Archive for June 10th, 2008

Ageism, sexism and racism

Everybody’s a victim! Hillary got mistreated by the sexist press, Obama’s losing voters due to racism, and McCain is questioned and ridiculed because of ageism. Amazing that three people so victimized could have been the top contenders for the 2008 Presidential election!

Of course, these are indeed real issues. I wrote myself awhile back on Obama’s problem with racism, Hillary Clinton certainly had to endure some sexist rhetoric, and people are openly wondering about John McCain’s competence at age 72. On the other hand, Geraldine Ferraro was probably right that Obama wouldn’t be where he was if he were not black, Hillary would not have been running for President if her husband hadn’t been one first, and McCain is using his years of experience to dismiss Obama as unprepared and unqualified.

Not only that, but late in the campaign there was a surreal (and luckily short) moment where some (male) Hillary supporters seemed to like talking about her having testicles. A union leader said she had “testicular fortitude,” and James Carville even said “if she gave Obama one of her cojunes they’d each have two,” making it seem like we should elect the first woman President because she has balls. Talk about mixed messages!

However, in the way in which many each candidate’s supporters are ready to see themselves as victims of some kind of discrimination shows a rather disturbing aspect of American culture – we like to blame others for our problems. As I noted that in the Oil Denial blog a few weeks ago, that the response to high oil prices was that people went around pointing fingers at OPEC, big oil, or “speculators” as the culprits. It can’t be that we have an unsustainable lifestyle at a time when oil production is peaking, that would mean having to take responsibility and make hard choices. Blame someone!

Many of Clinton’s supporters can’t let go of their emotion and accept that she made some mistakes and Obama ran an awesome campaign. Clinton was a victim, she deserved to win. If Obama loses in the fall, many will no doubt attribute racism as a primary cause, while if McCain loses, people will say the country choose the ‘young and charismatic’ one over the competent but elderly leader, or complain that people voted for Obama because they didn’t want to be called racist.

Politics reflects life. Our culture sees to have two contradictory impulses. We value strength and victory in our sports, military endeavors, and business ventures. The New England Patriots may have been 18-1 last year, but since the lost the Superbowl, the season was a failure. On the other hand, we don’t seem to do losing gracefully well. Moreover, our culture is seeing this passed to the next generation, as parents get into brawls and arguments about childrens’ sports, sending a strong message that if you don’t win, you’re nothing. And, of course, if you don’t win, you get angry and blame someone or some injustice.

Humans are natural competitors. You can see it in children and it makes sense, given our biology. Yet we are not competing any more for survival and scarce resources. We are competing for fun, profit, and power. Some win, some lose, but rarely are the consequences of defeat dire. And, as I noted in Emotion and Politics, people often compete vicariously through others, connecting with sports teams, political leaders, or superstars. The loss thus can evoke emotions as real as those our ancestors experienced when some beast managed to hunt down the stag they were tracking.

Thus our leaders owe it to us to give us perspective. It is not healthy for our culture if people cannot accept losing, or believe that since only the weak lose, they have to blame their failures on some other person or thing. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about the roles of sexism, ageism and racism in this campaign. But the candidates themselves should be warning against the blame game. Like a sports star who refuses to blame a lingering injury for poor performance, noting it’s part of the game, politicians should not be fostering a culture of victimhood where it appears victory is something one is entitled to.

To be sure, none of the candidates overtly claimed victimhood; Clinton’s speech last week found a balance between recognizing the reality of sexism without making excuses. Obama has tried to avoid running a racially charged campaign, and McCain is trying to make age an advantage. The campaigns, however, have subtly played up these issues rather than directly and unequivocally rejecting any sense of being a victim of some kind of ism. There are real victims out there; but Obama, McCain and Clinton are not among the victims; they are some of society’s most privileged.