My Complex Relationship With Criticisms of Hillary Clinton
Or: Why I don’t like talking about Hillary with her critics, even if I share an overlapping criticism of her.
All throughout high school I recall my family being critical of Hillary Clinton. My parents did not like her one bit, my grandparents on my mother’s side despised her and my grandfather on my father’s side was equally revolted by the idea of her. (Interestingly enough I cannot recall my grandmother on my dad’s side ever saying a bad thing about her.)
I was told by everyone that she was cold and calculating. At first I believed what I was told, as I was young and I did not yet have very many independent political ideas. (C’est la vie.)
Even so stories circulated that even then I knew to doubt.
My favorite one, is the one I sometimes call “The Clintons killed over a dozen men just to watch them die.” It is more or less exactly what it sounds like, and is often distributed with a long list of “mysterious” deaths all of which are attributed to Bill or Hillary Clinton. Because that is a thing which totally (did not) happen.
These myths always carried a strange fascination for me. I never understood at the time why the Clintons were so mythologized, and in some ways it could have been considered an early prelude to the types of insanity Obama would have to endure.
However something always stuck with me about them, especially people’s relationship with Hillary.
I started looking these old 90s myths of the Clintons up again, and I ran across a particularly interesting one. It is one Snopes refers to as “The First Lady Of The Lamp”. It paints a picture of Hillary drunk with power screaming at her husband and throwing a lamp at the president in order for her to get her way.
This of course did not happen, but its a fascinating read. The article plums the myth’s origins and how it snowballs, but there is some rather brilliant analysis too, of which I will repeat my favorite bit here:
The lamp story grew and grew because Hillary Clinton stirred up anxiety in many Americans, and the story about her smashed lighting fixture helped them express it without directly confronting the things that were bothering them. Mrs. Clinton was a new kind of First Lady who made it clear she planned to have a policy-making role in the administration. She was carving out that job at a time when the nation had not resolved its own feelings about how women should mix the duties of career and marriage. The gossip stirred up many voters’ own unresolved concerns about working wives, powerful women, and the proper role of the First Lady. By passing along the rumor that Mrs. Clinton had physically attacked the president, people were expressing their secret fears that she (and maybe by implication all women) would try to push her husband aside and run things herself.
— Gail Collins, 1998 Scorpion Tongues
Now eventually I grew up. I started identifying not as the conservative my parents had more or less raised me to be, but as a gay vegetarian with a great deal of love for Noam Chomsky style libertarian-socialism [albeit with a habit of always voting vanilla Democrat. (I am perhaps probably not the best libertarian-socialist.)]
As I got older, my ideas cemented and I became quite convinced that misogyny and these strange hatreds of Hillary, and the myths therein were all interconnected.
Now I do want to state that it is of course true that not all criticisms of Hillary have their basis in sexism. I do think there is definitely room in which to have honest disagreements with her. I myself am always going to chafe at how she danced a little side step with some revisionist history on what exactly transpired with the defense of marriage act under her husband’s administration. (We will revisit this in a bit.)
However, I do think a lot of criticism being leveled at Hillary is growing in the shadow in the misogyny and I do think we are echoing the mistakes of that last era.
Let Us Talk About The “Hillary is Ambitious”-Problem
I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, because I think it is plainly understood once you stop and think about it. (People either will or wont.) So if you do not know the flavor of this problem yet. Lets do an exercise. Look at this twitter search.
Now I have tuned the search a bit. I drilled it down to 2015 in order to avoid a relevant Onion article which is making the rounds on twitter this second. (The Onion creates quite a bit of search noise.) However note the context of how people use the word ambitious in conjunction with Hillary.
Now lets look at the same search with the same parameters for Bernie Sanders.
Now tell me why is it a good thing for Bernie to be ambitious but not Hillary? Why is ambitious pretty much used as a pejorative universally when applied directly to Clinton?
Now tell me can anyone of any gender aspire to the highest office in the land without being ambitious?
For the love of everything sacred, if you don’t get what I am illustrating here this whole thing is going to be lost on you.
Let Us Talk About Email
- In 2007 the Bush Administration conveniently lost five million emails they were hosting on a private personal email server. Link
- Jeb Bush about a year ago, in an effort to appear impressively transparent published years and years worth of emails to a public facing website. He included private sensitive information unredacted, some of which included the social security numbers, private medical histories and contact info for various constituents. Link
- Jeb Bush also had a private email account he did work out of, which was conveniently left out of the massive public data dump. So much for showing off your transparency, hunh Jeb? Link
- The State Department Inspector General recently performed a review of email archiving procedures and found that the: Manager of the IRS, A Former Obama EPA Administrator and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok were all using private non government email for official state work. (In fact the EPA has a completely secret email account under a pseudonym in which to communicate with lobbyists.) Link
- Oh the current secretary of Defense? Totally using his own private email account for sensitive government work. Link
- When polled 33% of Federal Employees say they have used personal email for work at some point, 10% do so often, and a eyebrow arching 6% say they continuously user personal email all the time. Link
Remember how I said the State Departments Inspector General performed a review? Well here is the report: Link
Here is a good snipit:
A 2009 upgrade in the Department of State’s system facilitated the preservation of emails as official records. However, Department of State employees have not received adequate training or guidance on their responsibilities for using those systems to preserve “record emails.” In 2011, employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent. Employees created 41,749 record emails in 2013. Record email usage varies widely across bureaus and missions. The Bureau of Administration needs to exercise central oversight of the use of the record email function.
Some employees do not create record emails because they do not want to make the email available in searches or fear that this availability would inhibit debate about pending decisions.
System designers in the Bureau of Information Resource Management need more understanding and knowledge of the needs of their customers to make the system more useful. A new procedure for monitoring the needs of customers would facilitate making those adjustments.
— Office of Inspections, Domestic Operations and Special Reports, Review of State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset and Record Email
So, to summarize:
- For better or worse the use of personal email for work is common in all branches of government including some of the highest positions in the land. This includes the Department of State. It clearly is, and has been widespread systemic problem. There is no centralized oversight for it and State Department employees do not receive adequate training on the subject.
- There is universal agreement that all classified information on the Clinton email servers was classified retroactively and was not classified at the time it was sent.
NOW. In the past week ive had a surprising number of people run up to me and insist that “If it was you or me who did what Hillary had done with those emails, we would have been fired or worse.”
Now to say something a bit controversial: I do not think we would have. Look how many people do the same thing all the freaking time.
Now I generally do not believe its a good idea to do what has been done by countless people here. I am glad that the state department is getting a grip on this and we are in the early stages of locking it down.
However I would like to ask why so many people react so violently to this when Hillary is involved, rather than say the Secretary of Defense?
People seem to make the immediate assumption that there is something malicious or unscrupulous going on when Hillary is center stage. Why is that? What is the cause of that?
Hint: Maybe it is because she is too ambitious.
But What About Fair Criticisms?
Before we get there I want to talk about how politicians often are stuck in the situation of having to compress complex and nuanced issues into easy sound bites, often straying into the land of disingenuity out of necessity.
Im going to start with Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders started off his campaign with frankly a softer position on gun control than Hillary.
In each and every debate, and public appearance I have seen of Bernie when pinned down on this issue he has used his NRA rating of a D- as something of a shield.
However that is something of a non answer to the question. The question is not “Does the NRA love you?” The question is “Are you not softer on gun control than Hillary, comment on your differences over the Bradley Bill?”
Now the reality of the situation is complex. Bernie has a rural constituency whose support he needs if he is going to further pretty much all his other aims. He also is quite literally representing that constituency in congress. By virtue of a small degree of pragmatism he has had to adopt a nuanced and compromised approach to gun control, and also both ought not and cannot afford to be accidentally painted as pro guns. He needs to convey all of that, and if he acknowledges it he has to explain why whatever daylight which exists between him and Clinton on this issue is not important (for whatever reason)
He also has to fit all of this into an easy sound bite.
It comes out in the wash as his D- rating from the NRA.
It could be seen as a little disingenuous. Not only is he going for the easy sound bite there, but it really can often be read as him insisting there is no daylight between Clinton and him on the issue, when I am quite sure he realizes there is.
Its not something Sanders has to resort to often, but it is in his toolbox.
But We Are Talking About Clinton
Remember several walls of text ago when I mentioned Hillary spinning the Defense of Marriage Act which happened under her husband’s administration?
Now this one chafes me, but I I have grown to appreciate the particularly thorny situation she is in.
It is likely one of two mutually exclusive things is true:
- Hillary was privately a critic of DOMA at the time but did not voice it publicly.
- Her position on marriage equality has evolved over the intervening years.
I also believe it is true that Hillary is intimately linked to her husband’s administration. Her husband is a valuable resource for her campaign and quite frankly I honestly believe she is proud of their accomplishments. She has both no desire to distance herself from that legacy nor is it advantageous to do so.
So if the first is true. If Hillary was a critic of DOMA, a very complex and nuanced discussion has to take place on why she did not speak out at first.
If the second is true, a very nuanced and complex change of opinion happened over the course of several years has to be discussed and explained.
Neither of these two things translate well into short sound bites. She also has the same problem as Sanders in that she believes she has a good case on why any daylight between herself and him on this should not matter in the present and has to convey it quickly. (Like, hell Obama was Mr. Gay-Marriage is a state issue until as late as 2014 and frankly no one ever held his feet to the coals for it.)
Unfortunately in the wash it comes out as something of a fiction. And honestly that is something of a political calculation.
Ah HA! You Just Called Hillary Calculating!
Ill get back to that. I want to do another example first and I think that buttresses up to this.
Hillary’s attacks on Bernie Sander’s single payer health care plan have been called out on a number of occasions as less than charitable. Hillary has characterized Bernie’s platform as throwing out Obamacare with the bathwater for something politically untenable.
Here is what I think is going on:
I also believe she is something of a pragmatist. Thats not a criticism, that is a philosophy. Its an approach. It means she picks her battles she acts on what she thinks is politically tenable and holds when she does not think there is enough political will or momentum.
A pragmatist is going to do some political calculations. (I told you I would get back to it.) But it is not malicious. A pragmatist might believe something might be important, but if it is not tenable they might see it as more productive to bank the issue for the day when it’s timing is better.
The thing is that conversation is one which doesn’t translate to a campaign trail. Taking a stage beside Bernie Sanders and saying “I believe in universal healthcare too, I just think we need to hold for half a decade first” is not something which can be uttered. It only makes sense in a broader more nuanced conversation.
But Did You Not Say This Sort of Thing Chafes You?
It does. But also it does when any politician does it. The DOMA thing strikes a little closer to home for me (gay vegetarian libertarian-socialist, remember) but im not going to suffer under any illusions that this is not something which goes on pretty much continuously in our political process.
I also have to wonder why Hillary’s pragmatism causes people to characterize her so negatively, when say democrats have given Obama a lot of free passes under his terms for making equally pragmatic moves.
If your one of those liberals who thinks Obama was secretly always for marriage equality I am throwing down the gauntlet right here. God knows I know a bakers dozen of you off the top of my head. Keeping it secret for political expediency is pretty much the definition of pragmatism.
Maybe it is because she is too ambitious.
But You Said It Is Possible To Have A Legitimate Criticism
It totally is. I think it is even fair for me to continue to say “I do not appreciate what Hillary did when she danced around her history with DOMA and I value Bernie’s consistency on the issue.” But it is important to do so without characterizing what she did as somehow villainous, especially considering her peers are using the same toolbox.
I also think it is perfectly fine to value say Bernie Sander’s brand of idealism over pragmatism. (Many people use idealism as a negative term. I do not, and consider myself one proudly.)
But pragmatism isn’t the same thing as deceit. I can not help but think people’s reading it as such has more to do with decades of mythology and misogyny than the reality of the situation, especially when so many other politicians get raked over the coals so much less for it.
Keep in mind to it is perfectly possible to simply disagree one the issues in and of themselves. Hillary and Bernie have been doing a remarkably good job of doing just that. The neo-liberal movement is part of the Clinton legacy. I would much rather people’s criticisms start there honestly rather than where they have been.
You Are A Bernie Sanders Supporter, Right?
(gay vegetarian libertarian-socialist, remember?)
I Don’t Care I Still Think Hillary Is A Calculating Shrew
If I meet you in real life I am going to keep linking you to this, until you stop talking to me on this subject. That is why I wrote it. I only wanted to say it/type it once.
How Can I Know If My Criticism Of Hillary Is Legitimate?
There is a concept in logic and philosophy called “The Principle of Charity” I think taking into consideration everything I have said and trying to apply it is a good start.
Why Did This Slowly Morph Into a Dialectical Conversation?
Because I got a little tired as I wrote it, and quite enjoyed that bit.