Michelle Obama

The lines started forming even before the doors to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Centre opened at 6am. When the curtains to the main stage area were finally opened, thousands of people ran, screaming, to find themselves the best seats, where they would sit, jealously guarding their space, for another few hours.

I waited with as many of the 21,000-plus attendees at the Inbound 2017 conference who could find a seat – hundreds missed out on a spot – for the star of the show, former First Lady Michelle Obama and her interviewer, Roxane Gay. The lights were dim, the music pumping, and the atmosphere electric. When she finally joined Gay on stage, Obama was greeted by rapturous applause and ten thousand smart phone cameras.

Obama has a commanding and powerful presence, carrying herself with ease. Gay was a brilliant interviewer, asking short but insightful questions. Obama’s responses were practiced, measured, often funny, and, when examined a little more closely, very revealing. Early in the interview, Gay asked a question that has been repeatedly levelled at the Obamas since they left Pennsylvania Avenue in January: why have they been so reluctant to comment on the Trump administration? How do they resist doing it? They were, Obama responded, committed to remaining above the fray for a few reasons: there are longstanding protocols that mean former Presidents should allow their successor some space, and they know how hard it is to do that job with a “peanut gallery” watching on. They “want the sitting President to be successful because we live in this country”.

The sentiment is entirely genuine, and the Obamas are indeed following a long tradition of ex-Presidential families withdrawing from active participation in politics. Whether it would even be helpful for them to be more vocal in this fraught time is an interesting question in itself. This decision to avoid engagement in contemporary politics, though – whether right or wrong – also points to a bigger idea that repeatedly raises its head in public discourse: the assertion that it is possible and sometimes necessary to stay above it all, to “keep the politics out” of this or that – football, gun control, conferences.

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Obama and Gay were addressing an audience of business people and industry reps attending an event dedicated to “providing the inspiration, education, and connections you need to grow and transform your business.” It was not, ostensibly, about politics, though the idea of growing and transforming a business is an innately political one. And, as former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama embodies politics. Nothing she says or does is in the public eye is not about politics.

When she did talk about politics, though – as she inevitably would – the atmosphere in the room shifted palpably. You could feel the shiver run through the audience when Obama observed that women who, faced with the choice between Trump and Clinton, chose Trump, had, for whatever reason, lost touch with their own interests, their own “voice”. That is not, as far as I’m concerned, a controversial statement, though it did skate over the issue of race. Many of the women who voted for Trump did so for explicitly racist reasons. What Obama was partly nodding to, I think, is the way in which racial politics has long been used to successfully disrupt and divide gender and class interests.

Unsurprisingly, though, in the press coverage, it was the shallow interpretation of those comments that got picked up. Michelle Obama was engaged in nothing less, as one Fox News commentator put it, than “gender imperialism” (which is…I don’t know what that is). Some drew false equivalence with the much more valid question of many progressive women’s choice to support Sanders over Clinton during the Democratic primaries. Overall, the reaction from the right was predictable, and the message was clearly that Michelle Obama did not have the right to speak about women (read: white women) who voted for Trump.

The insistence that a particular person or group does not have the right to speak about something, sometimes masked under the seemingly innocent call to “stay out of politics” or “keep the politics out” is an oft-used technique to silence protest and dissent. It’s a technique that has, recently, been embraced with a particular viciousness by conservative forces in this country, in a bitter and offensive inversion of identity politics’ traditional call for a voice for the oppressed.

Conservatives lecture that America needs, for example, to “take the politics out of football”. In the words of the President, if a “player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL … he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” African American football players, in short, should be silent, and they should be grateful. Vice President Mike Pence, though, white and rich as he is, is allowed to have a voice, and stage his very own protest – in the midst of the anthem, no less.

Football players engaged in silent and peaceful protest against police brutality are not allowed to speak about racial injustice. Michelle Obama is not allowed to use her powerful voice to speak about women who voted for Trump. They may speak, it seems, only when spoken to: just like when the media and the Trumps demand, with confected and gleeful outrage, that they break their “silence” about Harvey Weinstein. The women Weinstein allegedly harassed, assaulted, and raped, they claim, also had a responsibility to speak out.

Some of this is deliberate provocation, some of it is cognitive dissonance (it’s ok when the President does it, apparently). But it’s mostly about power.

Some of Michelle Obama’s most poignant responses to Roxane Gay’s questioning focused on how women – and particularly women and girls of colour – are socialised to stay silent. To be quiet, good and demure. Gay, too, has written about the consequences of that process in intimate and brutal detail. There are, along with Obama and Gay, many women doing what work they can to mitigate against it and break down patriarchal and racial power structures.

The President, though, is working actively against them. He has a long history of silencing women, and particularly women of colour; women like Jamele Hill, a sports commentator who was suspended from her role with ESPN after tweets suggesting Trump is the “direct result of white supremacy” (which he is) and the White House’s response that this should be a “fireable offence”. Trump and the NFL are also working in cahoots to silence sportsmen and women who “Take A Knee”. Just last week, Trump floated the idea of “revoking” the license of a television network that spreads “Fake News”.

Meanwhile, the President is busy engaging in his own kind of silence. Just ask California, where, as of Sunday, 40 people have died and 220,000 acres have been burnt in the deadliest fires the state has ever seen, and about which Trump has tweeted…exactly nothing.

Silence has a purpose, and there is no keeping the politics out of it.