Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Politics: What Digby Said: The Final Edition, Part II

To recap Part I, on July 30, the prominent liberal blogger Digby, of the blog Hullabaloo, published a post titled "On Dogwhistles [sic]." The post was a response to criticisms from me, myiq2xu at The Confluence, commenters on her site, and possibly e-mail correspondents. These criticisms took her to task for attacking critics of Barack Obama for calling him "presumptuous" with regard to his July 24 rally in Berlin. Digby claimed that the "presumptuous" characterization was racist, and an euphemism for calling Senator Obama an "uppity" black man who "doesn't know his place." She first voiced these attacks on July 24th, and has repeated them as an often sarcastic meme in subsequent posts.

In Digby's response to her critics, she writes that we "seem to have concluded somewhere along the line that racism doesn't exist and/or the right wing doesn't use it to win elections." She then proceeded to offer a convoluted definition of a racist "dog whistle," which she claims the ubiquitous "presumptuous" description of Obama's conduct was.

Her description of a "dog whistle," quite frankly, all but sounded like something out of The Manchurian Candidate. In Part I of my essay, I analyzed examples of non-racist "dog whistles," and I concluded that a "dog whistle" was a trope for views on an aspect of public policy, which had the concomitant result of rallying sympathizers to one's side. I then examined Digby's examples of racist "dog whistles." They are:


Because of its prominence, I added the "black baby" push-polling attacks on John McCain in the 1980 GOP presidential primary.

After examining each case, I concluded that Reagan's "welfare queen" remarks and "states' rights" speech, as well as Helms' "Hands" ad, were genuinely racist "dog whistles." In other words, they were racist tropes for a public policy agenda expressed for the purpose of rallying support. The "states' rights" speech and the Helms ad were especially noxious, the first because the choice of setting implicitly sanctioned murder to prevent enforcement of civil-rights laws, and the second because it effectively said that Gantt's race meant he automatically supported the worst aspects of affirmative action policies as a matter of course.

However, Bush the Elder's use of the Willie Horton case against Michael Dukakis was not a racist "dog whistle." It was not a trope for a racist policy agenda. In fact, it was an almost entirely defensible attack that raised legitimate questions about a political opponent's judgment. (Dukakis unsuccessfully fought to maintain furlough privileges for first-degree murderers in Massachusetts after the Horton incident occurred.) The only objectionable aspect of the attack was the (brief) use of Horton's frightening mug shot--Horton admitted in jailhouse interviews that even he would have been scared by it--to exploit racist views of black men as violent criminals.

The "black baby" push-polling and the attack on Ford weren't racist "dog whistles" either; neither related to public policy questions at all. The issue was private behavior, and in both instances the candidates' moral character was questioned, with the slanderous accusations of adultery against McCain, and the highlighting of Ford's interest in socializing with pornographers and bimbos. (Ford's maturity, given his relatively young age, was an issue as well.) The inflammatory appeals to bigoted attitudes towards interracial romance were the icing on the cake, but even that is mitigated by the fact that blacks tend to be more likely than whites to find interracial romance and sex objectionable.

An important thing that was noted is that the four instances of racist campaigning cited since Reagan was elected in 1980 are the only four instances of racist campaigning for national office during that time. (Digby and I both feel the charges against the Clintons earlier this year were specious.) There is also a shift in the nature of the incidents: they're originally about public policy, but then they shift to highlighting questions of character on the part of the targeted candidates. The conclusion to be drawn is that the GOP and GOP politicians consider exploiting racial attitudes to have become less and less of an effective strategy over time. To return to Digby's charges against her critics, the question is not whether racism doesn't exist, or that the GOP uses it to win elections. The question is how relevant it is anymore, and whether the GOP even considers exploiting it to be an effective tactic. The interracial romance angle seems to be the only thing that's left for campaigning purposes, and like homophobia, that's equal opportunity bigotry as far as blacks and whites are concerned.

Digby brings up a quote from Bush's 1988 chief campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, who died in 1991:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Digby takes this as proof that all that is going on with racism is that the GOP just finds newer and newer substitutes for saying "nigger," or presumably, "Let's put the niggers back down and keep them there." However, she actually misses Atwater's point. This is the key sentence:

But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.

What Atwater was describing is the process of progression and development called sublation. (The term comes from Hegel, and I'll try to describe it without losing everyone.) Sublation is a dialectical process of integration and negation. Essentially, in the 1950s and 1960s, the law showed up to fight racism, and the law won. The only way for racism to survive in the short term was to say, "If you can't beat them, join them." However, in doing so, racism was no longer a societal discourse independent of the law. It had to become a discourse within the law, and becoming a discourse within the law meant adopting the law's core principles, which are equality, justice, and fairness. Racism, of course, is completely counter to those principles. This created tension and conflict within the law, such as with controversies over the social safety net, anxieties about violent crime, and battles over diversity policies, but eventually the law's principles prevail, and racism becomes more and more negated, eventually disappearing pretty much altogether.

Put another way, the law, in order to defeat racism once and for all, had to eat it. However, it was bad food, and in the process of metabolizing that bad food, there was all sorts of unpleasantness like belching, heartburn, flatulence, and, finally, diarrhea. But eventually the bad food gets metabolized out of the system, and ultimately everything's fine. If the only way left to politically exploit racism in the affirmative is to focus on the bigotries certain blacks and whites feel towards interracial romance and sex, I think we're near the end of the diarrhea stage. Racist attitudes and thinking will always be on the fringes, but so will things like the Koresh-style cults and the survivalist militias. All we can do is marginalize them and make them pariahs, like Lee Atwater admirably did to David Duke when he crawled out from under his rock in 1989.

Now, assuming people like Digby (and her broadcast-media counterpart Rachel Maddow) are arguing against language like "presumptuous" in good faith, what, in practical terms, are they trying to accomplish? Digby implies that some people are human robots waiting for the likes of Angela Lansbury (or, if you must, Meryl Streep) to say the right words to activate the latent racist within. This is absurd. Anyone inclined to view Barack Obama as an "uppity Negro who doesn't know his place" has been of that opinion since he emerged on the national stage four years ago. The worst calling him "presumptuous" could do is confirm those people in their views.

And I think that's it; Digby, Maddow, et al feel that if we say anything about Obama that a racist might agree with, we're doing something wrong. If that's what's going on, essentially what they're saying is that calling Obama "presumptuous" is in bad taste, and they're trying to shame us out of it. Unfortunately, anything negative that one could say about Obama might confirm a racist in his or her opinion, so the only way to avoid bad taste when discussing Obama is to not to say anything negative about him at all. This is a justification for stifling debate about Obama altogether.

I'm sorry, but if I have to choose between saying something in bad taste or not criticizing a political leader, I'll take a risk on the former. Political discussion is a civic responsibility, and I'm not going to censor myself because what I say might bring a smile to some troglodyte's face. I'm certainly not going to censor myself in a discussion of a political leader's hubris, which is the most pernicious and dangerous trait a politician can have. I would suggest to Digby that she get past knee-jerk reactions to things she doesn't like, and ask what things mean in practical terms before she passes judgment.

On MSNBC's Race for the White House on July 30, Rachel Maddow again displayed the knack for sophistry former fans like me have come to know and loathe over the last six months. In addition to her other problems with the "presumptuous" criticism, it just isn't fair:

Frankly, it‘s John McCain who‘s been running weekly radio addresses, as if he is president. He literally ran two ads in May that both described him as President McCain. In terms of who is acting like he is already president, he gave speeches talking about what the world is going to be like at the end of his first term. Nobody said, who does John McCain think he is?

Well, as the saying goes, life isn't fair. But, platitudes aside, the truth is that any overreaching of McCain's has been nowhere near the scale of Obama's. I didn't know about the weekly radio addresses, but I have no problem with Obama giving weekly addresses of his own. Hell, given that he's effectively the Democratic nominee, I encourage him. As for the McCain ads, I haven't seen them, but I can easily imagine a context where that would be appropriate, particularly if the language is in the future tense. (President McCain would do this, and President McCain would do that.) And I would like to know where he (or Obama, for that matter) sees the world being at the end of his prospective first term; it gives the measure he wants to be evaluated by if and when the time comes to consider reelecting him.

What I don't see McCain doing is running for a President with a résumé so thin that it suggests contempt for the office's responsibilities. What I don't see McCain doing is effectively telling huge swathes of voters loyal to his party that he doesn't need their votes. And with regard to Berlin, which is what kicked off this whole controversy, I don't see McCain going in front of tens of thousands of citizens in a foreign nation and undermining the foreign policies of the United States' legal government. I don't have a problem with Obama doing it here at home; that's internal debate. But abroad, he has a responsibility to act as a representative of George W. Bush's. If he can't support the present policies when overseas, he needs to keep his mouth shut about it. As much as it sticks in my craw, Bush is the legal head of state and government in this country, and until he leaves office, his is the face we have to put forward to the world. That's his privilege under law and custom.

Going back to Digby, she ends her piece declaring her innocence in the accusations of racism being directed at the Clintons last January. I, for one, never accused her of it, but a look through her archives shows she didn't write anything in their defense, either. She also points to her criticism of the sexism directed at Hillary Clinton and bemoans her not getting any credit for it. Actually, I do give her credit for it, although I wish it had gone further than complaints about what was said on cable news. She did not take advantage of her stature among fellow bloggers to try to calm down the civil war that erupted between the Obama and Clinton camps, or to send some temperate criticisms the Obama campaign's way. She did not ask for--and may not want--her stature, but once one has it, one has the responsibility to do right by it. She failed that responsibility, and in her attempt to stifle criticism of Obama, she betrays both it and her claims of commitment to public discussion.

In closing, this has been something of a ramble, but I hope everyone who reads this feels I had something worthwhile to say. As far as Digby goes, though, I am talked out. This has been the final edition of What Digby Said.

No comments: