Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Embodying Virtue in America

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Is anybody else disturbed by how race is playing out in this election? -- the messianic message sent out by Obama's team that because of genetics he's got some third world and cross-cultural insight, as if his black skin alone were a bridge. Maybe it is. Maybe not. And god knows we could use one. In terms of race, the U.S. moves one step forward, three back, as they say.

Sure, queers know best about homophobia, women about misogyny, people of color about racism. But does that suffering give each person of color, each woman, each queer some special insight, some gift? Does it make us better? Is that experience enough to turn us into experts on how to extract the nation from its divisions? No, not by itself.

Bigotry is just as likely to leave us wounded and embittered as enlightened. Some turn the pain inward. There are plenty of queer homophobes -- most of them in the U.S. Congress. And Africa and Latin America are full of men like Robert Mugabe who with his dark skin hasn't built any bridges at all between white and blacks, rich and poor. In fact he burns bridges as fast as he can, along with the houses of the opposition, usually with troublesome black dissidents inside. Skin only gets you so far.

The election of a black president in the U.S. would be historic, an important symbol of what people of color can accomplish, and maybe it will build something, a footpath, maybe, but god only knows if it will give him the good sense to walk over it or not. Because race doesn't say anything about Obama himself. That kind of biological determinism, thinking race or sexual identity or gender gives you any qualities at all is the flip side of all the 'isms. In fact, it reinforces them.

In the Democratic primary, besides the question of skin, there's the related issue of sheer beauty. Obama apparently embodies every good thing in that glorious, virtuous face girls shriek over. White ones especially (polls show) are creaming their pants at rallies for the handsome guy in a way that reminds me of those erotic neocolonial French films that are always set on a yacht or some tropical island with drums beating so a white woman can screw her black stallion under the palm trees or up against a mast.

Are they screaming for Obama the candidate, or some erotic fantasy? It may help him win the Democratic nomination, but what effect will this tactic have in the long run? Another black man reduced to his body? Will they turn on him when he fails, as they all do, will they blame his race?

In the U.S., we speak incessantly of faith, but we're more literal-minded than ever. Virtue embodies itself in beauty, potential in skin. The CIA apparently only believes information, "intelligence," when it's bought with blood and screams.

What's a dumpy, matronly Hillary to do in that milieu? She stuffs her significant ass in tailored suits, wears her flaws out there like wrinkles. Experience is etched in her body, when we only want the brand new because it resembles perfection.

As a voter, I'm beginning to lean towards her, like I'd prefer to buy an apartment, if I had the money, that needed work. You can see all the existing problems that haven't been hidden under plaster and paint.

And unlike Obama, she can't pull off the hopeful ingénue. Time has made her cautious. A real politician. She splits hairs and prevaricates, but she has her bottom lines. Saudi Arabia's an important U.S. ally, but a couple weeks ago she very publicly condemned the rape of a woman there and the victim's subsequent sentencing to jail and lashes. After all, she shouldn't have been in a car with a man not her husband or brother. She shouldn't have been out at all.

Hillary didn't buy it, didn't make one gesture to cross-cultural understanding. Every canyon isn't an occasion to build a bridge. Sometimes we must refuse to understand. Torture, for instance, is always wrong, at American or Libyan or Saudi hands. Kindness and sympathy can't wash away blood.

I don't care if Hillary equivocates about how quickly she'll get us out of Iraq, or a dozen other things. Lately, I prefer calculating to hopeful, in its broadest sense. It's a dangerous, complicated world. As long as she's on my side, let's send forth a wolf to meet the wolves.

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