Saturday, April 6, 2013

Did President Obama Insult Kamala Harris?

If Kamala Harris had taken offense when the president called her “the best-looking attorney general,” that would have been news.

When was the last time a woman felt insulted at being complimented on her looks?

We have no indication that Harris found the president’s words demeaning or degrading.

The feminist thought police had another idea. Women who happily forgave Bill Clinton his serial sexual predations were outraged that Barack Obama made mention of the good looks of an accomplished professional woman.

Of course, they were defending feminist ideology more than female honor. More importantly, they were trying to establish the right and the wrong way for men to think and talk about women.

If you ask them, the thought police had no such intention. All you need do is read the latest directive from the Ministry of Correct Speech you will see, in the fine print, that men are still allowed to notice a woman’s good looks if she is going out on the town.

But then, when your highly accomplished significant female other is dressed to kill for a dance party sponsored by her company, are you or are you not allowed to tell her how beautiful she looks.

Some will say that men are allowed to say so in private, but not in public. But when you meet a woman at a meeting or a convention, and there are other people within hearing distance, is it insulting and humiliating to tell her how good she looks? 

If, for some reason the woman in question does not like having attention drawn to her looks, might she find a better reply than to go into grievance mode. 

If a woman makes an effort to try to look her best in a public event, why would it be insulting to notice?

Unfortunately, life does not take place in the fine print. Men who have heard that the president of the Unites States offered an abject apology to a woman he said was very good looking will get the message that women are offended by compliments.

More than a few males will decide that it’s not worth the trouble to differentiate between permissible and impermissible compliments. They will not want to offend women or to expose themselves to the ire of the thought police so they will take the one sure position and say nothing about how women look.

What is so wrong about telling a professional woman how good she looks? One Joan Walsh fulminated that Obama, was making Harris into an ornament. I assume that she was referring to the kind you hang on Christmas trees.

I have no idea how Walsh got from “best-looking” to Christmas tree ornament. I don’t want to know. Now, however, I find it difficult to respect Joan Walsh’s intelligence. The judgment has nothing to do with her looks.

Others who believe that the president made an egregious error have offered a Neo-Nietzschean explanation. They argue that high public office, like just about everything else, is about the exercise of power. To call a powerful woman beautiful is to take away her power by seeing her in a more aesthetic and more feminine universe. These thinkers would have it that she might want to be beautiful in the boudoir but she does not want to be seen as beautiful in the board room.

Then again, if you think POTUS as a powerful male, what does it tell us when a motley crew of feminist scolds can extract an abject apology from him in the space of a day?

Those who believe that Joan Walsh et al. do not speak for feminism or women will have some difficulty explaining why the POTUS felt a need to apologize to a bunch of unrepresentative kooks.

Serious thinkers would do well not to take Nietzsche as gospel truth. High public officials do exercise power, but they also have authority and responsibility, prestige and status. And they are called public servants.

If you think of it in terms of power you are using distinctly masculine references. Even in a time when everyone is running scared of the Ministry of Correct Speech, people speak of accomplished women as accomplished women. They even speak of strong women, but it is rare that they speak of powerful women. No one ever says that a woman is, for example, impotent.

The arguments against Obama’s spontaneous expression have been strange indeed. I have been reliably informed that Ministry of Correct Speech guidelines will only allow you to say that an accomplished woman looks good if you would say the same thing about Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

Perhaps those are not the best examples, but still the grievance mongers are arguing that when a woman walks into the world of business or politics, when she gains status and authority in the world of business or politics she must leave her womanhood at the door.

This makes no sense. Recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was in the news and on the opinion pages. If you have a moment, check out the cover picture on her book.

Don't you think she's good-looking? Apparently she suffers no gender confusion and does not feel a need to assert that she is just like the other guys.

Being a woman does not prevent her from doing her job. In some situations it can be an asset.

But, Sandberg knows something that the feminist scolds do not know: you will never gain respect if you pretend to be something you are not.

In fact, if you refuse to recognize that a woman is a still a woman when she is in the boardroom, you saying that she becomes someone else when she steps into the business world. 

When did you ever see Margaret Thatcher look anything but womanly? True enough, Lady Thatcher had leadership problems that were a function of her gender. Still, she was a great political leader. I cannot imagine her feeling aggrieved over a compliment to her looks.

I think it fair to say that Lady Thatcher took pride in her appearance, especially in suits that were, at once, suitable and womanly.

In the midst of this brouhaha one pundit dared mention that it takes time and effort for a woman to look good. That being the case, if no one is allowed to tell  a woman how good she looks, even when she is at work, she might easily be offended at the slight.

I do not need to tell you that women spend a great deal of time and energy and money putting together a look that will be right for who they are and where they are.  To imagine that a woman on the job does not want to present a womanly professional appearance is perfect nonsense.

We all know that some feminist scolds, in the person of Naomi Wolf,  have denounced the fashion and cosmetic industries for keep women subjected to the male gaze. This suggests that the women who voluntarily try to look their best are dupes of the patriarchy.

But, isn’t it insulting to tell women that they are dupes?

When a woman mentioned that Kamala Harris really does look very good and that she must have put in some serious effort on her appearance, wasn’t she saying that the president was being courteous in offering her a well-deserved compliment? If no one had noticed she would have been within her rights to feel unappreciated and even insulted. After all, no woman will appreciate the implication that she looks like a man.


Sam L. said...

"They argue that high public office, like just about everything else, is about the exercise of power. To call a powerful woman beautiful is to take away her power by seeing her in a more aesthetic and more feminine universe." Sooooooo....Complaints about Obama are about power, and not how/what he looks like. Soooo..not raaaaacist!

Calling her ugly would have been an insult. Non-descript, likewise.

Why do feminists hate attractive women? Because they themselves are not.

Anonymous said...

I'm not PC, but at 66 I can confidently say I've been a gentleman all my life. In the classic English definition, perhaps more honored in the breach. Demeaning or embarrassing a woman is unthinkable.

So is stating the obvious about her physical beauty, or assets. I've never done it. It's idiotic. At 20, I knew, that SHE knew, better than me, her precise status.

I give a pass to Brent Musberger. That was funny, and helped the young lady.

But for POTUS (or men in most cases) to do it is "bone-headed" (his term) and tasteless.

I doubt earlier generations of gentlemen did so. -- Rich Lara

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Huh.... he didn't say anything about her assets or about anything that might be remotely considered as erotic.

If a woman comes to work with a new hairdo or a new outfit, isn't it right and proper to tell her how good she looks... I think it would be more demeaning to ignore her appearance.

If you run into a woman at a party and you notice that she has taken special care to look her best, don't you tell her how good she looks?

Anonymous said...

Our President demonstrated poor etiquette. His comments were totally unnecessary. I also don't find them flattering to a public official who may (again: may) want to be taken seriously. I guess I probably sound like a ninny, like so many of the ugly, unhappy, miserable and angry, hard-core, single-issue feminists out there, but I think I'm going to take their side on this one. Probably not in shrill tone, high volume and victim-y rhetorical style, but I just think I'll side with the people who think Obama crass for what he said. It is crass. And silly. And undignified. An unforced error. Maybe he was subconsciously trying to get back at Michelle for her "single mother" comment.

My issue is with The One's use of the term "best" in his phrase "best-looking attorney general." I don't care if she's the best-looking attorney general. She could be the worst-looking attorney general and it wouldn't matter to me. I will evaluate Kamala Harris (who I've never heard of before) by the soundness of her positions and the way she enforces the law in California. What she does with her appearance is largely irrelevant to me. Case in point: Janet Reno was a lousy attorney general, and clearly looks had nothing to do with it... though I'm sure they didn't help.

Case in point: here in Michigan, our most recent governor had the looks and the assets to hold a room, no doubt about it. And Jennifer Granholm certainly used it to her advantage. But despite her being easy on the eyes, the reality was that she was a lousy governor (or governess, which is a more accurate depiction of her tone when she talked to people). Our state paid for her incompetence. You may remember her bizarre speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention... YouTube it, you'll cringe. Now she teaches at Berkeley and is a media darling, which of course the enlightened will tell you has nothing to do with her attractiveness. Whatever.

Stuart, I get your distinction about the "erotic" thing (or lack thereof), but I don't see that as the point here. I will compliment a woman I know about her fetching appearance (in whatever form) in a private way that acknowledges her for her beauty and/or the effort she put into enhancing her aesthetics. But again, this will be one-on-one... I will handle it privately. I'm not going to publicly announce her as the best-looking ______ in the country, because I know there will likely be other women around. It's just not good form. I doubt Ms. Harris was the only woman in the room. "Best" is a superlative word, by definition. It is exclusive and exclusionary. Human beings don't like to be excluded. Add words about physical appearance into the mix, and you have a combustible situation... with women especially. Good manners recommend that I not use superlatives in a public way that brings down anyone else.

Beauty is important to women, and for all kinds of reasons that needn't be listed here. It goes beyond reproductive success, though it is clearly a part of it. It's more about dignity and self-respect, which is why post-menopausal women make an effort to look nice when they go out for an evening. How you present yourself is important. Furthermore, it takes all types... there are lots of people who find lots of people attractive and unattractive for less-than-universal reasons.

Attorney general is a critical government position. I will judge the officeholder on his or her merits.

At least Obama is on the "correct side" of women's issues, fighting valiantly for the honor of American princesses everywhere. After all, there is a "war on women" afoot, with nefarious leaders who are trying to keep the American lady barefoot, pregnant and in the home. Can you imagine what kind of invective he'd receive if he were a Republican? Yeesh.


Veronica said...

Ahem! Like Stuart, I am a HUGE Miss Manners fan and noted in my comment to the last post that I was intrigued to meet a vigorous antifeminist who also happens share my Miss Manners love.

The divine Miss M noted in a book she wrote many years ago that what APPEARS on the surface to be a compliment might not actually be so - particularly the practice of implying in a business setting that a woman in that context exists for your aesthetic pleasure. Here is the page:

I don't think it was the worst thing in the world, especially since he coupled his comment with praise for her professional talents, but it was unquestionably tacky, a gaffe if you will. I would think that as a general matter of etiquette (not even feminism, but traditional etiquette) that the wisest course is to save appearance based compliments for people one is dating or related to.

Kristi said...

Veronica: I'm mystified why you would think that Miss Manners and anti-feminism wouldn't go hand in hand. Miss Manners is actually one of the most deeply conservative writers/thinkers around. Manners developed over time and include a huge reverence for traditions and cultural norms and are inherently conservative. And, typically, conservatives are anti-feminist.

I'm not saying feminists are completely without
manners, though the way they bristle at everything does indicate a lack of manners.

Veronica said...

Oops I don't think my link work, and I do think this is, as usual, a pithy and common sense response to a subject that people purport to find complicated, but really isn't. So I quote in full:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it proper for a man to compliment a woman on the beauty of her dress or the attractiveness of her jewelry? I recently heard it implied that a man's comments about a woman's attire could be construed as harassment. I have also heard some people say that even a compliment may be construed as too personal. Please enlighten me on this touchy subject.

GENTLE READER: It is a delicate subject, and Miss Manners asks you to listen carefully. She does not want you to retain the impression that it is the nice habit of complimenting - giving well-intentioned praise - that is now backfiring. What can be an insult - although it may be worded the same way as a genuine compliment - is the implication that a lady in a business situation exists for your aesthetic pleasure. Complimenting the appearance of a lady you do not know (for example, saying something on the street) is such an insult. So is diverting a business situatiion to discuss a lady's appearance (such as saying "I love your blouse" to a colleague in the midst of a professional argument). The same remark addressed to a lady with whom you have a social relationship would be a true compliment, and most welcome. A gentleman need only ask himself in what circumstances he would be pleased and when disconcerted, to be told, "I love your suit."

NOTE: This column does not address even more intimate comments such as "compliments" to a woman's overall good looks or beauty. My own inclination is that one should tread very carefully in that area and save those comments for intimates. I will say I can't even fathom a situation in which I would introduce a male colleague as the "best looking" guy in his position.

Veronica said...

Hi Kristi,

I really don't think Miss M is that conservative. She has been very strong in defending women in the professions going back to when I first started lapping up her words in the '70s. She i was a defender of the title, "Ms." back before it was at all popular or well understood. And in one of her famous columns, she was asked what to say when introduced to a gay couple: "How do you do? How do you do?"

That said, much of her advice is apolitical and I do think there is wisdom for us all to love, regardless of our political orientation. But I'm happy to claim her as one of our own, As she said on an interview on PBS, she considers herself a feminist and a lady.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I very much appreciate the subtly involved here, and thank Veronica for offering the views of that arch conservative Miss Manners. About those views, I largely agree.

Referring to a woman's appearance in the middle of a business meeting is obviously meant to distract. Telling her at the beginning of the meeting that she looks great is obviously not so bad.

I would be interested to know what Miss Manners thinks about mentioning KH's looks during a political rally.

I would mention, since no one seems to agree with me, whether anyone is comfortable being on the same side of the issue as the feminist scolds and thought police?

Perhaps Obama committed a gaffe, but the thought police want to expunge references to a woman's beauty from men's language... which feels to me like more than a gaffe.

Miss Manners is surely right, but the way these issues play out in the public mind, many men will get the message that they dare not give their wives and girlfriends a compliment on their looks under any circumstances.

Perhaps I am wrong about Obama, but the way this is going to play out in the culture wars will go beyond the question about whether BHO erred grievously in mention a woman's good looks in a political speech.

Anonymous said...

Mr. S. I admire your blog and you. I respectfully agree to disagree. I've been preternaturally sensitive to this matter all my life.

Partly because my dad was a shameless Latin Lothario, who used such blatant blandishments to further his adventures. Partly because I was a protective big brother to my 3 years younger sister.

Plus. I worked for Fed Civil Service for 40 years. The latter half of that time, Sexual Harassment standards promulgated by our Seminars grew increasingly Draconian. For men.

A male Civil Servant's life could be Ruined by what POTUS said. I was officially censured for using the word "uvula". And for describing the life cycle of the Botfly.

It's a funny old world. Best. Your buddy, Rich Lara

Dennis said...

I think this is much ado about nothing. When we reach a point where people are almost afraid to talk to each other for fear of saying the wrong thing we are beginning to close off human interaction and the ability to deal with people in an honest above board manner.
I generally don't like people who I do not know touching me, generally women, but over the years I have accepted the fact that is part of the way they communicate. If they want to take my picture with them, or hug me, tell me how good I am, then I enjoy their kind consideration. It is part of being on stage and entertaining people. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in that respect by not accepting the kindness that others bestow upon us for whatever reason.
As long as something is not meant in a sexual nature I take it for what it is, a complement. I don't much care for Obama, but here I believe he was only being complementary. Maybe not the best way to do it. This all seems to me like small nitpicks when the more important things that he, the Senate, our Representatives, the Judiciary, and government in general are doing to us. I am far more interested in what 545 people( 1 president, 535 members of Congress and 9 Supreme Court justices) are doing.
As far as I can remember the sexual harassment minefield ameliorated to a degree because a number of women were caught up in the manner in which it was promulgated. If you remember almost all EEO offices were totally run by women. I can remember one woman in HR just calling VietNam veterans every name in book because Congress in its wisdom passed the VRA and she just had no use for the "Cannon Fodder" who were the "low hanging fruit' of humanity. The dislike in Federal Service of VietNam veterans was palpable. I generally hid my military service in classes I taught in Statistical Process Control, et al or in meeting I was in with contractor on the R&D of Automated Systems. Being male and being a Vietnam veteran was like avoiding mines or those who wanted to destroy you. I never allowed myself to be in a room with a woman by myself or without the door open and I talked loudly so nothing I said to could taken out of context. Sad way to deal with people who were on the whole very nice people, but that was the distrust we all learned.

Veronica said...

In my own experience, in my 16 year career (both public and private sector), men do make comments like Obama's from time to time. I've been on the receiving end of compliments about my looks in a professional context and I've seen other women receive such compliments. In every instance I experienced or observed, the woman (including me) graciously accepted the "compliment." I think women have come so far in the professions that, in such instances, it is the man who appears rather silly and the woman has nothing to lose by responding kindly. I know my own internal response to receiving such "compliments" is embarrassment for the man and a desire to smooth over his faux pas as quickly as possible. Once after such an incident, a female colleague said to me afterwards, "I'm so sorry that happened to you," and we both exchanged an eyeroll and said something like, "Some of these guys just don't know any better." Of course, I think that dynamic is a function of how successful women have been at breaking into the professions. In, say 1965, when the position of professional women was more precarious and novel, such "compliments" from men would have had more import and more potential to undermine us.

That said, I see no harm in using the Obama incident to point out that his comment was, in fact, crass and inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

On men's retreat we heard a traditional story where the young man wants to marry a beautiful princess, and must endure all sorts of trials. The final trial is to obey her command to jump into a large crucible of hot oil. At this point one man exclaimed out loud, "That bitch!" And we all laughed. The young man survives the crucible to emerge shining like the Sun. He marries the princess and becomes king.

On retreat the point of the story is to explore its personal meaning in further conversation. I noticed many men discussing the beauty of the princess, exploring what it means to them. One of the men had driven me to the retreat, and I wanted to give him a clue about how to interpret his challenge about the beauty of the princess. I told the whole group that one way to interpret anything is to see all the roles as aspects of the self. The prince, the king, the princess, all have meaning via association with the self.

The next day the man for whom I had hoped to see his own beauty expressed to the group in tears: I never realized there is a beautiful princess inside me! I smiled at the realization of this beautiful man.

Webutante said...

Stuart, I agree with you completely. President Obama gave this woman a compliment without thinking too much about it. Most women like me would be flattered. Sad to see the thought police wanting to curtail the president's natural male response to an attractive woman.

Sam L. said...

What seems to be going on here, is that anything a man says to a woman can and will be used against him. So, as I interpret that, feminists hate men who like women, and women.

Poisoning the well of human interaction.

Gives me a better appreciation (understanding, as opposed to liking)for Rush's term "feminazi".

Dennis said...


Well stated. At some point we need to rebel against people who think they have a right to control how others speak. One of the best commentary I've seen on this is: A woman states I am pro-choice. A young man asks "Can I choose to smoke? "No, its not good for you. Can I choose a large soda? "No, its not good for you." Can I choose to own a gun? No, its not good for kids." Can I choose an incandescent bulb? "No, its not good for the planet. Can I choose low-cost coal? No, Its not good for the planet. Can I choose to honor GOD? No, that offensive. So what can I choose? An Abortion. The sad part is that one can expand on the questions asked. The more the state tries to control it's citizens the less capable it is in meeting the requirements of of doing what is in the purview of what it is supposed to do, like maybe a budget.
We are fast reaching a point where we have people who want to control speech and make a federal case out of the most innocent of comments. Communications suffers from the would be dictators of thought. As Sam L states: The poisoning of the well of human interactions. Stalin, Mao or any other dictator could not want for better ambassadors of the state.
I must admit reading some of the comments does remind me of the term "feminazi" which I here to fore thought was a little harsh. When being male becomes an offense to being an American I think we might need to re-evaluate what really is important to a country that is supposed to be steeped in freedom. The most dangerous person in the world is someone who thinks they are smarter, more compassionate, and more capable of telling people how they should lead their lives. What is smart, compassionate or better about making people slaves to the state while avoiding responsibility for one's action and better yet expecting others to pay for their mistakes and largess?

Liza said...

Such a nonsensical story to begin with. If Obama is in an apologizing mood, maybe he should direct it at our seniors and disabled individuals that he is attempting to crush.

Anonymous said...

Dennis: Spot on.

Aside from the poor manners President Obama displayed, I think my biggest frustration is with Obama's sanctimonious attitude about issues. I'd like to operate on a playing field with some fair rules. Right now, it's anything goes for everyone except conservatives.

It reminds me os something Dennis Prager says: "Being liberal means never having to say you're sorry."


Webutante said...

Thanks Dennis for your thoughtful just now getting back here today!