Monday, September 21, 2009

Let's not talk about the big white elephant in the room

Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at Columbia University, argues in The Pointlessness of the Racism Debate Huffington Post 09/20/09:

It is reasonably obvious that some of the attacks on President Obama will always be motivated by racism, but it is equally apparent that attributing all criticism to racism, something that Barack Obama, as both candidate and president, has never done, would be wrong. As such, the racism debate servers little real purpose. Nobody is going to be convinced. Nor is anybody is going to stop or change their behavior or their accusations.
In other words, white racists are going to keep on being white racists no matter what anyone says. So it's better for Obama supporters not to talk about white racism at all.

There are several problems with Mitchell's argument, starting with its cloud-level framing. This makes it easy to defend against criticism, a consideration of which academics are keenly aware. Whatever criticism someone makes of a cloud-level argument, the writer can say, "Oh, no, I didn't argue that." Omissions can be similarly defended.

He writes, "The debate about racism is currently being used by the right wing to distract from the important issue of health care reform." (my emphasis)


Up there in the clouds, Mitchell's post can't focus on the specific ways that the American media, particularly TV pundits, deal with racism. They love to talk about. Though they rarely have anything worthwhile to say about the topic. It's also a distraction for them. But our TV journalists are infotainers. Distractions are pretty much all they want to talk about. Mark Shields slipped up on camera earlier this month and said, "The political class, of whom I guess I'm one, we're -- we're all frustrated sportswriters." They want to talk about "horse-race" issues: who's leading in the polls, what the vote count is likely to be.

They love theater criticism. David Broder, The Dean Of All The Pundits, explained in his Washington Post column of 09/13/09 that to analyze Barack Obama's health care speech before the Joint Session of Congress, he watched it with the sound off. Because, The Dean said, he wanted to shut out "the argumentation" so he could focus "on the tone and body language, the elements that communicate most directly with the audience." How The Dean catches the "tone" of a speech without hearing the words is unclear.

Our celebrity pundits also love to talk about scandals. And sex. And fantasizing about Bill and Hillary Clinton's marriage. The policy details of health care reform? Boo-ooring! They'll talk about almost anything other than something like that. They will wring their hands and wonder how so many people can be conned into believing whoppers like the "death panels", though. The idea that they themselves have done a lousy job of reporting on health care reform usually doesn't enter their discussion of reasons for that strange result.

For white people, talking about white racism is always an annoying intrusion that distracts them from thinking about the stuff that's important to white people.

On the other hand, talking about racism is something that major Republican Party leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck do all them time. You know, the problematic kind of racism, the racism supposedly directed against white people. Beck is facing a serious advertiser boycott of his FOX program after saying on-air on July 28 that Obama is "a racist" with "a deep seated hatred for white people".

From down here on the ground, it looks like what Professor Mitchell is saying up there in the clouds is that, faced with with leading figures on the Republican right (do the Reps have anything but a right wing?) openly race-baiting the President, Democrats should just cover our ears to that kind of thing and say, "La-la-la-la, we can't hee-eear you!"

Yes, us white folks can think that strangely. Especially if you're a celebrity pundit, or aspiring to become one.

On the topic of white racism and its role on the Radical Right and in the Republican Party, though, I'm still leery of claims that the invective against Obama from the Radical Right is unprecedented. Digby recently called attention to this analysis published in 1998 by the conservative Hoover Institute, Why the GOP Is Doomed by Chris Caldwell Hoover Digest (4/1998). He recalls the 1994 Republican Revolution, as its supporters happily called it, following on the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. His article focuses on what he saw as long-term weaknesses for the Gingrichized Republican Party. But he reminds us in doing so of the kind of rhetoric that was creating that problems and the events that provided an uncomfortable context for it:

It’s understandable that voters have found Republicans “frightening,” given the dovetailing of southern Republican antigovernment rhetoric with that of right-wing terrorists. From this standpoint the two signal events of the 104th Congress were the Oklahoma City bombing, on April 19, 1995, and the government shutdowns of 1995–1996, advanced in a belligerent rhetoric of “revolution” that Americans distrusted.

On the morning that Timothy McVeigh sent hundreds of innocents to their graves, the lead story in all the major newspapers was President Clinton’s disastrous speech of the night before, the low point of his entire presidency, in which he argued pathetically that he was still “relevant” to the country’s politics. Clinton’s numbers quickly began to turn around. Newt Gingrich’s popularity, meanwhile, remained strikingly low. Gingrich called “pathetic” the media’s conflation of his “revolution” and McVeigh’s. But the court of public opinion is not a court of law, and politicians who show too much overlap with a force that Americans consider a genuine menace are punished for it, as the Democrats were during the Cold War.

And, like the Democrats of the seventies and eighties, the Republicans in the aftermath of Oklahoma City compounded the problem through their nitpicking libertarian indifference to Americans’ fears about armed violence. In thrall to their supporters in the National Rifle Association, the Republicans were soon trying to repeal a 1994 assault-weapons ban, after a brief postbombing breather. ...

Suddenly, in the wake of Oklahoma City, Americans noticed that it was conservatives, not liberals, who assailed the FBI and railed against putting 100,000 cops on the streets. It was the NRA, not the ACLU, that was raising money by attacking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as “jackbooted thugs.” Today it is the right, not the left, on which suspicion falls first whenever a bomb goes off. The identification of Gingrich with McVeigh may have been excessive, but there was no denying that sometime since the Reagan administration the Republicans had replaced the Democrats as the To-Hell-in-a-Handbasket Party, the party more congenial to haters of America. [my emphasis]
Although Caldwell was endorsing the view of the Democrats having overlapped with the menace to the country during the Cold War (he presumably means Soviet Communism) and of having been "the To-Hell-in-a-Handbasket Party", he recognizes in doing so that by 1998, the Republicans had become in public perceptions and, apparently, even in some more objective sense the kind of Party that they had previously accused the Democrats of being: indifferent "to Americans’ fears about armed violence", advocating a "revolution" that most people rejected, a party "congenial to haters of America."

Yes, white racism was a major factor in that round of Republican and Radical Right craziness, too. As Caldwell obliquely observed at the time:

The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South and the mountains. There is a big problem with having a southern, as opposed to a midwestern or a California, base. Southern interests diverge from those of the rest of the country, and the southern presence in the Republican Party has passed the “tipping point” and begun to alienate voters from other regions.

The most profound clash between the South and everyone else, of course, is a cultural one. It arises from the southern tradition of putting values - particularly Christian values - at the center of politics. This is not the same as saying that the Republican Party is “too far right”; Americans consistently tell pollsters that they are conservative on values issues. It is, rather, that the Republicans have narrowly defined values as the folkways of one regional subculture and have urged their imposition on the rest of the country. Again, the nonsoutherners who object to this style of politics may be just as conservative as those who practice it. But they are put off to see that “traditional” values are now defined by the majority party as the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls. [my emphasis]
Southern "folkways" in this context normally is a polite way of saying "white racism". Which, as Professor Mitchell explains to us, doesn't do any good for Democrats to talk about explicitly.

Notice in that last quoted sentence, Caldwell implicitly assumes that conservative Republican voters in what he calls elsewhere in the article "the most sophisticated parts of the country" are worried about the "values" emphasis of the Party. By "the most sophisticated parts of the country" he means not the South where you find "U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls." Are members of the United Steelworkers' Union (USW) or the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who vote heavily Democratic likely to look down on people who rent U-Hauls? That's where the Republicans use of the bogeyman the neocons called the New Class comes in, to give people who rent U-Hauls the notion that its the wicked libruls that look down on them, not conservative Republicans and plutocrats from "the most sophisticated parts of the country."

And by the way, what the hell is so "unsophisticated" about renting a U-Haul?!?

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