Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Every so often we are reminded...

The liberal "brand" is that of the big tent--a figurative club where members uphold the rights and humanity of everyone, no matter their race, religion, gender, sexuality or ability. But branding isn't necessarily truth. The truth is that progressives may be better at equality than conservatives, but better doesn't equal perfect. Indeed, Americans--as a whole and no matter where they stand on the political spectrum--have a long, long way to go when it comes to recognizing privilege and respecting marginalized people. It is easy to forget this, but every so often we are reminded.

I was reminded during the 2008 election when the New Yorker was portraying the Obamas as radicals on its cover; a liberal blogger was showcasing a graphic depicting Michelle Obama as a siren tied to a tree; Hillary Clinton invoked "hard-working white people;" liberal, white feminists like Gloria Steinem denied my experiences as a black woman; and Geraldine Ferraro...well...Geraldine Ferraro just showed her ass.

I've been reminded again as liberal lions like Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore and Naomi Wolf rush to defend Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by maligning the women who have alleged that he sexually assaulted them.

I have not written here about Wikileaks or the accusations against Julian Assange. I have not written about them, because both situations are complicated and made more complicated by conflicting information, rumor mongering, redacted documents and people's personal biases. But I have read enough to know this:

  • I don't know what happened between Assange and the women in question. Neither does anyone else who is not one of the people involved.
  • Facts surrounding the cases are contradictory and may reveal damning behavior by both Assange and his accusers.
  • The zeal with which Sweden is pursuing Assange may be politically motivated.
  • Whatever is motivating Sweden's pursuit of Assange, he may still be guilty.

I also know this:

Much discussion of the accusations against Assange bears a striking resemblance to the sexist way our society almost always talks about sexual assault. Conversation devolved quickly into attacks on the women involved. There is sneering about tight, pink sweater dresses and disbelief that a woman who said "yes" once, might say "no" later. There is a denial that it is rape when a woman says "Yes, I would like to have sex with you, but only with protection" and her partner holds her down and forces her to have sex unprotected. If true, that's rape. "Rape rape" as Whoopi Goldberg might say. There have also been attempts to minimize the women's accusations by misrepresenting Sweden's laws on sexual assault, portraying them as so far out that even if Assange is charged and found guilty, he is not truly guilty of much. (There is more than a little "American exceptionalism" in this trope.)

These arguments--they are not coming from Fox News. (Well, they may be. I stay far away from that cesspool.) They are coming from liberal defenders of Assange's work with Wikileaks. They are coming from people like Wolf and Olbermann and Moore. I just read a good diary on Daily Kos--"Dear Michael Moore," about the Assange cases. The comments from supposed liberal men and women are staggering. One even begins "You feminists..." You feminists? "Feminist" is a slur on fucking Daily Kos? Also, Swedes are drunks and drinking leads to "awkward sex" that shouldn't be classified as rape.

Progressives--just as xenophobic and sexist as any other group when one of us is challenged.

This is not to say that Assange is guilty. He may well be innocent and the victim of a government smear. It is  just that some of my fellow liberals seem assured of his innocence for all the wrong reasons--for all the same reasons that women who report sexual assault are always disbelieved.

Every so often, we need to be reminded that the needs and experiences of white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied and male folk are as privileged among progressives as anyplace else. Forgetting that fact endangers the core values of progressivism, because we won't fight for what we think already exists. And we risk looking like hypocrites. It is not a big tent if membership requires marginalized people put up with rampant "isms" when it serves the liberal cause.


Teendoc said...

It always amazes me how much sexism permeates our supposedly liberal society, with so many women being complicit in their own self-denigration.

Anonymous said...

Please please tell me you didn't misconstrue the New Yorker cover. That was the most hilariously over-the-top parody of how the Obamas were being portrayed by the right-wing media that I have ever seen. I've read your wonderful work for years and I am genuinely astounded that you would write something like this about the New Yorker cover. I actually had to look you up on to make sure that this was still your website. I can't believe it.
-Jay in Athens

Tami said...


I did not misconstrue the New Yorker cover. I believe I know what the magazine THOUGHT they were doing through it, but Thea Lim at Racialicious does, I think, a wonderful job of explaining why the magazine failed:

Anonymous said...

Thea Lim is right, the New Yorker IS trying to imply that it is above racism. But as elitists, they need to imply that they are above ridiculous, childish, unsubtle racism. Is elitist denial the same as racism? Well, I think it's certainly a big part of elitist racism. Another huge part of elitist racism: oversimplifying racism to a caricature that conveniently excludes the elitists.

I understand part of her point, and I think it is this: by poking fun at the right-wing's racist viewpoint, the New Yorker is subtly bragging that they, the elite, are just better at being racist. And the sad part is that, from an elitist point of view, they are right. Those unsubtle, trailer-park idiots make ridiculous accusations about Obama being muslim. As for the elite...well, from their point of view, quiet exclusion (among other things) makes their racism seem so much more dignified.

Thea Lim's argument is walking a fine, dangerous line, though. seriously, at what point does pointing out someone else's racism make the accuser racist? You can't really lampoon someone without a basic understanding (or an actual showing) of the target of your criticism.

Was the New Yorker cartoonist wrong to assume that his audience would be readers of the New Yorker?
It sounds a little silly to say to non-subscribers "well, he wasn't talking to you".
I think his racism lies more with the fact that, with his cartoon criticism of the right wing, he is trying to distance himself from racism and immunize himself....things that white elites spend a suspiciously large amount of time doing. hmmm.

But Lim also says "...when you mock something that is hateful by repeating it, you’re not mocking it, you ARE it." I just cannot agree with this in all cases. How can we say "X is wrong" without showing or telling what X is? I agree that when you say or draw something that is racist, you are being racist. But that is not the same as clearly calling someone else out by repeating what they said and telling them that it is wrong or offensive or hurtful. Or repeating what they said in cartoon form that clearly shows how ridiculous their racist statements were.

Would the cover have been acceptable if the cartoonist had painted at the bottom "The right-wing's racist depiction of the Obama family"? Did the cartoon go from being critical of the right-wingers to being racist simply
because the artist tried to be a little bit subtle?

thank you Tami (and Thea Lim) for giving me more to think about.
-Jay in Athens


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