Leadership After COVID: Now, It’s the Women’s Turn

Women-led nations are doing better than male-led nations in handling COVID-19.

To all the men out there who recoil at that statement, get over it. It’s true. And new research backs it up. According to a study of 194 countries by two economists based in England, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, women-led nations like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, and Finland have recorded fewer deaths than those led by men, like the United States, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Even at the local level, we can see the impact of structural patriarchy on pandemic-related policymaking. In Honolulu, for example, Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently issued an executive order opening beaches, hiking trails and parks for solo, by-yourself activities. If you’re a single mother struggling to manage a crumbling economy and your children’s virtual learning environment, forget about taking your kids to the beach for a 15-minute break.

Just drop 5-year-old Johnny off by the forest and tell him to take a hike. Baby’s first solo adventure. What could go wrong?

It’s easy to dismiss Caldwell’s decision as a lapse in judgement intended to make enforcement of social distancing requirements easier for law enforcement. Yet, one has to ask: if more women who understand the difficulties of motherhood were involved in municipal decision-making, would the executive order have looked different?

I submit that it would have and that it’s just one example of the problems that patriarchy causes in dealing with the crisis. Take two case studies in leadership, the United States and New Zealand. In the U.S., President Donald Trump is currently making headlines for reportedly downplaying the impact of the coronavirus for political effect. This comes as the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll nears 200,000 and case count surpasses 6.5 million, while the economy sputters and teachers die in prematurely reopened classrooms. This is what Trump calls “winning.”

In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern–who gave birth while running her country–immediately responded to the COVID threat by implementing measures to contain community spread. New Zealand’s borders were locked down to travelers. Her government implemented science-based actions that pivoted from managing to eliminating the disease because of testing limitations at the onset of the virus, which led to the nation being COVID-free for 100 consecutive days. To uplift the economy, New Zealand is investing NZ$175 million into arts and cultural programming and calling for the creation of thousands of green jobs.

President Trump and U.S. leaders don’t have a viable economic recovery plan. The U.S. House of Representatives–led by a woman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi–has been pushing for a major relief bill to help state governments meet their social obligations, provide a second robust stimulus payment to all residents, and deliver significant financial assistance to essential employees. But the Senate–led by a man, Sen. Mitch McConnell–is only interested in targeted relief that boosts the bottom lines of private businesses.

We can all think of women who failed at the task of leadership, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is using the COVID crisis to defund public schools and push for the institution of voucher programs. (Side question: can schools use vouchers to purchase guns to fight off potential grizzly bear attacks, as DeVos warned about during her confirmation hearing?) For further reference, see former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who adheres to the paternalistic ideology of “one-nation conservative” and is best known for her Brexit buffoonery.

Women-led nations have grappled with their legacies of patriarchy and gender discrimination thoroughly enough to entrust a female to be their national leader. That’s axiomatic, but it also suggests that those countries are open to embracing democratizing norms and policies, like economic recoveries meant to advance the common good. They’re less likely than male-dominant polities to be steeped in pandemic denialism and have their top political leaders propound COVID conspiracies, as Trump does on a daily basis.

Numerous studies have shown that women are more empathetic than men. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when female leaders implement policies that put compassion before competition. While many nations engaged in fear-mongering over immigration throughout this decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured that nearly a million refugees entering Germany were guaranteed their basic human rights. As the U.S. allows unemployment insurance to expire for tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs, Prime Minister Ardern is guiding New Zealand in implementing comprehensive wage subsidies and deferring mortgages until March 31, 2021.

Jacindamania is a direct challenge to male domination. Though the media fawns over the “resolute ordinariness of her existence,” her impact on the international political community is anything but quotidian. Her exceptional skill in flattening New Zealand’s COVID curve has positioned her as a central figure in flattening patriarchal social hierarchies. Her female counterparts in the club of national leaders are doing the same. They’re not interested in token gestures of progress. Rather, they’re crafting new models of gendered leadership that are proving–not that they need to prove anything to anyone–to be more effective in addressing the most pressing issues to today, from the coronavirus to climate change to economic inequality.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the global response to the pandemic. Our economic, political, and public health systems will be changed forever. If we want those changes to be a sign and signal of our commitment to human dignity, then we need to empower women to sit at the heads of the tables they’ve been forced to set for centuries.

They should have been sitting there all along.

From 9/11 to Donald Trump


Seventeen years ago, the United States was shaken by planes crashing into pillars of American exceptionalism. Now, our nation is struggling through the equally unyielding terror of the Trump presidency.

These two events–the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. skyline and the Trump administration’s assault on American institutions–are as entwined as the interlocking loops of a roller coaster. Following the explosions at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our elected leaders issued a clarion call to permanent war based on an endless perpetuation of political fear that echoes inside the White House today.

Every president to occupy the Oval Office since 9/11 has mined the fertile soil of fearmongering about Islamic terrorism, even those who pronounced the audacity of hope. After laying a wreath during the Pentagon memorial service, in 2010, Barack Obama marshaled the collective memory of the 184 victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the defense headquarters’ west side, saying:

The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself–all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most–to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are…Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against Al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.

Obama’s call for “common purpose” curiously included rhetorical applause for the wars being waged (to this day) in the Middle East against the communities from which the 9/11 assailants hailed. The American character of which Obama so proudly speaks is one of unparalleled military might, in which “the enemy” may be blown to pieces by a remote-controlled drone and the casualties of warfare can be counted like kills in a first-person shooter video game.

Fast forward to the present, where President Trump was elected on and ravenously reaps the political proceeds of Islamophobia. From attacks on the families of Islamic soldiers to unprecedented restrictions on immigrants from Muslim nations to a persistent Othering of non-white people as inherently violent, Trump has driven the politics of fear made possible by 9/11 to the top of the U.S.’s political war machine. He understands that our national narrative, too, was hijacked nearly two decades ago and that his claim to authority rests on sustaining trauma in our collective memory.

The way we, the people, code acts of terror has, since long before 9/11, been defined by the state. The attacks on the World Trade Center amplified the discursive hegemony of the state, however, giving national leaders new power to determine what is intelligible in national political discussions and what is rendered barbaric.

Feelings of transgression in questioning the further militarization of society since 9/11 arise out of the government’s successful cultural homogenization of the meaning of the terrorist attacks, through which the weaponization of four airplanes prefigures a permanent state of mourning that can only be alleviated through the catharsis of warfare. Thus, memorial enactments become nothing more than performances of statist authority, allowing the conditions for further action–be it familial grieving or the so-called “War on Terror”–to occur with indefinite social impunity. As Judith Butler argues:

The normative force of performativity–its power to establish what qualifies as “being”–works not only through reiteration, but through exclusion as well. And in the case of bodies, those exclusions haunt signification as its abject borders or as that which is strictly foreclosed: the unlivable, the nonnarrativizable, the traumatic (Butler, Bodies That Matter, 1994).

While Butler’s thesis refers specifically to gender and sexuality, her assertion that a formulation of identity politics simultaneously interrogates and delineates the categories it creates is equally applicable to debates surrounding the biopolitics of 9/11, whereby the failure of discursive performativity to circumscribe ontopolitical parameters induces constitutive insecurity and, subsequently, normative exclusion dissimulated beneath the illocutionary force of political speech. In other words, invocations about our shared loss only serve to build a wall between “us” and “them,” with the Western “us” only capable of existing insomuch as it is performed, over and over, as something different from the non-Western “them” that must always remain present at its borders.

Reading imperative utterances as aesthetic simulations, instead of linguistic nihilism, opens new space for the (im)possibility of 9/11 to emerge. In one sense, the attacks of 9/11 (especially those on the World Trade Center) exposed an unspoken ideal of performative hyperreality: violence becomes virtual at precisely the point that the it collapses into pathos itself, requiring mediation of the imaginary for historical signification to be fixed.

Baudrillard’s infamous argument about the Persian Gulf War–that the absence of reason for military action manifests virtual warfare or war as a managed spectacle whose outcome is predetermined–is revealed as both functional and incomplete. The hermeneutic apparatus that consecrates the spatiotemporal dimension of battle relies on the presence/absence duality inhered in power relations for mass distribution, as Baudrillard claimed, but coterminously constructs the trauma of the imaginary, specifically, as something to be destroyed. Baudrillard admitted this in 2003, saying:

The architectural object was destroyed, but it was the symbolic object which was targeted and which it was intended to demolish. One might think the physical destruction brought about the symbolic collapse. But in fact no one, not even the terrorists, had reckoned on the total destruction of the towers. It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around (Baudrillard, Requiem for the Twin Towers, 2003).

Nonetheless, the humiliation wrought by the naked baring of virtuality cannot be revisited upon the terrorists, whose capacity to incite panic is predicated upon a mass-mediated, but deliberately veiled, dissemination of panic in the service of free-flowing capital. As by-products of an aesthetic regime writ ideologically, most Americans experience, re-experience, and react to the attacks from a position of displaced space, of unstable materiality, in which newsreel images of planes crashing into buildings become a simulacrum not only for the attacks themselves, but also for the symbolic fictions unmasked by 9/11–the excesses and inequalities of global capitalism, ultra-nationalism, patriarchal statism, and the silencing of radical alterity.

It is this last concept that affirms September 11, 2001 as spectral. We can ask: can any meaning be derived from fissures opened on 9/11 that undermine the meanings bestowed upon us by the state in the name of militarization and money? Can we tell a new, more progressive story about our history, our future, and how the two are related?

Specters, like simulations of violent attacks for political gain, are the revenant, undead, persistent haunting of resurrected anxieties, at once contingent upon and contemporaneous with mourning. Inseparable from the commodity fetishism of the modern marketplace, these revenants foreshadow both an ambivalence about and anticipation of the ultimate death of the current (il)liberal political order.

That’s scary to people who are privileged by our current politics, namely those who are wealthy and/or white. It is these fears–percolating before, but inestimably heightened and given a new racial and cultural face by 9/11–that Trump has taken advantage of to further repeal the civil liberties that ground the American experiment.

Tearing Trumpism from our political fabric, then, will require more than impeachment hearings. We will need a reckoning with our recent history that replaces fear with forgiveness and an acknowledges our complicity in the suffering of our neighbors around the globe.

Faded Relations


Famoso Inn (with swimming pool) by Jeff Brouws

A fading swimming pool set amidst flourishing foliage. A fish-topped fountain, now inhaling musky air. A lone chair, overlooking a dried aquatic hotelscape. These are a few of the many objects contained in Jeff Brouws’ “Famoso Inn (with swimming pool),” in which the San Francisco photographer’s anthropological exploration of bleak aesthetics interrogates the origin, decay, and memorial space of industrial modernity.

Yet, the static moment musters not just collapsing markets, but caressing entities, each translating its enmeshed ecology into its own unique terms. Decay, capital, and bleakness are, themselves, implicated as conceptual objects in the frame, recorded as finite beings in a contingent material array. Here, we see a set of objectal powers unfurled before the human gaze, such as earth toned saturation and blue-hued siding soiled by brusquely textured debris. At the same time, we are exposed to the inadequacy of our own perception in representing the hyperpluralized being of Others, both human and nonhuman, that are constantly animating their own relational architectonics and spatiotemporality, encountering the sublime horror of uncertainty with each burst and retreat.

If this is an image of the deindustrialization in which Donald Trump’s ascension is so heavily ingrained, then it also an encounter with the uncanny core of automation: humanism is the remainder in need of elimination for capital to accelerate. There is no labor; there is only occupation. There is no wealth; there is only finance. There is no code instructing our capacity to resist; there is only the urgent call to resist as a mode of existence and with a fierce belief that an alternative politics is in desperate need of emancipation.