Politics — From the April 2016 issue

Nor a Lender Be

Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue, and the cult of the microloan

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The day after International Women’s Day in March 2015, I attended a Clinton Foundation production put on by its No Ceilings initiative at the Best Buy Theater in New York City. It wasn’t a campaign event — the 2016 race had not really started at that point — nor was it a panel discussion, as there were no disagreements among the participants or questions from the audience. Instead, it was a choreographed presentation of various findings having to do with women’s standing in the world. But if you paid attention, the event provided a way to understand Hillary Clinton’s real views on the great social question before the nation — the problem of income inequality.

Hillary Clinton walks by residents of Phú Tàng village, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, where a microcredit program offered loans to rural women, November 17, 2000 © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Hillary Clinton walks by residents of Phú Tàng village, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, where a microcredit program offered loans to rural women, November 17, 2000 © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Onto the stage before us came former secretary of state Clinton, the Democratic Party’s heir apparent; Melinda Gates, the wife of the richest man in the world (the event was produced with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); various NGO executives; a Hollywood celebrity; a Silicon Valley CEO; a best-selling author; an expert in women’s issues from Georgetown University; a Nobel Prize winner; and a large supporting cast of women from the Third World. Everyone strode with polished informality about the stage, reading their lines from an invisible teleprompter. And back and forth, the presenters called out to one another in tones of supportiveness and sweet flattery.

In her introduction to the event, for example, the TV star America Ferrera, who has appeared at many Clinton events both philanthropic and political, gave a shout-out to the “incredible women who have brought us all here today” and the “amazing girls” whose conversation she had been permitted to join. Then Chelsea Clinton, who announced herself “completely awed” by the “incredible swell of people and partners” who had participated in some event the previous day, invited us to hearken to the “inspiring voices of leaders, of communities, of companies, of countries.”

Those were just the first few minutes. It kept on like that for hours. When someone’s “potential” was mentioned, it was described as “boundless.” People’s “stories” were “compelling” when they weren’t “inspiring,” “incredible,” or “incredibly inspiring.” A Kenyan activist was introduced as “the incomparable.”

But the real star of this show was the Creative Innovator, the figure who crops up whenever the liberal class gets together to talk about spreading the prosperity around more fairly. In this case, the innovations being hailed seemed mainly to be transpiring in the Third World. “Every year, millions and millions of women everywhere are empowering themselves and their communities by finding unique, dynamic, and productive ways to enter the workforce, start their own businesses, and contribute to their economies and their countries,” said Chelsea Clinton, introducing an “inspiring innovator and chocolatier” from Trinidad.

Melinda Gates followed up the chocolatier’s presentation by heaping even more praise: “She is an amazing businesswoman, you can see why we all find her so inspiring.” Then, a little later on: “Entrepreneurship is really vital for women. . . . It’s also their ability to advance into leadership roles into corporations. And corporations play such a big role in the global economy.”

Roughly speaking, there were two groups present at this distinctly First World gathering. Many of the people making presentations came from Third World countries — a midwife from Haiti, a student from Afghanistan, the chocolate maker from Trinidad, a former child bride from India, an environmental activist from Kenya — while the women anchoring this swirling praisefest were former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the wealthy foundation executive Melinda Gates.

What this lineup suggested is that there is a kind of naturally occurring solidarity between the millions of women at the bottom of the world’s pyramid and the tiny handful of women at its very top. The hardship those Third World women have endured and the entrepreneurial efforts they have undertaken are powerful symbols of the struggle of American professional women to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (one of the ambitions that was discussed in detail) or of a woman to be elected president, which was the unspoken theme of the entire event.

What the spectacle had to offer ordinary working American women was another story.

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wrote the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine from 2010 to 2014. This is an excerpt from his new book Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books).

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