Home > imagined communities > Taft on voting rights (in this case, for women)

Taft on voting rights (in this case, for women)

WIIIAI has a fascinating piece on the news 100 years ago: Pres. Taft talking about the prospects for women’s suffrage. I say it’s fascinating because it seems to point up a whole bunch of ideas that only seem to occur to people when they consider themselves to be outside the group they are discussing. This, I think, is the urge to nationalism and tribalism that comes from without – a topic that I haven’t seen discussed in nationalism scholarship, which seems mostly to be about the feelings of gemeinschaft or gesellschaft experienced by those within a group. Here:

every set of individuals who are similarly situated in the community, who are intelligent enough to know what their own interests are, are better qualified to determine how those interests shall be cared for and preserved than any other class, however altruistic that class may be.

Fine: if you have rational subjects, let them look after their own affairs. Very non-paternalistic, except for the rational bit, which excludes Hottentots or any other uneducated, altogether unintelligent class. But let’s leave him to his racism and see what he has to say about women.

…the class should as a whole care enough to look after its interests, to take part as a whole in the exercise of political power if it is conferred. Now if it does not care enough for this, then it seems to me that the danger is, if the power is conferred, that it may be exercised by that part of the class least desirable as political constituents and be neglected by many of those who are intelligent and patriotic and would be most desirable as members of the electorate.

See, I wasn’t so worried about this dividing people into classes stuff before, but he we have the very basis of us and them. And they, as a whole, should behave uniformly in a way pleasing to us (or me).  Hm. Tell me, do we do that? As a whole? Or do we tolerate dissent?

If I could be sure that women as a class in the community, including all the intelligent women most desirable as political constituents, would exercise the franchise, I should be in favor of it

So much here. That intelligent… desirable thing is an essay on its own. But let’s stick to the first classification: He says, so if gave you people the vote, all y’all better use it, see? Like if we gave you hospitals you’d better make sure everyone uses them, too.

And then it just gets bizarre; he says it’s successful when it doesn’t make a difference, that it might work OK in the country, but cities are different (!!?!??). And he concludes, as if it had anything to do with these other bits of moonshine; So you just tell the knitting circle: everyone gotta show up and let us know they insist on the vote.

My first thought is how this would sound if you applied it to other classes – say, all men, or Jews, or Arabs, or supporters of an Irish republic. And my second thought is that that’s exactly how we still treat every group we can identify as being different from ourselves. That one of the really pernicious things about nationalism, or rather this larger classificatory impulse that defines us and them, is that having allocated an imaginary unity to them, it then treats that imaginary unity as an actor, a disciplinary institution, a whip. And it is the outsider’s gaze that invents this whip, that gives it a niche, and power and a voice. That demands head-men and spokesmen. That will construct for itself, without any help but much more often with the merest skeletal and wilfully misunderstood bit of local assistance, a whole imaginary edifice of control, and then imagine that that imaginary edifice is being responsible, is accurately representing its constituents.

And then I think about Iraq (where, it seems, none of the lessons of Afghanistan were imagined to be relevant). And I think about what we call representative politics in general. And it occurs to me that I’ve been making a basic mistake, all these years, in who I thought the ideology of democracy was supposed to be for. I always thought it was aimed principally at “the people,” but now I’m suspecting it’s actually aimed at the politicians.

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