I keep thinking, what if John Kerry had become president?
I mean, yes, Al Gore makes the better counter-factual, considering he won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. But the 2004 election was also close. If the news about Abu Ghraib had broken not in April 2004, but six months later, who knows? If Hurricane Katrina had come a year earlier?
I think that in 50 years, the Obama presidency will be remembered for five things: 1) sort-of-universal health care; 2) an economy that moved like a Terrence Malick movie (forward, but slooooowly); 3) a scaled-down war on terror that included killing Osama bin Laden; 4) a very welcome shift toward pluralism; 5) something called “diversity shaming.” My question for today: did 4 and 5 have to go together?
The most compelling evidence for #5 was in early 2013, when President Obama named his new Cabinet selections, and elected Republicans and Fox News hosts “diversity shamed” him for not choosing enough women and people of color. When that pot has that little problem calling that kettle black, you know something’s changed in these United States of America. Would it have changed without that list of 44 presidents suddenly having someone other than a white man on it?
The Kerry presidency would have been rocked by scandal from the outset, starting with breaking news of its philandering Vice President, John Edwards. Sure, President Kerry might have brought in a new Veep – barely in time for Hurricane Katrina. But even if he’d reacted to the destruction of New Orleans better than Bush (not hard), there would have been no way for Kerry to stop the coming hurricane of bad subprime loans and overvalued derivatives markets. Raised taxes or not, scaled-down war on terror or not, 2008 was going to happen. No single party or politician was responsible for the generations of bad policies that culminated in 2008; no single party or politician could have prevented the meltdown that followed. And in every single country in the civilized world, including ours, the party then controlling the bridge was kicked off the ship.
The winner of the 2008 election, then, President John McCain, still could have been defeated in 2012 by the plucky two-term Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Could have been, yes. But that’s not really the likeliest of scenarios. More likely, McCain takes credit for a sputtering recovery of 2009-2012 that looks a lot like the one we saw, and manages to hold on to the presidency into his centenary years (or however old he is).
Where would that now leave us? No sorta-universal health care, a ramped-up war on terror, God knows what kind of economy, and…the pluralism and the diversity-shaming? I wonder about the pluralism and the diversity-shaming. Perhaps, with the internet, we would have had both, or neither.
Let’s be clear: if, under the Obama Administration, historically marginalized or underrepresented groups such as women, blacks, Latin@s, Asians, the LGBTQ community, Native Americans, Muslim Americans, and the disabled feel more included in society, then that is an unalloyed good. As one example, would gays have made as much progress in the last six years under Presidents Kerry and then McCain? Maybe. But two things suggest otherwise. California’s Proposition 8 was widely expected to pass in 2008, but Obama’s presence on the ballot galvanized the African-American vote to a far greater extent than predicted, and many have credited these “extra voters” with providing the margin against Prop 8. The loss of Prop 8 was almost a Dred Scott moment for marriage equality; suddenly, George W. Bush’s own solicitor general (and 9/11 widower) Ted Olson took on the cause almost personally, and since then, barriers have been falling. And none bigger than when the President came out in favor (however awkwardly prodded by his Vice President) of marriage equality in 2012. Obama’s announcement was a rare case of him leading/moving the polls where they should go (instead of them moving him), and it made the issue a loser for Republicans, who are suddenly all-too-eager for the Supreme Court to officially put the Defense of Marriage Act behind us.
Sometimes diversity-shaming is good, as in the case of some of the protests to spring up in reaction to events in Ferguson and New York City. The issue of police department diversification is not some ivory-tower problem; clearly, it’s a matter of life and death. So when people get outraged about a lack of pluralism amongst cops, they have a point.
But the culture of diversity-shaming goes way beyond that level of usefulness, as well documented by Slate’s “Year of Outrage” for 2014. Some of the diversity-shaming catalogued there is useful and some of it, as you can read, really just feeds the perpetual outrage machine with a series of “gotcha” moments.
Hollywood is a very visible and thorny case. In the last year, we’ve heard about a female Thor, a black Captain America, a black Human Torch, Katniss Eberdeen and her inspireds (e.g. Divergent), the announced Wonder Woman movie and all-female Ghostbusters, the Nightly Show, et cetera et cetera. In some of these cases – like the two black women who recently rose to cast member status on Saturday Night Live and the blacks cast in the new Star Wars film – it’s very clear that diversity-shaming changed the minds of certain white male power brokers (Lorne Michaels, J.J. Abrams). Should every reboot (say, of works by Tolkien, Dr. Seuss, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic material) be required to have more inclusive casts than whatever was the last version? Would it be paranoid to suggest that if the next one doesn’t, the “gotcha” outrage police will be all over it? As recently as 10 years ago, that was hardly the case. Perhaps that’s all to the good, right? Perhaps diversity-shaming makes sense for a business that claims to present our dreams and idealized images come to life. Whether through shame or not, it’s true that the products of Hollywood should look like America…and if the freak-out over the recent slate of acting Oscar nominees is evidence, that’s what America wants.
But it’s not just Hollywood. Jesse Jackson recently successfully prodded the top Silicon Valley companies to reveal certain aspects of their hiring practices – and they’ve now had to endure a round of diversity shaming from the media. The media conveniently moves the goalposts in these situations – not giving Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, or Netflix credit for all their non-Americans, and even including the subcontinent-descended as “Asians” (which they never do otherwise). Moving the goalposts is a standard aspect of diversity shaming, probably to attract more clicks. (How’s this for a click-bait headline: “Look who’s racist!!”) Crucifying internet companies for lack of diversity would demonstrate a certain internal consistency, since it’s the internet that enables all this shame-shamey-ness, if said crucifixion wasn’t led by the “legacy media” – the Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the networks, CNN, and a lot of other people who do NOT want you to know just how lily-white and male their staffs are. That’s a rich irony that Slate’s “Year in Outrage” doesn’t tell you about.
Perhaps it should go without saying that hirers need to hire the best person for the job. It’s also true that the best person for the job is often far from clear-cut – most non-scientific fields have a lot of leeway – and all things being equal, members of historically disenfranchised groups often bring a new perspective to the table that most corporations could use. So yes, let’s diversify. But do we need twitter campaigns that sound like righteous teenagers going “ha-ha! you’re not diverse!”
I mean, what’s next? Does Jesse Jackson start prodding the rest of America’s companies? Here are the Top 12 companies on the Fortune 500, starting with #1: Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Phillips 66, Ford, General Electric, Valero, AT&T, CVS. Would I love it if there executive management boards looked more like America? Yes? Should they hire more women and people of color, up to the point of being representative of the American population? Yes, if they can find the qualified people. (And if not, they should train them.) But should they be shamed into doing this? Should we be sitting here smirking “gotcha” if they don’t?
How much diversity shaming are the Republican candidates about to get, especially when they all stand up there on a stage together like the white-guy Rockettes? Sure, it’s a bad look. But how much gleeful “ha ha you guys are WHIIIIIIIIIIITE MALE” do they really deserve? What’s the point of that? Does it mean that none of them could possibly run the country? (I mean, okay, maybe not, but that shouldn’t be because they resemble the cast of The Longest Day.)
Sitting here in Year 7 of the Obama presidency, a lot of people wonder if he could have done more – about the Arab Spring, about the economy, about health care. Personally, I wonder if he could have somehow separated the celebration of diversity from the gratuitous “gotcha” culture of diversity-shaming. Maybe no one could have. At this point, though, I’m so sick of it that I wouldn’t mind seeing John McCain try.