Hillary, Bernie, My Mother, and Me
What do you get out of arguing with middle-aged white women? In a tiff with his mother, David Seitz attacks economic inequality, aiming to settle an intergenerational score.
My mother and I got into a disagreement recently. Frustrated at another year of treading water, underemployed and underinsured, post-grad school, I told her I was overdue for new eyeglasses, that I couldn’t afford them, that I was having moments of dizziness and starting to worry that my vision was declining and I needed a new prescription.
She replied that since she’d retired, she hadn’t gotten new glasses for years because of her limited income. “We’re both on fixed incomes,” she said.
“Yes, we’re both on fixed incomes,” I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “But I’m half your age. I’m just starting my career, just starting my adult life.”
“Are you saying that because I’m older, I don’t need new glasses?” she snapped back.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that…” I trailed off and changed the subject.
Though I brought up an expense and made the mistake of raising the question of money, it wasn’t money I wanted from her so much as recognition of my predicament. Irritated by her claim of false equivalence – as if all people on limited incomes were stymied by them in the same way! – I had gotten backed into a rhetorical corner. I sounded like an entitled shit.
This argument echoed longstanding tensions between us. “Your generation isn’t frugal the way your father and I were,” she episodically tells me. Once, out of a mix of admiration for political economic analysis and a little bit of spite, I did a little research and compared her income in her first year out of nursing school with mine my first year out of school. I pointed out that she earned about a thousand dollars more in real income than I had. This did not go over well.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I had a full-time job.”
“Exactly,” I snarled back.
This memory of one particularly fraught conversation is mutually unflattering, complex, and unamenable to single-issue analysis, which is to say that it comes from life. It’s hard to parse this conversation according to any one vector of identity or oppression or spin it into a story populated with good and bad actors, which unfortunately remains a dominant practice for making sense of intergenerational and political conflicts. From one vantage, this is a scene about intergenerational conflict, another iteration of struggles over whether millennials’ economic frustrations are attributable to a bankrupt system, or to their own putative moral bankruptcy.
It’s also a scene about gender and sexuality – when my mother graduated from high school in 1970, she had far more attenuated career choices than I did as a comfortable suburban white boy in 2006. Raised on a farm in northeastern Wisconsin, she had been told her entire life that as a woman, she could choose from one of a palate of three options: secretary, teacher, or nurse. She ended up becoming a college nursing instructor, figuring two out of three wasn’t too bad. By contrast, I had the thoroughly middle class privilege of pursuing a liberal arts education and going on to graduate school to study critical race, feminist, and queer theory and cultural geography. In the US and Canada, at least, pursuing such desires is contradictory, because although the promise of becoming a career, tenured academic in the qualitative social sciences or humanities can be quite cushy, such jobs are increasingly scarce, largely replaced by precarious contract work, or, for many Ph.D. graduates, no work at all.
But it’s also a scene about race and class, about my mother’s and my shared as well as disparate expectations about the good life, about how our lives are “supposed” to play out in relation to the state and capital. My mother and I are both white. She was able to move up the economic ladder so that my sister and I could start from a far more comfortable place than she had. She and my father moved to Wauwatosa, an overwhelmingly white suburb of Milwaukee renowned for its safety (unless you’re a Black motorist) and good public schools (which were objectively excellent, though that’s changing under the anti-public everything regime of Gov. Scott Walker, who launched his political career from Wauwatosa). My father’s father, a World War II veteran and insurance salesman went to school and bought a home on the G.I. bill. My parents got grants as well as loans to go to school. They saved money, bought a home, and sent my sister and me to college. My parents are among the hardest working people I know. But we’re also privileged in ways that have nothing to do with that hard work and everything to do with state racism. State intervention on behalf of (and to create) white middle classes to provide for basic human needs, like education and infrastructure, and rein in some of the worst of capitalism’s excesses, like predatory home loans, has never extended on anything like an equal basis to millions of people, particularly people of color and indigenous people.
Part of why I think conversations like the one I had with my mother matter is because of both the fault lines they reveal and the uneven but shared complicity they belie. My mother and I have had profoundly different class trajectories. Hers is a story of upward mobility through hard work, and mine is a story of comfortable beginnings, investing in education, and ultimately landing one of those coveted tenure-track positions after two years of precarious work. But whatever our differences – which are in some respects considerable, and in others not at all, particularly because we look uncannily alike – both my mother and I benefit from white middle class privilege. Not everyone’s hard work reaps an equal reward.
These similarities, as well as differences, take on added significance in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, in which voters of color voted in overwhelming numbers for Clinton and a majority of white voters, notoriously including white women, supported Trump (and many others protested the choice between toxic business as usual and lemming-style mass suicide by voting for a third party or staying home). The fallout from this election has seen renewed calls from activist and scholars of color to whites to “collect your cousin” or “collect your people” – to take up the work of challenging racist and xenophobic behavior from our fellow whites, including both friends and relatives, so that folks of color are not forced to take on still more educational work that puts them quite literally in harm’s way.
What would it mean for my mother and I to collect each other — not with competitiveness among whose white femininity is more injured, more precarious, more innocent, or more virtuous, but with an eye toward leveraging our shared race and class privilege in contributing to meaningful racial, gender and economic justice, beyond the horizon of electoral politics, and beyond single-issue analysis.
2016 has been cast, with far too much ease, I think, as a particularly conflictual year in the United States. If anything, perhaps the events of that year laid plain to liberal middle classes the longstanding fault lines and contradictions, the racism and patriarchy and legalized capitalist theft that is so core to life in the US, and always have been. But it did have the effect of making even more apparent to me personally, the longstanding fault lines within what passes for “the left” in the United States. Indeed, the fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination became a basis for sharp disagreement among people close and not so close to me, from different facets of my life: neighbors, left-leaning church friends, former classmates, coworkers, and my own family.
While there was tremendous variety in the positionalities of people invested in both camps (or in neither), for me, one conflict came up again, particularly on social media: disagreements with white baby boomer women, including my mother, who supported Clinton over Sanders, my imperfect but strongly preferred choice. These disagreements had a particular tenor and urgency to them, but more than that, a particular quality to their awkwardness. They were, perhaps, scenes of what Freud called transference, or new iterations of old unconscious conflicts, for each of us; perhaps my desire for recognition from my mother even made these arguments feel more fraught.
The women with whom I disagreed – people I met through political organizing, and through a fabulous progressive church – had quite literally kept me alive in high school when I was coming out. Many of them are serious antiracists doing meaningful organizing, and I knew and liked many of them too well to simply caricature them as liberal, identitarian second-wavers. I, likewise, was a little bit hard to write off as a Bernie Bro, in part because of my longstanding arguments with actual white leftists Bros about the salience of race, gender, and sexuality, and in part, because I am, as my friend Caroline puts it, “real gay.” If anything, our debates about Clinton and Sanders had a tone of a kind of mutual disappointment. When I visited home, just as Clinton was formally nominated, I was overwhelmed by how much more humane these disagreements felt offline.
My mother’s investment in Clinton had been ambivalent from the start. She had long perceived both the Obamas and the Clintons as far too, in her words, “moderate.” But Trump’s history of sexual predation, and his obvious lack of qualification to be president compared to a highly competent, if politically disappointing woman, incensed her. She also worried that Sanders would alienate middle-of-the-road voters, and ended up voting for Clinton in both the Wisconsin primary and the general election.
Still, I have found myself unable to let go of the frustration I felt with the Clinton camp. Clinton was a victim of misogyny, to be sure. But she was also, in my view, an unwise choice for a candidate, for many of the same reasons I had felt that Al Gore, Tim Kaine, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry all were: technocratic, rhetorically uninspiring, far too intimate with Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, too much baggage in Washington, better at gesturing to inclusion than at facilitating the work of substantive redistribution and social transformation.
One hopes that at some point, millennials, who have particular insight into an economy based on precarious work, given that most of us are at the bottom of it, will be listened to rather than infantilized for questioning the merits of capitalism. I was born in 1987, well after the onset of neoliberalism in the United States and I have been cajoled and shamed by liberal baby boomers of all genders into “growing up”. I’ve been told my entire politically engaged life, which began well before I could vote, to abandon progressive populists and socialists in favor of “the lesser of two evils”.
With all the contradictions that it entails for a person in my comfortable position, I am a socialist, and like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lisa Duggan and many others have pointed out, I believe that only a socialism seriously reformulated by antiracism, feminism and queer politics can deliver the social change the world needs. Though Sanders was no doubt a flawed candidate, I continue to feel that his brand of socialism would be more amenable to the forms of anti-racist, feminist and queer critique and reformulation that can actually change things, than would an Obama or Clinton-style neoliberal multicultural imperialism, which gestures to inclusion and tolerance but does little to nothing to address the economic inequality or bloated imperial military budget that conditions and fuels so much racial and sexual animus and immiseration. If anything, one might wonder whether frustration and disappointment with the unmet expectations of a first woman president would have led to social movements, much the way that frustration with the gap between the promise of Obama’s Blackness and erstwhile economic populism and the accomplishments of his administration helped make salient the claims of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. In any case, we’re all of us, liberals and socialists and anarchists and just plain pissed off weirdos, taking to the streets now in the days to come, bringing our hope and our mutual suspicion with us.
I cried when Hillary Clinton lost. It is perhaps telling that the moment I broke down came when a radio announcer asked a guest, “What message will this send to little girls who want to be leaders?” This question might have sounded strange in many parts of the world, where women have been heads of state, but for Canadians, who’ve only had one woman as Prime Minister, confronting the result of the US election, it resonated.
On November 9, my mother and I emailed, and agreed not to speak to one another on the phone, lest either of us fall apart. “The saddest part for me,” she wrote, “is that I don’t think I’ll see a woman elected president in my lifetime now – and the message this has sent to young girls and women.” Three days later, she turned 64.
A few weeks after the election, I got an email from a friend, a brilliant Trinidadian-Canadian woman, who was appalled by similar behavior on the part of her classmates. “David, why were these white girls so emotional when Donald Trump won? I’m not shocked, their white female privilege was being challenged by Trump.” I laughed and agreed.
I used to joke that Hillary Clinton reminded me of my mother. Both are white women in their sixties from the Midwest with graduate degrees, both are Scorpios, both have big smiles and can rock pantsuits, and both have taken a lot of shit. A few months later, I heard the journalist Lindy West make a similar joke.
As “firsts,” both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will retain a place in national iconography, even hagiography. They have already been sainted as trailblazers. And, however ironically, Trump, too, has long and prominently performed a kind of national archetype, an embodiment of the idea that any asshole, no matter how vulgar or brash or corrupt – or indeed, precisely because of those traits – can make it big in America. Yet as Lauren Berlant sagely pointed out two decades ago, “the over-identification with national icons evacuates people’s wisdom from the simplest judgments of everyday life”.
Liberal forms of identity politics are, of course, routinely tarred, at times rightly, both with over-identification and with its cousin, narcissism. Black Americans enamored with Obama and white women giddy about Clinton have faced the same “diagnosis”-cum-accusation. Antigay therapists – the types who think, quite the contrary to Freud, that homosexuality ought to or even can be “cured” – have long conflated homosexuality with narcissism, both on the part of homosexuals and on the part of narcissistic parents, particularly mothers who excessively identify with their sons. And of course, both baby boomers and millennials alike have been notoriously cast as “selfish” generations. And while such perspectives need to be regarded with skepticism, perhaps the question of narcissism is nevertheless a salient one.
Perhaps I cried because, on some level, I experienced the election as a kind of narcissistic injury, because I felt as though my mother, and by extension, I, had been defeated by such an odious man.
Dina Georgis offers a more generous, though no less critical, reading of liberal identity politics, one sympathetic to the inherent tragedy of foreclosure that attends speaking in such a register. Georgis regards the language of wounded identity as “shorthand for a more complicated history of injury.” In moments of transference – like my conflicts with Clinton’s politics and supporters, and my devastation by her defeat – Georgis suggests, “we might come to realize the affective toll that our social identities have had on us. We might come to think about how we have come to desire what we desire.” In that spirit, we might wonder how the injury that finds shorthand in liberal identity politics might instead find more capacious, and more dialogical forms of recognition and critique. What would it take for these conversations – among differently marginalized, but also in some key respects, similarly privileged, people – to play out under conditions that don’t feel so scarce?
In our more mutually generous moments – conversations that don’t seem to elicit either of our scarcity fears – my mother freely grants how badly off my generation has it. I credit this recognition to her empathy for her students, her keen political intuition and insight, and in part to her choice of partner. (My stepfather has all three volumes of Capital on a shelf in his office, my former bedroom. For that and other reasons, I think she did well.) I, likewise, am genuinely curious about my mother as a young adult: what it felt like to move from rural northeastern Wisconsin to Milwaukee at 17, in 1970, as a woman, with no family in the city, her persistence, her courage, her vulnerability. And then – and this is, perhaps, the most important part – we also talk about struggles other than our own, but in which we are implicated, about the work of antiracist, feminist, and economic justice movements in our community, like 9 to 5, Justice for Jay Anderson, Tosa Together and Voces de la Frontera, about what we can materially do to support that work. We disagree substantively about aspects of this work, but we continue to discuss it. The conversation, like all our persistent agreements and disagreements, is ongoing.
My fraught conversation with my mother is a drama of inheritance, a scene of competing promises and expectations of the good life, a scene about what kind of entitled queer monster my mother’s hard work created, a scene concerned with what kind of broken bankrupt world my mother’s generation has left me, of the normative whiteness and class privilege that subtend all drama. But there’s another kind of inheritance at work here. In addition to everything else, perhaps I learned both that I hold political contradiction, and how to hold political contradiction, from my mother.