Who do men say that I am?

The title is a quote from Jesus, but this post is not about religion.

It’s about identity (a topic that has long fascinated me). Do you choose your own identity? Or do other people impose an identity on you?

Postmodern philosophy says that some people (notably white men) get to choose their own identity; while other people (e.g. white women, blacks) tend to have an identity imposed upon them.

Or they are rendered altogether invisible. In vain, we search for them in the pages of history.

I would like to take that idea and apply it to my current obsession, the US presidential election. None of the three leading candidates are standard issue. We have:

  • an African-American man;
  • a white woman; and
  • a white man — unusual because of his age (75 years old).

Identity is always hotly contested in an election campaign. The candidates expend a lot of effort trying to define themselves in a way that will win over voters. Meanwhile, their opponents try to define them in a way that will damage their candidacies.

In this campaign, that dynamic is particularly prevalant because we have such unusual candidates.

In my opinion, Barack Obama has it toughest of the three. Here we return to the postmodern analysis mentioned above.

(1) Advantage:  McCain. White men get to define themselves; they always have.

McCain has taken some flack for his age. Late night comedians find it easy to make jokes about how old McCain is. And Obama has sometimes, subtly, called attention to McCain’s age:  e.g., by referring to McCain’s half century of service to his country.

But on the whole, the mainstream media gives McCain the benefit of the doubt, again and again. For example, McCain is up to his eyeballs in lobbyists. Yet he successfully defines himself as a fierce opponent of special interests.

The blogosphere is onto McCain, but mainstream journalists persist in giving McCain a free pass. In other words, McCain is given the privilege of being permitted to define himself.

(2) Next up, Hillary Clinton. Historically speaking, women don’t have such an easy time defining themselves. They are defined by others (read: white men).

Clinton has suffered some of that during the course of this campaign. For example, Clinton’s tears in New Hampshire were interpreted, by some, as an alarming sign of womanly weakness.

One pundit (I forget who) wondered whether America was ready to watch President Hillary Clinton grow old while in office. In a related vein, the Drudge Report published a particularly unflattering photo of Clinton:  it showed off every furrow in her face and made her look 80 years old. (This was a rare occasion when I leapt to Clinton’s defense.)

The age factor was considered germane only because of Clinton’s sex, of course. Looks matter for women. Every President grows old while in office, but thus far all the Presidents have been men.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Clinton has a harder time defining herself (i.e., harder by comparison to McCain). Conventionally, women are not subjects — people who set the agenda; they are objects — people upon whom others act.

But these are not the 1930s. Women may not have achieved full equality but, in the past generation or two, they have taken huge strides forward.

And never forget, women make up more than half of the adult population. Hillary Clinton is able to appeal to a generation of feminists who have made their way into professional positions, often against fierce resistance. Those feminists would be delighted to see the first female President in office. This is the closest they have ever come to seeing a woman President, and they have been fiercely loyal to Clinton.

(Despite that fact that Clinton’s feminist bona fides are a little suspect:  she rode to prominence on the coattails of her husband, the former President.)

(3) Finally, Obama. I think it’s pretty obvious that Barack Obama has had the toughest time in defining himself. On a postmodern analysis, the fact that he is black is germane here.

Barack Obama has tried to position himself as a candidate who transcends race. White mother, black father — someone who unites in his own person the two races which have roiled America’s history.

But Obama’s opponents aren’t about to let him get away with such a story as that! They have tried to define him in starkly different terms:

  • the black candidate:  this year’s Jesse Jackson;
  • an angry black man, a black nationalist, a closet Muslim:  endorsed by Louis Farrakhan;
  • unpatriotic:  doesn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel, doesn’t place his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, has a pastor who shouts “God damn America”; and
  • "lucky to be black":  Geraldine Ferraro’s attempt to reduce Obama’s lead over Clinton to mere affirmative action (i.e., not merited).

John McCain has also gotten into the act, though he isn’t as ham-fisted about it as Clinton. McCain has exploited the opportunity that presented itself when a Hamas official praised Obama:

I do believe he is like John Kennedy, great man with great principle, and he has a vision to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community but not with domination and arrogance.

Both McCain and his surrogate, rogue Democrat Joe Lieberman, are now tying Obama to Hamas:

Obama clearly doesn’t support any of the values and goals of Hamas. But the fact that the spokesperson for Hamas would say they would welcome the election of Senator Obama really does raise the question, “Why?”

Over and over again, we see the same pattern. No reasonable person believes that Obama wants to cozy up to Hamas, or that he harbours “God damn America” sentiments in his heart, or that he thinks Ayers was justified in planting bombs on American targets. There is no evidence for any of that. But people aren’t willing to judge Obama based on his own words and actions.

He’s a black guy, with a Muslim middle name, yet!   He is whoever we say he is.

Of course, this dynamic has driven black voters into Obama’s arms. And in some states, the black vote has given Obama a decisive advantage over Clinton. But black voters are a minority of the population. Hence the potential for Clinton’s recent remarks, implying that white people won’t vote for a black candidate, to sow anxiety in the hearts of superdelegates. (At least, Clinton hopes so.)

In sum:  McCain has it easiest; Clinton, much tougher; Obama, the toughest by far. Obama’s race has been raised explicitly and continually. Clinton’s sex and McCain’s age? — not so much. And yet Obama is now surely the odds-on favourite to be the next President of the USA.

Obama has made it this far because he is such a powerful orator. It’s hard for others to define him:  he is able to make himself heard over the din of his detractors.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zayna
    May 14, 2008 @ 14:00:12

    “It’s about identity (a topic that has long fascinated me). Do you choose your own identity? Or do other people impose an identity on you?”

    Such a good question…

    My thoughts are if we are born first as daughters and sons of mothers and fathers, then (for most of us) are siblings to our brothers and sisters and then become husbands and wives to our partners and then mothers and fathers to our own children…

    Where in that is there time to decide for oursevles who we really are?

    We come into this world with someone else’s idea of who we should, could and would be. And most of us grow up just trying to fill those already designed and made for us shoes.

    I like to think that I can define for myself who I really am and I endeavour to do so, but I doubt very much it will change how others have already decided to see me.

    I am a good daughter, sister, friend, wife and mother. Being anything else is purely self-definition and we are taught to believe that that means very little.


  2. nebcanuck
    May 15, 2008 @ 10:46:28

    It’s interesting to try to imagine most of these candidates under different circumstances, really.

    McCain would probably have difficulty running against a hawkish younger man, but really, he could hold his own in most situations, because there’s another side to the age factor. Though some question his ability because of his age, it’s still a sign of wisdom and experience. He can claim a half-century of service, and although that has a negative side, it’s very much a boon, too. Similarly, his service in Vietnam gives him an edge over most opponents, because he’s the only one with bona fide war experience. It might not be enough to beat out younger opposition, but it has the potential to, no matter who his imagined opponents may be.

    Clinton, on the other hand, would have a lot more difficulty regardless of her opposition, because her campaign is based on balancing poles. She aspires to be seen as an exception to the rule because she’s a woman, and yet she tries to prove herself stronger than her opponents — a very status quo tactic. She has to do this balancing act, since taking to either pole would destroy her. In this case, everyone has pointed out that she would be out-strengthed by McCain. Against younger men, that would be even more prominent. So, she has to maintain that feminine side that appeals to people who would like to see a less “normal” president. And yet, the crying that worked so well amongst female voters in New Hampshire received hugely mixed reviews, and likely would have doomed her in the eyes of most voters had it repeated itself. She can’t really fully open up and be seen as “emotional”, and yet she can’t out-hawk male opponents. That leaves her juggling, no matter the opposition.

    Obama, on the other hand, has a bit of an edge in the overt nature of his abnormality. Unlike Clinton, he’s seized upon the opportunity presented by his skin colour, and has presented the world with a different slant on politics to match his unusual racial status. Where Clinton relies on balancing the norm and the new, Obama can don the cloak of the new, and ultimately no one can deny that he presents something completely from left field. Although this tactic is prone to far more overt criticisms, I think it offers a better opportunity to win than Clinton’s, particularly if he hadn’t faced her as an opponent. If the challenger for the democratic leadership had been someone wholly traditional, then his “new face” would have stood out in stark contrast. As it is, because he is facing someone who can also claim that they are different, he has trouble overcoming her handily. As you said: she appeals to female voters. That’s a huge demographic that likely would have been siding with him had he not been up against Clinton.

    Sometimes, overt opposition is the best way to go, because subtle biases sneak in so much more easily. Obama has to face a firestorm to win, that much is true. But in my opinion, it also gives him a better shot to win than the juggling Clinton.


  3. Stephen
    May 15, 2008 @ 11:54:14

    • Zayna:
    Another way of approaching the issue is to say that human identity is always social. It’s negotiated between ourselves and the people with whom we interact. So you’re right, identity is fluid, not fixed; it varies depending on who we’re engaged with at any given moment.

    That notion of fluidity is also very postmodern. Postmodernism doesn’t believe in “essence”; what a thing is is always determined by comparison to some other thing. It’s obvious with respect to binary terms like hot / cold or heavy / light, where the meaning of either term is relative to the other.

    What we resist is the idea that there is no essential self: the unchanging core of who I am, which does not vary from one relationship to another. That’s model is the classical view that we’ve all been steeped in. And I have a hard time rejecting it completely: but I also concede there’s much truth in the postmodern denial of any such essence.

    • nebcanuck:
    That’s an interesting analysis. It’s wise of you to be aware that positioning yourself in the middle sometimes backfires. It means you take criticism from both sides, because you’re not squarely in either camp. Thus a carefully nuanced opinion is often a loser, politically speaking.

    But I think Clinton would have become President if she had won the Democratic nomination. The Republicans will have an extremely difficult time holding onto the White House in this election, no matter who their opponent is, given the general climate (oil crisis, housing crisis, no end in sight in Iraq, Bush’s approval rating hovering around 30%).

    I haven’t said so until now, but I actually see some wisdom in the way Clinton has positioned herself. The Clintons are famous for “triangulation”. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what the term means, but let’s just say I think they’re happy to have McCain to the right of them and Obama to the left of them.

    An awful lot of Americans are still conservatives. They are fed up with the Republican party, but a relatively conservative Democrat would appeal to them. Meanwhile, Democratic voters would vote for whoever is furthest to the left, even if Clinton isn’t as far left as they might prefer. So Clinton had hoped to peel off some of the Republican voters, without losing any of her Democratic base.

    Whether the potential for a Clinton victory is still true at the end of the nomination process is an open question. Clinton has alienated a lot of people by the kind of campaign she ran against Obama. She has reminded a lot of Republicans of why they hated the Clinton presidency. (Lack of Clinton trustworthiness rings a lot of ominous bells.)

    In her campaign against Obama, Clinton found herself on the wrong side of two very important issues. First, Iraq — she voted for the war. Second, change. This is a “change” climate, and Clinton ran as the candidate of experience. You can see why she did that. But the more she emphasizes her long history in Washington, the less convincing she is when she argues that she, too, represents a break from the status quo.


  4. Zayna
    May 15, 2008 @ 14:15:04

    Stephen – “So you’re right, identity is fluid, not fixed; it varies depending on who we’re engaged with at any given moment.”

    Did I say that? I suppose in a way I did. I’m not sure I meant it as a statement on my personal philosophy though. More as a reflection on how I have lived my life.

    There are plenty times that I’m with people (even people I love and have known for my entire life) and behave in a way that I would describe as “not being myself” or similarly, the thought that “I wish I had said this”.

    That to me implies that there must exist some nature of myself that resonates seperately from my relationships with others, an existence that does not rely on their reflections.

    I’m not sure whether our “core identity” is fixed, though to me it seems unlikely. I think the essence of who we are is shown in what we do and what we say and that through these experiences it evolves as we do.

    Does that makes sense? (It’s okay to say that it doesn’t…I hear that a lot.)


  5. Stephen
    May 16, 2008 @ 08:31:43

    Zayna, you’re in deep intellectual waters here — and you’re making perfect sense. I’m impressed.

    The “core identity” question is difficult. I have gone through several upheavals in the course of my life. To the people in relationship with me, it looks like I keep changing who I am.

    But it seems to me that I haven’t fundamentally changed. Yes, I’ve matured. And I’ve rethought many issues and changed my opinions, sometimes as a result of lessons learned from bitter experience.

    But in terms of character, I think I have the same strengths and weaknesses and general attributes that I had when I was just a kid. They are expressed differently now that I’m in the latter half of my 40s. But have I changed? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

    So the question of identity (fixed or fluid?) depends on whether we view it from my personal perspective, or the social perspective.

    Are both perspectives valid? Is one more valid than the other?

    In terms of physiology, all the cells of our body die and are replaced repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. Physically, you are 100% remade since your birth. What does that say about identity?

    Of course, it depends whether you believe in a soul, or some other label for the “self”, separate from the body. As I said — these are deep waters.


  6. Zayna
    May 16, 2008 @ 21:26:38

    Well, thank you Stephen.

    I sincerely accept that as high praise.

    As for your reply, I will think on it some and get back to you.

    Like you said, “these are deep waters” and I want to be sure I can swim before I wade in any further.


  7. Zayna
    May 19, 2008 @ 20:37:05

    Stephen – “But in terms of character, I think I have the same strengths and weaknesses and general attributes that I had when I was just a kid. They are expressed differently now that I’m in the latter half of my 40s. But have I changed? It doesn’t seem that way to me.”

    I feel the same way. To me, it seems like any change in me is just a lean toward who I always thought I was. It’s just expressed differently now that I have more confidence.

    Which tells me that deep down, I’m an opinionated ornary bitch who’s pretty damn sure of herself. Yay!

    I’m not ready to delve into the physiology of cell replacement, though I do understand the concept.

    I’m just not ready to put into words how it works into my personal philosophy because I quite haven’t figured that out yet.

    I really appreciate your openess to these dialogues Stephen…makes me feel like there just might be a place for some of these wacked out ideas of mine.



  8. Stephen
    May 19, 2008 @ 21:30:04

    I enjoyed this dialogue, Zayna. I’m glad you’re sticking with me, despite my current fixation on politics.


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