more about the men involved than their target.

Knives out

But never before have the US media taken it upon themselves to proclaim the victor before the primary contests are over or the choice of all the super-delegates is known, and the result was that the media's tidal wave of sexism became self-fulfilling: Americans like to back winners, and polls immediately showed dramatic surges of support for Obama. A few brave souls had foreseen the merciless media campaign: "The press will savage her no matter what," predicted the Washington Post's national political correspondent, Dana Milbank, last December. "They really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it."

Polling organisations such as Gallup told us months ago that Americans will more readily accept a black male president than a female one, and a more recent CNN/Essence magazine/ Opinion Research poll found last month that 76 per cent think America is ready for a black man as president, but only 63 per cent believe the same of a woman.

"The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man," says Ruth Mandel of Rutgers University. "We don't have an image, we don't have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat."

Studies here have repeatedly shown that women are seen as ambitious and capable, or likeable - but rarely both. "Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test," says Alice Eagley, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. A distinguished academic undertaking a major study of coverage of the 2008 election, Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College - one of the "seven sisters" colleges founded because women were barred from the Ivy Leagues and which, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton herself attended - tells me that what is most striking to her is that the most repeated description of Senator Clinton is "cool and calculating".

This, she says, would never be said of a male candidate - because any politician making a serious bid for the White House has, by definition, to be cool and calculating. Hillary Clinton, a successful senator for New York who was re-elected for a second term by a wide margin in 2006 - and who has been a political activist since she campaigned against the Vietnam War and served as a lawyer on the congressional staff seeking to impeach President Nixon - has been treated throughout the 2008 campaign as a mere appendage of her husband, never as a heavyweight politician whose career trajectory (as an accomplished lawyer and professional advocate for equality among children, for example) is markedly more impressive than those of the typical middle-aged male senator.

Rarely is she depicted as an intellectually formidable politician in her own right (is that what terrifies oafs like Matthews and Carlson?). Rather, she is the junior member of "Billary", the derisive nickname coined by the media for herself and her husband. Obama's opponent is thus not one of the two US senators for New York, but some amorphous creature called "the Clintons", an aphorism that stands for amorality and sleaze. Open season has been declared on Bill Clinton, who is now reviled by the media every bit as much as Nixon ever was.

Here we come to the crunch. Hillary Clinton (along with her husband) is being universally depicted as a loathsome racist and negative campaigner, not so much because of anything she has said or done, but because the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media - consciously or unconsciously - are following the agenda of Senator Barack Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to tear to pieces the first serious female US presidential candidate in history.

"What's particularly saddening," says Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and a rare dissenting voice from the left as a columnist in the New York Times, "is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the . . . way pundits and some news organisations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent." Despite widespread reporting to the contrary, Krugman believes that most of the "venom" in the campaign "is coming from supporters of Obama".

But Obama himself prepared the ground by making the first gratuitous personal attack of the campaign during the televised Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate in South Carolina on 21 January, although virtually every follower of the media coverage now assumes that it was Clinton who started the negative attacks. Following routine political sniping from her about supposedly admiring comments Obama had made about Ronald Reagan, Obama suddenly turned on Clinton and stared intimidatingly at her. "While I was working in the streets," he scolded her, ". . . you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Then, cleverly linking her inextricably in the public consciousness with her husband, he added: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

One of his female staff then distributed a confidential memo to carefully selected journalists which alleged that a vaguely clumsy comment Hillary Clinton had made about Martin Luther King ("Dr King's dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964") and a reference her husband had made in passing to Nelson Mandela ("I've been blessed in my life to know some of the greatest figures of the last hundred years . . . but if I had to pick one person whom I know would never blink, who would never turn back, who would make great decisions . . . I would pick Hillary") were deliberate racial taunts.

Another female staffer, Candice Tolliver - whose job it is to promote Obama to African Americans - then weighed in publicly, claiming that "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements" and saying: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?" That was game, set and match: the Clintons were racists, an impression sealed when Bill Clinton later compared Obama's victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 (even though Jackson himself, an Obama supporter, subsequently declared Clinton's remarks to be entirely inoffensive).

The pincer movement, in fact, could have come straight from a textbook on how to wreck a woman's presi dential election campaign: smear her whole persona first, and then link her with her angry, red-faced husband. The public Obama, characteristically, pronounced himself "unhappy" with the vilification carried out so methodically by his staff, but it worked like magic: Hillary Clinton's approval ratings among African Americans plummeted from above 80 per cent to barely 7 per cent in a matter of days, and have hovered there since.

I suspect that, as a result, she will never be able entirely to shake off the "racist" tag. "African-American super-delegates [who are supporting Clinton] are being targeted, harassed and threatened," says one of them, Representative Emanuel Cleaver. "This is the politics of the 1950s." Obama and Axelrod have achieved their objectives: to belittle Hillary Clinton and to manoeuvre the ever-pliant media into depicting every political criticism she makes against Obama as racist in intent.

The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history.

But will Obama live up to the hype? That, I fear, may not happen: he is a deeply flawed candidate. Rampant sexism may have triumphed only to make way for racism to rear its gruesome head in America yet again. By election day on 4 November, I suspect, the US media and their would-be-macho commentators may have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In this comment piece on sexist language in the US media in relation to Hillary Clinton Andrew Stephen suggested that Carl Bernstein had publicly declared his disgust for Hillary Clinton's thick ankles. We are informed that Carl Bernstein intended, in his biography of Hillary Clinton, to refer to comments made by others about her when she was at high school. We are happy to accept that Carl Bernstein was not motivated by sexism, and we are sorry for any embarrassment caused.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra
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Take back the power: Naomi Klein

The rock-star activist and author on how the rise of Donald Trump could startle the global left into finally getting its act together.

“Care is such a radical idea,” says Naomi Klein. “I find it interesting that we struggle with the word. I’m not ready to let go of it. I feel like we need to grow into it.” Klein is as close to being a rock star as you can get on the radical left. She has been a public thinker since her first book, No Logo, achieved cult status in the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s, but she eschews her celebrity status as much as possible. We meet in early June at the People’s Summit, an enormous convention of American progressives in Chicago, a couple of days before her latest book, No Is Not Enough, comes out – but she is not on a promotional tour. She’s here, like everyone else, because she cares.

“Trump is creating this appetite, fuelling this appetite for systemic change. He is a signal of system failure and, yes, it turns out that that’s more powerful than climate change. I’m deeply excited about the potential for transformation.”

Klein really does talk like this, inexhaustibly and without stopping, and you believe that she means it. Born in Canada in 1970 to Vietnam War resisters, she has never apologised for being an activist as well as an author and journalist. No Is Not Enough is her most urgent and instructive political work to date – and her most personal. She segues from discussing strategies for resisting the sexist, racist, kamikaze corporate agenda of the Trump administration to des­cribing her experience of motherhood (she has a four-year-old son) and the way that her understanding of human responsibility changed after her mother had a stroke while Klein was still in her teens. What links them all is the architecture of care – and care, as Klein tells me, is “anything but soft”.

“Care” gets a bad rap on the left. It sounds like something that cartoon bears or teenage girls who have lots of feelings about dolphins do. The Leap, the Canadian ­climate and social justice movement that Klein oversees, has the tagline “Caring for the Earth and One Another”. That, as she acknowledges, could be from an advert for organic granola. It’s also a neat summary of what human beings have failed to do over the past several centuries and what we must now learn to do, or face disaster.

The work of caring for one another and for our communities is not so much a feminist agenda as a feminine and feminised agenda – which is why it has remained absent from mainstream politics for so long. So, it is fitting that the driving force behind the People’s Summit is National Nurses United (NNU), America’s largest nursing union, many of whose 150,000-plus members are women of colour. “I would follow nurses anywhere,” Klein said at the opening rally, and she repeats the sentiment when we meet behind a small row of bookstalls on the third day of the summit. Four thousand people have spent 36 hours in this cavernous convention complex, in talks and breakout sessions, the swirling artificial lights and freezing air-conditioning adding to the sense that this is a space out of time, a space where anything is possible, even – especially – in Donald Trump’s America.

Klein has a knack for producing the right book at the right time. No Is Not Enough was written in a four-month sprint while she was running an activist group and raising a child, and it is brilliant. It is a guide to resistance in the age of Trump, grounded in the idea that simply resisting oppression is insufficient. We must decide as a society, Klein argues, not merely what atrocities we will not tolerate, but what we are prepared to build instead. The book manages to be that rare thing in political writing: both rousing and profoundly sensible. Reading it – and attending the People’s Summit – I found myself nodding along to demands for significant changes in the way we organise economic policy, climate action, racial justice and much, much more, in the same way you might nod along as a doctor explains your treatment plan for a serious illness. It’s a frightening proposition. It is also the only thing that makes sense. The urgency of this period of human history ­demands no less.

“As our ideas are becoming more popular, so are the most toxic and dangerous ideas on the planet,” says Klein. “They’re surging and manifesting as extreme acts of violence on the streets, perpetrated by the state and perpetrated by [right-wing] supremacists, inspired by having people in the White House who reflect their views. It’s a race against time intellectually, it’s a race against time socially, it’s a race against time ecologically.”

***

If you’re going to get sick at any sort of mass gathering, I recommend that you get sick at a convention attended by hundreds of nurses. I came to Chicago to interview Klein and to figure out if there was any hope for the left in the first long, hot summer of Trump’s America. But the second I stepped off the plane, I came down with what is known to science as the galloping lurgy.

My bones felt like they were being boiled for soup. My head was full of toxic slime. At the check-in desk, I happened to ask if anyone had any painkillers. Ten minutes later, I’m sitting on a plastic couch, trying to keep down my breakfast, and Deborah Burger, a co-president of the NNU – who surely has better things to do – is asking me what hurts.

Everything, I want to tell her. Everything hurts. Everyone I know is working too hard for too little money. Late capitalism is slowly strangling what remains of my generation’s youthful energy. My country is in political free fall, and it seems as though every other week another religious psychopath goes on a murder spree . . . And, on top of all that, I have the mother and father of a headache.

Burger gives me some painkillers and a cup of orange juice and talks to me about the coming end of kleptocracy. “We sponsored the People’s Summit because we have to continue the momentum in this fight,” she says. “We feel it’s important to have our voices heard as nurses, as well as being activists.”

Burger is a nurse, but she doesn’t believe that her job ends when the patient leaves. “We can’t just stop our advocacy at the bedside. We have to make it broader, because we want to prevent people from coming into the hospitals. We want to be advocates for preventative care. We want to be advocates for keeping people out of prisons, because the money that is drained off to incarcerate people could have been going to health care, to a good education.”

That is the sort of co-ordinated, serious movement of care that Klein advocates. “The role of the trade union movement in providing infrastructure and being the backbone for social movements has been historically so important,” she tells me. “Your generation and even my generation of organisers are so untethered from any sort of infrastructure that can bind. [I admire] the vision that the nurses have had in just stepping up and saying, ‘We’re going to be the backbone.’ But it’s a different kind of union. It’s a union that is majority women, majority women of colour, and the work itself is the work of care.”

Part of the reason Klein was able to write such a detailed work so quickly is that, in many ways, she has been preparing for this book her entire adult life. It is a synthesis of the theories in her three main previous political books: No Logo, on the political power of brands; The Shock Doctrine, on how elites exploit economic and social crises to consolidate their power; and This Changes Everything, on how the coming climate crisis will make a new kind of activism necessary for the survival of our species.

“I wrote the book for a lot of reasons, but the most pressing one was the feeling that so much of the way we were talking about Trump lacked any sort of historical context,” she says. Too many people are still treating the walking constitutional crisis in the White House “like a shocking aberration, with the logical conclusion that we just get rid of him and everything’s fine. We’ve made that mistake before. In some ways, we made it with [George W] Bush.” Trump, however, has clarified a great deal.

Nobody here is glad that Trump is the president of the United States. But the stakes have become obvious to many who were previously prevaricating. For instance, it’s desperately clear that the pro-business, anti-climate-defence agenda and the power-
grab of racist, sexist throwbacks are intimately connected, and resistance to them is the same struggle. Trump may be the shock – to use Klein’s expression – that will stun the global left into getting its act together.

Nobody at the People’s Summit wastes much time arguing about theory. What I see, over the course of three days here, is a great many women and people of colour with varying life experiences talking about different ways of remaking power and, good God, it is refreshing. If there’s one thing that the left is in no urgent need of, it is endless panels of elderly white guys ­arguing about Marx.

Talking of grizzled socialists, Bernie Sanders is due to speak in an hour. The line to see him is already half a mile long. Surely there is no way that all these people will get in and, if they don’t, I predict a riot: this is the one point in the weekend when we are allowed to go hog-wild and stamp and cheer and assign superhuman qualities to a nice, normal old man from Vermont who argues like your socialist uncle at the dinner table. Somehow, however, we do make it inside, and we get to hear Sanders speak.

The speech is good – at least, the parts I can hear over the applause and the callbacks. It’s like a mash-up of a mega-church sermon and the most rousing bits of Les Misérables, which is to say that even if it isn’t your thing, you can see why people get into it. There have been many charismatic speakers already and Sanders doesn’t say anything that others haven’t been saying all weekend. He is, however, the designated point of mass enthusiasm, and somehow his plain-speaking, angry-uncle shtick is charming. Not charming enough to make me get to my feet and roar with everyone else, but I’m a bit too sick and a bit too British for that.

This is when I finally realise the point of Sanders. Being right is not enough. People need symbols of faith, even if this faith is in the plain, reasonable idea that ordinary people deserve to survive and thrive. Bernie is the personification of an idea whose time has come, not least because even after two years of filling stadiums, he still looks a little surprised that people are paying attention and a little downhearted to find himself at a point in history when the request that sick children not be turned away from hospitals sounds like a revolutionary demand.

It shouldn’t be but, in the United States, it is. For the past few decades, Americans in particular have lived with a political consensus that the meaningful redistribution of wealth and power can only go one way: straight to the top. It has become ever harder for anyone who wasn’t born rich to keep their head above the rising tide of inequality.

The difference at the People’s Summit is something that the global left has been lacking for a generation: it works. People with no more time for drama are listening to each other respectfully and making connections. The sessions are inclusive and pragmatic. The food is sufficient and tolerable. The organisers manage, somehow, to make sure that 4,000 people know where they need to be and when. That is no small feat in a stratum of society defined by disarray, infighting, brittleness and the failure to organise our collective way out of a paper bag.

“It’s a reminder of why physical spaces matter,” Klein says. “We need to look each other in the eye. I think there’s a real desire now to create a culture of accountability, the ability to have criticisms, to have conflict, but not to bring the house down.”

Yet there is baggage. Most of the people at the summit are Sanders supporters and there is no love here for the centre right of the Democratic Party, but few are in a hurry to re-enact the Bernie-Hillary wars of 2016. “I really do not want to be having that conversation,” says the Women’s March veteran Linda Sarsour, in a panel discussion on intersectional organising. “Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt that we’re actually all working from the right place, and let’s put our one-issue politics to the side and understand that this is a global movement that is rooted in collective liberation.”

In No Is Not Enough, Klein refers to this as part of “becoming the caring majority”. Nurses are among those at the forefront of this change, because they have been living it for years, as Kari Jones, an organiser with the NNU, says. “I think the reason nurses have stepped forward as leaders in the progressive movement is because they embody a value system that is the equal opposite of where our profit-driven value system has taken us: one that values caring, compassion and community. It’s very hard to undermine the intentions of a nurse.”

Jones explains this to me in her hotel room, where I have just spent three hours sleeping. “We made sure you had ibuprofen and helped you find a quiet place to lie down,” she says, “even if that’s in my own room. It’s not something we do for you. It’s something we do with you. It’s important to walk the walk of the world we want.”

That architecture of care is the real site of resistance. It can be as small a chore as helping a sick journalist, or as big a task as reorganising the culture of a superpower to prioritise collective health and welfare. It can be as easy as ensuring that indigenous people are well represented on your discussion panels, or as hard as demanding that the oil buried under Native American land stays in the ground. This is where the struggle for change is being lived. It’s not only about marching in the streets, though that helps. It’s about what we demand of our society, our state and each other.

***

The critical theorist Nancy Fraser has identified a “crisis of care” running alongside what many have declared the crisis of capitalism. The work of building families, communities, institutions and democracies is not work that capital can absorb and monetise – yet without it, the human component of capitalism atrophies. People become miserable and sick.

For that reason alone, the fight for medical care for everyone, regardless of income, is central to the American left right now. Reinstating Obamacare is not enough. On every panel, in every speech at the People’s Summit, the demand for universal health care is repeated in some form, and it consistently gets the biggest cheers.

Providing universal health care in the United States would require a huge redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. In California, the cost will be enormous – and the state can afford it. But a bill for single-payer health care is stuck at the state senate stage. It’s a question of priorities: about a sense of the common good and the common weal. It is, in a serious sense, about love.

When Hillary Clinton came up with the slogan “Love trumps hate”, it felt silly, because it was. It felt pat and insipid because it was not grounded in a firm understanding of what love is. Love, in a political sense, is not a feeling or a sentiment: it is an action. It is ruthless and unrelenting. It is the discipline of showing up for one another and for the collective good, time and time again.

Loving other people is damn hard. ­Spending 36 hours in a convention centre with members of the international left will remind you of this. “The people” are moody and under-caffeinated and like to cheer for celebrities and slogans. Half the time, they can’t stand to be in a room with each other; but when the chips are down, none of that counts. What matters is that you show up for one another.

Many people misunderstand what “the power of the people” means. First, “the people” are not unified, and the phrase doesn’t refer to physical power. It doesn’t mean the power to withstand bullets or drone strikes. That power of the people can be stopped, easily. Rather, it is the power of memory and resistance; the power of caring and responsibility.

“It’s such a fearsome responsibility,” Klein says. “It’s not a responsibility I grew up with. In my adult political life, it didn’t occur to us that we could actually take power. What we’re seeing with Bernie’s campaign, with [Jeremy] Corbyn’s campaign, even with what [the leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc] Mélenchon did in France, with Podemos, is that it is within reach.

“And the fearsome responsibility of that, as the climate clock strikes midnight, as all of these overlapping crises are hitting us – I wouldn’t describe it as hope, but I would describe it as a pregnant moment. I don’t ­really want to waste too much time thinking about hope.” 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?