Umbrage Unleashed

Realism be damned, British authors have fun with names – and maybe Dickens started it. Think of Great Expectations with the naïf as the hero – Pip. He’s a real pip, and he’s madly in love, or something, with the unobtainable Estella – as in the far-off star in the heavens. Pip should have hooked up with the hometown homebody, the down-to-earth and kindhearted Biddy – but he has to deal with the impossibly intimidating lawyer, Jaggers. And his secret benefactor, who makes him a rich young gentleman, turns out to be the crude and common convict with a heart of gold – Abel Magwitch. And that’s just one novel. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge. That name just sounds right. The culture appropriated it as a marker for a certain kind of person. The names tell the story.

And J. K. Rowling, in those wildly successful Harry Potter books, tapped into the Dickens tradition, with villains like Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy, and of course Lord Voldemort – who was once Tom Riddle. And one must not forget the evil and murderous vamp, Bellatrix Lestrange. But then there is the perpetually amazed and oddly detached good friend, Luna Lovegood. Of course the Minister of Magic, the ultimate useless bureaucrat who tries to please all and seems to believe in nothing in particular, is Cornelius Fudge. His last name is almost a verb here. Rowling was having fun.

And then there’s one of the nastiest villains:

Dolores Jane Umbridge is the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her first name, relatively common in Spain, means “pains” in Spanish, and her last name is a play on the word umbrage, meaning “a feeling of anger or annoyance.” She is a short, squat woman described as resembling a large pale toad, with “short, curly, mouse-brown hair.” She speaks with a quiet, childish, high-pitched voice, and loves kittens, chocolate cakes, biscuits, tea and other cute things, decorating her office with related paraphernalia. She has a tendency to speak to people she feels are her lessers in a very condescending tone, as if they are simpletons or very young children.

And she’s power-mad and likes to torture children – physically, not figuratively – which makes her giggle. And of course she takes umbrage at everything, or pretends to, to get her way and destroy people, often just for the fun of it – simply because she can. It’s the power of being sweetly offended. Umbrage is dangerous.

And now the Cornelius Fudge of American politics, Mitt Romney, has called upon the spirit of Dolores Jane Umbridge, as this was a day filled with dangerous umbrage:

The campaign for the White House spilled into the politics of motherhood on Thursday as a combative back-and-forth involving a Democratic strategist and Mitt Romney’s wife quickly revived a deeper, decades-old cultural debate about the roles of women in and out of the workplace.

The strategist, Hilary Rosen, who has some ties to President Obama, apologized Thursday afternoon to Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mother of five, after setting off a firestorm on Twitter and cable news programs by saying that Mrs. Romney had “never worked a day in her life.”

By the end of Thursday, the most prominent voices in Washington had weighed in, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the first lady, Michelle Obama, and the president himself, who said that there is “no tougher job than being a mom” and that anyone who thinks otherwise “needs to rethink their statement.”

What Rosen actually said was this:

With respect to economic issues, I think, actually that Mitt Romney’s right that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their family and the like. But he doesn’t connect on that issue, either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country, saying, ‘Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.’ Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing, in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future.

That was not gracefully put, but, as Michael Shear and Susan Saulny note, that was the least of the problems:

The latest flare-up in the working-mother wars was fueled by the political stakes on both sides as Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama begin waging a seven-month battle for the White House. The top advisers for the campaigns see the political fortunes of their candidates intertwined with the conclusions reached by independent women in swing states across the country. Mrs. Romney has lately taken a more prominent position on the campaign trail, acting as a surrogate for her husband and reaching out to female voters, a bloc that is one of Mr. Romney’s greatest vulnerabilities.

But women of various political ideologies who said in interviews that they had struggled with how to balance work, family and society’s inevitable judgments, largely disapproved of the debate’s tone, calling it demeaning and superficial, even as the issue remains as timely a conversation as ever.

It seems no one was all that impressed with what was said, or with all the righteous umbrage being taken:

“I’m not a Mitt Romney supporter, but I think the comments about his wife were petty and unfair,” said Beth Shelton, 33, a property manager and mother who described herself as a moderate independent voter. “I was a stay-at-home mom for nine years. Working at home is hard. Working at an office is hard. There’s no way to say what’s easier. That’s not the point.”

Ms. Shelton continued: “There are a lot of real issues right now with Republicans and women, things having to do with birth control and women’s health care. There are more important things to be talking about having to do with supporting families, from a woman’s perspective.”

But the Republicans had to run with this:

Appearing on Fox News on Thursday, Mrs. Romney stressed that she, too, had known struggles. But given that Mr. Romney’s wealth is estimated at $250 million, she acknowledged that her struggles had not been financial. This combustible nature of the gaffe bears some resemblance to what is now known as Mr. Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch moment. A Romney aide mentioned the toy last month to describe how the campaign would pivot to the general election, and Mr. Romney’s opponents seized on the comment for days, to bash him as inconsistent.

In this case, Mr. Romney’s campaign has used the controversy to raise money. In an e-mail titled “War on Moms,” Beth Myers, Mr. Romney’s former chief of staff, asked for $6 in exchange for a “Moms Drive the Economy” bumper sticker. “If you’re a stay-at-home mom, the Democrats have a message for you: you’ve never worked a day in your life,” the e-mail said. “America deserves a president who will bring us together – not pit us against each other.”

And Obama’s team had to respond – hey, Rosen is not a paid adviser to the campaign or to the Democratic National Committee. She’s a civilian, and anyway we disagree with her – family should be off-limits here, and Rosen should apologize. And Rosen did. But the damage was done, if there was damage. See Obama Rejects Rosen’s Comments on Ann Romney – the assumption was this was a big deal. Also see Conservatives Attack Hilary Rosen for Raising Children as a Lesbian – it got nasty. The idea was to get as much mileage out of this as possible. It’s the damned lesbians everywhere. Watch for those bumper stickers too.

But there’s James Downie:

Whether there’s a GOP “war on women” and whether it’s affecting Mitt Romney’s campaign is up for debate. (My short answers: yes to the first, no to the second.) Either way, Republicans clearly feel that the “war on women” issue is a problem: For evidence, look no further than their furious response to liberal pundit Hilary Rosen’s comments that Ann Romney doesn’t understand working women’s problems because she “has never worked a day in her life.” …

But more importantly, what, exactly, is Rosen’s role in the 2012 campaign? Is she an Obama adviser? No. (Though Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom “accidentally” labeled her as one.) Is she a close confidant of key Obama staff? No. (So far, conservatives have turned up exactly one article mentioning her as an actual adviser – at a health-care messaging meeting that took place three years ago.) Is she a leader either in the Democratic Party or of a liberal lobbying group? No. Has Obama or his staff expressed support for her opinion? No – in fact, three senior advisers have already criticized her. Is she a liberal talk show host, giving a platform to Obama staff or other Democrats? No. With respect to the presidential campaign, she is nothing but a person with an opinion. That’s it.

To tie so many talking heads who appear on cable every day to either campaign is a preposterous exercise, and a standard neither side of the political debate should want. If the Obama camp is responsible for Rosen, is Romney responsible for GOP Rep. Allen West’s outrageous accusation that 80 Democrats are communists? Is he responsible for Sherriff Joe Arpaio (Romney’s ’08 Arizona campaign chairman) and his birther conspiracy theories? Absolutely not. If that were the standard, the campaign would just be day after day of candidates disavowing random pundits and supporters’ comments. That Republicans feel they have to stoop to this suggests a real desperation. Let’s not let this become the new normal.

It’s too late for that. Umbrage is the new normal. See Ruth Marcus:

Hilary Rosen made a legitimate point the wrong way. Rosen – a Democratic activist, CNN commentator and, full disclosure, friend of Ruth – was talking about Mitt Romney’s move to deploy his wife as official ambassador to the land of women.

But that’s a real world:

As Rosen, mother of two, well knows – and was reminded with Twitter speed Wednesday night – staying at home with the kids is the very definition of hard work. A day at the office, with no sticky little hands tugging at you, can feel like a vacation.

And Ann Romney, as she reminded us in the campaign video that touched off Rosen’s comments, stayed home with five boys. Six, she said, if you count Mitt. “Believe me, it was hard work,” Ann retorted in her first-ever tweet.

But Rosen’s fundamental point – that Ann Romney’s experience is far from typical, that she has not grappled with the economic and family issues that face many women today – remains true.

And here’s the nub of it:

You don’t have to be a combatant on either side of the Mommy Wars to recognize that Ann Romney’s privileged life experience is not typical. She’s never had to worry about the price of a gallon of gas as she filled up the Cadillacs. She is at the tail end of a generation that did not agonize over the choice of whether to stay home with the kids and from an economic platform that gave her the luxury of making that choice.

As Rosen wrote later on the Huffington Post, “Nothing in Ann Romney’s history as we have heard it – hardworking mom she may have been – leads me to believe that Mitt has chosen the right expert to get feedback on this problem he professes to be so concerned about.”

And Marcus argues Ann Romney should not be off-limits here:

When you enlist your wife for video testimonials, when you repeatedly punt to her on questions about What Women Want, it seems to me that she is decidedly on-limits. Rosen erred in her seemingly dismissive phraseology, not in talking about the candidate’s wife. Romney opened the door to that.

And Jonathan Capehart agrees:

If you bother to read Rosen’s comments you’d see that her point is that wealthy Ann Romney has been blessed to never have to work outside the home to bring the household additional income to help make ends meet. Rosen wasn’t making a commentary on whether stay-at-home mothers had real jobs. Of course, they do.

What Rosen highlighted was that Ann Romney has never faced the financial strain of holding things together while her paycheck shrinks or she loses her job or the kids need braces and there’s no money in their meager budget to pay for it. How, then, can Ann Romney advise her out-of-touch husband on the specific problems American women face?

But that’s not the point. Umbrage is the point, umbrage for advantage – taking umbrage at everything, or pretending to, to get your way and destroy people, often just for the fun of it – simply because you can. It’s the power of being sweetly offended, like in the Rowling books.

But see electablog:

Republicans know all of this, of course. They know that President Obama has done more to advance the cause of women’s equality of anyone since the last Democratic president. There is just no arguing about it.

They also know they have absolutely no way of fighting the argument that they are engaging in a war on women after they have put (or at least attempted to put in some cases) their atrocious, misogynistic, anti-woman legislative agendas in place across the USA. …

When you combine this with invasive, involuntary vaginal ultrasounds, ruling back equal pay for equal work laws, reducing access to contraception and a whole host of other things that impact women much more than men, you simply cannot argue the fact that one of the primary Republican agendas is to roll back the progress made in the rights of women wherever and whenever they can.

When you’re in that sort of defensive stance and you have no other arguments, you have to start making shit up. Any argument, no matter how lame, hypocritical, facetious and distorted it is, begins to look pretty good.

When the forces against you are bearing down and you have no real defense, even dirt clods and spit balls start to look like ammunition. And THAT is exactly what this is all about.

Ah well, as John Dickerson argues, we’re once again in the Umbrage Wars:

Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton and Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. When a critic gave Harry Truman’s daughter a bad review, he threatened to punch him in the nose. Last campaign, umbrage became a standard part of the news cycle. Now the bar for umbrage-taking has dropped and the outrage is constant. (This conclusion will no doubt offend some of you. I am both offended and apologize for that.)

We now have ongoing umbrage fests we call “wars”: the “war on women,” the “war on religion,” and he “war on moms.” There is an old rule in politics that dates back to Roman times: Democracies in the middle of multiple real wars cannot continue to manufacture fake wars about things that aren’t wars and hope to survive. What makes these fake fights burn like a summer rash is they look like real debates about real issues, but they aren’t, which is ultimately deflating. It’s like getting one of those “You Have Won” sweepstakes mailings three times a day.

Yes, it’s tiresome, so Dickerson proposes categories of political umbrage, to help you determine what’s worth paying attention to and what’s not, starting with Frivolous and Unimportant, which he says is for the political junkie only:

It’s anything that gets a lot of coverage, but doesn’t change the campaign or have a chance to. The best historical example of this is when John McCain’s campaign took umbrage when Barack Obama used the term “lipstick on a pig.” McCain surrogates on a hastily-arranged conference call claimed it was a sexist dig at Sarah Palin.

Who cared? And Dickerson puts the whole Romney Etch-a-Sketch business in that category:

Romney’s opponents said the staffer was telegraphing that Romney would try to shift every position he’d taken in the primary in his race against Obama. That wasn’t what he was saying. He was talking about an entirely familiar campaign phenomenon – that voters take a new look at candidates in the general election.

This was supposed to be “a perfect metaphor for Mitt Romney’s existing problems with constancy” but moved nothing forward. Everyone knows things change in the general election. So what? It’s best to consider his second category, the Frivolous and Noteworthy:

This category is for those that are not going to change the outcome of the race and aren’t about any actual underlying issues that affect the way people live their lives, but that participants in the race take seriously. I’ve assigned the Hilary Rosen business to this category.

The Etch-a-Sketch controversy was entirely a confection of the press on a slow news day. In this instance though, the Obama campaign reacted before the press could even flip the switch on the phony-story Wurlitzer. Two top advisers responded immediately to the perceived slight against stay-at-home mothers. Then Michelle Obama sent a Tweet. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz did too. By the end of the day the president had weighed in. …

That much activity by people at that level in such a short period of time about the comments of a person who doesn’t even work for the campaign means something is going on. This is a sign of how nervous the Obama team is about women voters. The president is 19 points ahead of Romney with women voters and he’s acting like he can’t afford to let that slip to 18.5.

Also, since one of Mitt Romney’s central claims is that President Obama is trying to manufacture fake controversies about women for political advantage (about which he is correct) it’s worth noting when Romney goes to such lengths to benefit by doing the exact same thing.

And there’s more:

This flap also marks two milestones in the campaign: the arrival of Ann Romney as a player on offense and not simply a supportive spouse. And it solidifies the role Twitter will play in the daily cut-and-thrust of politics. We can lament this development and we can make fun of it, but we should also take note of it.

But he suggests we consider his third category, the Serious but Unimportant:

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a serious piece of legislation whether you’re for or against it. The issue of pay equity and discrimination and how a government remedies those problems is also serious. Mitt Romney says he’s not going to touch the Ledbetter Act, so the Obama team’s effort to score points – through dozens of emails and a YouTube video – can largely be ignored. That the Romney campaign was caught off guard may be amusing to some but it’s a distraction. If people want to press Romney on public policy that affects women, there’s plenty to argue over in the Paul Ryan budget that Romney supports.

And then there’s the Serious and Noteworthy:

Moments in this category may not change the outcome of the election but they touch on enduring serious issues. A recent example was president Obama’s assurance to former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the election. On the one hand, he was telling a truth – that domestic politics constrains him as it does all presidents in an election year. On the other hand, people should be worried about exactly what he’s going to be more flexible about and why he’s being more candid with a rival than the people that elect him. For a candidate who spoke so much about transparency and whose campaign relentlessly hits Mitt Romney for hiding his true core, this was also a politically important moment.

So that’s the Dickerson Taxonomy of Umbrage. You need to pick your battles. After all, being perpetually outraged is probably bad for your health, and sooner or later people start looking at you funny. What’s YOUR problem?

And that may have been, in the end, what doomed Rick Santorum. Day after day he took umbrage at most everything – from Jack Kennedy to birth control to the idea of sending kids to college. For some that might have been exhilarating, initially. But then it became worrisome. He was turning into Dolores Jane Umbridge, and Rowling warned us about her. It’s the power of being sweetly offended. Umbrage is dangerous. And what Hilary Rosen said really doesn’t matter.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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