It seems as though in this election season we have hit the trifecta of “ism’s”. There have been accusations of racism where Obama is concerned, sexism where Clinton is concerned and most recently ageism where McCain is concerned. The mistake we make is lumping these three together. I see them as distinctly different.
In a class by itself is racism. The racist often has no acquaintances of the “opposite” race. His or her racist beliefs are grounded in stereotypes, what they’ve seen on TV or some extrapolation from the behavior of a select few to the larger group. Barack Obama’s candidacy shows how little racism relates to reality. He does not match negative stereotypes of African Americans. He is more like the so-called average white person than many of the white folks who discount him based on race. Racism, especially in the context of this presidential election comes up utterly absurd.
Sexism is a different animal entirely. This is not to say that sexism is defensible. It is not. However most males have had a woman in their lives. Men form their attitudes about women not only based on stereotype but very much based on behavior of role models. How did their mother behave towards them? How did their father treat their mother? How do they get along with their wife, daughter or sister? Mike Barnicle, columnist for the Boston Herald, has himself in hot water because he said several months ago that Hillary reminds every man of his first wife at probate court. Was this a nice thing to say? Certainly not. But it stems from Hillary’s then shrill manner reminding Barnicle of women he knows. The ways in which men and women relate cut deep into the male psyche. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was an emotional trigger for many men. The women in our lives have behaved in ways that serve as context for Clinton’s behavior. This form of sexism is based on behavioral experience and cannot be accurately compared to racism based on total ignorance. (It should be added that there are other forms of sexism that do compare with racism. Assumptions about women’s mental and physical capacity, or what role they should play in life are equally offensive and irrational as racist assumptions. But much of the so called sexism suffered by Hillary related to behavior and how that behavior fit into the context of how men relate to the women in their lives.)
Now we come to ageism, a whole other bag of fish. To say, based on a number, that any random individual is incapable of being a good presidential candidate is absurd. The trick with applying the age issue to McCain is that it fits. It is not ageism, it is the accurate recognition of the role age plays in McCain’s candidacy. We can put aside the fact that he shuffles when he walks and that he doesn’t cut the most convincing presidential figure. Heck, FDR was in a wheelchair. Where McCain’s age seems to play a more relevant role is in his beliefs. The man is stuck back in the 60’s. How he can make occupation of Iraq equivalent to occupation of Japan or Germany shows that he does not understand the current situation. He is applying old models to new circumstances and he does not see the mismatch. He is rightfully “confused” between Sunni and Shia because he does not recognize that the Iraq instability is not the old Korea/Germany model of communism/socialism. It is not a social problem, it is a religious problem. McCain does not get it.
Does this mean that any candidate of McCain’s age would be similarly unable to move into the 21st century? Of course not. Being old does not mean you can’t stay current. However, in McCain’s case I think it does. For McCain, his age, where he has been and what he has seen have limited his ability to be effective.
So, while we acknowledge and examine ageism, racism and sexism in this presidential race, let us not oversimplify the matter. They are not the same phenomenon, neither in their root causes nor in their application to the various candidates.