Friday, June 6, 2008

GUEST POST: It Isn't Nice

This morning I'm pleased to bring you another rockin guest post from Virginia Rutter, sociology prof at Framingham State College, who is, in my estimation, quite nice. And a sassy writer to boot. Enjoy! -GWP

It Isn't Nice, by Virginia Rutter

"It isn't nice." That is how I explained my extremely negative response to Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair article on Bill Clinton and to TP's press interviews this week. It isn't nice to go around speculating about people's sex lives (at least in public), but TP did. It isn't nice to speculate about their health either. TP did.

Todd Purdum dedicates his first several paragraphs drawing tawdry atmosphere—we get the whiff of "Air Fuck One" that whisked Bill's attendant "motley crew" to a wedding last summer in Paris. This sets the tone. And then for balance, there's a line or two about, oh jeepers y'all, I'm not saying there is any evidence of philandering. Golly, I just want to tell you that some of Clinton's old staffers worry about it. And then more paragraphs of tawdry atmosphere.

(1-800-CALL FOUCAULT is how my friends in the English department respond.)

One of the nice things, to me, about leaving behind the 1990s was leaving behind this kind of pants-sniffing political story telling. (Is that a not-nice thing to say? I'll ponder that.) Remember, the story telling we have this decade is about the big lies we know about – on the economy, the war, on civil liberties, not little hypothetical lies we heard someone say someone said something about. That's just not nice.

But here is what was pathetic: In interviews, TP is all like, I wasn't insinuating anything about Bill Clinton's behavior. The facts I am reporting are about how some Clinton staffers are worried about some people who are talking and thinking it might be possible that maybe Bill is, has, or will mess around. The news: someone feels anxious thinking about sex.

(1-800-CALL FREUD is how my friends in the psychology department respond.)

In interview after interview, TP keeps to his message, I repeat I am not insinuating about Bill's sex life, I have no information about that. Sounds (ironically), a little bit like "depends upon what the definition of is is." That's soooo 1990s. That's not nice—wasn't then, isn't now.

Here's the deal, TP: write your "sleazy" story whatever way you want, whatever way your editors will tolerate or goad you into. If you can tolerate not being nice, and it passes muster in your business, go ahead. And, if you do it in the service of asking the hard questions, about financing his foundation, his livelihood, well, reasonable minds can accept that. But don't also be pathetic.

And that brings me to the health stuff. The TP anxiety report extends the apprehension among well meaning FOBs about the psychological impact of his heart by-pass surgery. Makes you cranky. Impulsive. Changes your personality. No doubt big medical interventions, similar to a trauma, influence--or have the odds of influencing--state of mind. But if you are going to speculate about that, some other facts in evidence merit consideration—aka speculation—too. What else could influence Bill's state of mind and make him irritable or impulsive? Let's see, there's the trauma of the 2000 election, the doubledarktrauma of the 2004 election, the traumatimesinfinity that has been the Bush administration. You could say, well we should all be a little irritable (aren't we?)—but as irritable as the regular folk are, think about this happening when the party and the government are your baby.

And then there is the issue of gender. Just like there are no good gender scripts available for a woman in a powerful position and how best to respond when people market a nutcracker in her image (and the like), there are equally no good gender scripts available for a man in a powerful position to respond to this kind of treatment of the woman he loves.

What I mean by gender scripts is that nearly all women—whether feminist or not—are raised with ideas about delicacy; nearly all men—whether a former president or not—are raised with ideas about protectiveness. What can give a person irritatsia is when the scripts are uncertain. Bill Clinton is a feminist man who has forged a partnership with a woman who is his equal; he has given real support to her. He hasn't been perfect. But the gender trap in this situation isn't his clinging to old ideas of male privilege, it is not having a way to reconcile all those expectations about gallantry with the expectations Bill has bought into about equality in his marriage. And if you are a man reading this you may recall times when you have felt damn irritable, maybe even sometimes reactive, when it seems impossible to get it right.

From the look of Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair piece, it seems impossible for Bill to get it right. Turns out it is impossible for any of us to get it right. Including TP. And I think that understanding that is being nice.

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