Those who want Hillary simply because she’ll be the first female president need to think again
The author is a longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is also an essayist, critic and editor.
His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013)
President Obama brought a new attitude to America’s conduct abroad, but he has done shockingly little to improve on Bush II’s record. In some respects he has worsened things, just as Bush II worsened what Clinton I handed him, and Clinton I worsened what Bush I handed him, and so on at least as far back as Kennedy. (And I exclude neither Johnson nor Carter.) There is a malign momentum in the conduct of American foreign policy that must be broken. In this regard Hillary Clinton holds out no prospect other than continuity.
Other questions: How can any of us fail to recognize that American foreign policy, never right since it was structured as imperial strategy in the late 19th century, is now a net contributor by a long way to an acute crisis of global disorder? How can anyone view Hillary Clinton in this context and come up with the idea of voting her into the White House?
I have already suggested my answers: mythologies, orthodoxies, muddled thinking, no thinking. And I have used the word “urgent.” Yes, it is urgent we get ourselves beyond these impediments to achieve a clear view of where we are and what to do about it.
A few weeks ago I read the following in an essay published in The Nation under the headline, “Why this socialist feminist is voting for Hillary.” It was written by Suzanna Danuta Walters, a sociologist at Northeastern University: “I want a woman president… I support her less for her specific political positions… than for the iconic value of electing the first woman president of the United States.”
I cannot be the only one brought up short on reading this contribution by a self-described socialist feminist. It is an indefensible passage by any rational measure, but it is not short of implications worth dwelling upon.
Let us consider a couple of these with Clinton’s foreign policy record in view.
Iconic value for whom exactly? In what tangible, useful forms will this value be realized in the immediacy of a world now in crisis, and how will this come to be? Is the rest of the world supposed to accept that it is on the receiving end of Clinton II’s agenda on the foreign side for no reason other than her gender? All the world beyond our spacious skies is merely the proscenium within which orthodox American feminism achieves its highest fulfillment?
It is bitter to conclude that the only answer available here is yes. And this is problematic two ways.
One, this kind of thinking reeks of American exceptionalism. We are invited to assume that the exercise of dominative American power is somehow in the natural order of things—and that providing Americans and all others self-deluded signifiers of our entitlement to moral leadership—independent of the actual consequences of our exercise of power—is humane, rational and wise. It is none of these.
The first of our two problems, then, concerns exceptionalism. And let us avoid any suggestion of ad hominem argument: In its implications Walters’ thinking—our icon is more important than your village or school or political order or life—is merely symptomatic of a consciousness that afflicts more or less all of us.
It is customary to identify our historically prevalent exceptionalist consciousness with right-wing reaction. This is an inadequate analysis. However much self-described progressive or socialists or liberals may hope to hold themselves above the idea that we are exceptional in the world, the consciousness is in us like a bad odor in a carpet. We are not sufficiently vigilant on this point—or, speaking for myself, I can say without hesitation I am not. And we have to address this now in the context of the Clinton candidacy. Her exceptionalism does not qualify her for “critical support,” or “lesser evil” consideration. In her case it is too consequential—too much the very wellspring of American policy as she will conduct it.
I used the phrase “orthodox American feminism.” By this I mean the purposely depoliticized feminism that emerged in the late-1960s and early 1970s—a feminism shorn of any critique of power and intent only on sharing it as it is constituted. Many years ago I spent a lot of time with veterans of the women’s movement in Japan—a savvy, salutary group with keen intellects. They dismissed the American phenomenon as “rights and careers” feminism—a good phrase. An old friend here in America with a similarly sharp mind and politics second to nobody’s calls it “Betty Friedan feminism.”
This is also a problem in need of address, given the prospect of a Clinton II government. The Clinton campaign reeks of it, and, like exceptionalism, it is a source of confusion and a cause of poor judgment, notably when carried into the foreign policy context. It gives us what we may now call “icon feminism.” To take a ready example of an icon, it gives us Madeleine Albright on camera defending the slaughter of half a million Iraqi children as “a tough decision but worth it.”
Naturally enough, we come back to Hillary Clinton’s “hard choices” and now her candidacy. And we find that another icon’s policies abroad are even more deleterious to women’s interests than many of her domestic positions.
The record is long and lately comes more to light. In the edition of CounterPunch published this week, Nick Alexandrov has a startling piece, “Hillary in Honduras,” on the fate of women after the 2009 coup that Clinton backed as secretary of state. In The Nation, Greg Grandin describes the “all-out assault on decent people,” who include indigenous women, by the Tegucigalpa putschists Hillary still calls “a unity government.”
Libya is an ongoing tragedy—which Clinton could have avoided had she not refused negotiations, it turns out. How many civilian casualties so far—and how many of those women and children? Clinton takes a highly antagonistic position with regard to the Rouhani government in Iran, so encouraging extremist conservatives. Ever been to Iran? It teems with sophisticated women who are happy to be Iranian but remain trapped in a political, social and cultural environment wherein there is no chance of fully realizing themselves.
The list goes on. I draw a lesson from it, as follows.
Feminism must be recognized and deployed as a subset of humanism. Any other understanding of it renders it impotent in the advance of its own cause. This is a great loss to everyone. Think what a superb, inspiring force feminism of a properly thought-out kind could be in international affairs. We have rarely, if ever, seen this anywhere. We will see nothing remotely resembling it from a Clinton II White House, to state the very obvious.
What we have and will get is what is now consolidated as the orthodoxy: It is a device for the achievement of power, which is an exceedingly cynical and offensive use of feminist thought. Or feminism assumes an iconic character, a preoccupation with imagery and signs. Icons are sacred images, of course—that is, objects of belief, evocations of feeling. They do not require thought, do not invite it and are not expressions of it.
Hillary Clinton is an icon, is she? Anyone who wants it can have my share. With her shocking inability to learn anything from the most horrific failures of American policy abroad, she bears a big lesson, this one can say:
If Americans are to get anything of use to the world done in the 21st century, they must stop feeling and believing and begin thinking. With Clinton II so close to becoming a reality, the time for this shift in consciousness, profound and difficult as it may be, is now.