Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Hillary Clinton is Not Part of a Dynasty
Last uploaded : Friday 8th Feb 2008 at 09:24
Contributed by : Carol Gould



It did not escape my eye that in the same newspaper on Monday 4 February photographs of racist Spaniards covered in blackface appeared alongside images of Barack Obama rejoicing in the clamouring rainbow that is the American electorate. On Super Tuesday lily-white folks in Idaho, North Dakota and Minnesota came out in their droves to sweep him to victory in their respective states. Meanwhile in Spain, land of the Inquisition and Franco, medieval men and women chanted hideous epithets at Lewis Hamilton, a black person as dynamic as Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice. In the United States, so often reviled in the European press as a bastion of racism, twenty-first century citizens of every ethnic origin prepared for a Super Tuesday in which a man of colour, a son of Kansas and Kenya, was the projected front-runner.

As I gazed at the pictures of Spaniards taunting Hamilton, I thought of my mother, who had worked in the 1930s for the Department of Public Assistance in Philadelphia alongside her black colleague Harry Jackson, trying to better the lives of the poor. I thought of my father, who had skirted baton-wielding mounted police when he marched in the 1930s for the right of a black civil engineer to join his union.

For thirty-two years I have had to swallow hard when Europeans and Britons have berated me about the ‘racism’ of the United States. I am afraid things have moved on since the days of Jim Crow but I do not see this progress manifesting itself in Europe.

It was therefore all the more galling to read a column by Gary Younge on Monday 4 February entitled ‘In this great meritocracy, only one thing matters: who is your daddy?’ in which he postulates that family connections and entrenched wealth have shaped the destiny of America with little room for the oppressed and disenfranchised. If I am to understand the theory promulgated in the Younge screed, only white aristocrats drive the American infrastructure, through what he calls ‘a web of wealth and family connections.’

It is nothing short of astounding that Younge, a liberal black man, laments the success of the sons of the Revd Martin Luther King Jr, Jimmy Hoffa and Richard Daley, complains that Nancy Pelosi is the daughter of a congressman and moans about 5% of Senators being sons of men who held the same office. Why does this sequence of events become a grievance in the eyes of the British columnist? Is there no culture more steeped in family dynasties than that of Great Britain? The expression ‘Bob’s your uncle’ evolved from the legend of favours granted by Robert Peel to his benighted nephew.

To complain about the rise to power of Nancy Pelosi is an absurdity: her ascension to Speaker of the House is a triumph of everything Emma Lazarus extolled in her poem that adorns the Statue of Liberty: ‘give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free…’ Pelosi is the personification of the American dream and of the new spirit of 2008: she is the descendant of Italian immigrants, has risen to the top of her profession and broken the ceiling of Capitol Hill. Was Betty Boothroyd’s career achievement an aberration? I think not. It should also be pointed out that the progress of women into national politics in the United States has been a long struggle, not a thing of privilege. Bella Abzug, Maxine Waters and Eleanor Holmes Norton did not spring from a dynasty.

Many commentators have pilloried Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as an outgrowth of a dynastic trend in America. Placing her rise to prominence in the same breath with that of George Bush is absurd. To coin a cliché, she is her own woman and comes from the Rodham clan, which as far as I know has had no members in public office. Her paternal grandparents were immigrants from Britain. Osama bin Laden also warned the American people about dynasties -- he placed the Bushes into the same basket as the kings and princes of Saudi Arabia; one could say the many pundits accusing the Clintons of being part of a conspiracy to fill the halls of power into eternity are as daft in their assessment as is the malevolent Osama.

It is notable that in late January 2008 Yasmin Alibhai Brown became agitated on ’Dateline London,’ a BBC television Sunday political programme, because she was incensed that a ‘little Missy’ had pretensions to the American presidency. Thankfully the other panellists, from various countries around the world, leapt at her for saying this. She argued that Hillary Clinton had been a little Missy standing by her man and having made very few marks in her political career and accomplishing very little. Her claim to fame was her marriage to a President. Alibhai-Brown’s assessment put Hillary Clinton into the same bag as Laura Bush. The rage of the other journalists was gratifying to behold, and I shouted at the screen, ‘Yasmin, what about your fellow Muslim women -- are they authoring legislation, flying on the space shuttle and piloting aircraft as do American ‘little Missys’? I was about to appear on a television debate myself, so I set about researching Hillary Clinton’s background. Her record in the Senate since 2000 has been exemplary and her accomplishments prodigious. I watched her grill Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld with the relentless determination of a seasoned trial lawyer and knew then she could take on any world leader. Before the Senate she was an activist First Lady and before that a much-noticed First Lady of Arkansas, where she had been a formidable attorney. At Wellesley she was the first student ever allowed to deliver a Valedictory speech because was regarded as one of the most brilliant women ever to attend that college.

Younge’s editorial purports that college admissions depend on family and wealth. Yes, it costs a fortune to attend university in the United States but brilliant students have a wide choice of scholarships to which they may apply. Then there are the students like Bonnie Greer, who reminded the BBC ‘Question Time’ panel last week that she -- like me -- worked in several jobs to pay her way through college. Her comments had come during the discussion of the ‘McDonald’s A Level,’ a concept Amanda Platell finds offensive because it impedes progress in literacy. Bonnie said she had flipped many a hamburger whilst achieving a fine degree. Inasmuch as the commissioning editors at certain erstwhile British institutions have had occasion to tell me they had been ’sat’ reading my work and had told one of my trainees, ‘You done it wrong, innit?‘ I suggest a McDonald’s education alongside burger-flipping might benefit them.

Having just watched the American Super Bowl, played in a magnificent Arizona school stadium to a capacity crowd of sober, good-natured ’folks,’ and heard a succession of highly articulate professional American footballers being interviewed, it occurs to me that Gary Younge should visit an average American high school and college where will see that hundreds of thousands of children from oft-impoverished backgrounds can receive a good education alongside a sports or ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship, or both combined. When I was on the ‘Any Questions?’ panel and the subject of ASBOs came up, the audience applauded my American viewpoint: over 500,000 children are afforded superb sporting opportunities each year, and some go on to careers in politics, the sciences, law, academia, medicine and business.

But let’s get back to this idea of political ascendancy and educational privilege being dependant on one’s pedigree. For a British journalist living in America to assert that there is some sort of dynastic phenomenon that drives politics indicates that he has not stopped to read some history. Amongst the many Presidents who rose to distinction from abject poverty were Andrew Jackson, Martin van Buren, Abraham Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson. The genius Benjamin Franklin, who did not seek office, came from a humble background, as did some of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton came from anything but privileged or aristocratic stock.

I spend a lot of my time defending the academic achievements of Americans so I risk here being hoist for my own petard: in my decades in Britain the natives have constantly chastised me for defending a country of ‘hicks,’ slobs,’ idiots,’ trailer trash’ and ‘vulgar morons.’ Now we have Gary Younge telling Guardian readers that you cannot get anywhere in America unless you are part of an Ivy-league educated dynasty. Thankfully, the TIMES of London lists Princeton, Harvard,Yale and MIT amongst the greatest places of education in the world so I am vindicated in my assertion that the USA is not heaving with morons. On the other hand, it has to be said that many ‘hicks’ from the backwoods made their way from log cabins to the White House.

Finally, as a proud graduate of the prestigious and academically gruelling Philadelphia High School for Girls, I take issue -- just short of apoplexy -- with Gary Younge’s gripe about children of alumni of distinguished institutions amounting to about 21 to 25% of freshmen. Again, Gary understands so little about American academic traditions. When I collide with a middle-aged woman in Edinburgh or Paris or Cape Town and discover she is a ‘Girls’ High girl’ the first thing we do is find out if our mothers and grandmothers were GHS graduates. Sometimes I come across a Temple University graduate and we have the same conversation, that institution having been established for the children of humble immigrants. My late mother remembered being held atop her father’s shoulders in Connie Mack Stadium in 1915 when Russell H Conwell, in a legendary speech at the outset of the Great War, called Temple and its les-than affluent student body ‘diamonds in your own back yard. ‘ Most Girls’ High girls come from humble backgrounds and often from poor homes, but the criterion for entry is academic brilliance. That’s it.

And if Gary thinks it is aberrant for Americans to cherish family connections to schools and colleges, has he looked at the dynasties in Britain that boast generations of Old Etonians and Harrovians who achieve nothing of note except long nights in London clubs?

Younge’s description of Bill Clinton as a ‘bruiser with the generous Rolodex and secret service protection, race-baiting his way around the campaign trail’ is stuff and nonsense. The reason why so many African Americans still adore the Clintons is because he was regarded as ‘America’s first black President.’ Gary Younge cannot begin to comprehend how American blacks trusted Bill Clinton and how he in turn held a deep feeling of empathy with their struggle. If the Tories or Labour could produce a Clinton, Roosevelt, JFK or Woodrow Wilson, we might see ourselves out of the ASBO-filled mess we are in. Perhaps emulating, rather than denigrating the American democratic process that has seen more rags-to-riches stories than the aristocratic dictatorship Gary imagines would be of benefit to Britain at this worrying time.

Carol Gould is the author of ‘Spitfire Girls,’ about the women pilots of World War II and her new book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me, ’ about anti-Americanism in Britain and Europe, is due to be published in the UK and USA in 2008 by Social Affairs Unit/Encounter Books.

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