Fighting Words

The First Excuse

Don’t blame sexism for Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Posterity may well remember the Hillary Clinton campaign as the nearest that a member of the female gender had thus far gotten to the nomination of a major political party. But the episode will be recalled for many other salient features as well. The first time that the wife of an ex-president had leveraged her first-lady status into a senatorial seat and then a bid for the presidency. The first time that the candidate’s spouse (and campaigner in chief) was a person who had been disbarred for perjury and impeached for—among other things—obstruction of justice. The first time since the 1960s that a Democrat seeking the nomination had implicitly relied on a “Southern strategy” of appealing to the rancor of the “white working class.” The first time since the lachrymose Ed Muskie that a candidate’s eyes had welled up with tears in New Hampshire. The first time that a woman candidate was married to a man who had been believably accused of rape and sexual harassment (see my book No One Left To Lie To). The first time that a candidate had said of her half-African-American rival that he was not a member of the Muslim faith “as far as I know.” The first time that the loser in the delegate count had failed to congratulate or even acknowledge the winner on the night of his historic victory.

These are quite a lot of firsts to have accumulated. But now Sen. Clinton’s partisans are crying foul and saying that the Democratic primary voters, incited by the media, only rejected her for something known as sexism. This indistinct and vague offense, portentously invoked in many recent articles and “news analyses,” is supposed to be revealed (as a New York Times report on its own reporting so masochistically phrased it) in such outrageous ways as the following: “The New York Times wrote about Mrs. Clinton’s ‘cackle.’ “

Other cited examples of the poison at work were Chris Matthews’ use of the term “she devil” (which can only be a female equivalent of a he devil, unless only the prefix “he” can denote a devil), a remark by Mike Barnicle to the effect that Sen. Clinton was “looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court,” and more than one joke about the way in which her fanatical persistence and denial was reminiscent of the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction.

None of these things will bear the smallest comparison with racism, which must be strictly defined as the attribution of inferior characteristics to the members of a distinct ethnic group. (And one reason why the comparison almost never works is a very simple one: No anthropologist or ethnologist or geneticist of any reputation really believes that the human species is subdivided by race, whereas it would be a very incautious person who did not regard the human species as separated for reproductive purposes into two sexes or genders. One distinction is false, in other words, while the other is real.)

Replay some of Sen. Clinton’s less spontaneous moments of laughter during the Democratic debates. How would you describe them? To refer to them as merely mirthful would be to do violence to language. The word cackle, which is really an onomatopoeia, is easily the best, because it conveys what her awkward noise sounded like. It also perhaps conveys hens rather than roosters, but that’s exactly why our language has so many words for our great species distinction, which is the ability to laugh. The range from guffaw to snigger or giggle is huge, and some of it will imply “male,” just as some of it will imply “schoolboy” or, as the case may be, “schoolgirl.” So what?

Try the same test with the more edgy stuff, such as the Fatal Attraction gag. Is it being alleged that to be a stalker is to be a female? Not at all. Like serial killers, stalkers are almost always (and are almost always assumed by the police and the press to be) men. Perhaps this makes it appear to some people that it’s almost unnatural for a female to be a stalker. But, then, how “sexist” is that assumption? For making a one-off reference to this notorious movie, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee is being humorlessly hounded by the stone-faced ladies of EMILY’s List, who have now endorsed a female rival who is in every way less liberal and less qualified than he is. Nice work.

Going as far as it dared on the point, the same sternly disapproving New York Timesreport found the courage to say that the Washington Post, in mentioning Sen. Clinton, had also alluded to “her cleavage.” Living as we do in an age of the easily offended and the aggressively innocent, we were not regarded as sufficiently adult to be informed whether this cleavage was in the front or the back. (Something in me makes me hope very devoutly that it was not the latter.) But I think I see the emerging pattern. People who favor Sen. Clinton are allowed to stress her gender and sex at all times and to make a gigantic point of it for its own sake. They are even allowed to proclaim that she should be the president of the United States in time of war only becauseshe would be the first vagina-possessing person to hold the job. But—and here’s the catch—people who do not favor her are not even allowed to allude to the fact that she is female and has feminine characteristics. In this way, we prepare our brave daughters and granddaughters and even disenfranchised grandmothers for a future that is sex-free and gender-neutral or, at any rate, something like that. How pathetic can you get? When will we learn that there is more to political and social emancipation than the simple addition of the “ism” suffix to any commonplace word?

In common with quite a lot of men, I have or have had a mother, wife, grandmother, mother-in-law, daughter—more or less everything female except a sister, which I wish I had had—and given all this feminine backup, I decline to be talked to in such a condescending fashion. There are many ways in which to be a bad person, and I don’t think that I would ever deny that the Y chromosome especially encodes some of these. I certainly don’t know any feminists who wouldn’t agree with me that some regrettable traits are forever associated with the male sex. But in that event, it will not be easy for Sen. Clinton’s supporters to argue that she can’t be identified as womanly, or even as a woman, unless (or do I mean until?) the word woman becomes more coterminous with the word saint or angel or the term nurturing person than it is now. Her whole self-pitying campaign, I mean to say, has retarded and infantilized the political process and has used the increasingly empty term sexism to mask the defeat of one of the nastiest and most bigoted candidacies in modern history.