What do former First Lady Laura Bush, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, and comedian Mindy Kaling have in common? They are all women. And... and??
And? I confess that I cannot answer the question. Though not for lack of trying. I spent yesterday at Tina Brown’s Women In The World Summit, a summit celebrating—as far as I could make out—women, with no further claim to intellectual coherence.
The event was held in the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, which is just past the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and across from the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, at the epicenter of America’s worst billionaire Davids. Pink neon lighting from the theater’s stage gleamed off the curving metallic side walls, which gave the feeling of sitting inside a giant grapefruit. The lavish three-day summit was sponsored, we were reminded from the stage, by Toyota, Flex, MasterCard, PepsiCo, and many others—which may or may not have contributed to the editorial decision to include in the program several documentary clips “Presented by Toyota,” a panel discussion on technology with a Flex executive, and separate onstage interviews with the CEO of MasterCard and the CEO of PepsiCo.
Then again, they’re all women. That could have been it, also.
The event, attended by many hundreds of determined-looking women who looked ready to solve world hunger in the morning and pilot a Fortune 500 company at night, certainly offered sustenance in discrete bites. It is only in the search for some sort of overall theme or message or unifying philosophy that its frustrating aspects seeped out. Yesterday morning, in order, we heard from IMF chief Christine Lagarde on global economic and humanitarian issues (newsworthy!); a panel of Turkish political leaders and activists spoke on Turkey’s alarming rates of violence against women (distressing!); famed British scholar Mary Beard discussed how trolls on Twitter resemble misogynists in ancient Rome (odd—but interesting!); anti-hunger activists spoke about fighting hunger (inspiring!); two documentary filmmakers from Saudi Arabia and China described the perils they and their subjects faced in those repressive regimes (frightening!); journalists and an elephant expert told us of the dire poaching and ivory-smuggling problems in Africa (sad!); Mindy Kaling was interviewed about being Mindy Kaling (funny!); and then several women, including the mothers of murder victims, discussed the rash of murders of thousands of Canadian indigenous women in the past three decades (not funny). Then lunch. Any of these panels alone would have been enlightening. But presented one after the other with no segue gave the same disconcerting and slightly queasy feeling as a smoothie with all of your favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods combined, gulped down at once to save yourself time.
Of the morning’s presentations, you could at least say that they offered a warm feeling of empowerment and inspiration to change the world for the better, albeit in seemingly disconnected ways. After lunch, though, things took a turn. Following a foot-stomping song by Afro-Cuban singer Dayme Arocena, four chairs were placed on stage for an intimate chat between Today show host Savannah Guthrie and “three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.”
“They’ve left Washington,” proclaimed the video screen looming over the dark auditorium, “But they’re still campaigning. For literacy. For health care.” Now, who would you guess came out next? That’s right, it was Laura Bush and her two daughters, Jenna Bush (a Today show colleague of Guthrie’s) and Barbara Bush Jr. You may know these women as “part of the ultra-powerful family that launched an unjust war in the Middle East and profoundly eroded American civil liberties,” but that is not at all how they were presented at the Women in the World Summit. They were presented as Laura Bush, advocate for Afghan women; Jenna Bush, loving mother and educator; and Barbara Bush, founder of the nonprofit Global Health Corps, crusader for health care for the global poor. This was a neat trick. These three women appeared on stage because they are famous because they are family members of George W. Bush. George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, directly caused hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East to die, and did nothing to institute public health care in America. And yet these women were allowed to not only trade on their association with the Bush White House, but also to claim to be advocates for Afghan women and the poor and people without health care. “We have the medicine we need to save lives,” Barbara said with no trace of irony, “yet systems are broken.” This is the first family of the party that is seeking to dismantle Obamacare. As I said, a neat trick.
Savannah Guthrie, who may even be considered a journalist (?), went on to say this, to the family of George W. Bush, who many nonpartisan historians consider one of America’s most disastrous presidents: “You all remind me of a time when politics was a higher calling.” An interesting notion. “I have a six month old baby,” Jenna chimed in, “and I worry about her future—because you want smart, capable people to run, but now you have this.” I suspect that Jenna Bush’s child will be well taken care of regardless of who the next president is, but again, we were offered the spectacle of the family of George W. Bush calling for competence in politics. It was really something. Did Savannah Guthrie challenge them at all? Not unless you consider a follow-up question about “motherhood and sisterhood—and all of you represent that” to be a challenge. Guthrie was too busy laughing over the fact that her expensive Manhattan apartment looks into Jenna’s expensive Manhattan apartment to issue any challenges. And anyhow, that would have interrupted the pro-woman, pro-mother, pro-sister lovefest that we had going in the arena. It was indeed glowing with pro-Bush warmth in there. And after some heartfelt chatting about the importance of family and several instances of Jenna Bush choking up over the sheer amount of love on display, Savannah Guthrie summed it all up with her benediction of Laura Bush. “If you raise your kids right,” she said, “nothing else matters.”
Forget the Patriot Act. The Bushes raised their kids right. We had gotten to the heart of the problem with the Women in the World Summit. When you purport to celebrate all the world’s women, you end up putting brave activists who risked their lives to fight against violence and repression on the same stage as the Bush family the CEO of PepsiCo. And you clap for all of them equally. And at the end you have a moral whitewashing of powerful interests under the cover of empowerment and equality.
Everyone in the fucking world does not deserve applause.