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.