Hillary Clinton may be making the right gestures this week, taking on John McCain for his bold attempts to woo her disaffected supporters. But in embracing the idea of catharsis, Team Hillary set the scene for the Democratic National Convention to act as a kind of mass purification ritual. The podium as sacrificial altar, the floor-to-ceiling monitors, dozens of television cameras and throngs of political priests and priestesses perfectly orchestrated for optimal alignment. Bill in the perfunctory role as emperor. Hillary as oracle to perform the ritual bloodletting.
So what exactly will be purified? Will the woman down the street escape foreclosure? Will incarcerated mothers and fathers be returned to their families—sane, intact and ready to love? Will dead soldiers come back to life? Will Gloria Steinem recant her statements that gender trumps race and that all young women (except her own white, well-resourced protégées) are naïve? Will a black woman in Harlem be able to get a tomato without having to walk for forty minutes?
If not, it seems that the concept of catharsis is little more than a cog in a larger political wheel whose only aim is to underscore the assumption that female voters need and deserve a female candidate.
In the '20s, Freud's nephew Edward Bernays manipulated what his uncle described as women's desire for a metaphoric penis by marketing cigarettes to suffragists as a signifier of empowerment. Initially, he called this work "propaganda." When the term fell out of vogue, he changed it to "public relations." Today, we call it "marketing"—cultivating irrational relationships with products by preying upon deep human desires for power, intimacy, security, respect.
In the twenty-first century, some women are still too easily baited by their longing for independence and power. In 2004, many voted for Nader to prove their independence. In 2008, they want to deify their feminine leader and grieve the loss of a power they assumed would change everything--even if it means voting against their own interests.
But the cool, flapper suffragist died of lung cancer, America got four more years of corruption and degradation, and the women rallying for a divisive catharsis today run the dangerous risk of undermining exactly what they claim to desire: equal pay, universal healthcare and an end to the war claiming their sons and daughters.
To refuse to vote for a party that produced a viable female candidate—in order to vote for a party that has not—is irrational and forces women to identify ourselves as victims of our own propaganda. Those unable to remove the veil forget that as noble as the idea of catharsis is, there's a world of difference between political spectacle and a true cathartic event with redemption, renewal and social change at its core.
No matter the outcome, John McCain is benefiting from the willingness of some women to abandon the Democratic party based on their preoccupation with gender. A new poll suggests that 27 percent of Clinton supporters say they will back McCain. It falls to Hillary to reverse that.
But putting the genie back in the bottle will take a lot more than a massive display of scripted unity. Through their opportunistic appeal to white voters, subtle strumming of the chord of black man as immature "boy" and refusal to stem the sweeping rhetoric of gender politics engulfing their message, Hillary and her female chorus have reopened the floodgates of mistrust many have tried to stem for decades.
No matter how stunning a spectacle Hillary Clinton's call for unity is this week, we move forward with a party weakened by an inability to pierce the façade of political theater on behalf of their interests and those of the greater good. And one thing is certain, if the Democrats win in November, any unresolved issues raised by "campaign catharsis" will flow directly into the White House.
Aug 30 2008 - 5:36am