Friday, April 25, 2008

Kathleen Parker's latest primer on how to be a respectably prejudiced white person

For those who have been disturbed about Keith Olberman's recent on-screen work, check out today's Daily Howler. Bob Somerby rakes him over the coals, in particular about his adolescent reporting on the party antics of Lindsey Lohan and other famous young stars.

Straight-talking Maverick McCain says Hamas and Daniel Ortega (the current president of Nicaragua and a boogey-man for Republicans since the 1980s) support Barack Obama.

Fortunately, we have a competent press corps that can adequately process such statements. (A little Friday evening absurdist humor there.)

No, our actual press corps is made up of pundits like one of my special favorites, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writer's Group. Parker's specialty is to provide ready-made talking points for Republican white folks to use in settings where they might not want to admit to following Rush Limbaugh and Mad Annie Coulter faithfully.

In White Males Aren't Feeling the Love 04/25/08, she explains that the Presidential election is kind of like a debutante's ball. And that the Democrats' goal in this election aim to woo the Republican base. The Republican base is also what we call "swing voters". And columnist and screenwriter Nora Ephron asked in some column somewhere something that Parker understood to be a question about whether white guys hate black people or women worse. Which shows that the Democratic Party doesn't like white guys.

Or something. Trying to deconstruct one of Parker's columns can lead to serious existential confusion, with accompanying physical symptoms like headaches and dizziness. When you frame the Presidential contest like this, where can things go but into a tailspin?

In the days leading up to Pennsylvania's primary, white males - those knuckle-dragging, chaw-chompin', beer-swillin' bitter troglodytes - were suddenly the debutante's delight.

How were the Democrats to woo these crucial swing voters, known in other circles as the Republican Party base?
Now, by including "bitter", I assume she's probably trying to indicate this is some satirical comment on Barack Obama. But it's hard to tell. Obama was talking about a subset of small town voters in Pennsylvania who he said become bitter.

Here where the headaches begin. Are there live human being on this planet most of us inhabit who describe white men as a group as "knuckle-dragging, chaw-chompin', beer-swillin' bitter troglodytes"? The closest that comes to mind would be some snotty young woman in sorority girl describing her opinion of "rednecks". You know, the kind of young woman who might have had a debutante ball.

The rest of the column does some imitation of commenting on racial and gender factors in voting. But when the poor woman sets her fingers to typing, she apparently cannot prevent things like this from coming out:

Clinton may not be Everywoman, no matter how unflinchingly she downs a tumbler of Crown Royal. But she is a more familiar entity than someone like Obama, who, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, doesn't share the life experiences of the groups that voted against him on Tuesday.
(Yes, I first read it as "Royal Crown", too, and was wondering where that one came from.) This is near the end of the column. And if you can follow her step by step without being overcome by dizziness and nausea, your constitution is stronger than mine.

Although she takes the trouble to cite a statistic or two from the Pennsylvania primary, her column actually floats in the air at a high level of abstraction. There is an actual discussion going on, an obvious and legitimate one, as to how various segments of the vote broke down: race, gender, age, rural/urban and about a jillion others.

The offending Nora Ephron column appears to be her Huffington Post entry of 04/20/08, White Men. I think this must be the first Ephron political column I've read, and it's not a particular inspiration to come back for more. It's almost as lightweight as Parker's, and that level of gravity defiance is not easy to achieve. I do think it's kind of cute, in a screenwriter kind of way, when Ephron says, "white men cannot be relied on, as all of us know who have spent a lifetime dating them." But there's nothing in it about troglodytes, or dragging knuckles, or "swillin'" beer, or "chaw chompin'". Give Parker credit: I learned an entirely new phrase, chaw-chompin', whatever it may mean.

There's nothing particularly objectionable on the face of it in Parker's "analysis" of the Pennsylvania results. Because there's not much to it. If this were an essay question on a Poli Sci 101 test, it would probably be an acceptable answer, because it shows that she looked at some set of election results and tried to say something pinpointing a few demographic groups from those results.

But her column starts out trying bravely to challenge those objectionable stereotypes of us pore white guys from those anonymous meanie liberals or whoever that call us all chaw-chompers. (That's not some kinky sex thing, is it?)

But she approaches that by analyzing primary results in the Clinton-Obama contest in Pennsylvania. And you can't make any conclusions about racial attitudes or misogyny from those. Because, despite the Clinton campaign arguments about "electability" that may have suggested a racial nudge-nudge wink-wing to some voters, there was no racial hot-button issue in dispute between the two candidates. Nor was there any women's-rights issue like abortion separating them or playing a prominent role in the campaign. Obama's supporters weren't spotted carrying signs saying, "Don't let some dame become President." Her supporters weren't out carrying posters of blacks thugs robbing terrified white people or anything along those lines.

And even she winds up concluding "Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may not provide a clear picture" of voters' attitudes on "race and gender".

So what's the point of her little exercise? Since Parker's manifest thought processes are inscrutable to me, I'll limit myself to an observation about their functionality among good Christian Republican white folks.

The fall election will be a contest between a Democratic candidate and very, very Republican John McCain. There will be important and divisive issues. Some of them will be issues of women's rights and issues of high priority to women voters. And some of them will be issues related to racial discrimination, including the widespread segregationist-style Republican minority-disenfranchisement campaigns passing under the guise of combating "voter fraud". The virtual shut-down of the normal, legitimate functioning of the Justice Department's Civil Rights division will also be a big difference between the parties. The Republicans and those in the mainstream media who take their cues from the Republicans will slime Clinton in about every way that can be imagined. And, as Joe Conason reports today in Will McCain denounce Floyd Brown? Salon, the old racist sleaze-slinger Floyd Brown is already hard at work doing to Obama what Republicans do in Presidential elections, campaigning against scary black people.

In other words, racial and gender issues are already in play for the general election. But some respectable Republican white folks need frameworks through which to imagine that they aren't acting like low-bred Southern white trash by voting for the segregationist Republican Party. And that's our friend Kathleen Parker's specialty!

Because, hey, voter suppression, the shutdown of the Civil Rights division? For respectable Republican suburbanites who think the most important responsibilities of the federal government are to keep the war in Iraq going for 100 years and to ensure that the wealthiest people are spared the horror of paying taxes to support their country, those other issues are no problem. If such issues cross their radar screens at all, they can ignore them, dismiss them or minimize them easily. Given those other two overriding priorities, those minor distractions can be brushed away.

The problem is that a significant portion of the Republican base are white folks (not just men) who are not at all interested in being respectable to the white-wine-and-brie Republicans. They're proud of their "politically incorrect" attitudes on race and various other social issues. And Rush Limbaugh and Mad Annie Coulter and the rest of OxyContin radio function by pandering to the favorite prejudices of that market segment. This is not a segment that's open to voting for Democrats, either for the woman or for the black guy.

But come September, October, those Republican suburbanites who like to think of themselves as fair-minded, unprejudiced people will have gone for months hearing Rush and other hate radio jocks and their many fans making "jokes" about "spades" and scary rioting black people accompanied no doubt by bra-burning feminists (or "feminazis" in RushSpeak). And they may wonder if they really want to be politically associated with straight-up OxyContin Republicans like that.

But peace of mind is available! They can just google this column of Kathleen Parker's, and get ready-made alibis like this:

Race and gender do matter, of course. They enter into the human equations to varying degrees, subconsciously if not consciously, in any transaction. We have certain expectations and are all guilty of stereotyping, much as we insist otherwise. It's nature, and it's not always wrong. ...

So, yes, some percentage of Americans (or Turks or Greeks or Swedes) will always take race and gender into consideration at the polls. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may not provide a clear picture as to how those issues play out in politics. Each brings too many confounding factors that distort the picture.

Clinton isn't just any woman, needless to say. People like and dislike her often for the same reason - because she's the wife of Bill. In either case, it's not only that she's A Woman, but that she's That Particular Woman.

And Obama isn't just any black man. Those who like or dislike him don't necessarily base those opinions on his skin color or ethnic heritage, except to the extent that they are tied to differences that are also cultural. ...

Do they "hate" blacks, as the Ephron School insists? Or do they prefer a familiar individual who sees the world essentially as they do? Are white males misogynistic and racist? Or are they weary of being the only group in America that is fair game for contempt, insult and blame? (my emphasis)
As much as Parker disgusts me, I have to admit a grudging admiration for her marketing smoothness in her chosen niche, providing "respectable" alibis for prejudice to "respectable" white folks.

So, let's practice what we've learned, class:

"Why, of course race and gender matter. And that's not always wrong. Sure, there are probably some trailer trash in backwoods Mississippi somewhere who are racially prejudiced. But with most people, you can't really say that. There are too many confounding factors at work.

"And this Hussein Obama guy, he's not just any black fellow, you know. His pastor is an angry black guy. And he once talked to a couple of people who were rioting hippies 40 years ago. That doesn't mean people hate him because of it. Sure, lots of people will take into account the fact that he's, you know, black. But only to the extent that it's tied to differences that are also cultural. And that's not always wrong.

"Lots of people prefer McCain because they prefer a familiar individual who sees the world like they do. And Obama grew up in different circumstances, liked he lived in Indonesia for a while, and I don't necessarily believe those stories about him being in a Muslim school, but it is different. And then he lived in Hawaii, too, where, you know, white people are a minority. People think about that kind of stuff, and that's not always wrong.

"Besides, some white guys, especially, might see some of Obama's comments as insulting and out of touch. Because us white guys just get tired of being picked on all the time and called misjenists and trogodites and stuff. Think about it. We're the only group in America that is fair game for contempt, insult and blame! And some people just get upset about that and don't want to vote for someone who thinks that way. And that's not always wrong."

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some aspiring young Karl Rove is out there holding workshops for Republican activists based on Kathleen Parker columns. The woman has found her niche.

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"It is the logic of our times
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