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In "A Hero of Our Time," Mikhail Lermontov the travels of Pechorin, an enigma passing through the Caucasus and leaving behind a trail of murder and heart-break. Lermontov meant the title–and the book–as trenchant social commentary: his character represents all the self-obsession, affectedness, and detachment of minor elites in early nineteenth century Russia.
As the presidential season begins in earnest, Pechorin has been on my mind. There’s one candidate who seems to fit his mold, who promises to update Lermontov’s creation, make it relevant to our day: Hillary Clinton. From the lack of principle to the internal contradictions, she has the outlines of such a protagonist. And perhaps her persona reveals some hard truths about American society.
Hillary has changed a lot during her time on the national scene. She for trade deals. Now she’s against them. She used to gender-neutral language at the State Department. Now she the Human Rights Campaign, "[T]ransgender people are valued, they are loved, they are us." She once Barack Obama for his derisive attitude toward gun culture. Now she attacks Bernie Sanders from the other side of the issue.
Questioned on her evolution, Hillary dissembles expediency as thoughtfulness. "I am not someone who stakes out a position and holds it regardless of the evidence or regardless of the way that I perceive what's happening in the world around me," she to Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd. Usually, though, this latter-day Emerson prefers to forget about her past stances.
When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency, he stirred crowds with Fleetwood Mac's rock-anthem, "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow." It's a fast-beat tune, with a booming chorus, "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." Hillary's managed to turn that refrain into an imperative. If her husband the economy for the rich and mass incarceration, Hillary presents herself as the solution to those woes. That's when she's not invoking her work in the first Clinton administration as experience that qualifies her to helm a second one. But don't hold her accountable for those policies, defenders insist: That would be sexist.
Hillary has embraced that charge with alacrity. When Sanders said that “shouting” will do nothing to solve America’s gun problems, she with a bad-faith, nonsense-on-stilts retort that connects well in this era of identity politics: "I haven’t been shouting, but sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it’s shouting." Coded language can cover for sexism. But one statement hardly proves Hillary’s point and says more about the accuser than the accused.
Worse still, it distracts from her checkered record on women’s issues. During Bill’s administration, she backed a welfare reform that millions of the fairer sex into deep poverty. Old friends from her tenure as an advocate for mothers and children on her. One of them quit a high-profile post in the Department of Health and Human Services. No matter: Aesthetics will substitute for progressive commitments.
And that’s helpful. Between the forgetting and evolving, not much remains on the résumé. In a list of seven of Hillary’s biggest accomplishments on her Web site, five items focus on things she’s said (e.g., "women’s rights are human rights") or things that anyone else could have done (e.g., getting relief money for World Trade Center first responders). It reads like a promotional for a bust-town. There’s no merit to the place, so the ad stresses the soft and vague: the friendliness of the residents, the uniqueness of the cityscape, and general promises of betterment.
That’s left to some liberal pundits a task usually reserved to Russian literature mavens: The search for the authentic self. Hillary’s, that is. In "The Nation," Michelle Goldberg to put the candidate on the couch. Hillary has always been a progressive. Right-wing operatives scarred her, and forced her to over-correct in moving to the center. She can finally emerge in the twilight of the Obama period. According to New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, Hillary’s e-mails how ordinary she is. She struggles with the fax machine, hankers for gefilte fish, and over-uses exclamation points. No one that banal could be so calculating.
Hillary is the face that launched a thousand think-pieces. But she’s greater than that. She has married the excesses of the activist left—a fixation on identity markers and terminology—with that shibboleth of corporate Democrats—value-free self-promotion. And in this synthesis, she’s become an aspirational figure to many. Whatever her fate in this election, Hillary is a hero of our time.
Daniel J. Solomon ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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