On Naming the Villain

When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others' misery has no agency and hence no culpability.

…[H]e ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise.
—Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and Democratic strategic political consultant, in a piece for the New York Times called "What Happened to Obama?"

There's actually quite a lot in that article with which I don't agree—Westen virtually tasks Obama singlehandedly with the responsibility for changing the national conversation, and, while I believe Obama has failed to make maximum use of the presidential bully pulpit, even the most gifted progressive orator on the planet would still have to contend with the deadening filter of the fuck soup that is our hippie-hostile national media.

Westen also seems to believe that Obama is more progressive than I have ever regarded him to be; I believe the main reason that Obama is not a modern FDR is because he doesn't want to be one.

But I do agree with the above excerpt. One of the ways in which President Obama most infuriates me (and always has) is his refusal to hold Republicans/conservatives accountable, and his insistence on drawing equivalencies, while fetishizing bipartisanship as inherently superior to any solution even distantly associated with a partisan ideology.

It's this habit, so vividly on display during the debt ceiling negotiations, that underlies the sudden rash of musings about how things might have been different if Hillary Clinton had instead won the nomination and then the presidency. (See here, for example. TW for sexist language.) The common observation among these speculations is that Clinton would not have capitulated to Republicans—because she knows them better, because she understands them, because she has no illusions about the fact that they do not compromise, because she holds their policies in contempt.

This observation is made, naturally, as if it's a new idea. Gee, if only someone would have mentioned during the last election that showing contempt for the party who got us into this fucking mess was actually an important qualification!

Yes. If only.

Me, January 22, 2008:
[T]here's something else, tangentially related, that undermines my faith. Obama positions himself as transcending the ugliness of partisanship, but I like knowing that [John Edwards] and [Hillary Clinton] hate the goddamned Republicans as much as I do. I love it when Edwards gets into his zone and talks about corporate greed with fury at the anti-American fatcats seething so clearly just below the surface. I love it when Clinton talks about the GOP through gritted teeth and hides a snarl behind a smile when the name Bush passes her lips. I trust that. And I trust it because I can't imagine anyone who believes the things I do isn't that. fucking. angry. at the Republicans at this point. I want to see that anger. I want to feel it. I want to recognize and connect with it.

I want to see Obama at least as angry about Bush as he is about being questioned on his own voting record.

The ostensibly transcendent, politics-of-hope stuff is good, but I believe you can be optimistic and angry. My faith is pretty much built around exactly that.

I want evidence that Obama is the guy I keep hearing he is.

I know that Obama can't express himself in quite the same way, thanks to racist narratives about Angry Black Men. I know that he can't let naked fury cross his face without a cost—although I suspect, given the nature of protest against this president, it would ultimately be no bigger cost than simply being a man of color in the first place.

I just want him to name the villain, to borrow Westen's term. He can do it with a smile. I just want him to name the villain.

I want it so bad.

But the problem is that Obama doesn't seem to believe there are villains to be named—just misguided folks who are all good Americans and have different ideas about how to reach the same goals that definitely have the best interests of the American people at heart. Which is patent bullshit.

And everyone paying the slightest bit of attention knows it's patent bullshit, at least everyone who doesn't have a vested interest in continuing to engage in this fantasy about changing the tone in Washington through sheer force of will, a notion which members of the administration have admitted was arrogant and naïve, but to which they lingeringly subscribe nonetheless.

Now the people who ignored this evident folly, this unrealizable dream of hope and change, are waxing ponderous about Hillary Clinton's alternate-universe presidency, as if she had not been the obvious choice to go twelve rounds with the rancorous partisan fucks of the Republican Party in the first place.

Which just pisses me off, so hard. For reasons I am sure I do not need to explain.

(Not that I think Clinton would have been a perfect president. I'm reasonably certain I'd be just as exasperated and disdainful of her war policy as I am of Obama's, as but one example.)

I don't bring this up to say "I told you so," which gives me absolutely no pleasure. I couldn't be less pleased to have not been proven wildly and embarrassingly wrong by President Obama.

I bring it up because, as long as everyone's so keen to cast their gaze backwards and stupidly wonder just how it is that we ended up with a president who prioritizes the appearance of civility over the practice of democracy in all its frequent ugliness, rather than the other way around, I'd like to suggest that we not engage in precisely the evasive and dishonest—but so very civil, so politely non-confrontational!—dialogue that launches Daydreams of Hillary in the first place.

I'm going to go ahead and name that villain: Misogyny.

I know that villain, because I was once its minion. And I know it because once I became a traitor to its cause, I was its target, too.

The truth is, there was a candidate who does, in Western's words, "understand bully dynamics—in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time." But the people who said we need a candidate with that understanding, and supported the candidate who had it, were mostly women. (Or assumed to be mostly women.) And the candidate was a woman. And they were all discredited, frequently and viciously, on the basis of their womanhood.

It's no coincidence that the people who now harbor Daydreams of Hillary were also the ones most inclined to wield misogyny against her and her supporters.

I'd like to think that won't happen again, now that we can all see where it got us.

I'd like to think that.


[Commenting Guidelines: This post is not an invitation to speculate about an alternate-universe HRC presidency or trash this-universe BHO presidency. The topic is bully dynamics, and the irony of misogynist bullies, who silenced HRC supporters when they addressed her keen understanding of bully dynamics, now wishing that HRC were president.]

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