Friday, January 22, 2010

So there I was at the Coakley Campaign....

It is a reality that I live in times which are not so much dark, as kind of swirling gray. A friend of mine who was diagnosed as clinically depressed described as days where the sun was always just about to rise, but never did. There aren't vast wars and vast cataclysms that command the energy of an era, but, instead, a myriad of smaller ones, which damage lives beyond repair, and allow millions to fall down that deep hole of oblivion.

It befouls my senses to think of it, and to face the reality that in even civilized countries, there is a vast subterranean culture which differs from the great waves of totalitarian evil, only in that it does not have the courage to act on it much of the time. But then, that is probably the nature of that kind of evil, it takes the diseases of the spirit that are always present, and weakens society, until they explode the way opportunistic infections explode.

This week there was an election in the American state of Massachusetts. The two contending candidates were Martha Coakley of the Democratic Party, and Scott Brown, who is a Republican. The deciding factor was Coakley's embracing of ideas dictated to her late in the campaign, and the rise of "the Tea Party," which is an anti-tax anti-big government anti-deficit whites first movement run by people who work for the US Defense Department or it's private contractors and subsist on borrowed money from China.

Or to say it another way, they are hypocrites.

What was obvious to me in Boston on the evening after Scott Brown won, was not what other people are concerned about. I know that this election has implications for politics, and that wise minds than mine are staring deep into the futures that spin off from this moment. But that is the work of other hands and brains, because as I keep finding out, I am not very good at it.

What instead struck me was how Coakley was "to blame," for what happened. There is a story here, a narrative as my theory classes would have us say, and that narrative is deeply rooted in the consciousness of being a woman. I am going to go back to Simon De Beauvoir, who may not have seen all of these issues first, but whose book is a touchstone for me in seeing and expressing them.

One important reality is the transition from childhood to adolescence. A man's body goes through pain, but it becomes more powerful, more capable. A woman's body spins out of her control. She becomes wrapped in long surges of hormones and drives intended to make her give up her body to reproduce. Men too are chained to their drives, but they are very different in effect and result. The body shifts, subtly for some, or rapidly for others. One of my friends went from flat chested to quite busty, C Cup and the D cup, in a bit over a year. Hips widen, gravity pulls at us, we can no longer leap as we once did, or throw as well.

This means that rooted in the body is a very different story, personal story, of control. Girls are expected to be more in control of their body than boys are in a disciplined way for social purposes from a young age. We are expected to hold ourselves, walk in controlled ways and be "lady like." This is before we have reached five. My brother we his bed until 6. I would not have survived my mother's disapproval had I made it to half that age in diapers.

This means that the lose of control that comes with adolescence has different meanings to the genders. It is easy for each gender to see the advantages that the other has. Women, in general, mature more quickly, and homogenously than men. Men, as I noted, mature to being more powerful and more in control. For men the narrative of puberty seems, from the other side, to be a fulfillment. Nancy Friday commented that a man's body is a better version of a boy's body, but a woman's body often feels like a betrayal.

The lose of control is marked most powerfully by an event both longed for and dreaded, both powerful and dreadful. Namely, that somewhat monthly visit from menstruation. It is the trauma of controlling of bodily functions form childhood raised to a higher plane. Every lesson of not niceness and fear of being seen as dirty is magnified. It is possible, I think probable, to draw the lesson from evolution that women, as the bearers of children and caregivers, have a horror of infection that is burned into our genes. While I am not the best of housekeepers, I feel it weighing on me as guilt. An anthropologist in our school draws the parallel that if men are hunters, and women gatherers, then the people who are near the most stable camp must, by need, have evolved a very unprimate horror of dirt. Primates, generally excrete and leave. But to have home fires, is to mean that you must not merely learn, but evolve, not to "shit were you eat."

So genes, society, and personal sense collide, to make control of the body a very large issue, because failure to control the body in the long term is danger, and that is crowned by pregnancy.

Men too have control issues, but they are of a different kind and a different scale. Men are about a compression of control in time. They run, jump, spin, in dance, and athletics. Men achieve by control, women conceive. (ie ei ie ei... sigh the strangeness of my second mother tongue...)

What does this mean about the campaign?

The narrative of women is control of our bodies in that glacial sense of time, and for fear of isolation and disruption at the will of others. The fear of men, is the fear of falling magnified. And that narrative was on display in the campaign...

For the, mostly male, people farther up in Washington DC, this election was about, is about, will always be about, their accomplishment. And they gave her a script to follow, that of fear of Bush, and voting for health care reform. The problem with this script is that it is not a woman's script of why she should vote for someone else, and make no mistake, the core of Coakley's most loyal support saw this office as the natural culmination of her service. Older women stayed loyal, but at the party, there were few younger women visible. It is not that the young deserted her for Brown, but we weren't there.

The problem with the DC narrative was that it was an old person's idea of why young people should vote against Brown, and a man's script for what motivates women. Fear of Bush, and an offer of vague improvement in health care, which is, really, fear again.

For Coakley, I saw, that the awkwardness of this script burned through her. It was not a story she wanted to tell, and to be pushed back at the moment of potential elevation to the Senate, was destructive to her ability to control, again. Politics is about control, of the face, voice and words. Robbed of control, she was robbed of every aspect of her personality. She is a prosecutor, a prosecutor prosecutes by controlling the narrative, controlling the story before the jury, and pushing them inevitably down a line, when they cannot even visualize events happening any other way. Coakley, the cool woman slipped in support, but Coakley, the Eliza Doolittle to Obama and others, was a puppet that could only jerk awkwardly. Coakley became prosecuted by anarrative that she did not write, the narrative of a Democratic Party that wanted a health care bill written by the right wing of the Democratic Party.

I think it is wrong to over determine gender, men play women, women play men. Bart Simpson, who has been with me almost all my life as a shadow in the media, that most quintessentially boyish of characters, is voiced by a woman, actress Nancy Cartwright, who has now been bart for virtually her entire working life. This means that these scritps and narratives become important precisely at the ripping point. The reality is that the men of the DNC could not get the women who work for them, to come up with a script that was a man's version of a woman's fears.

After the loss, the control story flipped. Men made the decisions, and imposed them, but it is the woman who was immediately accused of bearing the blame. How this is so, after those same men have presided over a series of political defeats, is only possible if you see through the glasses of men in control. For them, they made the right decisions, almost no man sees his decisions as wrong at first, that means that if there was failure, it was the fault of the underlings, most particularly the woman, for failing. It's never a man's fault in his own mind that his girlfriend gets pregnant.

For Coakley's supporters, the narrative is different. Coakley was loyal, and was put out because of it. The sense in the campaign is that their "competence" was attacked by males who blamed her for their failings, and the failings that were the result of other forces. But for other women the blame falls squarely on Coakley. Defeat is an infection, not merely that she ran the wrong campaign, but that she was bad intrinsicly. Not merely guilt, but shame, bodily shame in supporting someone who was unfit. That's women asking whether Emily's List was to blame for Coakley's losing the general election, and therefore for "health care's loss."

But to accept that narrative one has to accept that Coakley lost for her support of rights that are seen as women's issues, or that she was to feminine. I don't know of any evidence, even anecdotal evidence that says this. To accept this narrative ne has to believe that even more control should be given over to men. There is excellent evidence that this is the case. And who declared that the present Health Care Reform is progress? It is worse than what already exists in Massachusetts. Worse. To accept the narrative that "health care" is defeated is to assume that only those good things that men provide, women can have. The narrative that Emily's List and other women's organizations caused the defeat is part of the "blame the caution" narrative.

But this narrative, as one of my politically astute friends points out, is wrong. While Coakley lost some support when she was not campaigning, almost all of Scott Brown's gains came after the Caokley campaign actively began promoting the attack ads on Brown, and embracing health care as the Senate has written it. This is the man in control narrative, that failure is her fault for not carrying out the man's decisions well enough.

This goes back to the heart of the control issue, and the difference in control narratives. Since Coakley was assigned the task that required time, her failure to pursue a campaign vigorously was the "failure." But if that is so, then how much larger a failure to allow Health Care Reform to drift long enough to come to the point where a special election could alter its path so violently?

In society, the issue of abortion, which is a dagger through the health care debate, is much the same way. Men, largely, run the control of the economic system, yet it is women, often young, scared, poor, alone women, who must take responsibility for each child that enters, or sometimes does not enter, the world. it is those women who "fail" as mothers if the child cannot be afforded, or does not grow up well. Control is about not only who makes the decisions, but how the blame is meted out for them

I cannot help but feel that no good can come out of this event, where a woman was left to twist and turn on the puppet strings of more powerful people. It is a story, or an event in many stories. But one story that is forward is how women are stripped of control of their bodies and lives, and then blamed for the results, in the most humiliating and painful ways imaginable.

So I'm sorry Martha, that we weren't really there for you, but I encountered, often, how many men looked at your campaign and told me that they weren't doing anything for Obama. I tried to tell them that Obama wasn't running for the Senate, and they retorted that I wasn't paying attention. I lived in enough of a bubble of denial not to see this, until a painful and tearful conversation of two older women, lesbians and long time democratic activists ended with, "So why do they hate us?"

They didn't mean the tea baggers.

6 comments:

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  3. As a Bostonian who only paid a little attention to that whole campaign (being a liberal, there wasn't any question that she would get my vote), I found your post very enlightening. Certainly it was a powerful counter-point to the kind of stock analysis that came out after the election.

    It did make me think a bit of Rachel Maddow's post election coverage where she was pushing the national organizations to take some responsibility. (And their remarkably strong resistance to doing so.)

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  4. All my daughter's friends, male and female, came out to vote for Coakley, the true progressive in the race, who is well to the left of Obama. More of them -- early twenty-somethings -- voted for her than voted for Obama in the presidential election.

    Seems like it was the Dems who done Martha Coakley in, first as collateral damage for those who were angry at Obama, and secondly, by the Old-Boy machine, typified by Menino, who supported her in public while undermining her in secret, withholding his troops.

    Either way, MA has lost a great progressive Senator. And perhaps that was the goal all along, was it not?

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