Frequently in politics, things that happen that you really want to weigh in on, but just aren't sure how. It's the biggest reason why people don't get involved in politics in the first place: they're complex. They're nuanced. You have to read a lot of stuff. It's intimidating. Worst of all, whatever you say, people will disagree with you, and many of them will not be nice about it.
So was the case for me when Michelle Obama was heckled by GetEQUAL protester Ellen Sturtz at a recent DNC fundraiser. To quote my colleague David Von Ebers, “I’m not in any position to comment on the racial dynamic here, but let’s just say I’m less than comfortable with a white woman lecturing the nation’s first African-American First Lady like that.” It was an awkward situation, one that hardly felt qualified to weigh in upon. Then Medea Benjamin decided to stick her nose in. It started with these:
I suppose having the brass to stand up and call out the president during his recent counterterrorism speech gave Medea Benjamin enough gumption to feel that she, as a white woman, could tell a black woman how to act and get away with it. The Internet exploded, of course. Benjamin followed it up with an article in The Guardian explaining what she considered to be 'appropriate' responses politicians and diplomats should have when dealing with people like Sturtz and herself. The calls for her head began immediately. To quote Lauren Rankin in a recent policymic.com article:
“When interviewed after being escorted out of the fundraiser, Sturtz said of the First Lady, “She came right down in my face. I was taken aback.” Interesting. Sturtz assumed that because the First Lady is supposed to be the embodiment of grace and cool, that she should stand at her lectern and silently endure what she felt was blatant disrespect. Instead, Michelle Obama decided that she had had enough and instead of shouting from across the room, spoke to Sturtz face-to-face and demanded respect. I can’t help but think that if Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush had done the same, that we would all be nodding our heads in support of the First Lady defining how she wishes to be treated.”
There's a painful irony in the fact that not only is she allowing her white privilege to override her good judgment, but the primary tactic of both her and Sturtz's organizations is willfully disrupting public political functions to push an agenda. It is the definition of rude. When you are intentionally rude to some to someone, when you intentionally disrupt a political function in order to make it about your issue, you do not get to dictate the terms under which you are treated by those you are disrupting. In fact, isn't that the whole point? To make politicians and diplomats lose their cool? To get a reaction? Mission accomplished! Now stop complaining.
|How ironic is this photo right now?|
Needless to say, Medea Benjamin's reputation took a flaming nosedive after this happened, and rightfully so. Not one to deny credit where credit is due however, allow me to speak on Medea Benjamin's behalf for one brief moment. Her actions during Obama's counterterrorism speech were powerful and impactful, a perfectly timed counterpoint to his “grand bargain” foreign policy rhetoric. To those who would cry foul at her actions that day, I would impeach upon you to instead cry foul at the rogue's gallery of cowards, liars, and apologists that we call the mainstream media who didn't dare stand up to the president as she did. Medea Benjamin is to be commended for speaking truth to power when no one else would. But all of this makes her exactly the opposite of Ellen Sturtz, who's actions were, at best, amateurish. David Von Ebers writes:
"Aside from the issue of race, I find the whole idea of heckling the spouse of a president to be an odd way to protest what the president has done or failed to do. In this instance, the heckler/protester was upset that Pres. Obama hasn’t yet signed a particular executive order, but she brought the issue to Michelle Obama as though she and the President are one and the same person; or, at the very least, as though Michelle Obama is nothing more than the President’s agent or alter ego.”
For Medea Benjamin to equate Sturtz's actions with her own is to give Sturtz credit she does not deserve. Conversation hijacking is an art form, and Sturtz is a complete hack.
All the same, I'm not going to sit here and act like the First Lady didn't just lose her cool on someone in front of a whole bunch of people, either. I’m just not sure I would have handled it any differently, which is the other reason I decided not to weigh in on what happened. After watching the video, I’m not convinced that Mrs. Obama acted inappropriately whatsoever, but she was mad, it showed, and there was no way everyone was going to react positively to it. So-called “respectability politics” (there’s nothing respectable about them) don’t allow for black people in the public eye - especially black women - to let their tempers flare, no matter how well-justified it might be. The snide comments about the First Lady’s behavior were inevitable; I just figured that, if anyone was going to weigh in with the “would have/could have/should haves”, it would have been Bill O'Reilly, not Medea Benjamin.
I’m also not sure that this story even mattered until the victim-blaming started. Kate Dries over at Jezebel sums it up perfectly:
“The whole story is now about the First Lady and how she's handled the situation, not about the Obama administration's stance and activism on gay rights, which has been, until recently, mixed. We're still talking about how Michelle handled the whole thing, and about whether she's an angry black woman. We're still talking about how her tone of voice differs from her husband's during an exchange with a heckler just a few weeks ago.”
Way to make this story about the First Lady with your faux outrage rather than about the actual issues, ladies. Seriously, you’re not helping.
More's the pity, really; both of Medea Benjamin and Ellen Sturtz are doing good work in their respective fields, and I find it doubtful that people will take either of them seriously ever again. The only person who didn't screw this one up is – you guessed it – the First Lady. In the words of Awesomely Luvvie, “don’t come for Michelle when she ain’t send for you.”