Fathoming People’s Emotions and Motives from Afar

Someone who works closely with Michelle Obama recently told me that Michelle is "a huge bitch."

In Lee Siegel's column about Elizabeth and John Edwards, which is stellar, he notes, "No matter how sophisticated we seem to get about social stereotypes, we fall right back into them as soon as their pleasure beckons. Elizabeth Edwards was a 'saint.' Now she’s a monstrous bitch. That’s how high-status women have been perceived for as long as anyone can remember."

Elizabeth Edwards is back in the headlines thanks to a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign where there's a chapter devoted to the Edwards' marriage. She comes off as…a monstrous bitch:

At one point during the 2004 presidential race, she “snarled” at the people who were scheduling her appearances: “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?”

To which Siegel offers the logical reply: Well, why the fuck would she?

Halperin and Heilemann [the authors] are veteran political reporters. Surely they know that such language and tantrums are as common in political campaigns as their opposite: sheer, calculated niceness.

Siegel says he doesn't defend Elizabeth's outbursts, but it's "appalling to tear her out of her context and turn on her now because we idealized her before."

What's more, deconstructing the dynamics of a relationship we have no part of is a fool's errand:

A friend of mine once said that the only two people who know what’s going on between a man and a woman are the man and the woman themselves. He was half right. The man and the woman—or man and man, woman and woman; it’s all the same—are the last to know. The idea that we can precisely fathom people’s emotions and motives is absurd. We can barely comprehend our own. Maybe pretending that we understand what makes our political figures tick is how we console ourselves for not understanding our politics at all.

11 comments on “Fathoming People’s Emotions and Motives from Afar
  • He just said “fathom people’s emotions,” full stop, but you add the “from afar” caveat. Interesting. Probably because you love dissecting people’s motives too much to come out against it in writing! I know I do. 🙂

  • Halperin and Heilemann have debased themselves by writing this book Game Change, at least the chapter on the Edwards’ marriage.

    Even the title and intro of the excerpt in New York magazine have the breathless, lurid tone of a National Enquirer cover, or dare I say it, a romance novel blurb:

    Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

    “A candidate whose aides were prepared to block him from becoming president. A wife whose virtuous image was a mirage. A mistress with a video camera. In an excerpt from the new book Game Change— their sweeping account of the 2008 campaign— the authors reveal that, inside the Edwards triangle, nothing was too crazy to be true.”

    Lee Siegel writes in his piece at the Daily Beast: “The sections about the Edwards’ marriage…are so naïve about human nature as to make the naïvete appear cynically orchestrated.”

    It’s a fair bet that the apparent naïvete was cynically orchestrated– isn’t that just the sort of disingenuous set-up we’ve been trained to expect from a long lineage of tell-all books written by meretricious mercenaries to pander to the vulgar tastes of the gossiping class?

    The idea that we can precisely fathom people’s emotions and motives may be absurd, but even dogs and cats are able to sound them out well enough to manipulate humans and get what they want from us.

    People aren’t such ciphers that we can’t impute the same base motives to them that we might occasionally exercise ourselves.

    The redeeming value I see in these exposés is that if we treat our politicians as roughly as they treat us, and give them a good reaming like this occasionally, the whorish knaves might behave better.

    Nah, who am I kidding?

    That dog won’t hunt.

  • Yes, fathoming people’s emotions from afar is tough. But in order that we can play the delicately balanced game called “life” it is important that we at least dare take a rough guess, and then react to it as we deem appropriate. This applies to judging our politicians (esp before elections) and judging other people less removed from our lives’ contexts.

    As for the perception of high-status women, well, I prefer them to be likened to a “lioness” rather than a bitch. For a bitch is not a patch on how ferociously a lioness defends and protects what is important to her – whether it is her time, her career, her family, her children or her husband, however errant he might be.

    I recently watched a docu-paean to Mr Obama made during the election campaign. Titled “By The People”. I daresay Michelle Obama came across as one who has excellent rational capacity, clear idea of her goals, understanding of compromise and brutal directness. Rather than one with only a vision and a dream (I work with entrepreneurs; I know vision and dream are necessary but they aren’t sufficient conditions to any success). Those who haven’t seen such laser-focused women may call them “bitch” but some of us know better.

  • News flash: men who are driven, single-minded and ambitious enough to succeed to that level of politics and run for president (or achieve equivalent goals), generally make, to put it bluntly, freaking lousy husbands. Everything in their domestic sphere is meant to revolve around the man and his ambition, to serve the needs of the man and his ambition (it has to, in order for that ambition to have a chance at being realized), and when things go wrong, as things inevitably do, it’s generally the significant other who takes the brunt of the criticism, frustration, etc. and is often made to feel at fault, since with whom else can the man afford to vent his frustrations? I have no doubt Michelle is tough on the people who work for her; I have no doubt that Obama, however charming, and whom she “answers to”, is equally tough on her. C’est la vie.

    And it’s not like marriage is such an easy gig to begin with.

    I’m making a gross generalization here, I realize, but my point is this: women like Michelle and Elizabeth live in high-stress environments with difficult, highly demanding (if brilliant and charismatic, etc., etc.) and often absent men, to whom they’ve undoubtedly had to sacrifice a lot of their own goals and dreams, be it for independent careers or a more ‘regular’ type of family life. And they’re expected to be gracious, smiling, grateful, humble, appreciative saints at all times. That’s their job, and it’s a full-time one for which they receive little pay or recognition, and must experience the ‘glory’ of success vicariously through someone else.

    If this society was genuinely interested in female experience and genuinely respectful of the female perspective, these women would not be turned on or torn down. They wouldn’t be idealized either. They’d be recognized as flawed (as we all are) human beings keeping it together the best way they know how, and who are in their own way as strong-willed and resourceful as their men — part of why those men got to be where they are in the first place.

  • I suppose the man and woman (or man man, woman woman), are the ones able to come closest to the truth.

    But at the same time, we tend to view our relationships emotionally, as opposed to intellectually, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, the only people who can see what’s going on for what it is, are our friends, and others outside the relationship.

  • “..we tend to view our relationships emotionally, as opposed to intellectually, for obvious reasons.”

    Au contraire, you’ll be surprised.

    The most successful relationships are driven on the day-to-day basis by the recognition that shared values and shared emotions starts the relationship but pragmatism sustains it. Reacting with emotion to the daily “sacrifices” (for want of a better word for the small compromises people make every day to keep a relationship going) is what causes trouble. Dealing calmly with daily ups and downs need one to be less emo than “intellectual”. Even sorting difficult situations needs one not to be screaming and weeping but calm and reasonable.

    Some relationships do survive daily kicking and screaming but most long-term sustained relationships have a serene calm about and inside them that comes not from absence of emotion but from knowing intellectually when to show emotion and when it is nothing but an impediment.

    BTW friends only know how to “read” emo relationships; the calm and serene ones always confound others 🙂

  • Typos galore: “a day-to-day basis” not “the day-to-day”, “start the relationship” not “starts”. Perils of not using the preview function.

  • +1.

    I think the society is interested in the female experience. But not to study and understand it. 🙂 But to frame it somehow in the context of the high profile spouse’s achievement(s) or lack thereof. Which is why most people still do not know what to do with a relationship where traditional gender roles are reversed. Esp in politics.

  • “I have no doubt that Obama, however charming, and whom she “answers to”, is equally tough on her.”

    In what alternative universe would Michelle Obama “answer to” Barack Obama, apart from her ceremonial role as First Lady?

    That’s as likely as Sarah Palin “answering to” Todd on moose hunt or in boudoir.

    I have no doubt that Barak “answers to” Michelle in the context of their relationship, the dynamics of which would not be a mystery to any husband who wants to have consensual sex with his wife.

    What makes our political figures tick isn’t a great mystery either, nor is understanding the politics of a country that’s made a totem of politicians’ hair.

    I don’t think there’s such a thing as a general “female perspective”, given the divergence of sexual expression from supposed norms in our society.

    Most of what’s really important to know about relationships or politics is understood by cats and dogs anyway.

  • “breathless, lurid tone of a National Enquirer cover”

    The Enquirer knew that Edwards was a story when the MSM was turning up its collective nose, so let’s not sneer too much.

    And why would Elizabeth Edwards hand out leaflets at WalMart? To get her husband elected, of course. Most politicans’ spouses know that this is part of the game. Mrs. Edwards, by this point in the process, was clearly fed up with the game, her husband, and the whole thing, but didn’t want to divorce him.

    Staffers consider most spouses to be bitchy, because they usually are. I think the last political wife who was nice to the hired help was Eleanor Roosevelt.

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