I was dismayed to read Randa Jarrar’s tweet yesterday. Marking the death of Barbara Bush, she wrote that she was an “amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.” Later, she doubled-down, and claimed to be happy that “the witch is dead.” While I respect Jarrar’s honestly-held opinion, and I am appalled that she might face disciplinary action or dismissal for exercising her right to free speech, I found the sentiment tasteless, and deeply offensive. Worse still was the chorus of my comrades on the left who chimed-in with their own, often gleeful condemnations.
Make no mistake: I abhor the ideas and policies of those members of the Bush family who have held political office. This family has produced two of the most disastrous presidents in American history, as well as one presidential contender who, while he might not have been quite as vile as the current president of the United States, is not really that far off.
I am hardly inclined to praise Mrs. Bush. Despite the prominence of her family in American politics and public life, she lived a private life. When she did speak to the public through the media, it was usually with anodyne comments and platitudes. I am acutely conscious that I know virtually nothing about her inner life or beliefs. I am simply not in any position to offer any kind of encomium.
Nor am I in any position to legitimately condemn her either for her beliefs or for her material impact on public policy in the United States. Nor is Jarrar, and nor are the legions of self-righteous, sanctimonious liberals, progressives, and leftists who have echoed her condemnation.
Was Barbara Bush an “amazing racist?” It is possible, but I cannot recall nor have I been able to find any account of her words or opinions that evidence this “amazing racism.” She did make the kind of tone-deaf comments typical of the white bourgeoisie; she might have held onto stupid prejudices (I don’t know, since I never met her); she certainly associated with racists. But there is no actual trace of this “amazing racism” of which Jarrar writes. I suppose one could argue that she articulated “amazing racism” in her unwillingness or inability to directly and publicly confront the racism of her associates.
But this kind of guilt by association is hardly “amazing,” and it certainly is not unique to elderly, white, bourgeois, conservative women. I know many presumably “woke” men and women on the left, including prominent leaders, people of colour, and members of subaltern communities, who have shown the same deficit of moral courage by failing to stand up to the racist, sexist, islamophobic, antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic ideas and comments of their associates.
As if that was not enough, I note a troubling inclination among many of my liberal, progressive, and leftist friends to condemn Mrs. Bush for the offenses of her husband and son. “She raised a war criminal,” some have said; others have opined that she “went along” with and benefitted from her husband’s actions as director of the CIA, Vice President, and President. Thus, the argument goes, she is responsible, in some way, for their crimes.
Setting aside that none of us know what she did in the privacy of her family home, or how a woman born into her social and cultural circumstances in 1925 conceived the possible horizons of her agency and autonomy, the fact is that this criticism is sexist and misogynistic. She is being blamed for the bad behavior of the men in her life, and not for any offense that she personally committed.
There is no other way to describe this than as the imposition of a moral and political coverture, making Mrs. Bush little more than an appendage to men.
We need to ask why we blame the mother, but rarely the father, for the upbringing of a problem child. We need to ask why we automatically assume that a married woman is culpable for the offenses of her husband. We have no idea whether, or how Mrs. Bush tried, but failed, to moderate her husband’s war-mongering ambitions; we have no idea whether, or how she tried, but failed, to guide her son. Anything anyone might say about this is, at the moment, entirely speculative, and the speculations that I have seen from many of my friends have been deeply misogynistic.
We are in the midst of a flood of self-righteous, hipster-leftism, as many of my friends, colleagues, and many people I would otherwise respect, compete to articulate their antiestablishment bona fides. It’s a contest in which they prove to all and sundry that their political commitment and ideological purity will not be constrained by anything so dreary and bourgeois as good taste and common decency. They present themselves as fitting instruments of the revolution, perfected and forged in absolute opposition to the Manichean enemy.
And it’s all such bullshit. There are no absolutes here. If Mrs. Bush was complicit by association with her family, then my friends on the left are complicit in their absolute and abject failure to address the failures and shortcomings of their own associates. The leftists I know are almost universally inclined to excuse or explain away the pervasive antisemitism of our comrades. I am guilty of the same thing, since I never confront the antisemitism that I encounter every day from my friends and colleagues on the left. If Mrs. Bush was a privileged white lady who never interrogated or subverted her racial and class privilege, then we are universally guilty of the same offense. The hierarchies are slightly different, but we glory in our uninterrogated privilege – as intellectuals, urbanites, artists, Americans, the elect of the global north, and more – just the same.
Let’s try to have a little humanity and recognize that this is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes the death of an elderly woman is just sad. Sometimes we need to recognize that people who we do not like, with whom we do not agree, and who we regard as enemies, are human beings who feel grief and loss. This is important, because when we fail to do this, we are really no better than them.