Saturday, April 06, 2013

Good Looking Attorney General

Having now read Barack Obama's complete comment on Kamala Harris, I acquit him of sexism - it was always an unreasonable accusation, he's never shown any sign of sexism.  Just to remind everyone, here's his exact quote, from a CNN opinion piece by Roxanne Jones (the first full quote I could find):
"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."
This is clearly innocuous, clearly a friendly remark.  And yet he apologized.  Why?

I haven't read all the articles about this - but I've seen the "it was just a compliment, why can't we compliment people?" complaints, and I found Eric Golub of the Washington Times saying this:
Until every woman is reduced to an asexual character resembling Bebe Neuwirth’s “Cheers” character Lilith Crane, feminists will keep complaining.
Both those positions are extremes; of course we can compliment people, and no, we don't want to reduce women to asexuality.  But I have to admit, when I first heard the out-of-context phrase, "the best-looking attorney general in the country," my hackles went up - and I like Obama. 

I think reaction to this remark depends not only on your gender but your age.  I predate the feminist revolution; Barack Obama doesn't.   When I was a teenager, women weren't lawyers - ask Sandra Day O'Connor.  In fact when I was in college, considering careers, I had a very small number of options:  teacher, nurse, secretary, librarian.  Lawyer wasn't on the list; neither was attorney general, or any elected position.  The degree a lot of women expected to get when I was in college was the "Mrs."

I also remember when women began to get into those jobs, and other jobs that society in the Fifties regarded as "men's work."  At that time a compliment on her looks to a professional woman, especially from a powerful man, carried a sting - if you're that attractive, you can't be any good.  You must have slept your way there.  The women who got those jobs early were tough pioneers, and these were among the arrows in their backs.

When you say this flatly in the 21st century it's absurd, but in the middle of the 20th century society seriously believed that only a homely woman could be competent or intelligent, and a beautiful woman in a position of power must have used sex to get there.  And the mere implication was the best option.  In the worst cases the compliment was followed by a more-or-less active attempt to force attentions on the woman.  I have worked with an attractive woman, a secretary, who told me she had turned down a job because the boss made it clear that he expected sexual favors.

For background on this, read a good biography of Hedy Lamarr - the woman who helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication techniques, the basis of Bluetooth and WiFi.  Her intelligence is supported by the patent in her name, US Patent 2,292,387.  But most people thought of her as a "pin-up girl."  And I don't watch TV, so I don't watch Mad Men, but I'll bet you see this attitude there, if you look.

As I said, Barack Obama didn't experience the pre-feminist world.  But he's bright enough to know it existed; that's why he gave the compliment that elaborate wind-up.  (Which is all quite true.)  And that's also why, when the out-of-context remark hit the media, he apologized.  Because the sting has largely been drawn; but the memory of it lingers, like a bad smell in the corner of the room.  You're too good looking to be that smart.  It's only been 50 years or so; we've come a long way, but not yet quite far enough.


  1. Steve Bumgarner7:36 AM

    I agree in this context and also in race relations. At first glance, attitudes seem much better, in reality they are somewhat better but still need our full attention to recover from the past and to be where we need to be. BTW, I don't watch TV either, except to spend a few quality moments with the wife, who seems glued to it. In fairness, I seem to be glued to facebook.

  2. Sexism is ineradicable. It will swing both ways.

    In the 1970's and 1980's and 1990's, when I worked for the government bureaucracy, women and minorities were moving up the ranks, pushing other people aside. It was an accepted thing that "reparations" were in order, and if you weren't black or hispanic or a woman or gay or disabled (and also selfish and grindingly ambitious), you had better hunker down and expect the worst. It was open season on white men.

    The worst thing we can do now is to reward "difference" in the mistaken belief that we're "balancing" the account. Nominating and approving Supreme Court Judges, for instance, out of preference for color or sex is just as corrupting to minorities and women as the old prejudice was. Probably more so. The lesson is simple: It's our turn, now we get to screw you, whitey.

    Color- and sex-blind policies are the best policies. If a woman or black person are good at what they do, it doesn't matter who they are. I don't believe in affirmative action, and neither should you. It's just another version of the old prejudice.

  3. I certainly agree with you about color- and sex-blind policies. I just don't see it happening anytime soon.

    I also agree about the sins of affirmative action. I've been extremely interested in the Henry Alvarez case in San Francisco, since it's the first time I've seen a boss of color sued for what appear to be openly racist anti-white remarks. The politically correct attitude has been that people of color are not racist - which, since they're members of the human race, is balderdash. The interesting thing about the Alvarez case (apart from the fact that Ed Lee appears to have NO idea how to handle it) is that it made the news.

  4. All things being equal, there's a certain justice in promoting minorities. But too often in my experience, black or women managers consciously earmarked their ethnic or sexual comrades and ushered them through the channels towards advancement. It's reverse preference. What happened where I worked was that they'd pull these chosen individuals out of the front line work, assign them to "review" the performance of their peers, and then reward them for their "superior knowledge" and contribution to accuracy and work-flow. Since I never sought promotion, I had to endure this over and over and over again. They'd promote these people who never had learned how to do the job they'd originally gotten, and give them power over the rest of us. And then, of course, when things didn't go their way, they blamed us. You had black and hispanic and LGBT managers at the GS-14 level who'd never done a real day's work in their whole career. You had to be there to believe it.