Which brings us to never-Trump conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who earlier this week challenged New York congressional candidate and overnight media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate.
That Ocasio-Cortez refused to debate Shapiro was not a surprise. It’s how she did it that made news.
A bit of hyperbole? Absolutely. But Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet gets to the heart of women’s experiences, in both life and politics. Shapiro’s challenge to her demonstrated how as a society we value — or more correctly, do not value — women’s expertise, experience and time.
Let’s review: Shapiro issued his challenge on Wednesday, saying he offered to pay $10,000 to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign (likely a campaign violation) or a charity if she agreed to come on his show and debate him. Ocasio-Cortez initially ignored Shapiro, but many on Twitter began to follow up, asking why she wasn’t responding. Finally, Ocasio-Cortez succumbed to the online pressure, leading to the tweet above.
Let me be clear. Ocasio-Cortez did not need to address Shapiro at all. He is not her opponent in November. He’s not even another politician. He’s simply a public commentator, albeit a prominent one in conservative circles. Some have called him a troll.
I say this to point out that Shapiro, in issuing his challenge, didn’t simply interject himself into Ocasio-Cortez’s orbit. He screamed for her attention. This isn’t even first time he’s waved his hands in Ocasio-Cortez’s face: Last month, he posted a satirical “interview” with Ocasio-Cortez, where reaction shots of Shapiro were edited in to an interview the congressional candidate had done with someone else. (It’s worth noting that CRTV host Allie Stuckey pulled a similar stunt.)
Why would anyone expect Ocasio-Cortez to say yes? Shapiro is using Ocasio-Cortez as a way to get publicity for one person — Ben Shapiro. His political positions and hers are diametrically opposed, and his listeners aren’t exactly undecided voters. A practiced debater, he wants to show up the less-seasoned Ocasio-Cortez. For Shapiro, Ocasio-Cortez is a nasty version of cinema’s “manic pixie dream girl,” the quirky female character who exists solely to push the male protagonist to take on life’s challenges — in this case, by engaging in a cheap stunt to enhance a brand.
Shapiro claims he’s just looking for “discussion and debate” with the woman that Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez called “the future of the Democratic Party.” Two things: First, again, Shapiro’s not a politician. Moreover, funnily enough, Shapiro hasn’t spent weeks challenging someone like Bernie Sanders to a debate. Nor did his team go to the trouble to cut together a fake interview with Sanders. It’s almost as though this isn’t about ideas, but identity.
This unequal attention is something women are all too familiar with. Women are judged harshly for ambition, while men are judged for not possessing it. Men are called promising, while women are deemed inexperienced. Men are presumed to be experts, whereas women need to prove their expertise repeatedly. Mistakes by women are amplified, while those of men are brushed over. Women are supposed to be cooperative, while men can showboat all they want and not fear judgment. And we value women’s time less than that of men: Of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should debate a conservative journalist! Surely she doesn’t have anything better to do!
Catcallers are never trying to compliment their targets. They are rather attempting to remind them that the targets’ ability to go about their business in public is forever subject to the catcallers’ challenge. What Shapiro did to Ocasio-Cortez is something women who attempt to engage in the public space deal with all too often — just ask Nancy Pelosi.
True, Ocasio-Cortez took advantage of her sudden fame after her surprise victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley in a New York Democratic primary, going on television news shows, giving interviews, and endorsing other candidates, even taking a widely covered tour with Bernie Sanders. And true, Ocasio Cortez, a 28-year-old political rookie, has stumbled more than once. But as Nate Silver pointed out, these sorts of mistakes don’t make Ocasio-Cortez any less informed than more than the average member of Congress. Many have said much worse. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for example, has compared giving hormones to transgender members of the military to castration and claimed Muslims should not work at meatpacking plants because they want others eating to be “sent to hell.”
So, a bit of advice. It’s August; things are slowing down. Ocasio-Cortez should buckle down and do her policy homework, so she can come back strong in September. As for Shapiro, if he wants to debate political candidates, he should run for office. He apparently believes he’s qualified to do so. Let’s see what he’s got.