Letter from the Chair

On the presidential election and its impact on social justice concerns.

Let me say from the start that I am not a blank check Hillary Clinton supporter.  I’m not even a Democrat.  So I do have a number of concerns with her presidency, but at the same time, I think these are secondary to two fundamental issues that we as a nation are being charged with addressing in this election.  The two major and central concerns, I think, are gender and the abuse of power.  And while they are related, let me try to tease out how each has its own particular stake in this national decision—and with appeal to some Mesoamerican history.

There is a figure in “Latin American” history who has held an extremely challenging position.  Known at the time by her indigenous (Nahuatl) name, Malinalli, she has since been called “La Malinche” or “Malintzin,” depending on the perspective of the speaker telling her story.  Malinalli was the translator for Hernan Cortes—an educated woman whom he “acquired” en route to Tenochtitlan—the capital of the Aztec Empire.  This put Malinalli in an impossible position as far as history is concerned.  She had to translate all communication between Cortes and all of the different indigenous leaders he met on his way to Tenochtitlan.  She even had to translate between Cortes and Motecuhzoma himself. 

With just this information about her, it should be clear that there is absolutely no way that her role in the negotiations between Motecuhzoma and Cortes can be fairly represented today.  This is in part because of how the war eventually played out, but also very specifically because she was a woman.  Women were not held in the highest of regard by men writing histories or official documents in 16th century Europe.  And that perspective is what has influenced all early attempts to write the history of the “Conquest of New Spain.” (See also: M. Restall)  As historians and archaeologists, we have to acknowledge that the layers of bias superimposed on the role of a politically critical woman in the 16th century clash between civilizations are quite possibly impossible to render transparent.

Malinalli quite possibly will never “get a fair shake.”

The first important issue in this 2016 presidential election, in my opinion, is that Hillary Clinton—and Carly Fiorina and even Megyn Kelly—cannot “get a fair shake” either.  We as a nation have not allowed women enough opportunities to demonstrate leadership in the highest positions of authority, so we have no real models for comparison.  As a result, we often simply go to one extreme or the other.  Hillary Clinton cannot get sick, for instance, without her stamina being called into question.  How would voters react if she didn’t wear pants at a large-scale media event?  Her male competitors for political office are held in high regard for political acumen, but she is characterized as disingenuous. 

So on the one hand, this election is about a glass ceiling—not just for Clinton herself, but for our society to be able to develop a sense of what it means for a woman to “lead the free world.”

The second major issue is a little more abstract.  Donald Trump has been variously and multiply criticized for have inconsistent policies, for being unethical and for outright lying.  But I think there is also something that gets overlooked:  all of these come from the same point of origin.  Trump’s one central theme that ties all of his incongruities together is that he is committed to the abuse of power. 

I have heard locker room talk, and to some it may sound like what Trump said.  I have heard men jokingly speak about how “hot” a woman is, etc., etc.  And I admit that that sounds something like Trump’s comments, but it is not.  Trump was explicitly noting what he was capable of doing to women he found desirable because he is “a star.”  He was claiming that the privilege he enjoys from having money and from having a celebrity presence in the popular media, allows him to violate women.  “You can just do that … when you’re a star.”  This is the abuse of power, and this is what makes it different from “locker room talk.” 

Of even greater concern is the growing evidence that Trump didn’t just “talk big” about what he could hypothetically do with his privilege as a wealthy celebrity.  The evidence is growing that he acted out his threats by actually violating specific women—by abusing power.  He forced himself on women because he believed that his money and celebrity entitled him to.  Is there anything less “patriotic” or “American” than that?

And it doesn’t stop there.  He claims that as president he would terminate the employment of “so many generals” in the military.  The press has warned him and the public that this is not possible—that it goes against the checks and balances of a democratic nation.  But Trump’s view on the abuse of power—on his privilege—allows him to believe that he will in fact be able to fire them all and put in place anyone he wants. 

I think this is worth emphasizing.  This abuse of power is not just “so many words.”  It’s now widely recognized that Dick Cheney leaked (flawed) information to the press and then cited the news article reporting it to catalyze support for the Iraq War.  That was precisely an abuse of power that led to the deaths of thousands of U.S. military and tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Iraqis at the same time that it put money into Cheney’s pockets.  Trump has already used campaign donations to pay himself through his hotels and services.  He is already abusing the power he has as a candidate to profit personally.  The abuses he would be capable of as president of the U.S. are almost unthinkable.

So for those of us committed to social justice, for women, because all black lives matter—not just the ones Trump can use in a Tweet, for people of color overall, for those who raise an eyebrow at the stark contrast between the responses to Bundy’s gang and the Dakota pipeline protestors, for white men interested in having a clear conscious on November 9th, I don’t see how we get around acknowledging these two key issues, gender and the abuse of power, and letting them drive our decision.

As an educator and a scholar committed to social justice, I appeal to a collective effort to avoid a Trumpocalypse.  And if possible, let’s do so as Gayatri Spivak implores:  with a flourish.

Gerardo Aldana

Santa Barbara, CA