I blame Foucault

Jenny Diski

  • Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species by Laura Flanders
    Verso, 342 pp, £10.00, July 2005, ISBN 1 84467 530 0

‘W. stands for women,’ cried Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Elaine Chao and Gale Ann Norton at the 2004 Republican National Convention, and in case the Good Ol’ Boy’s good old ladies didn’t get it, a banner explained: ‘The country and my administration have benefited from the strong women who serve as senior members of my White House team.’

‘Sometimes, we complicate policy and processes so much that busy women don’t have time to sift through it all and figure out how it really matters to their lives,’ the Republican communications director said in 2003. ‘We are always striving to find women to talk about our policies . . . Women have a way of being able to boil things down for other women in a way that they can understand.’ Busy boiling things in the kitchen, that would be. Of course, W stands for quite a lot: wanker, wastrel, wanton, woodentop, warmonger, witless and, if it’s the W in the middle of George Bush’s name, terrifying.

Laura Flanders’s book – first published in early 2004, now with an updated post-election foreword – comprises biographies of the major Bush women and their doings. The title page calls it ‘Tales of a Cynical Species’, probably only unintentionally suggesting that Bushwomen are not human beings. They are, at any rate, traitors who lend their gender to the enemy to befuddle their sisters. In some cases they serve a double cause: as African American, Chinese or Latino women they betray their ethnic origins as well. (The destitute in Louisiana must have been particularly moved by Condoleezza Rice hot-footing it down South to commiserate with her fellow women and African Americans only a week after their lives were reduced to rubble by Hurricane Katrina.) None of them can be called working class, but the words immigrant, minority and ordinary are regularly applied by themselves and their party to prove that social background and gender have not hampered them in their climb (hard work and determination is all you need) to cabinet office, so what are all the bleeding-heart liberals complaining about? The rise of Condoleezza Rice hardly signifies the existence of a harmonious society, and it wouldn’t even if she had been born into a shanty town of illiterates, but in any case it was partly thanks to affirmative action that Papa Rice was assistant dean at Denver University, where Condoleezza took her first and third degrees. And although she claims that her father had no interest in direct political action against the bombers and racists of Birmingham, Alabama, John Rice made a passionate speech to the campus in 1970 to commemorate the students killed at Kent State, calling them ‘young people who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and for the cause of eliminating useless war’. He went on: ‘As I look out at you, I know that you are the educators of tomorrow, that you are the capitalists of tomorrow, that you are the businessmen and the politicians of tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, will you be the perpetuators of war or of peace? . . . Or did your brothers and sisters at Kent and Jackson State die in vain?’

Condoleezza Rice had a schoolfriend who died in the Birmingham church bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963; she also has a cousin called Connie who was brought up in the segregationist South with the same family belief that children could educate themselves out of their circumstances. Both of them did just that, after which Condi Rice chose the board of Chevron oil, the invasion of Iraq and right-wing Republicanism; Connie Rice studied law, joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and has her own views on capitalism: ‘It’s not an invisible hand, it’s an invisible penis, and my clients always get screwed.’ That’s America for you: people can grow up with similar difficulties and come to completely different conclusions about their relationship with the world.

Most of the other Bushwomen had only to struggle against their destiny and fail. Apart from Elaine Chao (an immigrant from Taiwan whose father had connections enough in China and the US to have an international shipping business up and running within three years), the remaining female members of the Bush cabinet are capitalist and/or political princesses, born into wealth and Republicanism. Nonetheless, the cry ‘if we can, anyone can’ seems to come readily from all their lips, as if being born a woman in postwar America involved having your feet bound and your vagina sewn up while you traipsed twenty miles a day carrying a leaky bucket on your head.

As policy-makers and administrators, however, they have performed no differently from their male counterparts. In the Department of Agriculture, Ann Veneman ensured that un-means-tested farm subsidies further enriched agribusiness and sent small farmers to the wall. She supported the farming industry’s call for food safety standards to be lowered, and when ConAgra sent out beef infected with E. coli, and genetically engineered corn approved only for use in animal feed turned up in Taco Bell taco shells, her undersecretary for food safety announced: ‘If people just cooked their food correctly, a lot of outbreaks would not take place.’ Veneman cancelled a ban on commercial logging and road-building on 58.5 million acres of national land, and supported the biotech industry by suggesting that the WTO take legal action against European reluctance to accept genetically altered foods: ‘The precautionary principle used in Europe is not based on objective science,’ she said. According to Flanders, Veneman’s deputy secretary at the Department of Agriculture is

a former pork industry executive; her chief of staff is a former director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. A director of the Pork Producers’ Council is undersecretary for food safety with responsibility for monitoring slaughterhouses and regulating factory farms. Undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, in charge of managing 156 national forests . . . spent nearly twenty years working for ‘big timber’ loggers. Undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services is an agribusiness consultant formerly employed by ConAgra, Monsanto, and America’s largest private company, the food processor and commodities trader Cargill.

Chao went into banking after Harvard Business School. In 1986 she became deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration in the Department of Transportation and refinanced a government ‘merchant-ship construction loan programme’ that Congress was trying to cancel because, in spite of the cheap fixed rates, several ship-owners had defaulted. The trade magazine American Shipper put her on their cover in gratitude. In 2001 she was made labour secretary by George Bush and got busy ‘trimming’ the department’s budget by, for example, cutting the funding for health and safety enforcement. She planned to make the minimum wage voluntary (in order to provide ‘choice’ for business and employees), and to increase department spending on auditing and investigating unions. In between these government offices she served on the board of directors for Northwest Airlines, Clorox, Dole Food Co, Nasdaq and HCA-Healthcare.

Gale Ann Norton began her political life on the libertarian right (radicalised by reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and in the first Bush administration was secretary of the interior. Before that, as a lawyer for the Federalist Society, she took up the cause of property rights and announced that owners should be compensated when their property lost value as a result of wetland protection or endangered species law. The burden would probably cripple environmental enforcement, she agreed. ‘I view that as something positive.’ In her successful campaign to become Colorado’s attorney-general, her funds came from Philip Morris, the Smokeless Tobacco Council and the Tobacco and Candy Political Action Campaign. When she was attorney-general, 23 states launched a suit against the tobacco companies but she refused to participate, saying that the cost of litigation would be too much for Colorado taxpayers to bear. Public pressure and an imminent payout persuaded her to join just as the cheques were being signed. As secretary of the interior, she has been responsible for a decision to permit snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and her department has ‘acceded to claims brought by Utah county officials . . . who claim that federally designated, roadless wilderness areas violate ancient cart tracks, dirt trails and other “historic” rights of way’. In her role of protector of the environment, she appointed as her special adviser on the Arctic Refuge a director of the pro-oil development group Arctic Power, and told the House Resources Committee in 2003 that in winter the refuge is ‘a great white nothing’.

These are very ugly stories, but in their self-interest, corrupt dealing, and dismissal of social or welfare concerns, Bush’s women are no different from Bush’s men. The corporate entanglements of Rumsfeld or Cheney or Bush himself are well documented. The American government works for big business. Information is freely available on the commercial connections and interests of the members of the Bush administration, and the relevance of these to the decisions they make about the environment, public safety, the invasion of Iraq and who gets the rebuilding contracts after the bombs have been dropped. Yet America, and all of us, bizarrely, incomprehensibly put up with it. This is what we should worry about, not that Rice, Chao and Veneman are female. Their gender is made use of and this can certainly be added to the bottom of the chargesheet. They soften the Republican approach to abortion by not exactly being entirely against it – sometimes. (What is to be done about an entire country that cannot use the word ‘abortion’? Even Flanders describes people as being ‘pro-choice’ or ‘anti-choice’.) Condoleezza Rice and her fellow Bushwomen (and Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair) went on emergency hypocrisy duty during the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq to tell their too morally fastidious sisters of the need to liberate the women of those countries from the oppression of the burqa by the use of daisy-cutter bombs. Flanders seems to think right-wing women worse than right-wing men on the grounds that they are there specifically to deliver the female vote. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? They are right-wing. We can’t get it into our heads that, barring some anatomy, women are very like men. Being able to write their name in the snow when they pee doesn’t entitle men to rule the world, but shaving under their arms doesn’t stop women being self-serving believers in rampant capitalism.

And what about the women voters who were persuaded by Bush’s women that the war is defensible, that the lies can be forgotten, that corporate America is entitled to destroy the planet’s ecosystem and impoverish those who are not shareholders? Bush’s support among female voters grew in the 2004 election from 43 to 48 per cent. I suppose they are scared and self-interested, just like the uncommitted men who voted for Bush. The Bush victory last year turned on a handful of minority groups running for cover: a small increase in the votes of women, African Americans, Asians and the evangelicals put Bush back in power. ‘When people are feeling insecure, they’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong than somebody who is weak and right,’ Clinton said after the high Republican vote in the mid-term elections. Here’s the real problem, and it emerges quite clearly in Flanders’s book: Bush won not because women and minorities betrayed their origins, but because there is something seriously amiss in the Democratic camp.

Kerry lost at least in part because he kept quiet on the subjects that Flanders might call women’s issues, but I would call social, welfare and moral issues. He refused to discuss the disparity of women’s pay in relation to men, or African American unemployment, or to denounce the war in Iraq. Flanders claims that he refused openly to support those things because the Republicans campaigned against him as a wimp, a ‘girly man’ who couldn’t make up his mind about anything. Don’t vote for the wuss, the Republicans warned. So Kerry stayed schtum. During the primaries ‘he actually told a roomful of Women for Kerry supporters that he didn’t want to single out female voters because that would be “pandering” to a special interest.’ Flanders suggests that he entered the macho contest set up by the Bush camp and lost: he talked down his opposition to the war, refused to admit his lifelong support for abortion and failed to offer any alternative to the global supremacy rhetoric of his opponent. He may have turned off some undecided women voters by concealing his more liberal opinions, but his real concern was the loss of male votes if he was perceived as weak and vacillating.

But although Kerry was floored by Bush’s butch strategy, the policy of not rocking the boat had already been laid down by the Democratic party: in the mid-1980s the Democratic National Committee concluded that ‘such “narrow” issues as the Equal Rights Amendment and the right to abortion had no place on the party platform.’ And, Flanders says, following the latest defeat, the Democrats are locked in an internal struggle over whether to ‘soften’ the party’s stance on abortion and reproductive rights. According to Flanders, ‘it is not possible in the USA to win only the support of the religious, the rich and the white and still be elected president.’ But the major issue at present is surely not how many women’s votes can the left get, but how far to the right is the left prepared to go to get and then stay in power?

Bushwomen is full of vital information about the present US administration, but the focus on women, Bushbaddies though they may be, deflects the bigger, nastier picture. We need to be scared and amazed by what is being done by everyone in the Bush administration in the name of freedom and democracy. What are women doing there? The same as the men. Why should they be less awful? Because women have experienced the results of social and political repression and therefore know better? By that token, Israel ought to be a pacifist haven for the dispossessed – although not for the Palestinians because Jews couldn’t possibly have dispossessed them in the first place. Because women are nicer? Maternal bodies, softer biology, testosterone-lite, womby, warmy lullabiers. Even if there were those who, irrationally and sentimentally, believed such nonsense in the days of the 1970s feminist movement, Margaret Thatcher’s reign should have put paid to that fantasy. I keep trying to get my head around the way things really are. I’ve been practising leaving the cosy unreality of the cloud-cuckoo-land which New Labour tells me I live in, and plummeting down to earth, where it’s perfectly all right for the desire for profit and power to override the rights and duties of everyone, men and women.

Reality is just what Bush’s women (and men) are trying to sort out. The mother of all Bushwomen, Barbara Bush herself, had reality at her fingertips when she spoke on a visit to the Houston Astrodome about the predicament of the refugees from New Orleans: ‘And so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them . . . What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.’

Lynne Cheney believes that American culture was turned ‘away from reason and reality’, and against ‘Truth’ itself, by something Flanders describes as I, Pierre by Michel Foucault (this must be I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, Rivière’s autobiography, composed in prison, published in 1975 together with a collection of essays on Rivière, and edited by Foucault). And, in an article entitled ‘Quietly, the First Lady builds a literary room of her own’ in the New York Times, Laura Bush assured the nation that ‘there’s nothing political about American literature.’ It’s pretty startling for us fledglings down here, feet on the ground in the real world.