gender, language, politics

Bye, Bye, Biden


This has been an especially interesting political week, chock-full of moments worthy of comment. I will concentrate on one, Joe Biden’s announcement on Wednesday that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president. Several commentators offered reasons to mourn his departure; but judging from his speech itself, I can’t help feeling that his withdrawal was a distinctly good thing both for the Democrats and for the country.


One reason is the general tenor of the speech itself. A statement of withdrawal from candidacy demands an oration that is generous, supportive and encouraging to those still in the race. But Biden’s speech was not like that at all: it has been universally parsed as sniping at Clinton and leaving her without his support – perhaps he can be won back (e.g. by the promise of a cabinet position) – but right now he is not on her side. The implication is there for all to see: he does not consider her a worthy candidate.


It is not a big Washington Insider secret that Biden doesn’t like Clinton. They have sometimes been perceived as rivalrous siblings seeking Daddy’s favor. But this was a moment when he could and should have put those rumors to rest and been a patriot first, a Democrat second, and Needy Joe third. That he didn’t even try to achieve this is a sign that he doesn’t, and never did, have the qualities of intellect, emotion, and competence that characterize a successful president.


Biden’s speech was all mansplaining and talking down to the little lady. He was there to tell her (and the world) just how to run the country and engage in political discourse. That she has been doing so almost as long, and more diversely, than he has didn’t occur to him: he was the Man and she was not, so he had to tell her how to do the job. That he saw this role as appropriate, and used his speech to say so, suggests that he might not have what it takes to be the president of all of us; might see the president as speaking for and to only those just like himself: straight, white, middle-class, male. That has generally been the case; but now the country is poised to make a choice between those who see the world this way and want it to continue along the same path; and those who understand that this is a moment for radical change. We call the former “Republicans,” and hope that we can call the latter “Democrats.” Not if Biden were to become president, though – at least not by the evidence of this speech.


And not for the first time. You may remember the last time he ran, in 2008. At one point in the campaign, he characterized his opponent, Barack Obama – positively, he thought – as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”


Biden may be the Lord of the Gaffe. But it is useful to remember the current definition of “gaffe”: what happens when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. And in talking in this condescending and racist way, Biden was signaling that he was a protector of white privilege, even as the words themselves resounded as positive and supportive. To state, of the first serious African American candidate for the presidency that he is articulate, bright, and clean is (by Grice’s Maxim of Quantity) to imply that such a person is quite likely not to be like that – that the very fact that such a person has these qualities is newsworthy. That, despite surface appearances, constitutes a racist insult.


That Biden would say such a thing in 2008 suggests that he is still living in another time, the 1950s, when it was permissible – nay, positive — to call Jackie Robinson a “credit to his race.” Thankfully, we no longer talk this way, and it would be too bad to have a president who – even without meaning to – did.


But Biden’s rhetorical blunders are worse than mere embarrassments. In the dangerous world we live in, nationally and globally, a president must be in control of his, or her, mouth at all times. One who is subject to gaffes becomes a threat to world peace and domestic tranquility. We cannot afford such a person in the White House, and should be grateful that, in his withdrawal, Biden made it clear that he was not of presidential caliber.


Fortunately for Biden, in 2015 he did not have to insult African Americans, nowadays (as he quickly found out in 2008) a dangerous game. He could insult a woman, and through her, women! That is much easier, and safer: he has gotten very little blowback from his comments.


Yet his speech reads as sexist and misogynist. First of all, there is his refusal to offer his admiration and support to the likely nominee. Then, there is the fact that he spent a great deal of his time to mansplain to her how she ought to behave, because a woman couldn’t possibly know.


Most striking was his critique of her assessment of the Republicans at the debate a couple of weeks ago. Asked by the commentator whom she considered her greatest enemies, she named the National Rifle Association, the insurance industry, and the Iranians — and then added “Probably the Republicans.”


This was both not a fully serious remark, and yet was completely serious and completely correct. Clinton has been castigated for it – it has been called a “gaffe” – by a number of commentators who should know better and would if they were in her position.


If you are a straight white middle-class male like Joe Biden, it may make sense to see the Republicans as “opposition,” not “enemy.” But if you do not fit into those categories, and cannot imagine yourself in the position of one who does, then Biden’s (and other critics’) characterization of Clinton’s assessment will make perfect sense to you. That Biden found it so easy to criticize Clinton’s feelings about the current Republican Party is telling: it proves yet again that Biden is not in a position to be the president of all of us, this entirely new yet entirely essential perspective.


To understand this, it is necessary to engage in a bit of lexical semantics. What is the difference between “enemy” and “opponent” or “opposition”?


An “enemy” is someone who feels hatred toward you, fears you, and wants to – has to – destroy you. An enemy is someone you can never trust, and will never become your friend. He cannot; he dare not. An “opponent,” on the other hand, is someone who – in a particular debate or on a specific issue – takes a position different from yours. Opponents in debate may still be friends, and it is possible to imagine persuading an opponent to your point of view, and even for the two of you to become friends.


In days of yore, so legend has it, Congressional Republicans and Democrats were more like opponents than like enemies. A member of one party might argue bitterly with someone across the aisle, then go out with him later for drinks and have a great evening. They could be, and often were, genuine friends. But this is no longer true, for a variety of reasons, and those who believe their great powers of persuasion can bring members of the other party to their side are gravely mistaken: the gulf is not merely intellectual, not merely political, not merely expedient – it is about life and death. It would certainly be better if this were not so, but all the evidence is that it is, and not likely to change any time soon. A president needs to tread with great care in a Capitol swarming with venomous serpents.


President Obama made this error during his first term. As a community organizer, he demonstrated considerable ability to effect compromise, and thought he could bring that talent into governance. But the more he tried to achieve compromise, the more he offered the other side space, the more they sneered at him as weak and refused to budge – in fact, moved further to the right. More recently, chastened, he has learned how to get things done under such conditions: learned to see the other side as “enemies” to be thwarted, not as “opponents” to sweet-talk. Until our politics change, future presidents and legislators would do well to learn this lesson. Biden, apparently, has not.


But, arguably, if you are a straight white middle-class male, it is not irrational to see Republicans as mere opponents – they do not, after all, go directly after you and those like you; they do not use terms of abuse and contempt in speaking of and to you; they do not attempt to pass legislation that would hurt and even kill you and those like you. So…maybe…you and they might still be friends, or at least friendly. You are not, deep down, all that different.


But if you are gay, or black, or female – well, that’s another story. A great deal of the Republican agenda has been dedicated to diminishing your humanity in any way possible. The anti gay marriage campaign, the efforts to demolish Planned Parenthood, the opposition to voting rights for minorities, the anti-immigration hysteria all say to people in these groups, you are not one of us. You do not belong. You are not fully human. You have no right to have rights. This is how to talk to and of enemies, not opponents.


Any Democrat who does not see this and see those who speak and act this way as enemies has no business running for president, so Biden did the right thing in withdrawing from the race.