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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cleavage, Culture, Politics (and the Sopranos)

Over my occasional other blog, Dorf on Law, Sherry Colb has a valuable post on the controversy over an article discussing Hilary Clinton's recent display of "cleavage" on the Senate floor.  I'm moved to write in response.  Some of my thoughts are more inspired by her post than directed at it.  More directly, I want to agree in part and disagree in part with the drift of her post.  Like Sherry, I think this debate is more important than the underlying subject, and unfortunately, the length of this post will reflect that.

Sherry's bottom line, although she and I have much more to say about it, is that when the media highlight experimentation in the clothing of women politicians, "it forces women to dedicate precious resources to what is ultimately a trivial distraction from substance."  She may well not mean it this way, but one way to read this conclusion is that the story was ultimately a bad idea -- that the editors should have paused before running it.

Speaking as a former journalist, I want to say a little more about newspaper coverage, at least in an ideal world.  Newspapers perform mutiple functions.  They certainly cover issues of substance, or should.  But as mirrors held up to reality, they reflect our diversity of interests: our substantive interests, our interest in the broader culture, and even our more unsavory interests (LiLo, Paris Hilton, and so on).  And so they should.  A newspaper run by "public service journalists" or deliberative republicans that attempted to feed its readers only the most substantive material would offer a wholesome but not a satisfying diet.  However high-minded it might be, it would not be much of a mirror.  As long as more "trivial" interests are part of our own bundle of preferences, there is room for such stories in a newspaper.  We should read (and publish) our newspapers accordingly, not allowing the trivial stories to overwhelm the more substantive ones, but not assuming either that every story is and must be published for a larger purpose.  Surely there is room for both.

If we read the "cleavage" story this way -- as one piece of one cultural aspect of our lives -- it is perhaps less objectionable.  But Sherry rightly says that the story is more loaded than that, in a couple of ways.  Let me address them in turn after the jump.

First, there is the view that this story involves assumptions about women, women's role in politics, and women's sexuality, in a way that stories about men would not.  Moreover, I think Sherry is suggesting, we see similar stories about men rarely, if at all.  I think Sherry valuably "raise[s] consciousness about [the] hidden assumptions" underlying Givhan's story, and so I am in agreement with her on an important, perhaps the central, aspect of her post.

I do want to say, however, that raising consciousness about the loaded nature of such stories is valuable to uncover or defuse such hidden assumptions, and to make sure they are written more carefully and self-consciously.  But it does not preclude such stories.  Sherry is right that we view a story about a woman's cleavage differently than we view a story about a man with a beard.  But one certainly can imagine reading a story about a candidate for the presidency who chooses to wear a beard.  If such a candidate appeared in this day and age, in which appearance is so carefully guarded in politics and the convention is that male presidential candidates must be clean-shaven, it would surely draw attention.  Or imagine a still less likely example in current politics: a male candidate with a moustache.  His departure from conventional expectations about male candidates' appearance would inspire, I'm sure, a flurry of stories.  I don't doubt that some of them would even explore the sexual aspects of moustaches, and certainly the fact that moustaches are more or less common among males depending on geographical, racial, and socio-economic factors would feature in the discussion.

None of this denies Sherry's quite reasonable point that such stories are unlikely to be as sexually loaded, or filled with unspoken assumptions, as the "cleavage" story.  So "consciousness" is still needed here.  But, as long as human nature contains within its multitudinous interests a fascination with culture as well as "substance," there will be room for such stories.  I can even imagine, and have seen here and there, a story about a male candidate that more directly raises the kinds of loaded issues Sherry is talking about.  Imagine a story about Barack Obama's athletic pursuits; his playing of basketball and so on.  It would be difficult to read such a story without being aware of the undercurrents of race and racial assumptions that pervade our culture.  We would want to guard against writing such a story in a way that was unaware of those issues.  But that doesn't make such a story illegitimate per se.  We learned something about Bill Clinton, I think, from learning about his (mis)behavior on the golf course -- not everything, but something.  The same might be true of a Barack-on-the-court story.  We should be on guard against our hidden assumptions and write (and read) such stories accordingly, but that does not mean such stories are always improper.

That raises the second question, which is whether such stories are improper in general because they are "trivial."  Sherry ends by lamenting stories that forces political candidates into "a trivial distraction from substance."  I certainly agree that, in the mixed diet provided by the news media, trivia should not overwhelm substance, and substance ought to predominate in the mix.  But there is and, I think, should be room for "trivia."  We might defuse this loaded term a bit by pointing out that some of what is called "trivia" can more accurately be described as a widely shared interest in our culture, in all its manifestations -- including culture in politics and the culture of politics.  It is fair to worry about such stories overwhelming the "substantive" ones, but I think it is perfectly illegitimate for readers to be interested, among other things, in thinking about politics (and everything else) on a cultural level, and about the semiotics of the political world.  Our varied interests are what they are, and while we can adjust the ratio between them, there is no point wishing our interests were always utterly substantive in nature.  Nor would I wish for such a world; politics needs its semioticians, cultural interpreters, and anthropologists just as it needs policy wonks.

I suppose I have written at such length because of personal experience.  A while back I wrote a post here about Al Gore's use of his personal relationships as a member of the global elite to snag a copy of the final episode of the Sopranos from a not especially savory entertainment executive friend, lest he miss it while traveling.  For this, I was roundly flayed in the comments section.  Some of the criticisms were superb and well taken, some thoughtful, and some basically nasty.  I certainly vowed after that onslaught to write more about law and less about personalities on this blog. 

I humbly and fully acknowledge some of the excellent criticisms.  But I would still want to defend the legitimacy of an interest in such matters.  Frank Pasquale, as usual, wrote an especially perceptive comment, and linked to a relevant post on the subject.  It is, though, one thing to say we should care more about John Edwards' policies than his haircut, and another to deny the very natural human interest in both.  We may well need more discussions about the substance of policy than on the "politics of personality."  But there is room in the vast marketplace of speech for writers who are interested in one or the other, or both, in different measures. 

My earlier post did not say everything about Gore that there is to say.  It should have been obvious that it wasn't intended to.  But as long as we are also interested in questions of character, of ethics, of culture, of class, and so on, of course there is room to discuss such matters.  While we should not fall into the trap of assuming that character is all, or that it yields to simplistic analysis or anecdotes, that is different from suggesting that we must ignore it.  I would say more positively that it is OK to be interested in the character of public figures -- if not because we think it tells us something about these figures, then because they are epic examples of our fascination with the role of human nature and character in both public life and our own lives.  This is one reason that, along with policy papers and economic histories, we also still read and respond to Herodotus, Plutarch, and Suetonius. 

We should not oversell such an interest, and it should not overwhelm the substantive discussion, but we needn't be embarrassed about such interests either.  I might think that Al Gore or Hillary Clinton (or George Bush) would make an excellent President, and approve of their policy views, and still be fascinated with, and want to write about, what their lives reveal about the nature of class and elitism in a society in which the meritocracy manages to replicate the features of aristocracy.  It might not advance the political debate; but so what?  It might advance our cultural discussion, and there's a place for that too.

If I can draw this lengthy digression back to the Hillary Clinton story, of course all of Sherry's consciousness-raising points still apply: even if we are interested in Clinton as a cultural figure, and in the semiotics of her dress, and so on, there are more or less sexist or unconscious ways to write about her, and the Givhan story is as good an occasion as any to address them.  But we should be less eager to say that any story that is not about substance is "a trivial distraction."  Our lived experience involves policy and culture, realities and symbols, and different writers will be drawn to different points along that spectrum.  It is right to care that we get the balance, and our priorities, in order.  But that does not mean excluding altogether our natural human interest in, if I may be tautological, matters of human interest.

One last point is raised both by Sherry's post and by the comments to the Gore post.  Another way to read some of both of these writings (although I think it is much less present in Sherry's post) is that we should not write about such matters, even if we can write about them in a careful and non-sexist/etc. way, because the stakes are just too high.  (I am assuming a Democratic perspective here, without disclosing whether I share it or not.)  Gore, or Clinton, or Obama or Edwards, are good candidates who bring some hope of electoral victory in the face of a terrible administration and against terrible candidates on the other side, and we should refrain from writing things that not only distract from the substance of the debate, but that might positively injure those good candidates and harm our chances of having a better-governed country.  Such a view is rarely openly stated; it's implicit at best, and it may well be absent from both Sherry's post and the comments to my own post on Gore.  But it may be there, and certainly has been voiced more explicitly here and there. 

Such a position can seem grandiose, given how little influence most writing actually has -- blog posts, newspaper articles, law review pieces, etc.  I don't want my own view to come across as grandiose either.  The best safeguard I have against harming the good fight is that my writing is so ephemeral!  But I should nevertheless state that my own view, which is certainly subject to criticism and revision, is that I accept no such obligation.  If anything, I am positively barred, as a writer and scholar, from caring whether what I write helps or hurts some candidate, movement, or issue.*  Nor am I obliged to write only about "substance" rather than "trivia," or, to put it more accurately, I am not precluded from writing about questions of culture and character.  I am obliged to do my best to write well about what interests me, and the comments to my posts often humble me and remind me of my shortcomings on that score.  But, to take a rather extreme hypothetical, I consider myself honor-bound not to care whether something I write, provided it is honest and sincere and careful, helps or hurts some cause or candidate.  If my blog post on the Sopranos, silly and imperfect as it was, were magically guaranteed to clinch the next election for the Republicans, extend the war in Iraq, and doom all new environmental legislation, or vice versa, I'm not sure I would see that as a legitimate basis for deciding to publish it or not.  Don't most scholars and writers share that position?

* Caring on a professional level, that is.  I might well care personally.           

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 31, 2007 at 01:10 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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