Doncha just love campaign season? Phones aren’t hung up promptly; scandals ensue! As a Californian, I’m naturally thinking of Whore-Gate, or the instance of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown calling the police union for an endorsement, and neglecting to hang up before an aide helpfully suggested “What about saying she’s a whore?” (The background is this: His opponent, Meg Whitman–the “she” in question–promised the police union that she’d exempt them from the pension caps she was proposing for “all” public emploees, whereas Brown is calling for cuts across the board, including police and fire. The police union endorsement had nothing to do with her being “tough on crime”; it had to do with dollars. Natch.) Anyway, back to Whore-Gate. Once that comment was leaked, Whitman was quick to pounce, calling it an “insult to the women of California.” The issue was brought up during Tuesday night’s debate, during which moderator Tom Brokaw put the issue to Brown, suggesting that the W-word is on par with the N-word. Brown disagreed with the comparison, but apologized. He was booed. Whitman retorted by saying it’s a “deeply offensive term to women,” then saying that when her campaign chairman, former CA governor Pete Wilson used the W-word in reference to Congress, “that is a completely different thing.” She was booed, too.
Wowee, right?! The fallout was equally salacious. The day after the news of the Brown-camp W-bomb was dropped, NOW announced its endorsement of him, which prompted right-wingers everywhere to proclaim that the National Organization for Women is a partisan operation. (Because, you know, men get to vote on the issues, but women can only vote for the similarly-chromosomed. Any hint of voting with something other than our vaginas suggests partisanship.) Others wrung their hands over whether the W-word is, in fact, as sexist as the N-word is racist. Some saying of course it is; others, like Salon.com’s Joan Walsh saying,
Like it or not, in the political realm the word has little sting anymore, and almost no tie to gender. Brokaw’s comparing it to the “N-word” for women was a rare misstep for the otherwise smart moderator.
I tend to agree that the word “whore” in such a context, while ugly, is not particularly sexist, but I do happen to think that ugly language deserves a comment or two at this particular moment in time. Because the thing is, words do hurt. Bullying is reportedly rampant, as are suicides of its victims. People can say and do really ugly things to each other. Look at the cases of Phoebe Prince or Tyler Clementi. Look at the ways in which Hillary Clinton has been talked about, for gods sake.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about sexism; we’re talking about pottymouth. We’re talking about the ugliness of politics, of what happens when someone who’s demonstrated zero interest in politics for the bulk of her life comes into billions of dollars, runs out of toys to buy herself and decides to buy a public office instead, breaking records on campaign spending, and swapping endorsements for favors. (Oops, did I type that out loud?)
But seriously, to suggest that the W-word in question is on par with the N-word–or “deeply offensive to women” in one instance while “a completely different thing” in another–is, quite frankly, offensive in and of itself. Splitting hairs is an insult to voters’ intelligence–and it points to the disingenuousness of Whitman’s decision to play the woman card here, despite the fact that there is precious little in her platform or proposed policy that would benefit women. Even putting that aside, claiming offense in this instance cheapens what people go through when they are the victims of truly hateful language. Politics is ugly, but not as ugly as hate. And what we have here is a non-issue, played up for drama–and votes. There’s plenty of truly offensive instances of hateful language and sexist bullshit to get pissed off about, but this is not one of them. And if you ask me, the most offensive part of the whole thing is this: California is in one hell of a mess, and in desperate need of some quality leadership. And this is what we’re talking about instead.