Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Merit, Elitism, and Crab-Bucket Feminism

Finally, an article that hits on what I wanted to say about the charge of elitism in the current presidential race: The Dumbing Down of the GOP (hat tip Holly).

Didn't the GOP used to claim that (in theory) they're the ones that care about merit, and about earning what you get?

I think one part of the GOP's political game of picking Sarah Palin was to scare Democrats into crying "Experience matters!" so that the GOP can respond by saying "Then pick McCain!" But the thing is that -- between Obama and Palin -- it's more than just a question of who has the most experience.

Barack Obama is a skilled negotiator and a highly intelligent person. He's the sort of person who can step back and observe how things work, can come up with new and insightful analysis of problems and their solutions, and write write a couple of (very accessible) books explaining his ideas. Sarah Palin is the sort of person who can be trained to recite talking points (whether they're relevant or not, without grasping the underlying concepts), which is a great skill for a T.V.-soundbyte-oriented election, but not so useful in a president. (Note: I know it's McSame who's a the top of the ticket, but Palin is running for Prez too as long as she's the understudy to Mr. One-Foot-in-the-Grave.)

Yet, if I point this out, I'll be blasted as an "elitist." Because not every Tom, Dick, and Harry can be smart like Barack Obama.

But haven't we had enough "Hey, I'm as dumb as you!" populism?

Obama has leadership skills and talent, and it shouldn't be "elitist" to suggest that such things are necessary to be an effective president. You're not paying Joe and Jane Average a compliment by saying that they can't deal with voting for someone who has relevant leadership/diplomatic skills that the average person doesn't have. Joe and Jane Average may not have exactly the same skill set as Obama, but they're capable of being qualified for their own jobs, and if they're proud of that, then they should expect no less from the President.

Now let's take another look at merit (or lack thereof) from Feministing (hat tip MoF):

For many Boomer women, the primary sexist experience of their lives is: "Those men gave the job to that guy instead of me, even though I am more qualified and/or have more seniority."

For many Gen X women like myself (and Palin is Gen X) the primary sexist experience is: "Those men gave the job to that clueless chick instead of me, because the boss thinks she's hot and/or will be a yes-man with no ideas of her own."

If, for some Boomer women, Obama's win over Hillary represents the guy they lost the promotion to, Palin's selection plays the same role for Gen X women. We've seen it: first the incompetent yet babelicious woman is promoted over her head, then the boss orders the attention of the entire team/department/etc. to focus on ensuring that "we" shield her from "mistakes" (or worse, we get blamed for her mistakes). Palin reminds us of when we got screwed by this sort of bullshit. And it shows in voters' response to her.

Really...? That's Gen-X's primary experience with sexism? Having to put up with a bimbo at work?

Not, say... getting viewed (and dismissed) by your colleagues who decide that you must be unqualified, incompetent eye-candy? Including (supposedly) "feminist" colleagues?!

Now, I don't want to be too hard on the authors of Feministing (since they got this quote from another blog, hence may not agree with it). I don't agree with it. I'm sorely tempted to go over there and post the following comment:

I totally agree with you about having to cover for all the incompetent bimbos at work that the boss just hires to flirt with him. Sadly, these bimbos keep getting promoted over real, qualified working men like me and my buddies. I've seen it over and over. Women use their sex appeal all the time to get unfairly promoted in jobs where women are just naturally less qualified.

I would love to watch the sh*tstorm that would rain down on me if I wrote that. (I can't, of course, since I'm not a guy.)

Yet, somehow it's "feminist" for a woman to say the same thing: to promote the stereotype of the incompetent bimbo who's had an unfair advantage at work. That's what you're saying when you say it's a typical gen-X woman's "primary sexist experience": having to deal with incompetent bimbos must be a pretty widespread problem!

As opposed to, say, having to deal with the incompetent guy who gets an unending string of unfair advantages, screws things up for his colleagues, and gets repeatedly protected and shielded from the consequences of his mistakes, because of being an admiral's son (hat tip Pz), or for having other connections. I guess rich white guys getting this kind of treatment is par for the course -- not worthy of the same scorn.

"The unqualified person got hired over me because of some unfair advantage!" Yep, it's something that really does (objectively) happen. Yet, too often this interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Whenever you don't get something you believe you deserve, that's the first knee-jerk interpretation. As feminists, we shouldn't be encouraging women to seek out "blame the bimbo" as some sort of typically feminist interpretation to look around for as soon as things go awry. Everybody who is competing against an attractive woman at work (men and women alike) are vigilantly on the lookout for any unfair advantage she gets and will hate her for it, and she typically gets her punishment soon enough without "feminists" deciding that it's a major feminist issue to bash her and bring her down. (Keep in mind that an affair with the boss is far more likely to get a woman fired than promoted, despite the "sleeping your way to the top" stereotype.)

I agree with Feministing that this is a generational thing though. Think of the film Nine to Five. Remember how the other women stood in solidarity with the (unfairly advantaged and unfairly mistreated) babe? Instead of thinking it's their feminist duty to bash her? Those were the days. Nowadays "crab-bucket Feminism" (feminists bolstering their own position by pulling other women down) is the rule, not the exception (thanks MoJo for the term).

Feminists have learned (correctly) that women shouldn't be expected to be beautiful to be considered valuable and successful. But unfortunately many feminists have taken this a step further to the point where it's considered "feminist" to promote the prejudice that a woman who is beautiful or sexy is probably a brainwashed, exploited airhead. Now what about the woman who earned her position through merit yet all of her colleagues (male and female) keep assuming she must be just eye candy? Who should she turn to for help? Clearly not the current generation of "feminists"...

About Sarah Palin?

Yep, she's a beauty pageant winner, and that's a big part of why she's on the ticket. Like Dan Quayle who got unfairly promoted because of his looks and McCain and G.W.B. who got unfair advantages through family connections. Let's insist on merit and qualfication all around for both men and women in all lines of work.

But, feminists, let's not jump up and grab this as a golden opportunity to bolster the standard prejudices against women in the workplace. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and your own colleagues may wrongly be making these same assumptions about you.


AnnM said...

Half-way through this post in my reader I started wondering, "Whose blog is this? I don't recognize this writer...Whoa! That's Chanson?"

To be fair, the gals at Feministing were asking for comments on a comment posted at another blog.

Can't say I disagree with anything you say, although I frequently notice a generational divide in women's experience of feminism, particularly with the Feministing bloggers, but sometimes with the baby boomer feminists.

Aerin said...

I definitely agree that I've observed vast differences in feminist perspective and theory (which can only make sense as far as I'm concerned - we're all human with different experiences).

Thanks for this post chanson. I become uncomfortable at some of the criticism logged at all four U.S. party candidates. Some of it may be justified. With some of it, I feel we're on a dangerous line to tread. I think lots of people sit through church or religious services, or college lectures of people that they may deeply disagree with. for example. What I'm saying is, in this election, some things seem to be grasping at straws, and I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.

I have some thoughts about the sexualization of Sarah Palin - which I've seen in a couple of places on the internet already and I'm disappointed in. I understand people are emotionally invested in this election, it will make a difference in their lives.

I also understand trying to have a sense of humor - but it's a fine line between parody and sexism...the image I saw would probably not have been posted or made for a man - because it wouldn't be funny. Again -I hope to go into this more myself (this comment is already too long).

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I like your points!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

re: To be fair, the gals at Feministing were asking for comments on a comment posted at another blog.

True, and I pointed that out. Still, I was a little disappointed by their "Maybe she's onto something" presentation of the comment. This is why I don't read Feministing (or many other feminist blogs) on a regular basis. This whole thing of women slamming other women -- and expecting to be called feminists for doing it -- drives me up the effing wall.

The trouble is -- as I've said before and will say again -- women are more than 50% of the population, so any group that aims to promote the interests of women in general really has their work cut out for them! What is in the interest of one woman is not always in the interest of another. It's too easy to (unintentionally) get the idea that (as long as you're a woman) promoting your own interests must be feminism. It's hard to keep in mind that when your own interests conflict with the interests of another woman, then taking your own side over hers isn't necessarily feminism.

I frequently notice a generational divide in women's experience of feminism

That is absolutely true that women's experience with feminism varies dramatically from one generation to the next.

Hey Aerin!!!

Re: I have some thoughts about the sexualization of Sarah Palin - which I've seen in a couple of places on the internet already and I'm disappointed in.

You've only seen it in a couple of places? You must not read as many blogs as I do. This campaign season seems full of new lows. I'd be curious to read your thoughts on more detail.

Thanks Margo!!!

Eugene said...

Quayle won his House seat defeating an eight-term incumbent, and then won his Senate seat defeating three-term incumbent Democrat Birch Bayh. Palin also defeated a powerful incumbent, Frank Murkowski, to become governor. As Spengler at the Asia Times puts it, "That does not qualify her to be president, to be sure, but it does show cunning and strength of character."

Obama won his Senate seat running against vapor and certainly hasn't demonstrated any brillant leadership as a senator. But he ran a much smarter--and more democratic--campaign against Clinton. Feminist sympathies for Clinton and against Palin ignore what the former did wrong and what the latter did right. The problem isn't just "crab-bucket feminism," but ideological blindness to real accomplishment.

Actually, I think G.H.W. Bush picked Quayle because he reminded him of the perfect Bush scion that he wanted G.W. to be (and G.W. sort of became). Quayle won (despite himself) and Palin will probably lose, but Palin is the better campaigner and I think would be a superior executive to Quayle. But then, think of some of the vice presidents this country has been blessed with. Not a high hurdle.

Obama reminds me of General McClellan, a man so lost in his superior thoughts that though he could march an army in perfect formation, he could never decide whether to march it into battle. McCain is Custer, whose "maverick" daring-do served him well during the Civil War but eventually led to disaster. This is one election where the bottom of both tickets is more reassuring than the top.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eugene!!!

Like many people, you confuse the ability to win an election with the ability to lead. And, like many, you seem only too willing to see intelligence and a cool head as being the sign of the laughable wussy nerdmeister. I imagine you see Palin's "You can't blink" as being the mark of leadership.

If too many others think like you, then heaven help us. I almost wish I could believe in divine intervention because if you (an author) represent the thinking American, then (short of divine intervention) we are in deep sh*t.

Eugene said...

Well, unless you're rooting for a coup d'etat, you can't lead the country in this country unless you can win elections (Nixon/Ford suggests one legal alternative). It was Obama who argued, when Palin compared her being a small-town mayor to his being a "community organizer," that running a presidential political campaign gave him "executive experience."

And he's got something of a point. You will note that I was defending Obama against the Clintonite charge that "they was robbed" by the upstart. The primary was Clinton's to lose. Obama flat outgeneraled her.

I said that the bottoms of both tickets are more reassuring than the tops. Of the four I think Biden the most qualified (despite his gaffes and gasbaggery). Palin belongs on the ticket more than Quayle did (which is to say, not really: reread the Spengler quote above). But I think you have to be deluded to believe that Obama's track record is any more substantial than Palin's.

What Obama has is an ability to project gravitas. But that's a running-for-office qualification. In any case, what leadership abilities has Obama demonstrated--again, besides running for office? What he has done is present himself as a blank slate onto which his followers can project their desires, the canvas on which they can paint their ideal portrait of a candidate.

I'm not too sure who you're arguing with, though. To spell things out, a McClellan right now is probably preferable to a Custer. To continue with the Civil War analogies, Sherman knew and acknowledged that he was a smarter man than Grant, but Sherman was willing to defer to Grant's coolness on the battlefield and his ability to act decisively.

Obama has demonstrated that coolness, but not the decisiveness. He has proved unfortunately easy for McCain to goad from nuanced into empty, populist positions ("I can propose tax policies just as improbable as yours!"). And McCain is right that Obama has a history of playing it safe, not out of any apparent principle but pure political expediency.

Okay, so maybe it's time for a politician who's good at playing it safe and sacrificing principle to expediency. I for one think very little of McCain advertising his ability to boldly make bad decisions. But I'm not going to pretend that Obama is as smart or wise as his fans claim without a lot more evidence to judge him by.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sherman was right: savants rarely make good leaders. At least based on what I've read, Clinton and Nixon were two of the smartest presidents of the 20th century. I believe that their intelligence--in part--led them to underestimate and then rationalize the impact of doing really stupid things. IQ is no guarantee of wisdom.

It's not the U.S. president's job to be the smartest man in the room. But to surround himself with people he knows to be far wiser in their particular fields than himself.

Eileen said...

Hmmm . . . Sorry, CL, but I'm going to have to agree with Eugene on this. Despite being a McCain supporter, I have real misgivings about Palin -- and Obama as well. Quite frankly, I think they both project a sort of empty charisma that fits in all too well with today's celebrity culture.

This whole thing really reminds me strongly of a book I read: Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It was published in 1964 but really explains, I think, where Palin is coming from. Hofstadter's basic premise is that the "average" American relies on and appreciates “inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom” as opposed to “European” standards that recall the “cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and well-to-do.” His book traces the history of that sentiment all the way from the Puritans to John Dewey. I recommend reading it alongside Nathan O. Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity which, expanding some of Hofstadter's arguments, looks to radical Jeffersonianism in the Second Great Awakening to explain why the United States today is so religious compared to Europe. Basically, it's because American religion is very "bottom-up," yet, paradoxically, often centers around highly charismatic and/or authoritarian figures (like Joseph Smith -- Hatch talks about Mormonism quite a bit). You can probably extend this mindset to politics as well.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eugene!!!

I understand one can't be president without being elected president, and I'm certainly not hoping for a coup d'etat. I'm just saying that the skill set required to get elected and the skill set required to govern well are far from being one and the same.

I think in the U.S. in particular the election system needs a bit of an overhaul, see Confessions of a former Nader voter I and II.

Hey E. L. Fay!!!

You're making another common mistake/fallacy: the assumption that because Obama is popular and charismatic, that must be the sum total of his appeal; there must be nothing backing it up.

I see people complaining that on T.V. Obama does nothing but repeat his catch phrases (like every other politician) instead of going into detail. That's because that's how T.V.-based communication works -- that's what fits in their slots.

It only takes a moment's effort to scratch beyond that surface and see the substance underneath. Read his books (or if you don't have time for that, see the extensive information available on his website). I totally agree about American anti-intellectualism though, especially of late. Absorbing the one-directional communication from the idiot box, people have lost the will to be proactive about getting information and thinking for themselves. I have high hopes that the Internet can counteract it, but will it be too little, too late? We'll see...

C. L. Hanson said...

Sorry, this is his website.

Anonymous said...

Stunning insight as usual Chanson. I had to keep shaking myself to stay focused and alert because you were presenting so much salient information that i could barely process it. I love when you do that to me.

I could probably never quite spell out for you what it is about Palin that bothers me so much. Maybe because it's everything. I don't care if she's a woman or not, she's disgusting in the same way that Bush the younger is disgusting. They both make my skin crawl.

I think you're probably one of the most enlightened feminists I know. Your perspectives inform me and make me more aware of what the word feminism means. Thank you!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Tom!!!

Re: I don't care if she's a woman or not, she's disgusting in the same way that Bush the younger is disgusting.

Exactly: Shiny new user interface, same back-end. ;^)

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. Continuing the discussion of American anti-intellectualism: it has truly reached some astounding new lows.

Obama has championed a position of pragmatism over ideology, and a focus on finding the causes and solutions to the very real crises facing us today: energy dependence, the environment, America's slipping position in healthcare and education, war (including the legality of invasion and torture). Even ordinary people care deeply about these important issues, and connect with Obama because he's finally addressing them. And the anti-intellectuals -- who can't imagine that anyone could be popular because of real substance -- conclude that because he's popular it must be a "cult of personality"!!

Talk about denial of reality (not to mention a cynical dismissal of the possibility that democracy might occasionally work).

C. L. Hanson said...

Here are some more excellent recent discussion of the divisive and destructive role of anti-intellectualism in American politics:

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

--from David Brooks, hat tip Holly's "Hey Smart People, Go Away and F*** Off" (and read Holly's commentary too).

At a Sarah Palin rally, someone called out, "Kill him!" At one of your rallies, someone called out, "Terrorist!" Neither was answered or denounced by you or your running mate, as the crowd laughed and cheered.

-- from Frank Schaeffer, hat tip John Evo's "Take it from a Republican"

I only wish she had been asked: “Governor Palin, if paying taxes is not considered patriotic in your neighborhood, who is going to pay for the body armor that will protect your son in Iraq? Who is going to pay for the bailout you endorsed? If it isn’t from tax revenues, there are only two ways to pay for those big projects — printing more money or borrowing more money. Do you think borrowing money from China is more patriotic than raising it in taxes from Americans?” That is not putting America first. That is selling America first.

-- from Thomas L. Friedman (sorry, I forgot who gave me the link).