How Michelle Obama Set The Tone For The Future of Politics
The Debrief: Her speech, calling for a return to decency in politics is one that Jeremy Corbyn wishes he could make, but can't. It's one that Theresa May would never make.
This week has unfolded in the shadow of Donald Trump's sexism. It hangs over Western society like a grey, misogynistic and menacing cloud which threatens to break and begin to pour, flooding us and washing away the important progress on equality which has been made in recent decades.
Yesterday, Michelle Obama gave what was, undoubtedly, the most significant speech of the entire US presidential campaign. Actually, no. It was the most significant political speech made in recent years. Her words were more important than any spilled over Brexit. Sure, that’s a grand statement but there’s no doubt in my mind about this. Her speech was the equivalent of firing chemicals at an apocalyptic cloud to stop the flood, the rhetorical equivalent of what they did in China before the Beijing Olympics to make sure it didn't rain (but less sinister and more important).
Speaking in the swing state of New Hampshire Michelle Obama demonstrated that women can deliver political rhetoric which is truly and unapologetically feminist. She did what Hillary cannot do, in part because she has to worry about being elected and not ‘putting off the men’ but also because, somewhat awkwardly, she is married to a man who has been accused of abuses of sexual power on multiple occasions.
Hillary Clinton finds herself in an impossible situation; she is bound by the convention of the era in which she went into politics: female politicians of her stature don’t show emotion or get angry for fear of being labelled ‘shrill’, ‘hormonal’ and, ultimately, unelectable. Equally she has, rightly or wrongly, been backed into a corner by both her private life and her husband’s.
Above all, though, Hillary Clinton is a victim of the crippling hypocrisy that women experience in all aspects of our lives. Who, as a woman, does not feel that they are expected to walk a social and political tight rope daily? We must show just enough emotion, but not too much. We must be strong, but not power hungry. We must be maternal, but not to the extent that it affects our work. We must be sexually attractive, but never vain. We must be smart, but not self-congratulating when we are right.
Michelle Obama might not be running for President (although I wish she were) but her speech yesterday was, in effect, a political manifesto. It set out a rubric for a more honest, passionate and human kind of politics. Her speech, calling for a return to decency in politics was one that Jeremy Corbyn wishes he could make, but can't. It was a speech that I wish Theresa May would make, but she never would. It was a speech that politics right now needed, so very much. She has demonstrated that you can, as a woman in politics, talk about the personal as political and, in turn, make the political personal. In doing so, Obama not only established herself firmly as a true champion of the feminist movement we all desperately need, she set the tone for the sort of female voices that we need in politics and public life going forward. Voices that can convey emotion without shame, provide genuine and uncontrived passion and, above all, champion decency without cynical self-interest.
If we had more women in public life perhaps there wouldn’t be such a stigma when it comes to ‘speaking like a woman,’ to showing emotion or to explicitly talking about feminism in political. If we had more women in public life – not only in politics but in the media (I'm looking at you Radio 4)- perhaps Donald Trump would never have got this far.
It’s not only women in America who have been ‘shaken to their cores’, as Obama put it, by Donald Trump’s words and deeds in recent weeks and months, it’s women across the world. More than this, she made an appeal for the state of politics in the west more generally right now: she made a truly political but nonpartisan appeal for a return to decency and dignity in public life.
In yesterday’s speech Obama didn’t name Trump once. She didn’t need to, it was clear at whom her speech was levelled. Intentionally or not, by refusing to name him her words were able to transcend their very specific and depressing contemporary context: a political rally in New Hampshire intended to save America from making a terrible decision. Her speech had far more wide ranging implications: it is a rallying cry for all women, in all countries, to make a stand against the perpetrators of sexism, those who abuse their power and those who wilfully divide people for personal gain.
‘Enough is enough’ Michelle Obama said, it ‘has got to stop right now.’
Few people are as skilful a writer or articulate an orator as Michelle Obama. I won’t attempt to paraphrase her. As she puts it:
‘This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. And it doesn’t matter what party you belong to ― Democrat, Republican, independent ― no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse.’
‘And I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any longer ― not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.’
In a year which has, shamefully, been marked by hateful and divisive political rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic Michelle Obama is leading by example.
If you haven’t already watched her speech, here are the key points:
On the Trump Tapes:
'I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted.'
On why the issues thrown up by this election are bigger than Trump:
‘It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.’
‘It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen ― something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.’
On how the media have dealt with Trump:
'Too many are treating this as just another day's headline. As if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted. As if this is normal. Just politics as usual ... This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.'
On what Trump means for masculintiny and manhood in 2016:
'To dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere.'
'We're telling our sons that it's OK to humiliate women. We're telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We're telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country.'
'If we have a president who routinely degrades women, who brags about sexually assaulting women, then how can we maintain our moral authority in the world?'
On how Trump is affecting the ongoing fight for women’s rights:
'The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and intellect, the belief that you can do anything you want to a woman — it is cruel, it's frightening, and the truth is — it hurts.'
'So many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect but here we are in 2016 and we're hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it.'
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