What Do You Mean "Diversity"?

Yesterday, the New York Times' Annie Lowrey set the snares for the latest media trap, meant to distract well-meaning political observers from the real issues at hand.

Obama's new cabinet is likely to be less diverse than in his first term, she notes.  And to be clear, by 'diverse' she means that of race and gender, not ideology.  There is very little concern - unlike that expressed during the Bush administration - that the president isn't being challenged enough on his positions, or that his cabinet picks continue to reinforce dangerous authoritarian precedents.  The message seems to be: if only there were more women and people of color implementing Obama's policies, everything would be okay.

This simple, easy-to-digest version of events is the perfect fodder for our increasingly superficial media, which is why it comes as no surprise to see them eagerly lapping it up.  Nearly every major news outlet has run a story on it in the past 24 hours, and even clueless idiots on the far-right like Mike Huckabee are chiming in.  To her credit, Lowrey's story does better than most, at least hinting at the fact a lack of diversity at the top only reflects deeper problems in society.  But it only took a few hours for that idea to become lost in the sea of headlines.

In focusing on the more strict definition of "diversity", not only do the talking heads by and large miss the point, they also ignore the news media's own horrible track record on the same issue.  But that much is to be expected from an profession whose definition of being self-critical is usually limited to posting corrections in a tiny box weeks after the fact.

Regardless, this manages to be a great way for the media to attack Obama, without actually attacking Obama.  In Lowry's story, the current "director of presidential personnel", Nancy D. Hogan, sputtered out the usual sterile defense, saying “The president puts a premium on making his team representative of the American people."  That is, he's aware he needs to maintain the facade of diversity by keeping a genetically representative - not ideologically representative - cabinet.  Like the good politician he is, he knows that if he frames it correctly, fluffs it up and really sells it, he can get away with murder.

But the predictable nature of partisan politics means that we'll completely miss the point.  Right Marc Lynch?

Right.  To many liberals, this argument is both persuasive and unconventionally awesome.  Not only is it the Republicans' fault for making a big deal over Susan Rice's nomination, but it's the "radical" left's fault for not supporting a candidate who is a consistent imperialist and has invested more money than most people will ever earn into huge oil companies.  And never you mind that there are countless other women out there that would attempt to reign in America's unethical aggression rather than expand it.  If only we'd have listened to the 'responsible' centrist types, who always know when the best time to compromise their morality for political gain is (it's all the time), Obama would have a much more diverse cabinet, and no one would be talking about this.

If you're smelling something foul here, don't worry: it's just the usual hypocrisy.  It hasn't been long since another very similar Rice - Condolezza - was sitting in the exact same job, with the exact same world view, being bashed by the exact same liberals.  Back then, people didn't seem to care too much about Bush's cabinet lacking diversity.  They (rightfully) cared about it lacking morality and legality.  They cared about the outright lies, war crimes, and shredding of the Constitution to bits.

Or maybe they didn't.  Maybe they just hated Bush.

Either way, it's clear their motivations are almost entirely partisan.  Take the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, which I've written about at length.  Despite the fact he is further to the 'left' on military issues (the ones he's being nominated to oversee) than Obama himself is, he's been attacked for his more Republican stances on social issues.  Obama should instead choose someone like Michele Flournoy, they say - someone who is not just qualified for the job, not just a Democrat, but someone who would also add diversity to the cabinet.

Obviously, we're again not talking about ideological diversity.  While Hagel has previously challenged the more hawkish elements on matters of foreign policy, Flournoy would, as the Washington Post editorial board said, be "considerably closer to the mainstream".  That is, unlike Hagel, there's not even a hint that she'll question the Obama administration's embrace of neoconservative dogma regarding the war on terror.  After all, as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Robert Gates, she was in some part responsible for that 'transition' in the first place.

What we seem to learn from all this is that the actual thoughts and opinions of cabinet members are of little concern to most political pundits.  They will apologize and tell us that it's just a job, and that the president has the final say anyway.  While that is true, the idea that the president's cabinet has no influence on his opinion is ridiculous.  Not only that, but does it not tell you something about a person to see who they surround themselves with?  Is a president not making a statement with every choice of personnel?

For example: you might say Obama likes to hang out with white men, but I'd say it's more that he likes to hang out with people who think like he does.  It just so happens he thinks like a white man.  He embraces the hierarchy of power and authority inherent in our capitalist world, he believes we live in a post-racial country, and he thinks - just like those who worry so much about diversity at the apex of society - that you can solve the systemic issues of racism and sexism from the top down.  Yes, this is nothing if not a trickle-down 'solution'.  It didn't work in the past, it won't work now, and it was probably designed never to work in the first place.  The only thing that diversity in a presidential administration, the Supreme Court, or in any other high place in society actually does, is give unwarranted credence to the idea that there are no barriers to success for women and people of color - that anyone can make it if they try hard enough.

And that's not just bullshit, it's malicious bullshit.  It shifts the blame from the system to the individual, and makes those very same groups of people even easier to stigmatize and oppress.  It gives every racist out there license to claim that minorities are alone responsible for their social status.  If Obama can become president of post-racial America, what excuse could other black people have?  Why they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!

God forbid Hillary Clinton becomes president.

You think defining feminism is hard now?  Wait until Clinton is not just referred to as a feminist, but the greatest of American feminists - simply for holding the most power any woman ever has.

But feminism is most definitely not about wanting to hold power over others.  It's about the common humanity of all people regardless of gender, and about breaking down every lasting barrier in place preventing us from achieving that goal.  And because Clinton regularly denies that common humanity, it's absolutely galling to consider her breakthrough in politics as a breakthrough for feminism.  To her, American lives are more important than the lives of people who just so happen to be born elsewhere.  Alongside her support for war in almost every case, this was best expressed when she said American troops shouldn't leave Iraq because we wouldn't want to "give Iraqis an open-ended invitation not to take care of themselves." America knows best.

She also - given her undying support of neoliberal capitalism - believes some people, through the amazing power of an economic system designed to be as unequal as possible, are just simply proven better than others.  Never mind that this system has long kept women in conditions of servitude in the United States, and now does so in less developed countries.  Never mind that it only reinforces patriarchy around the world - most evident recently in places like India and Italy.  Free trade is here to stay, she says.  By so affiliating herself with this scourge, she denies the humanity of others, and meanwhile loses her own.

But besides all that, when was the last time Clinton - or indeed any woman in a position nearly as high as hers - ever spoke out on the aspects of our culture which foment the hatred and abuse of women so rampant in our society?  Is there an answer for why nearly one in five American women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes hidden in the stereotypical platitudes she offers when she does manage to speak about "women's issues"?  When has she ever mentioned rape culture or slut-shaming?  When has she ever talked about the root of the problems?  She says it's a "mystery" why men end up wanting to control women.  Does she really not understand?

Probably not, as she's never set out to question the system itself.  The only idea she actually challenges is the one claiming women can't be as bloodthirsty, power hungry, self-serving, and immoral as men.  And if that's what we aspire to as a society, you can count me out.

So, no.  Hillary Clinton isn't a feminist.  Barack Obama isn't advancing equal rights for people of all races.  If anything, they're making these goals much, much more difficult to obtain, because their faces and their words are not those of white men.  If John McCain, Mitt Romney, and others were up there implementing the exact same policies, they'd be rightly criticized as serving the interests of the white power structure.  That stark contrast of opinion is why this focus on diversity in the top ranks is so damaging.  Sure, we want to believe that if the government was diverse, it would match what we see in our own lives.  We want them to look like - and act like - the people we know and love.  But the sad truth is that they can't, because our friends and loved ones haven't been dehumanized to the point our leaders must be to reach their lofty positions in the first place.

The ruling class still wants us to believe the lie, though, and that's why they push the diversity angle.  Like the good politicians they are, they're advertising to us.  They've learned from the marketeers they're in bed with, that in order to sell a product people have to identify with it.  You can't sell an all-white, all-male cabinet to a country much more diverse than that.  At least not like you can sell a war, or austerity measures, or a domestic spying program.  You just can't mold genetics like you can public opinion.

And that's exactly what happens when you spend your time getting caught up in the superficial - you fall right into the trap.  You end up telling everyone how much better it would be if we lived in a monarchy that allowed for an equal distribution of kings and queens rather than one that only recognizes kings.

But king or queen, you're still getting your head cut off.

Or a drone's missile through your bedroom window.

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