Friday, December 12, 2008

The governor who cried "sexism"

by Laura Smith-Gary

As the transcripts of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's alleged dirty dealings pile up, it's become clear that if the accusations are true he wasn't just out to get money and power for himself. Ever the team player, he was also allegedly looking for a high-paying job for his wife Patricia -- perhaps a post on a corporate board -- in exchange for giving President-elect Obama his pick for his Senate replacement. Furthermore, in the transcripts she's (again allegedly) heard egging him on as he drives his bargains and threatens the Chicago, snarling profanities that are now giving commentators untold delight. The cries of "Lady MacBeth" have already begun.

I have to admit, when I first heard the story I got a very tiny secret thrill from seeing a disgraced politician's wife as a partner in crime as opposed to a helpless victim. But then I found out about one more really cheap trick he had played, which happens to be a pet peeve of mine: making accusations of sexism to fend off questions. That killed even the teeniest hint of a thrill -- though not the hilarious absurdity of the situation. Blagojevich wasn't just throwing out "sexist," he actually called reporters "Neanderthal." In 2006, Chicago Tribune reporters were trying to ask the governor about over $100,000 worth of suspicious commissions his wife had racked up doing business with clients to whom Blagojevich had political ties, when he began roundly condemning them all for their knuckle-dragging ways. Read a short version of the story here. Apparently, the reporters' questions (my paraphrase: "Hey, isn't it weird that your wife only earned four commissions last year, and all the clients were political connections of yours?") were an affront to all working women and dragging us right back into the cave.

Drat you Blagojevich and your ilk! This is why people don't take accusations of sexism seriously. Remember when Hillary Clinton was running against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, and lots of people complained about how "the liberals" would call them sexist if they didn't vote for Clinton and racist if they didn't vote for Obama, and everybody was afraid to call anyone out on their sexism (or racism) for fear of looking oversensitive? (Remember the Facebook group called "Hillary Stop Running For President and Make Me a Sandwich?") They were scared of looking like Blagojevich! Remember Sarah Palin, when accusations were flying left and right and no one seemed to be able to figure out whether it was more sexist to question her experience or to shield her from reporters? Nobody wanted to be the guy called a Neanderthal when he was just trying to do some investigating. For heaven's sake, women can be corrupt just as well as men, and we should get to the point where we don't have to think twice about the fact that its a female voice shrieking that The Chicago Tribune writers should be fired. Right, First Lady of Illinois?

As feminists, and as people who are sensitive of levels of institutional and personal sexism that many people aren't aware of or don't think about, we have to be extra careful never to make "Well, you're sexist!" a meaningless retort. I am miles away from saying sexism doesn't exist and isn't a powerful force within society -- and I also think that it shouldn't only be applied in cases of obvious, clear-cut discrimination against women. We do, I think, have an obligation to society to point out the subtle and sneaky ways sexism creeps into our consciousness -- why does it cause such unholy glee that the first lady was ranting at the bleeping Cub's bleep? Covert sexism is some of the most pernicious kind of sexism, since the reason it's covert is often because it is deeply entrenched. The same goes for other forms of prejudice -- and we need to bring them up. However, we need to also be vigorous in our rejection of accusations of sexism being used as a tool or a cheap deflection. Make "sexism" the beginning of a conversation, not a parting shot.

Now let us all pop some popcorn, turn on Jon Stewart, and avoid taking bribes as much as we possibly can.

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