Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some thoughts on what separates us

On the demographic surface, everything about us looks the same. We're both young white women, recent graduates from the same college, and we're originally from the two states that, for some reason, couldn't figure out how to hold a legitimate primary this year. (Thanks, Senator Levin. And by thanks, I mean maybe we should have mandatory retirement ages for public officials.)

But, I'm passionately for Barack Obama, and my friend is just as passionately for Hillary Clinton.

As most of my friends are also college-age or recent college graduates, the majority of them are Obama people. But some of them, and a fair number of my older coworkers, are Hillary people. Since it seems lately like I can't have a reasoned and fair discussion that doesn't end in anger on both sides, especially on the Internets, I've been trying to think about the essential differences, not between the two candidates as much as the personalities and worldviews of their supporters. Obviously, I can't pinpoint everything, but please bear with my attempt.

I. Personal

In the course of one of our interminable discussions about the candidates, my friend told me a story about her high school days. She had been in the school theater club for years, and she ran for president of it her senior year. It wasn't a particularly big deal, so 'running' consisted of each candidate standing up and saying why they should be president. My friend listed all her experience and accomplishments over her years in the theater club, citing them as the reason she was obviously qualified. Her opponent then stood up and informed everyone of all the things that she would do as president. (New costumes for all! Improved bake sales with better cookies! A sex-free lighting booth!) Needless to say, my friend lost the election.

To her credit, this is far from the only reason that my friend supports Hillary. But she mentioned this story as a crucial moment of identification, and I think identification is at the core of why a lot of people, especially women, have chosen Hillary: they see themselves in her. And it makes sense. Hillary is perceived by some, rightly or not, as being a woman who has worked hard in a man's world, and has struggled against impossible odds. And now, she's being beaten by a glib young man with vague promises for the future.

I suppose I identify with Obama a little bit. In high school and college, I found myself constantly in the presence of other students whose intelligence, if they even had it in the first place, had been utterly subsumed by bullshit. Honest, intellectual debate is kind of hard in the face of statements like, "I think he complexifies the problem here" and "Let's psychologize Machiavelli for a bit" and "Wait, Sappho's a lesbian?" (To my deep sadness and cause of my drinking problem, I didn't make any of those up.) Because I am extremely humble, I have always tended to put myself on the side of the naturally talented, the truly smart, who have to rise against the tide of high-achieving bullshitters who have only gotten where they are because they're really good at faking and reinventing themselves.

But that's the end of where I can identify with Obama, if I can even pretend to identify with the intelligence of a Harvard law professor. Not many people can identify with him, really, and I think that's lost amid all the talk of why so many African-Americans like 'their guy.' Few people in this country are biracial, foreign-raised, Harvard law professors with staggering speaking and writing talents. I think a lot of Obama's appeal comes out of his 'otherness' itself, instead of identification. (And for some, unfortunately, perhaps a certain fascination with the exotic.) After all, he is the candidate of 'you'--not one of us, but a brilliant leader with new and exciting ideas.

We may not be able to feel kinship with Obama, but we can feel kinship with his plural 'you.' I don't think it's unfair to suggest that there's a great appeal in the sense of belonging to a great movement dedicated toward fixing this country, and still being one of the cool kids while you do it.

I happen to subscribe to the High School Theory of Human Behavior, which is this: high school drama and politics are not teenage anomalies but instead a blueprint of adult human behavior. In short, we feel an intense need to identify with a group and to be cool according to the standards of that group. No one's going to deny it--it's fun to be cool.

Hillary's people are an 'in crowd' according to their own definition, and I'm going to be vicious here because this an 'in crowd' that I hate. In my experience, a lot of privileged white people really get off on the idea of being a victim. It's not really their fault, in some ways--our culture gives victims a lot of respect and automatic forgiveness, and so it actually is hard to have nothing to complain about. (GET OVER IT.) So often, privileged white people will make up problems, or, as I once heard a girl in high school weep to her friends, "Sometimes it seems like the laundry's just never done!"

Some Hillary people--and this includes the real deadenders, especially the ones you find online--have taken identification with Hillary to the brink of victimisation. Hillary herself had aided this by playing the victim, going from 'the politics of pile-on' to 'being forced out of the race.' And so people can participate in being victims by supporting her, and each new attack on her is one more nail in their hands.

II. Worldview

In my friend's fundamentalist Christian small town, she was known in high school as 'that liberal girl.' On the other hand, I grew up in a hippie college town that throws a yearly party for marijuana. She's used to being assailed for her beliefs, and I stupidly tend to forget that not everyone thinks like me. Among other things, I think this background affects our political worldviews.

My friend has offered this common Hillary-person argument: Obama cannot win, because the Republicans are savage. They swift-boated the war hero Kerry. They have too much control over the media, particularly anything owned by Rupert Murdoch, and it will feed the American people false information. The Clintons, on the other hand, are savage in their own right. They know how to fight like Republicans, and they will.

My counterargument is this: Once, that was true. But the world has changed, and we are in the midst of a great historical moment. Neoconservatism has devoured itself, and the Republicans are floundering. McCain is an easy mark. Certain former red states are up for grabs, if we just try to seize them. We no longer need to fight like Republicans. We can learn, at last, to fight like Democrats, to reintroduce decency and statesmanship into the American political process.

She and I can cite statistics at each other all day, and scream about the Republican political machine and the 50 state strategy. In the end, it comes down to a matter of belief.

That's a shocking thing to say, especially because 'belief' has come under fire lately in our political culture. People voted for Bush because they 'believed' he was a fun guy and a compassionate conservative, whatever the hell that means. Kerry and Gore were in the party of Reason--you didn't support them because you liked them necessarily or believed in their potential--you favored their rational arguments.

But in the end, it does come down to belief, or more appropriately, intuition. I couldn't prove that Bush would be a bad president in 2000. I could cite his record, his obvious bullshittery, his insincerity. But a supporter could have said, "But I genuinely believe he's sincere." In the end, it's just intuition against intuition.

I was hanging out with some friends one night in 2004 when someone said, "Hey, isn't the Democratic convention tonight?" We turned it on and there was a young, unfamiliar man speaking.

What happened then happened to many other people. "Quick!" we said. "Get this man the presidency!" It was a profound moment of awe and delight, and with all cringing aside, akin to a revelatory experience. I have had a few of these moments in my life, and I tend to put a lot of stock in them. When I first saw a certain cat in the window of the animal shelter and just knew she was already a member of the family, when yesterday I tried a new conditioner and gasped, "Where have you been all my life?" these moments of perfect clarity are both rare and extremely special.

Obama has done nothing since then to disappoint my first intuition. As I often say, he's the real thing. But there are a lot of Hillary people who disagree. They seem to believe, just as strongly, that he's 'an empty suit' or a skilled, extremely subtle liar. This belief, I think, arises out of the following argument:

1. All politicians, by nature, are liars.

2. Obama is a politician.

3. Therefore, Obama is a liar.

To these people, Hillary's chameleon shifting, her bullshit, her pandering gas tax--these are all good things. That's just how politicians act. Obama, too, mischaracterizes Hillary's positions on occasion. He bullshits a little. He's too vague, which gives him license to do anything. He pretends to be pure, but isn't, and under the mask of purity he may be hiding extreme duplicitousness.

In my opinion, this position is simply too extreme. Does it have to be one or the other? Can a person lie a little, because the game does demand it, and not be a total outright liar? Can you be a good person if occasionally you do or say bad things? I would argue yes, of course. Otherwise, there's no such thing as a good person. But others would argue that because politics is essentially corrupting, they'd prefer bald corruption to attempted decency.

What has been most striking to me about this whole exercise in trying to figure out why people think what they think has been this: who you choose to vote for says less about the candidates than it does about you. You pick who you pick based on personality traits and basic interpretations of the state of the world.

In short, at the risk of being unpopular, I'm blaming the drawn-out, vicious nature of this race squarely on you, the viewers!

In the end, either you think the world has changed, or it hasn't. You think all politicians are liars and they should at least be honest liars--or that it is possible to be both a politician and a decent human being. I'm not sure that we can ever be reconciled, but hopefully we can all learn to accept what comes.

And remember how much we believe and know that McCain really, really sucks.