Monday, October 18, 2010

A Krystal Ball into the Future?

by Michael Kaplan

Virginia’s First Congressional District has been called “America’s First District.” Created in 1788 after Virginia ratified the Constitution, the district was the setting for a number of milestones in America’s early history. In fact the first successful English settlement in North America, Jamestown, the seed which would grow into the United States, was planted in the swampy soil of the district in 1607. In 1781 America won its independence at the decisive Battle of Yorktown, also in the district. This was Virginia’s Tidewater country, in its heyday home to many opulent plantations and an aristocracy whose wealth was derived from the unrequited toil of its slaves. Some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War were fought on the district’s soil, including the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories. George Washington spent his boyhood years at Ferry Farm just outside Fredericksburg. Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes that “The young George Washington could peer across the river and see a perfect tableau of the British Empire in action. Moored at town wharves, ships bulging with tobacco, grain, and iron gave glimmers of the lucrative transatlantic trade with London that enriched the colony.”

Mary Ball, mother of George Washington.

And now Fredericksburg has given us a freshman political candidate with a most New Age name: Krystal Ball. Yes that really is her name. “My father has a Ph.D. in physics and did his dissertation on crystals. Fortunately or unfortunately, my mother allowed him to name me and so he chose the name Krystal Ball.” The young Ms. Ball—she’s a 28-year-old professional woman, wife, and mother—is running as a Democrat for Congress in the 1st Virginia against Republican incumbent Rob Wittman. If elected she would be the first woman under 30 ever to serve in the United States Congress. Not as momentous a Virginia first as being the first colony and supplying the first president, but important nonetheless. In fact Ms. Ball could well be related, albeit quite distantly, to the Father of the Country—George Washington’s mother’s name was Mary Ball. But I doubt that General Washington, when he took the oath of office as the first president in 1789, could ever have imagined that a candidate for public office would be better known for sexually suggestive imagery than for her positions on public policy. Then again old George could never have imagined any woman ever holding public office, even one who might somehow be related to him.

Krystal Ball

Krystal Ball was catapulted into the national spotlight this month when racy photographs, taken at a Christmas party after she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2003, were posted on a conservative blog. The nine photos show Ball dressed in a “naughty Santa” costume leading her then (and now ex-) husband around on a leash and sucking a red dildo on his nose. Here’s one of the now infamous photos.

Ball told an interviewer with a local news station that posting the photos was part of a coordinated attack to derail her campaign. If so it failed miserably. Ball ’s campaign has seen a marked increase in donations since the scandal went national. Much of the money is coming from women who admire her grit in the face of adversity, a very Jacksonian trait. Before the photos came to light Ms. Ball was largely unknown and her campaign was a long shot. Now she’s attracted national coverage for her campaign, writing an impassioned article in The Huffington Post, and appearing on Fox News with Megyn Kelly and MSNBC with Dylan Ratigan. Ball was outraged as she told Ratigan that the bloggers were trying to paint her as a whore:
KRYSTAL BALL:  For years women have been delegitimized and denigrated by being portrayed as whores, and I cant believe that Im on your show saying that word, but I think thats true.  The new twist is that now that we have Facebook, now that so many of us live so much of our lives online and so much of it is recorded digitally, what does that mean? I think Im sort of the first person who's had to face this particular thing, but I certainly don’t think Im the last.  So part of the reason that I believe this story has gotten so much traction is simply because we have to ask ourselves as a society, as people of my generation, both young men and young women [who] come of age and decide to run for office: How are we gonna handle this particular issue?
She even caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who devoted segments of his October 12 and 13 shows to her. Alas, Rush was less than chivalrous when discussing Ms. Ball, dismissing her outrage as Facebook generation self-absorption. “No, Krystal, you’re not. Krystal, you’re not the first person to whom this has happened. This is the thing when I always tell you, ‘People think that history began the day they were born,’ this is what I mean. Everybody’s historical perspective begins the day they were born. So poor Krystal Ball here thinks that this is the first time something’s happened like this, happened to her.” And besides, Rush suggested, a little sex-tinged scandal never hurt a Democratic candidate. Rush also noted that Ms. Ball bears a striking resemblance to Demi Moore, which she does (the Demi Moore of 20 years ago, pre-Ashton Kutcher, that is).

To be honest, I don’t see anything scandalous or damaging about the photos. Krystal just seems to be having some high-spirited holiday fun. Besides, there should be a statute of limitations on anything that one did in high school or college. Everybody did crazy or stupid things in their younger days. As former president George W. Bush famously said “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.” There’s much wisdom in that remark. In her Huffington Post piece, Ball wants to make clear that such risqué behavior is outside her comfort zone. Far from being a party girl, she insists that the real Krystal Ball is a rather dull and boring policy wonk à la Hillary Clinton. “Now, this may seem funny given the nature of the source of my small amount of ephemeral celebrity, but I am actually a fairly shy person by nature, pretty much of a policy wonk. I tried to be as fun as I could during and immediately after college, but I am generally private to the point that I don't even like to kiss my husband in public.” Ms. Ball goes to great lengths to present herself to the world as a sober and responsible adult, prim and proper even to the point of worrying obsessively over the length of her skirt and neckline; a woman who, though young, has the gravitas to serve in the United States Congress. “Yet, for millions of people around the world, I am a joke named Krystal Ball, a party girl or a whore.” Now Ball does exaggerate the extent of her notoriety, but I understand her angst. 

Krystal Ball with husband Jonathan Dariyanani and daughter Ella.

Before Krystal Ball gained her sex-tinged “ephemeral celebrity,” her aspiration to be a citizen legislator was the guiding theme of her campaign. “When our founding fathers first dreamed of this nation,” Ball declares on her campaign website, “they did not imagine a Congress filled with career politicians, marching their way up the seniority ladder. They imagined citizen servants taking time from their lives to devote to their fellow citizens in the service of this country. I believe in that tradition. . . .” Though Ball is running as a liberal Democrat, she argues that it’s her experience in the private sector that makes her qualified to represent the interests of the people of the 1st Virginia district. As a certified public accountant (CPA) she understands fiscal discipline and how to balance a budget. Ball and her husband Jonathan Dariyanani own a small business that produces educational software. So she can make the case that she’s an entrepreneur familiar with the cutting edge of technology.

Going over her policy positions, Ball comes across as anything but a doctrinaire liberal progressive. She does not see big government as the answer to America’s challenges. While Washington and Wall Street share the blame for getting us into this economic mess, it is entrepreneurs, especially small businesses, which will get the country back on track. “The federal government needs to stay out of the way of individuals who work hard, play by the rules, and take the initiative in creating jobs in their communities. It’s business owners who are going to get our economy moving again, not bureaucrats in Washington.” If elected to Congress, Ball promises to push for tax cuts and other incentives to encourage private sector investment to grow the economy and create new jobs. Also, Ball is a member of the NRA and promises “to be a fierce advocate of an individual’s right to bear arms.” So there is a Jacksonian side to her, similar, perhaps, to Virginia’s Senator Jim Webb, one of the few Jacksonians left in the Democratic Party. It sounds almost like Ms. Ball has put her holiday party adventures behind her and has joined (dare I say it) . . . the Tea Party! On the other hand, Ball has said that she would have voted for President Obama’s health care legislation and she supports a public option. So she seems to have one foot in the liberal progressive camp and one foot in the Jacksonian conservative camp.

Krystal Ball with constituents in the 1st Virginia district.

Krystal Ball is both young and an idealist; she decided to enter politics to make a better world for her daughter Ella. And she draws her inspiration from women who blazed a trail into politics before her. Naturally enough she mentions Hillary Clinton as one such inspiration. As a teenager Ball was impressed by what she saw as Hillary’s grace under pressure in dealing with Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans and the Republicans’ attempt to remove him from office. “I admired her so much. I thought she had this toughness and grit, style and pain, all at the same time.” Ball credits Hillary and her “generation of women” with proving “that a woman can be just as competent as any man. They had to fight against the dominant narrative that women were somehow less capable, so they worked twice as hard, had twice as much experience and determined not to be victims of sexism but instead to smash the glass ceiling by sheer determination.”

Ball also denounces the Clinton’s Republican opponents as malicious and cruel for using the dysfunctions of their private life and marriage as political cannon fodder. Dana Loesch, at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism, says in response that Ball is just whitewashing Hillary’s behavior in the ’90s and “bastardizing history on why Bill Clinton was impeached in the first place. (Hint: it wasn’t because he was serviced by a Gap fan in the Oval Office. Lying under oath in a sexual harassment case is illegal.)” Loesch also accuses Ball of crying wolf and playing the sexism card to boost her flagging campaign: “it’s great that she’s young, we need more non-geezers with their special-interest affairs, but I hate it when little-known up-and-comers try to blow a controversy out of their backside to make up for experience or credentials. It’s a beginner’s mistake, sloppy strategy, and devalues the offense of true sexism when it occurs.” Ball’s hysterical reaction to what in reality was a minor embarrassment, Loesch concludes, shows that she’s not ready for prime time. If she was a competent political pro she would have dismissed the photos as youthful high spiritedness and moved on. While I think Loesch is being too harsh on Ball in dismissing her as a rank amateur, she does have a point. As I said before I don’t think the photos are that damaging or important in evaluating Ball’s character or her potential as a citizen legislator. The details of Ball’s politics and her policy positions, which are largely though not exclusively liberal progressive, are being overshadowed by the tempest in the teapot over the photos.

And make no mistake; though she might take Jacksonian positions on certain issues, Krystal Ball does not hesitate to identify herself with the liberal progressive side of American politics. She makes clear that her base of support is made up of young professional women of her generation, “who loved seeing someone their own age running for office.” Ball gives credit to President Obama for unleashing the spirit of idealism among her generation of young women, who are her strongest supporters. In fact, Ball insists that “my generation of young women is actually an Obama-Hillary fusion. We aspire to have Hillary’s spine of steel and desire to over-prepare and we have President Obama’s idealism.” Well Hillary’s spine of steel can be Jacksonian—this is why Hillary was successful in gaining Jacksonian blue-collar support in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. The Jacksonian worldview tends toward realism, even pessimism. President Obama’s progressive idealism is certainly not Jacksonian.

But Ms. Ball also speaks highly of Sarah Palin, which is not what one would expect from a liberal progressive. Admitting that she disagrees with Palin on almost every issue, Ball nonetheless credits the former governor and Jacksonian populist icon with inspiring her to enter the political arena. “When I saw Sarah up on the stage with her baby, running to be our Vice-President, loving and caring for a baby and interviewing for the second most powerful job in the world, I thought, wow, maybe I can run for office even though I have a young baby. In that way, I think that Sarah Palin has done a tremendous service for women of my generation.” Here Ball supports my contention that Sarah is defining a new Jacksonian brand of feminism, one that emphasizes women’s heroic endurance and ability to combine traditional values with a fully engaged modern life. Noreen Malone, writing in Slate, suggests that Krystal Ball may well be the Sarah Palin of the liberal left. Ball, Malone observes, “has modeled herself after Palin. In her wholehearted embrace of femininity, her sense of entitlement, her boldjump to the front of the line, Ball may be the left’s answer to Sarah Palin. . . . That’s what’s actually most striking about Ball’s lightning-rod candidacy and the feminist embrace of it: She’s the closest thing the left’s got right now to a Palin.” Ball admires Palin’s folksiness and populist appeal as well as her determination never to back down in the face of venomous attacks and ridicule. While Krystal Ball does not have an army of Mama Grizzlies behind her, Malone argues that she enables liberal feminist women to adopt Jacksonian populist “chutzpah” without the baggage of conservative ideology, especially on women’s issues.

Krystal Ball offers a window into certain trends at work in American culture today and perhaps going forward in the future. If we haven’t realized it already, the line between private life and public life is being dissolved by the new technologies of the Internet. In the 21st century your past will always be with you. You can never escape the foolish escapades of your youth. In fact Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, warned in August, just two months before the Krystal Ball photos hit the news, that young people will have to be legally entitled to change their names to avoid the consequences of their cyber pasts. “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” Schmidt said in a Wall Street Journal interview. Kashmir Hill, a 28-year-old blogger at, says Ball is on the cutting edge of a new generation of public figures who will have to account for their youthful indiscretions “and alcohol-fueled decisions,” and incorporate them into a narrative they can sell to the public—not only to voters but to employers too. “As a fellow 2003 college grad,” Hill writes, “I can attest to the rise in the use of digital cameras in those last couple years of college. Parties that involved alcohol and elaborate costumes were well-documented, with many of the photos being shared via digital photo sites like Flickr, Picasa, or, increasingly, on Facebook.” Hill breezily predicts that society will soon enough embrace Ball’s past as normal and uncontroversial, even to the point that a “Krystal Ball with raunchy reindeer” costume may be all the rage at Halloween.

Like Google’s Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jonas, chief scientist at IBM, argues that the emergence of what he calls a “transparent society,” with its intrusive digital media rendering your life an open book, can lead to two divergent outcomes: a more open society where people will feel free to be themselves however offbeat that might be; or a more rigid and conformist society where people will feel obligated to hide who they are and are under even more pressure to appear “average” and “normal,” and sacrifice colorful individuality for a bland mediocrity. “Will people feel forced to modify their behavior towards normal only because they fear others may discover their intimate personal affairs?” Jonas asks. “Or, more optimistically, will the world become more tolerant of diversity? Will we be willing to be ourselves in a more transparent society?” Jonas hopes for a more tolerant society, “A place where it is widely known I am four or five standard deviations off center, and despite such deviance: my personal and professional relationships carry on, unaffected.” This is a tall order. Jacksonian America places a high premium on conforming to the social norms of the community. Yet Jacksonian America has had its share of colorful individuals who broke the mold, including Old Hickory himself. Walt Whitman, the great poet of Jacksonian America, proclaimed his individuality and eccentricity to all the world: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (“Song of Myself,” Section 51).

Krystal Ball is following the path that Whitman pioneered. Ball believes that society is going to have to get past the madonna/whore paradigm and accept that women can be sexually active and engage in serious work. As ever more openly sexual photos from their past are made public via the Internet, women are going to have to assert their right to be fully sexual beings, to celebrate their sexuality in all its many varieties and not keep it hidden from polite company. “Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.” This applies to women pursuing careers in the private sector too. Krystal Ball will most likely lose her bid for a seat in Congress. The 1st Virginia is solidly Republican. But by taking a stand in defense of her sexual persona while asserting her right to serve her nation and refusing to “collapse in a ball of embarrassment and to hang my head in shame,” she has struck a blow for liberty; the liberty of women (and men) to be themselves in all their contradictions and eccentric deviations from whatever the “norm” is. This may not have been the liberty that George Washington and Andrew Jackson had in mind, but in a dynamic society like the United States, liberty is always a work in progress.

P.S. November 2. Krystal Ball lost her bid for a seat in Congress winning only 34% of the vote to Rob Wittman’s 64%. “Although we came up short, I am so proud of the race that we ran and everything we accomplished,” Ball said. “We fought hard, stood up for our
principles, engaged voters, and worked to promote a respectful dialogue focused on solutions rather than partisan attacks and division. I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity. Congratulations to Rob Wittman on earning his second full term as our representative. I sincerely wish him all the best and will be praying for his success.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan