Obama vs. Clinton: Identity's Violence and the Insights of Feminist Theory
This essay begins by unpacking the implications of Senator Barack Obama’s statements about the need to negotiate with ‘terrorists,’ and uses his remarks as a springboard for distinguishing an essentialized reading of identity from one that is phenomenological and performative. Subsequently, the essay examines the potentially damaging dimensions of identity politics inasmuch as the latter can be accused of fomenting violence and encouraging retrograde, utopic ideas about group cohesion. Arguing that essentialized notions of identity are problematic and politically dangerous, the essay draws on the writings of Stuart Hall and Amin Maalouf as it considers the Bush administration’s strategic reliance on an “axis of evil,” whose essentialism is paralleled by expressions of “anti-Americanism” throughout the world. Each camp proves guilty of propounding an essentialized reading of the other in ways that promote the escalation of violence. Thus, according to Hall and Maalouf, it is only through a loosening of identity’s claims that a more humane approach to politics might be achieved. Feminist scholarship has much to offer here, for the question of an essentialized female identity and the dangers that accompany its claims have long been discussed in feminist circles. Consequently, this essay then draws on the writings of Judith Butler as it illustrates the manner in which a distanced, contingent approach to identity can prove instructive to global politics. Senator Obama’s remarks about the need to negotiate reflect the insights of Butler by insisting that the label “terrorist” can only be attached to specific behaviors, and not to à priori assumptions about identity. Ironically, then, it seems that Senator Obama is more attuned to the lessons of feminist theory than his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton.
Keywords: Identity Politics, Terrorism, Feminist Theory
Dr. Mary Caputi
Professor, Department of Political Science, California State University