Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No One Who Puts His Hand to the Plow and Looks Back Is Fit to Serve in the Obama Campaign

There's been a fair amount of reaction to Melissa Harris-Perry's accusation that white liberals are "abandoning" Obama because they're racist. She admits that she's talking about "a more insidious form of racism," though, since she names no specific culprits nor any specific examples of racist practice or discourse. What her complaint boils down to that Obama has suffered
a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected.
David Sirota took Harris-Perry down on that last point:
President Clinton was not "enthusiastically re-elected," as Harris-Perry well knows. When Clinton triangulated against his liberal base with NAFTA, welfare reform and "don't ask, don't tell" (among other issues), he faced just as vociferous liberal criticism as Obama does today, and in the very journals like the Nation for which Harris-Perry now writes.

As a result, America saw the opposite of "enthusiasm" in 1996 -- that presidential election, in fact, saw unprecedentedly low turnout. Additionally, Clinton -- after dissing his base -- won a meager 49 percent of the vote in that election, despite running against one of the weakest, least charismatic Republican presidential nominees in recent memory. In short, just as many white liberals were dissatisfied with a white president for abandoning the Democratic Party's base back in 1996, so too are many now dissatisfied with a black president for doing the same -- or, in many cases, worse.

(For the record, in 1996 I voted for Nader. But then, I'm not a liberal or a Democrat.)

Sirota shows how Harris-Perry ignores numerous important differences between Clinton and Obama, unemployment and a staggering economy not least among them. It doesn't help that Obama's approval rates among African-Americans have also taken a nosedive, which I suppose is also because of racism. Or maybe it's because, as Obama himself claimed during his repellent performance before the Congressional Black Caucus, blacks are lazy and demand everything handed to them on a platter: "Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying." (This is not a new theme in the Obama show, of course.) I seem to remember another distinguished African-American leader saying essentially the same thing a few years ago: "Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine." He also claimed that he was picked on because of his race, and suffered a "high-tech lynching" which climaxed in his elevation to the highest court in the land.

Harris-Perry exhibits behavior we've seen before, by Republicans during the Bush years: she's just regurgitating White House talking points, from her touting all those lovely laws that were passed under Obama - quantity trumps quality, you see -- to claiming that his critics are "disappointed" because he didn't save the world in forty-eight hours. (The writer Pearl Cleage posted a status with the same basic content today.) From his lips to her keyboard! Especially so soon after the debt-ceiling debacle, you wouldn't think an Obama loyalist would want to remind her readers about her leader's record, but let her have her will. We're going to see a lot more of the same as the campaign drags on.

I went back to C. P. Snow's response to personal attacks in The Two Cultures, a good all-purpose approach.
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
One reason why accusations of racism can be so effective is that the United States is a racist country: no one can honestly claim that his or her opinions are utterly free of it. But just for that reason, unless you can point to specifically racist elements of someone's practice or talk, saying that an American is racist is like saying that they're breathing. One could just as accurately claim that white liberal supporters of Obama are racist, and continue supporting him because they're trying to overcompensate for their prejudice. Either move is a distraction from the issues, though of course that's normal in a political campaign. Obama's going to need a shitload of distraction to throw in the voters' eyes during the coming thirteen months, though his Republican would-be opponents are doing their best to make it easy for him.

Meanwhile, Obama should be challenged when he demands support for harmful policies, which is what he was doing with the Congressional Black Caucus. If they resist voting for bills that will harm their constituency, they're doing their job, not shirking it.

And what an irony: one similarity between Clinton and Obama that Harris-Perry overlooks (not too surprisingly) is that they both lost control of Congress in midterm elections because their right-wing policies alienated their base. This undermines her case, because she depends on a postulated "double standard" that let a white (but still America's first black) president get away with things a black president can't.