Notes from the Perimeter

Monday, June 22, 2009

Truth & Beauty

Sarah Palin is back in the news. Oh goody. She’s the most fun when she goes rogue, as she did with her off-again, on-again, will-she-upstage-the-Newt? appearance at the big GOP fundraiser a few nights ago. I readily admit to being no fan of SaPa, who strikes me as no more thoughtful or informed than she was at any point during the election—she seems less a political contender and more and more like a celebrity reality show contestant who would rather wrangle with David Letterman over a tasteless joke than offer ideas about dealing with Iran or fixing health care. I will admit, however, that she looks good. Nice hair, great bone structure, snappy dresser. And that got me to thinking about the ‘babe factor,’ in life and politics.

We humans have always attributed special qualities to those who, through no agency of their own, possess beauty. Beautiful people benefit from a host of often unconscious assumptions: that in mind and spirit they are superior to us ordinary-looking blokes. While this is true for men and women, men are blessed with the additional boon that power trumps looks. (My use here of ‘trump’ is deliberate.) Power in men, even men of unprepossessing physical attributes, is compelling while too frequently power in women is the opposite of sexy: strong women—especially opinionated, outspoken and accomplished—are viewed as having forsaken their essential femininity. To my knowledge, there is no male equivalent in English for the B word.

These attitudes are changing despite fossilized misogynists like G. Gordon Liddy who complained that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor might have her period while making a critical decision—oh gawd, the irrationality! the emotional excess! (The debunked cliché!) The candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin did not suffer from the charge that women aren’t fundamentally fit for highest office. Each woman faced different challenges to her legitimacy but initially gender did not seem to be a factor.

Nevertheless, in both cases, gender was a subversive element. Clinton was mocked for her ‘cackle’ and cleavage. Her wrinkles and weight were brutally scrutinized. She adopted a ‘policy wonk’ style that, while it showcased her considerable experience and expertise, worked against her personal appeal—she was described as ‘cold,’ code for the B word—and it didn’t play well against Obama’s inspirational oratory.

The gender effect in Palin’s candidacy was more insidious. When she burst on the scene as McCain’s out-of-right-field choice, she enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon with the press—‘don’t be mean to the girl’ seemed to be the unspoken rule, implying a measure of ‘feminine’ fragility (never applied to Clinton). Finally, Katie Couric threw down the gauntlet and exposed Palin’s now legendary unready-ness…and unique syntax.

Certainly in McCain’s choice of Palin, gender played a role. Yes, she brought energy and star appeal to the rather stodgy McCain campaign and galvanized the conservative base. However, after Obama secured his nomination, conservative strategists speculated about the supposed eighteen million disaffected Clinton supporters ripe for the plucking. Of course: throw them a woman! Any woman would do, especially if she’s good-looking, folksy, reproductive and generally non-threatening to male—dare I say Republican?—notions of female propriety.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the gender effect is how Palin herself has embraced it. This latest skirmish with Letterman exemplifies her willingness to embody the worst of female stereotypes: that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. Letterman’s joke was crude and unfunny but obviously it was not directed at Palin’s fourteen-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, Palin responded with the kind of manipulative stubbornness that has given women a bad name for eons. Sarah might not have ideas but she’s got drama.

Beneath it all is the scurrilous notion that to be of value a woman must be decorative. Would Sarah Palin have been a feasible candidate without her looks? (She certainly didn’t get the nod on the strength of her resume.) To what extent does her beauty imply other qualities? If she suddenly gains fifty pounds, will she forfeit whatever potential she might have for remaining on the national stage?

After all, beauty is not always truth and in life and in politics, that we really do need to know.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fear & Loathing, Latina Style

No doubt even in the remotest reaches of the New Guinean rainforest folks have heard of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s controversy-igniting remark: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Much teeth-gnashing has ensued over her use of the word better; Sotomayor has been subjected to charges ranging from reverse racism to practicing identity politics to suggesting that a judge’s life trajectory might influence his or her decisions: She thinks she knows better than a MAN! Than a WHITE man! The effrontery!

Some of the pundits commenting upon Sotomayor’s remark (a surprising number of them white guys) have noted that if a white man had claimed that he was “better” than a woman in matters judicial all manner of outrage would erupt. Really? Isn’t the history of the Supreme Court one in which the subtext is a presumption of male superiority, white male superiority at that? Of the 110 justices in the Court’s history, 106 have been, yes, pallid and of the manly persuasion. The remaining four comprise two African Americans and two women – there have been no Asians, Native Americans or Hispanics (with the possible exception of Benjamin Cardozo whose Portuguese ethnicity is disputed). Men of European descent, anointed by wealth and privilege, have influenced the development of our national ideas about law, equality, responsibility and opportunity far more than any other group. Fellas, I’m having a tough time feeling your pain.

Racists, reverse and otherwise, and identity politickers share a common characteristic: they engage in groupthink. These people ignore nuance and reduce complexity to an ignorantly simplistic (and ugly) view of the world. In her life and career, Sotomayor has exhibited a fierce independence. These charges are ultra-rightwing-speak for women who aspire to break through those glass gates that protect exclusively male enclaves. What they’re actually calling her is “bitch” – a pejorative that has no true male equivalent.

Regarding the notion that a justice should be aloof from circumstance, utterly rational and somehow embodying a godlike perspective, I offer Samuel Alito’s testimony during his 2006 confirmation hearing. Alito readily admitted that his experiences as the child of immigrant parents shaped his view of the world and no doubt influenced his perspective on cases. Since in some quarters he had been perceived as cold and unfeeling, he made this assertion to the Senate in an attempt to appear more human, more compassionate…dare I say wiser?

The point that seems to be missed in this debate is that Sotomayor referenced wisdom above gender and ethnicity. She didn’t say a smart Latina woman – she said wise. Wisdom is the ability to “make sensible decisions and judgments on the basis of knowledge and experience” (Word®). Sotomayor has frequently discussed her commitment to impartiality. By nearly all accounts she has a brilliant legal mind. Despite her own personal narrative, a review of her decisions over her seventeen-year career as a judge reveals no ideological pattern: she doesn’t favor minorities or exhibit an anti-business bias. If her paper trail is any indication, she’s no dreaded “activist judge” but consistently demonstrates fairness and the integrity to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

In Sotomayor’s case, it would seem that intelligence, knowledge, common sensibility, and the gumption to transcend difficult circumstances and continue to challenge herself have coalesced to create the matchless quality of wisdom in the character of this Latina. I, for one, welcome her judgment on the Court.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


It’s nice to finally get a good look at Dick Cheney. After eight years of lurking as a shadowy figure in his famously secure, undisclosed location, that legendary snarl is on every television screen.

Nobody can accuse our former vice president of donning the mantle of power reluctantly. And I suppose that once one has been puppeteer-in-chief, it might be hard to descend to lesser activities, like playing golf or masterminding a vast criminal conspiracy -- oh, wait, as CEO of Halliburton didn’t he already do that?

Liz Cheney – where’d she come from? – on a recent This Week with George S... kept referring to her dad as “the” vice president. What does that make Joe Biden, the “other” vice president? I think where Dick Cheney is concerned the adjective “former” has a most reassuring ring.

Ignoring his abysmal approval rating and armed with a secret weapon – his signature death-ray Look – the former vice president (FVP) is doing what he does best: going on the offensive. The tale he’s telling? That his policies, which led directly to war and the torture of suspects, kept our country safe. Furthermore, he claims that the Obama administration, in calling for an end to “extreme interrogation techniques,” is putting us in harm’s way – does “letting the terrorists win” sound familiar? The FVP, according to himself, is a selfless martyr to the cause of the safety of the American homeland. What a guy.

Not to make a Federal case of it (well, maybe just a little), let’s examine some of the more glaring inconsistencies in FVP’s contentions.

According to many experts in interrogation techniques, the extreme measures that FVP advocated and approved are of dubious value. Because any so-called intelligence is gained only under great duress, its validity is questionable. At a Senate hearing on May 14, a key witness, former FBI agent Ali Soufan, testified that “the harsh interrogation techniques may actually have hindered the collection of intelligence, causing a high-value prisoner to stop cooperating.” ( I can tell you that if I were being hung upside down by my toes and dunked repeated into a bucket of water, I’d swear on my mother’s grave to just about anything.

Investigative journalist Robert Windrem writes that FVP’s office insisted on waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner to force him to confirm a Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda relationship. Torturing this prisoner based on political motivation made the act indisputably illegal since the prisoner was not considered a terrorist. More importantly, this connection, a primary rationale for the war, has been thoroughly debunked, although FVP’s modus operandi seems to be based on the theory that telling a lie often and loudly enough makes it the truth. WMDs anyone?

FVP brags that his policies kept America safe for seven years. But he was in office for eight years. FVP seems to have forgotten that 9/11 happened on his watch and that he ignored repeated warnings about Al Qaeda from chief counter-terrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke and others. According to the National Security Archive, a recently declassified January 25, 2001 memo from Clarke to the Bush Administration read in part: "We urgently need . . . a Principals level
review on the al Qida network." Bad spelling, good intelligence – but FVP dismissed the Clinton Administration’s warning that terrorism should be their highest priority.

During the FVP years, as news about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, black sites, rendition, etc., leaked out, the United States lost the respect and the goodwill of much of the rest of the world. The torture of prisoners served not to make us safer but to bolster the ranks of those who would harm us. (Funny how the Bush Administration went from indignantly denying the use of torture – How dare you accuse us of that? – to huffily defending its necessity.)

If it weren’t so egregious – and scary – FVP’s demanding that the public accept his take on things simply because he says so seems almost bizarrely naïve. The Bush Administration is a story of failed policies, broken promises, missed opportunities, mind-boggling incompetency, lies and damned lies. This is Dick Cheney’s lasting legacy and all the talk show appearances in the world can’t spin that truth into another of his deceptions.