So I wrote this title a few days ago and now I can’t remember why. But what it’s leading me to think about today is power, people’s relative visibility, and the whole Joe Biden thing.
About Joe, I hate it that the stories coming out may well be political hit jobs orchestrated by opportunistic rivals. The news coverage isn’t so much about issues as it is about who’s up and who’s down. Just another sporting event.
So the discussion, in this case, is about whether Joe will be able to survive this. And maybe it’s about who’s behind the dirty politics. The focus veers away from the incidents themselves and returns to the power struggle. And more often than not (still) that struggle is between men. Currently, in the press and on social media, many folks are blaming Bernie’s supporters, if not Bernie himself, for this Biden business.
But I’m more interested in what this Biden business says about the questions that the #MeToo movement has been shining a light on. Who owns whom? Who gets to do what to whom? Who gets to draw the lines?
It’s not ‘just’ rape we’re talking about. No, it’s more nuanced and it boils down to power and visibility and boundaries. We each need to think about it. Who do I have power over? Who do I get to do things to without even thinking about it or noticing? Who do I feel okay saying no to? And who do I not?
So, what about Joe?
In this case, is Joe ‘just’ a nice, old-school guy who’s touchy and huggy? Or is he ‘creepy uncle Joe’? And, actually, couldn’t you say that ‘nice, old-school guys’ are, by today’s standards, kinda creepy sometimes? White males, and I think especially white males of Joe’s vintage and station, are so used to having power over folks that it’s often hard for them to see it. Might be power over women, or might be children. Might be power over people of color or LBGTQ folks. Might be brutal, the way it’s exercised, or it might be subtle. But it’s still in the “power over” category.
One of my experiences of this was with my grandfather. He was not my favorite person in the world, for reasons I’ve explored a lot over the years (and won’t bore you with here). One of the things he would occasionally do, especially when I was in Junior High School, was to smooth my long hair if I was within reach and he felt like it.
He’d get weirdly syrupy and talk about how he loved my hair as he ran his fingers through it. I absolutely hated it when he did that. I’d tense up and endure, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and like I was somehow giving myself away. Raised to be polite, I never said anything and I never moved away in those moments. But you can bet I kept my distance when I could.
We all, back then, bought into the trope that it was his right to do that. And the grown-ups all probably thought it was a nice thing. I felt a little mean-spirited and confused for hating it so much. But, bottom line, I felt invaded and invisible. Buried in there was a lesson learned, about boundaries and about who had the right to say no, and who had the right to do what to whom.
Those are lessons that this culture is still working to weed out and unlearn. Unlearn, that is, when we’re not being white-bread reactionary and trying to reinstate those good old Christian values that so many are nostalgic for.
Have you ever noticed how one side of that Christian values coin looks just like Mike Pence; and the flip side is the spittin’ image of Donald Trump? Yup, them’s some MAGAnificent Christian values writ large, right here in 2019.
Anyway, back to Joe Biden and his invasive touching. He is probably a more benevolent soul than my grandfather was. And he’s definitely a human of a higher order than the current POTUS. But still, are we really just going to be okay with Joe being Joe?
Here’s what I think (drumroll)…
If he has not backed off in all this time, Joe really hasn’t been listening. He hasn’t had to listen. That’s what power is about. When you are adorned with power, if you want to hear or see what isn’t of your world, you have to choose it. It’s not going to just come to you naturally. And you also have to be willing to see that the power that life has conferred on you is probably mostly an accident — not something you deserve or have earned.
So, if Joe really wanted to understand the power imbalances in our world today he’d have seen, by now, how his touch might not always be welcome (even if no one was swatting his hand away). And if he truly chose to explore and own the power afforded by his whiteness and maleness (not to mention his fame and political clout), I think he’d probably back off. I really do. Because he seems a genuinely nice guy who means well.
So what I’m left with, when it comes to Joe, is that in all these years, he really hasn’t done his homework. What I’m left with is that we are all pretty much invisible to him. I’m glad that, in his second try at apologizing, he said that he was open to listening. But I’m disappointed that he apparently hasn’t been listening, really listening, before now.