Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Appalling Whiteness

"If politics is the art of the possible, the scowling, cranky, choleric, 
septuagenarian Sanders is a somewhat impossible candidate."

      Because citizens can now vote weeks before a scheduled election, the results of that election may already have been decided before the date of the election. But if the candidates are running neck and neck last minute votes could play a crucial role in who wins and who loses. The contest I have in mind is the Democratic Party presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. I wish Democratic voters had a better choice than Clinton and Sanders. Just as there is no Bush on the Republican side, I wish there was no Clinton on the Democratic side. I think the United States suffers from a depressing Bush and Clinton fatigue. New blood is needed. But we must deal with who is running, not who we wish was running. The choice for Democrats is between Hillary and Berni, but Sanders does not represent new blood. He has been a politician for a long time and his advanced age is one of his drawbacks. What little hair he has left is snow white. At 74 he is four years older than Clinton. If he wins he will be seventy-five when he takes office. The physical and emotional demands on  the president are far greater than they are  on Supreme Court justices or even on a senator from a sparsely relatively racially homogenous populated rural state such as Vermont. Clinton is four years younger than Sanders, but if she wins, she will be seventy when she takes office in 2017. She is far from being the ideal age for the highest office, but Sanders is even less so. But her varied experiences, domestically and internationally, makes her a better choice for the chief executive office than Sanders.

      Another of Sander’s limitation as a presidential candidate is that until recently he has not been a member of a political party. When he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, which was the youth division of the Socialist Party of America, but he apparently did not join the adult division of the party. He has been an independent, at least until 2015, when to facilitate his run for the presidency, he joined the Democratic Party.  Being a Democrat might not seem like an advantage when both political parties, Democratic and Republican, but especially the Republican, are held in such low esteem by many American voters. But Sanders is not just an independent, he is a self-proclaimed socialist, an independent “democratic socialist.” But until 2015 he apparently had not been a member of any party, Republican, Democratic, socialist, or otherwise.  Sanders is an arch individualist  who calls himself a socialist but he doesn’t have to answer to anyone but himself. The only party Sanders belongs to is the Bernie Sanders party. His career has been confined to the whitest state in the United States. Twenty years after Sanders moved to Vermont, according to an August 23, 1987, New York Times article, that state had the fewest blacks and therefore the largest percentage of whites in the United States.  Yes, Vermont is Sanders country where white gun owners are as omnipresent as maple trees and a refugee from Brooklyn has, like maple syrup, been running for public office ever since. The Wikipedia entry on Sanders, which reads like  flattering campaign puffery, says, “He essentially created his own political party in Vermont . . .” Sanders is a strong pro-gun advocate who admires Newt Gingrich, whose hair turned prematurely white. Sanders admires Gingrich almost as much as Gingrich admires himself. Why did Sanders choose Vermont to spend the rest of his life in? Because, according to Wikipedia, presumably quoting from Sanders 1997 political memoir Outside in the House,  he had been “captivated by rural life.” 

      When I was a freshman at Middlebury College in 1953, I too had been captivated by Vermont. Born in 1933 into a large, Irish Catholic family I spent the first seven years of my life in a blue-collar neighborhood in a tenement on a virtual dead-end street in  East Boston in the middle of the Great Depression. Vermont and the beautiful Middlebury campus in particular was like a beautiful Shangri-la for  me, but I was a radical, influenced by my oldest brother, who was a communist in the Merchant Marine. I went to Middlebury on what was a virtual football scholarship, but I was the only radical among the student body from what I could see.  With conscientious objector tendencies, I was the only one who refused to take the compulsory Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) class, which had been instituted after I had committed myself to Middlebury. Because of my refusal to take ROTC, I was told at the beginning of my sophomore year that I would have to leave the college. I transferred to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, at the beginning of the second semester of my sophomore year. I had discovered at Middlebury that I could be a much better student than athlete, so I was no longer interested in playing football. Middletown was a somewhat drab mill town and sandstone looking Wesleyan was no white marbled Middlebury, but it suited me much better. 

      Having written an M.A. thesis on the whiteness in Melville's fiction, I went on to study for a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale, becoming very involved in radical politics in New York City in the 1960s including in Sanders’ old stamping ground, Brooklyn. I met some “democratic socialists” of the Bernie Sanders type in New York. They considered themselves pure and uncontaminated not only by the Communist Party but also by the Democratic Party. I thought of the democratic socialism they believed in as a less obvious political expression of American individualism, which enabled them to be daringly radical but political vestal virgins at the same time. Sanders has carried that vestal virgin shtick about as far as anyone can, but I doubt that he could be elected president. I would certainly rather have him as president than Donald Trump. But I think Hillary, who is definitely not a political vestal virgin, can be elected president, in spite of her considerable political sins, and would make a better president than Sanders. If politics is the art of the possible, the scowling, cranky, choleric, septuagenarian Sanders is a somewhat impossible candidate. What politician is not fundamentally an opportunist, and how could they succeed if they weren’t? They are necessary evils, of which there is much more in life than we want to admit. Sanders is certainly not evil, but I believe we will probably learn from his presidential campaign, as Ishmael did from Moby Dick, that "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." It is the whiteness of Sanders, so to speak, the born-again Vermonter, that above all turns me and apparently many other Americans off. I am old enough to remember when the expression "That's mighty white of you," still had some currency. Although he would sincerely vehemently deny it, I think that expression is one of the sources of Sanders'  popularity among white voters.