Good Faith

I haven't posted much about the Democratic presidential candidates or campaigns, largely because I've noticed that doing so invariably leads to unusual levels of blogospheric vitriol, and among people who have until now considered themselves friends or at least allies. I'm sure I don't have to provide examples of this; we've all seen it happen.

And it's not only happening in the blogosphere; it's among the professional chatterers as well. In fact, Bob Somerby yesterday wrote a brief passage that in my opinion crystallized one important aspect of the problem. Somerby is speaking about two professors who are also New York Times columnists -- each of whom favors a different Democratic candidate:
Professor Patterson favors Obama; ex-professor Hirshman likes Clinton....

To Patterson, if Texas voters broke for Clinton, well, that had to mean that they were responding to a racist sub-message. To Hirshman, if various women favored Obama (including female governors), that had to mean that they were either 1) gender traitors; 2) upper-class snobs; or 3) idiots who have fallen in love with Michelle Obama’s shoes.

Neither professor could imagine a world in which decent people, acting in good faith, made a judgment which differed from theirs.... they’re parlor bigots—people who assail the motives of anyone who disagrees with their views.
That highlighted sentence, for me, explains in a nutshell the problem that I'm seeing in these campaigns: the presumption of good faith disagreement just doesn't seem to exist, or if it does it's fragile and easily thrown aside.

The problem, of course, with the loss of the presumption of good faith disagreement, is that it becomes impossible to engage in reasoned and substantive discourse. When good faith vanishes, what you're left with is a presumption of suspicion, the idea that anything but substance is what's at work, the idea that somehow your opponent must be by definition cheating, lying, or illegitimate -- in short, with a form of paranoia. This may be, for example, where bizarre comments like those we've heard recently from Samantha Power and Geraldine Ferraro came from. Just a reminder: Power, who was in the Obama camp, said this:
She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything.
As Glenn Greenwald noted, it's gruesomely comical to watch American journalists berate the British reporter who broke the story for not allowing Power to speak off the record ad hoc. But it's also disturbing to see Power say such a thing in the first place. What Power was complaining about, contextually, was that Clinton was trying to win the campaign in which she is campaigning. That's sort of what candidates do, isn't it? In no rational universe does that make Hillary Clinton a "monster." So what did?

And then there was Ferraro, who said this about Barack Obama:
If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.
It's difficult to know what country Ferraro thinks she's living in. As Roy Edroso pointed out, there are a lot of things that are easy to do if you're black in the United States; running for President (let alone winning) is not among them. Also, what on Earth does Ferraro mean when she says, "if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position"? Hadn't Ferraro noticed that her preferred candidate is in fact a woman of a particular color (white), who is in a similar position?

But it's that last part, I think, that gets to the root of the problem: the notion that white is a color, that is to say, a racial category. Far too often, people see whiteness not as a category but as the norm: the pure, blank baseline from which all else is a deviation. Similarly, people see maleness (especially straight maleness) not as a gender but as a norm, from which all else is a departure. Depart from either of these categories, and you may be tagged as a monster if you assert yourself too much. And if you are succeeding too much, you are probably going to be accused of getting an unfair break. August Pollak puts this well:
The reality is that there's a huge demographic of Angry White Men - you know, the stupid, bitter people who think that everyone who is successful despite not being white and male has somehow succeeded "unfairly" - and the idea that both campaigns aren't going to lean toward that demographic for some important votes is very naive.... And then, of course, the white guy wins the election in a landslide.
What this means, unfortunately, is that the concept of fairness, and therefore the presumption of good faith disagreement, is in the United States a gendered and racialized concept. Women and non-white people just do not get the presumption of good faith applied to them when they seek or exert power. They are always thought to be cheating, and always thought to be illegitimate. This is especially true when someone is applying for the top job in the country: the more that is at stake, the harder it is to break the grip of entrenched cultural presumptions.

There's one other important point, though, which is that as far as the major media are concerned, the concepts of fairness and good faith are limited in another way: they are not only gendered and racialized concepts, but also partisan concepts. Anyone who has been paying attention to American presidential campaigns for the past two decades can't have failed to notice this: Democratic candidates are always attacked in the general election as phonies, liars, and cheats who act in bad faith, while Republicans are nearly always depicted as authentic, honest, regular guys who act in good faith (even their howling errors and distortions are often forgiven as good faith mistakes). No matter what the facts are, and no matter how many falsehoods have to be fabricated to make this narrative work, it's the one that gets told every time. Put these three things together, and you've got a shockingly narrow conclusion: the white male Republican is always portrayed, by definition, as the only good-faith candidate. Everyone else is portrayed as illegitimate.

This is the narrative that the American progressive blogosphere came into being to resist in the first place. And it did so with some effectiveness and unity until now. But that's because, until now, the Democratic front-runners were always white men. The partisan double standard was the chief, often the only, variable in the application of the good faith idea, at least in the context of Presidential elections. But now, the two prospective Democratic front-runners introduce two new variables -- race and gender -- and so there are three double standards all at work at the same time. To complicate things further, two of these double standards are now operative within the Democratic campaign itself, something that we have not seen before.

I'm not sure what the upshot of all this will be. I'd like to think that the experience is going to teach people to extend the presumption of good faith more widely, to de-gender and de-racialize it. But I see no evidence that this is happening. What I fear will happen instead is that the media and the country as a whole may simply run back to the default: the white male Republican. I don't think the United States can afford that. But I don't know what to do about it.

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