Politics & Policy

Sympathy for a Clinton

Hillary speaks with Black Lives Matter advocates. (Image: YouTube)

If ever there were an example of how remarkably poor Hillary Clinton is at the art of quotidian politics, it is this fascinating video of her encounter with a group of Black Lives Matter advocates last week. Rather than giving the impression that she cares deeply — a specialty of her husband — Clinton tends to nod hypnotically when others are speaking, only breaking the rhythm to add an “mm” or a “yes” where she intuits it is appropriate. When making her case, she has an unfortunate habit of jabbing her hands at her interlocutors, as if accusing them of something sinister. Ever the cynic, she rewrites history on the fly — in the latest footage, Clinton praises the gay-rights movement for its approach to reform, implying cleverly that she was on board with its aims all along. She has a temper, too: When she feels that she is being unfairly accused, she becomes quickly flustered and sarcastic and prone, in consequence, to gaffes. Ours is a soundbite-driven, 140-character world, and, by dint of her own incompetence, Clinton has involved herself in a rumpus that she had hoped to avoid.

There is a good reason that Clinton has thus far managed to keep her distance from the controversy that inevitably agglutinates to the question of racial injustice, and that is that for front-runners in any election, strife and negative attention can only hurt. Presumably, she will be less than thrilled that the money quote from her first serious engagement with the issue was, “I will talk only to white people.”

That being said, I can understand why she became so irritated. Having stood and listened to a group of strangers implicate her — on both professional and personal grounds — in the continuation of America’s “original sin”; having politely acquiesced to all the conceits that were thrown her way; and having broadly offered her support for the aims that were being outlined in the room, Clinton found her questioners flatly unwilling to take yes for an answer. In one sense this was the product of an earnest disagreement as to tactics: Where Clinton proposes that political action, the alteration of “systems,” and the broadening of material redistribution are the best ways of fixing the structural inequalities that Black Lives Matter laments, the group’s representatives seem to be more concerned with the spiritual. “I’m trying to put it together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it,” Clinton explained, “because in politics if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.” That, the advocates explained, isn’t good enough; instead, they wanted a “personal reflection.”

In another sense, however, Clinton was coming up hard against a perennial problem of our contemporary political world — a problem that anybody who deals with activists will recognize immediately: namely, that those who are the most deeply invested in a particular cause can often become hooked more on the fight than on achieving its stated aims. Seen this way, Clinton’s “gaffe”— which was rooted in sarcasm rather than malice — was the understandable, legitimate product of a genuine frustration with a conversation that had become farcical, circular, and impossible to effectively navigate.

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When Hillary said she accepted that the behavior of the state has been a problem and that she was in consequence hoping to transform her petitioners’ grievances into a practical policy platform, she was immediately accused of “blaming the victim” and of “telling black people what to do.” When she insisted that she was doing quite the opposite — “telling you to tell me,” in her words — she was informed that this was futile because blacks can’t know what to do, and because “there’s not much that [they] can do” even if they did know where to begin. When, utterly flummoxed, she suggested caustically that if that was the case, then she may as well speak only to white people in the future, she was predictably denounced for having missed the point. Watching the sorry affair unfold, one got the horrible impression that there was nothing she could have said that would have been good enough — up to and including offering to crucify herself on the nearest wall. All in all, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion than that the five activists involved in the contretemps sought Clinton out in order to let her know that there is nothing concrete she can do for them. Is that politics? Or is it grievance tourism at the luxury end of the market?

#related#That the exchange went down this way is a genuine shame. Not, of course, because I care one whit about Hillary Clinton’s well-being, but because there is a kernel of truth at the root of BLM’s central complaint (this was outlined well at the start of the meeting) and because this sort of behavior only obfuscates and undermines it. Had the activists who accosted her been Christian missionaries instead, their gospel would best have been characterized as one of original sin without a chance of redemption, and their intention in proselytizing would have been not to save souls but to imbue guilt. No religion that operated on such a presumption would last long in the public imagination, nor would it deserve to. Black Lives Matters will have to do better than this.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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