As the botched chances and bitter disappointments stacked up late into the fateful night of November 8, 2016, the ceiling at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan was a soaring collateral casualty. Made of steel-reinforced transparent glass and pitched 150 feet above an expansive atrium, the ceiling had been promised a starring role in Hillary Clinton’s victory speech. It was the reason Clinton’s staff had chosen the Javits Center, a hulking, I. M. Pei & Partners–designed convention cavern, for her blowout election-night bash. The first female president-elect of the United States was to sail into the atrium at some reasonable hour, preferably before midnight EST. She would then mount the stage, gesture triumphantly above her, and declare the glass ceiling figuratively shattered. Instead, as midnight came and went, Clinton huddled with advisers in a nearby hotel room, watching results roll in that, over at CNN, had Wolf Blitzer and his gobsmacked band of pundits picking their jaws up off the floor. Clinton never made it to her party, and the ceiling never got its cameo. Her supporters, some sporting gender-proud slogans on their T-shirts (“Nasty women vote”; “It’s a man’s world, but a woman should run it”) milled dejectedly around the atrium, looking not up at the ceiling, but down at their phones.
How, exactly, had this carefully choreographed moment of executive feminist triumph come so disastrously undone, after so much concerted mobilization of Democratic clout and expert planning and largesse over the past two years? To get to the bottom of this catastrophe, we must begin with the many elite-engineered catastrophes that have gone into Hillary Clinton’s storied résumé. And this requires some careful acts of historical reconstruction, since there is so much Hillary Clinton wanted us to forget. There was her role in helping to bring about the “end of welfare as we know it,” and the disastrous effects of that policy reversal on the lives of the poor. There was the 1994 Crime Bill, which she promoted from the bully pulpit of her historic mid-nineties “co-presidency,” and which coincided with an equally historic rise in mass incarceration—together with that now-infamous clip of her maligning black youth as “superpredators.” There was that ridiculous lie about sniper fire in Bosnia. And there were, of course, the entirely uncontrollable stories about her husband’s multiple dalliances.
Still, Clinton and her liberal feminist supporters wanted us to remember one key moment from that same era: her speech at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in China. Indeed, her words from that event were available for purchase, on a T-shirt designed by Tory Burch: “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.”/
This celebrated admonition to the Deng Xiaoping regime had a special meaning for Hillary Clinton back in 1995. Three years into her husband’s presidency—and one year after the GOP dramatically recaptured majorities in both houses of Congress—she was struggling with criticism of the activist role she’d played in drafting policy and setting political objectives for Bill Clinton’s White House. So the rhetorical challenge for Hillary Clinton in Beijing was to hit all the right notes in front of an entirely different audience, one assembled by the leading organization of the human rights–industrial complex. By some accounts, she succeeded. Her speech helped to reinforce her Republican-branded image as a meddlesome, unelected do-gooder, even as it went on to win her plaudits among liberal women and the mainstream press.
The speech seemed radical because she made it in a country that was not yet recognized on the world stage as a superpower and that had, in Western eyes, a long history of oppression of women and girls. In reality, however, Clinton’s oration was entirely conventional: she centered women solidly within their families, as wives, mothers, or caretakers. When she used the word “abortion,” it was not to advance the progressive causes of reproductive choice and expanded economic agency for women; instead, Clinton lamented that women were being “forced to have abortions or [were] being sterilized against their will.” Still, the newsworthy, and putatively courageous, legacy of the Beijing trip was that T-shirt-ready slogan about the universal nature of women’s rights.
Over the ensuing two decades, Clinton’s feminist credentials would come under scrutiny, especially as women—liberal and conservative alike—questioned her allegiance to a husband whose affairs and other sexual exploits were apparently legion. Others would question a feminism that eviscerated income supports and other benefits for the neediest women and children. She would go on to carve out her own formal political career, first as the junior senator from New York, then as a presidential contender and Secretary of State, and then as a harshly rebuffed major-party presidential nominee./
Throughout all her travails in the public eye, Clinton repeatedly returned to the sentiments of that Beijing speech. As detractors continued to question one or another entry in her policy portfolio, from her arch-interventionist foreign policy to her robust alliance with Wall Street, the speech was transformed into a kind of talismanic reminder that her own core feminist convictions were unassailable. Indeed, the hypnotic appeal of the Clinton image as a rebuker of Chinese patriarchy was so powerful that she retooled it in a speech she made as Secretary of State to mark International Human Rights Day in 2011 in Geneva.
For the most part, this new speech followed the rhetorical design of the earlier one: a list of abstract principles affirming the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere. But in striking contrast to the stirring sloganeering of the Beijing oration, in Geneva the Secretary of State both reached for a rather startling level of specific detail and maintained a tone that was, considering the embattled status of LGBT citizens across the globe, almost aggressively subdued. Here’s the relevant passage:
This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already under way at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.
It was unclear on whose authority Obama and Clinton would “combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct” and what was meant when she said they would “respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.”
But in 2011 the country was only four years away from legalizing gay marriage, gays and lesbians were no longer an unseen population but a powerful economic and political force, and no one—except a few of us on the radical queer left—questioned Clinton’s ominous words that plainly hinted at military retaliation. Clinton was newly enshrined as a hero of gays and lesbians everywhere.
We might ascribe Clinton’s changes in attitude to simple political calculation. Throughout her career, she tacked alongside prevailing consensus thinking: that, indeed, is how the former children’s rights attorney wound up colluding in the destruction of welfare and deriding teens of color as superpredators. (Similarly, her leaked remarks to her corporate bosses at Goldman Sachs show her endorsing the need for savvy politicos to maintain a private and a public side to every position—wisdom she attributed, fittingly enough, to liberal piety-monger Steven Spielberg’s epic cinematic celebration of backroom legislative fixing, Lincoln.) Clinton’s record on gay rights was convoluted, as PolitiFact and other fact-checkers have shown. Following her several positions over three decades was a bit like trying to learn a complicated dance step, so often did she shift, turn, and pirouette.
But crass political opportunism does not, by itself, explain Clinton’s rather dizzying dance of righteous political renewal. No, if we home in on the salience of the “rights” phrasing throughout her reformist career, we can espy a curious background logic at work here. Clinton’s positions changed, and subtly recombined, against the backdrop of a shifting political and cultural landscape—one in which “human rights” went from meaning the rights of women and children or the fairly straightforward mandate to pay for wells, roads, and schools to a larger agenda that would incorporate empire-building in a neoliberal age.
Over the decades since Clinton gave her speech, the United States in particular has seen the steady ascent of a brand of liberal feminism far more invested in ensuring that a female candidate like her propel herself through the last great glass ceiling of the presidency than in mobilizing non-elite activism at the grassroots. Increasingly, too, the rise of liberal feminism has meant a surge in carceral solutions to the issues facing women. Over and over, liberal feminists have pushed for longer incarceration sentences, whether in tackling matters like sexual harassment and assault or—disastrously for marginalized women in particular—invented offenses like “feticide.”
On campuses, for instance, instead of calling for greater awareness of how the neoliberal university thrives on the vulnerability of students, male or female, carceral feminists have chosen to expand educational institutions’ ability to surveil and punish students and even female faculty, like Laura Kipnis, accused of Title IX harassment. In response to the supposed rise of sex trafficking (an issue that has been needlessly hyped as a grave danger, despite evidence to the contrary, as sex-work activists like Laura Agustín have indicated), liberal feminists have been corralled into supporting laws that make it impossible for undocumented female migrants to gain any assistance from the state unless they first accuse the people who helped them enter the United States of trafficking. All of this has meant that liberal feminism is, by and large, also a carceral feminism: wedded to the idea that the only way to protect and preserve the rights of women is to turn to the prison–industrial complex as the final enforcer of gender justice.
The Mommy State
On September 11, 2001, we saw two things begin at once: a radical new phase in the consolidation of the national-security and surveillance state; and a newly self-confident, morally assured imperialist mission for the U.S. military. This included the invocation of warmaking as a glorified sort of human-rights crusade—as when Laura Bush famously praised the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan for protecting its women from the Taliban./
By 2008, when Clinton made her first run at the presidency, the nation—together with most of America’s global allies—was firmly settled into a new world-conquering consensus that Chase Madar has usefully called the “weaponization of human rights.” A second front in this weaponization offensive has come courtesy of our celebrity industry. We’ve witnessed, over the first decades of the millennium, the emergence of a new breed of celebrity, one who makes imperial expansion in the guise of humanitarian efforts look charitable and adventurous and, well, glamorous. Think Samantha Power, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Bono—or really, any number of the Clinton campaign’s A-list major donors. On the social front, the advent of a supposedly “post-racial” world in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election coincided with the rise of a newly professionalized sphere of “social justice” activism—which now emphatically includes the increasingly powerful LGBT community. From the 1990s onward, the mainstream of this community shifted course, trading the urgent exigencies of AIDS and health care activism for a curiously bellicose and socially conservative agenda. Its key demands were all in keeping with the neoliberal expansion of the American empire: hate crime legislation (which would increase the purview of the prison–industrial complex); the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (which would free gays to serve in an imperialist military); and gay marriage (which would in no way serve to challenge marriage’s privatizing stranglehold on health care and other rights).
The causes behind this shift were varied and complex, and included a drive toward respectability. The new generation of gay political leaders shared a manifest desire to be seated at the same table as powerful straight elites. To be fair, even as these new leaders abandoned the loud and angry anti-state activism of prior years, they took quiet aim at discriminatory practices—and they began to reckon with the legacy of the AIDS crisis, which had depleted political energy by eliminating, quite literally, bodies involved in the fight. With something of a political and cultural vacuum developing in the traditional centers of gay activism, and a rising tide of comfortable, neoliberal conservatism, the times were ripe for the ascension of a more affluent gay and lesbian community, one that sought to take its place alongside the existing moneyed elite.Now read the end at The Baffler.