Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head. Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire. This ad was new.

Seeing the ad for the first time on Facebook, my old feminist heart leapt at the visual of these women, all having served America either through military service (Marines, Navy or Air Force) or governmental service (CIA). They spoke of their service in combat, as leaders, in high-powered jobs and their desire to continue to serve their country through political service.

First impressions being what they are and quite frankly after forty years of the old dialogue about the “little ladies” running for office, I was blown away and amazed at this political advertisement. I smiled and re-posted it to several feminist friends and colleagues and planned to show the ad to my undergraduate students in triumph of a new wave of possible women candidates who could win with such a message.

But then, the scholar in me woke up and shoved aside the feminist and I started wondering what I would say to my students. The language of this ad was different than any other “woman’s” political ad that I had ever seen. They were using the language that is usually associated with male power. They were talking about flying combat planes, leading men and women into battle, leading men and women on a huge ship, working in a male-dominated investigation unit. The linguistic images were those of men. Hold on a minute.  Feminists have been fighting the image of nature versus nurture for hundreds of years and endless reams of scholarship attempting to level the playing field for both men and women.  Scholars like Sherry B Ortner (see her article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”) associate women’s lack of social or cultural power to the fact that women are considered closer to nature due to their ability to give birth and nurture children. Men are typically identified with the power associated with the protection of weaker women and children through aggression and battle. This political ad was using what many would consider male language. Rather than considering women equal to men, was this not a usurpation of “male” language just to get females elected?

As women have been afforded secondary status historically, this ad leaves us with an incredible predicament because women are not unilaterally one thing across the globe and when it comes to the concept of power there are even more complexities. It seems that we have finally begun to un-separate the “duties” of men and women in culture and un-tangle the gendered language used to understand what power is acceptable within culture. More importantly, what does it say if these women win in the mid-term election of 2018? Do women have to usurp the heretofore language of male “power” in order to win? What does this say about a woman who occupies a “traditional” woman’s job in culture such as school teacher, non-profit worker or librarian? Is female “power” now only afforded to those women who have “made it” in traditional male jobs such as combat or the CIA? That seems to be the message of this political ad.

When all these ideas came rushing into my head, I was suddenly mad. Minutes before, I was ready to run out and vote and champion this moment and minutes later I was grumpy and back to my typical “HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?” mood. In the long run, what happens if women win using what is considered male language, and what are the consequences?

On Beginnings: Part 14

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

“Make it seem inevitable,” Louis Pasteur advised his students preparing to publish their research, in the oft-cited apocryphal chestnut.  When we present statistical data as though the data itself harbored some perfect implicit revelation, we are doing just that.  When the data “misleads” us, we are doing that yet again.  Even the polling data Nate Silver relies on is subject to our vacillations between obstinate fealty and obstinate skepticism.  There are times, of course, when polls really do get it wrong, but it doesn’t seem to affect their credibility until the results clash with our agenda.  Or when elections that don’t turn out like we want can be deemed “flawed.”  We laud the numbers when it suits our purposes, then call compilations of those numbers tainted when they produce outcomes we consider undesirable.  Is the data “bad?”  Did we collect it imperfectly, or imperfectly interpret perfectly true information?  Are we wishy-washy?  Or is this just how we shimmy through life, alternately contesting and consenting in the service of our momentary aims?  Do we hold static views in a mutable world?  If we did, we wouldn’t have to take polls so compulsively – but we’re fickle.  We’re duplicitous.  We strategize.  Even with a constant showing of hands, a constant checking-in, political polls aren’t a reliable indication of an election outcome. Continue reading

On Beginnings: Part 12

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

Nate Silver’s methodology, to the extent he describes it, seems to be stitching together a few different types of analyses.  His aims and limits are fairly well defined:  Forecast the results of elections in various states in which a nomination process whittles the initial field of candidates down to a handful.  For each open seat, one candidate will triumph.  Silver then sets about combining political polling data, from which he derives the probabilities of his forecasts, the way you would bet on Natter Phineas to win at 6:1.  We could stop there, and chalk his success up to the inviolable laws of math.  Or we could ask a few more questions.  After all, elections don’t offer a clean analogy to sporting events, or poker, or red cars vs. blue cars.  How often are elections contests between equals?  Or contests, for that matter, at all?  I voted last week.  Of the near-dozen positions on the ballot, two were contested.  A closer examination of the 2008 senatorial election results suggests there were a great many seats in the U.S. Senate in which the incumbent was not challenged aggressively, or at all.  I don’t mean to diminish Nate Silver’s achievements.  I just want to point out that many candidates have ostensible advantages in our elections, making any survey of individual odds less clear cut than it might appear at the outset.  Nate Silver’s data analyses may work, then, because he doesn’t solely rely on them.  There are other sources of data, after all, for deriving an estimate of a candidate’s ephemeral popularity.  When polling data does not inspire an adequate level of confidence, or when the results yield no statistically significant edge to any party, you might turn to the effects of factors that may or may not be reflected in the polling data:  the exigencies of re-districting lines, political alliances and legacies, successful state and federal social or economic programs, popular scandals, infamous gaffes, (it’s so hard to choose), or any other histrionic hoo-ha of our political stage that invites the intrepid to nestle up to the glow of a wider world’s bad reality tv.

What happened this year?

Part 13 coming tomorrow morning…

It is Borders that Divide Us, as well as Our Ability to Recognize Them

Last week’s conclusion of the Canadian federal election marks another milestone in the exercise of democracy. Ballots were cast. A new party obtained a majority (of seats). The election is now over.

Opinion_Polling_during_the_2015_Canadian_Federal_Election.svg

I did not take part in that election. Despite being a Canadian citizen, I live outside the borders of the country, and I do not plan on moving back at a definite time in the future. Therefore, at least according to my reading, I am ineligible to participate in that democratic process.

My situation brings into relief Étienne Balibar’s observation about the undemocratic constitutive element of democratic nations: borders.

“They are, in sum, the point where, even in the most democratic of states, the status of a citizen returns to the condition of a “subject,” where political participation gives way to the rule of police. They are the absolutely nondemocratic, or “discretionary,” condition of democratic institutions. And it is as such that they are, most often, accepted, sanctified, and interiorized.” (author’s emphasis; We, the People of Europe: Relfections on a Transnational Citizenship. 2004, 109)

canadian-border-quebec-city-canada+1152_12866659878-tpfil02aw-29940One of the hot-button issues of the election, that of policing “barbaric cultural practices,” also brings Balibar’s observation into acute focus. Every now and then, democratic societies express the wish to recognize their borders more clearly. They ask that border-control practices circulate among themselves in order to secure their perception that their society is sacrosanct.

At such points in time, the absolutely nondemocratic condition of democracy comes into full view. And then, oftentimes in the denouement of a democracy’s crisis – the acceptance speech after an election in this case – the conditions of democracy slip into the shadows.