The Catharsis Campaign

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Getty Images

Let's start from the beginning.

The concept of catharsis has a powerful pre-Freudian connection to the sacred feminine. In 355 B.C., Aristotle developed the idea of collective purging in response to tragedy based on the medical term katamenia, which described reproductive fluids. Hundreds of years later, devotees of Mary Magdalene found inspiration in his idea and called themselves the Cathars. Freud adopted the term centuries later, using it to describe a gender-neutral, beneficial release of repressed emotions.


Repressed emotions, indeed. Hillary Clinton may be making the right gestures this week, taking on John McCain for his bold attempts to woo her disaffected supporters. But in embracing the idea of catharsis, Team Hillary has set the scene for the Democratic National Convention to act as a kind of mass purification ritual. The podium is the sacrificial altar; the floor to ceiling monitors, dozens of television cameras and throngs of political priests and priestesses are perfectly orchestrated for optimal alignment. Bill serves his perfunctory role as emperor. Hillary is the oracle who will perform the ritual bloodletting.

So what exactly will be purified? Will the woman down the street's house escape foreclosure? Will incarcerated mothers and fathers be returned to their families—sane, intact and ready to love? Will dead soldiers come back to life? Will Gloria Steinem recant her statements that gender trumps race and that all young women (except her own white, well-resourced protégées) are naïve? Will a black woman in Harlem be able to get a tomato without having to walk for 40 minutes?


If not, it seems that the concept of catharsis is little more than a cog in a larger political wheel whose only aim is to maintain the influence of a select and privileged few.

In the '20s, Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, manipulated what his uncle described as women's desire for a metaphoric penis by marketing cigarettes to suffragists as a signifier of empowerment. Initially, he called this work propaganda. When the term fell out of vogue, he changed it to public relations. Today, we call it marketing—cultivating irrational relationships with products by preying upon deep human desires for power, intimacy, security, respect.

In the 21st century, some women are still too easily baited by their longing for independence and power. In 2004, many voted for Nader to prove their independence. In 2008, they want to deify their feminine leader and grieve the loss of a power they assumed would change everything.

But the cool, flapper suffragist died of lung cancer, America got four more years of corruption and degradation, and the women rallying for a divisive catharsis today run the dangerous risk of undermining exactly what they claim to desire: equal pay, universal health care and an end to the war claiming their sons and daughters.


To refuse to vote for a party that produced a viable female candidate—in order to vote for a party that has not—is irrational and forces women to identify ourselves as victims of our own propaganda. Those unable to remove the veil forget that as noble as the idea of catharsis is, there's a world of difference between a multimillion-dollar spectacle and a true cathartic event with redemption, renewal and social change at its core.

No matter the outcome, John McCain is already benefiting. A new poll suggests that 27 percent of Clinton supporters say they will back McCain. It falls to Hillary to reverse that. In the penultimate tragic gesture, she must now repudiate her own message of sexism to stop the bloodletting she started.


But putting the genie back in the bottle will take a lot more than a massive display of scripted unity. Through their opportunistic appeal to white voters, subtle strumming of the chord of black man as immature "boy" and refusal to stem the sweeping rhetoric of gender politics engulfing their message, Hillary and her female chorus, including Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro, have reopened the floodgates of mistrust many, myself included, have tried to stem for decades.

No matter how stunning a spectacle Hillary Clinton's call for unity is this week, we move forward with a party weakened by an inability to pierce the façade of political theater. And one thing is certain, if the Democrats win in November, the unresolved issues raised by "Campaign Catharsis" will flow directly into the White House.


Rebecca Walker is the author of "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime for Ambivalence." Her blog on The Root is called Seeds.

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