Back in 1981, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, once the more experimental half of 10cc, put out an album called Ismism, which yielded up a couple of British singles, including the lovely "Under Your Thumb," which haunts me to this day. Where G&C came up with their album title, I couldn't tell you; but today, twenty-seven years after the fact, the United States of America, ridden with various -isms of arguable to dubious to downright fraudulent provenance, is today a poster child for Ismism: we're up to here in Ismists.

The standard structure of a contemporary -ism is simple: you've got your theorists, who operate behind the walls of academia, and your enforcers, who work in politics and the mass media. While occasionally it's possible for an actual grass-roots opinion to emerge, for the most part these are top-down operations: lip service is paid to democracy, but inevitably the lesser operatives are expected, not to vote on propositions, but to wait for instructions.

And the rhetoric of a contemporary -ism is equally simple: our cause has been systematically [insert perceived wrong] by those in power, and the attitudes which produced that wrong are blatantly obvious in every single person who is not in our group. Enough people have been willing to swallow this bushwah for long enough to make industries of -isms; it's possible to make quite a nice living today as, for instance, a race pimp or as a climate-change hack.

Two thousand eight provided a so-far-unique opportunity to observe two of the -isms in conflict, and for sheer amusement value, it's hard to beat this CNN pontification from January:

Recent polls show black women are expected to make up more than a third of all Democratic voters in South Carolina's primary in five days. For these women, a unique, and most unexpected dilemma, presents itself: Should they vote their race, or should they vote their gender?

No other voting bloc in the country faces this choice. Democratic analyst Jehmu Greene says, "We've all wanted the day to come where there was a black person in the White House, where there was going to be a woman in the White House. I don't think we imagined it would be having to decide one or the other."

Greene says women, including herself, face pressure to vote their race. In the African-American community, there is a perception that race trumps gender, she says.

For sheer starkness, this sets the bar: if you don't vote for Barack Obama, you're a racist, and if you don't vote for Hillary Clinton, you're a sexist. It occurs to me that this could have been solved by running Michelle Obama instead of Barack; her credentials are only slightly less nebulous than his, and we might have been spared yet another Clinton appearance on the national stage.

And the Obamas would have proved interchangeable in one other regard: the race card is always near the top of the pack, waiting to be dealt at the first opportunity. Or maybe it's being dealt from the bottom.

With Mrs Clinton presumably out of the picture for the moment, the practitioners of sexual politics are having to concentrate on everyday sexism. And men, fearful of being Lysistratified into submission, are cowed:

[M]y new shoes were noticed, on separate occasions, by 3 adoring gentlemen. [They couldn't very well come out and say "legs", could they? I feel for them ... that was brave enough!]

Of course not. Women are a higher order of being: they do not have mere body parts, and the Neanderthals who cannot accept this must be isolated, for their own good and for the good of the collective nation as a whole.

The Ismists, convinced as they are of their essential goodness, would not be pleased to know that their signature accomplishment is decidedly devilish: they have managed to persuade much of the population that they do not actually exist, vindicating both Baudelaire (see Le Joueur généreux) and Verbal Kint. And you have to wonder if this particular blindness is peculiarly American: Ismism, that Godley & Creme album, was released Stateside under the title Snack Attack.

The Vent

  9 August 2008

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 Copyright © 2008 by Charles G. Hill