Thursday, March 13, 2008

Black and White All Over

If Marx didn’t create identity politics, he certainly memorialized it. And if you wanted a perfect display of identity politics, whereby any reasoned criticism must be an attack on the identity of the object of criticism, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson provides it. See if you can find the racism directed against Obama that Professor Patterson finds in Hillary Clinton’s "3 a.m." ad.


Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson goes off the deep end, making an argument in the op-ed page of the NYT that seemingly would place any reasoned criticism of Obama within the rubric of racism. It is a sophomoric argument and its basis, even he admits, is not obvious:

On first watching Hillary Clinton’s recent "It’s 3 a.m." advertisement, I was left with an uneasy feeling that something was not quite right — something that went beyond my disappointment that she had decided to go negative. Repeated watching of the ad on YouTube increased my unease. I realized that I had only too often in my study of America’s racial history seen images much like these, and the sentiments to which they allude.

. . . To be sure, [the ad] states that something is "happening in the world" — although it never says what this is — and that Mrs. Clinton is better able to handle such danger because of her experience with foreign leaders. But every ad-maker, like every social linguist, knows that words are often the least important aspect of a message and are easily muted by powerful images.

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s "Birth of a Nation," the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

Professor Patterson is a man whose vision of the world is so distorted that all he sees he interprets through the prism of black and white – or in the word’s of Marx, the "oppressed and the oppressor." That still does not explain how he can see anything affirmatively racist in this advertisement. Professor Patterson explains for the benefit of liberals still unsure why they should feel guilt at this ad:

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Is this man warped or what? To follow this logic, any communication from a white individual that does not contain some affirmative statement of non-racism is to be considered racist. It is the stain of original sin with the person so stained being guilty unless proven innocent - on a case by case basis.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

How is Hillary Clinton answering the phone at 3 a.m. in a business suit the "insidious language of symbolism?" Perhaps this is symbolism only an intensely delusional Harvard Professor can see? It is lost on me, however. I am far more likely to interpret it as Hillary still awake waiting for Bill to return home from a night out with his new best friend, Eliot.

For more than a century, American politicians have played on racial fears to divide the electorate and mobilize xenophobic parties. Blacks have been the "domestic enemy," the eternal outsider within, who could always inspire unity among "we whites." Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was built on this premise, using coded language — "law and order," "silent majority" — to destroy the alliance between blacks and white labor that had been the foundation of the Democratic Party, and to bring about the Republican ascendancy of the past several decades. The Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a crude manifestation of this strategy — as was the racist attack used against John McCain’s daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh, in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000.

This is clearly more of the same delusion, but let me ask in particular about the Willie Horton ad. Willie Horton was a dangerous criminal pardoned by Dukakis who then committed rape and murder, if I recall correctly. Is the incredible poor judgment displayed by Dukakis in that decision somehow off limits because of the color of Horton’s skin? Would that same ad been acceptable to Professor Patterson if Horton was white or asian?

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too, that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been a Muslim.

Obviously the fact that Mr. Obama has no foreign policy experience, no military experience, and has threatened to neuter both is not a reasonable cause for concern raised by the 3 a.m. ad. Somehow, the ad effectively convinced a large swath of people not to vote for Obama because of the color of his skin. And as I recall, Hillary said that to the best of her knowledge, Obama was not a Muslim. That is precisely the truth and to go beyond that would have been false. Clinton cannot possibly know more than what Mr. Obama has said. But according to the Professor, simply saying the accurate truth is racist.

It is in the areas of foreign policy and the military that Obama is weakest. This is an attempt by Professor Patterson to preempt such criticism by falsely asserting that such criticism is racist. It is the penultimate identity politics argument, whereby any substantive criticism is seen as an attack on the person's identity.

I wrote several weeks ago:

If Obama supporters are allowed to make this next election an unspoken referendum on race and liberal guilt, than this is going to be a bloody Presidential election season indeed. It will be a tremendous disservice to an America where racisim is very much on the wane and equality, imperfect though it may be, is the rule, not the exception.

Obama can’t be allowed to have it both ways. If he is going to run on the platform that the color of his skin is a justification for his election to the Presidency, than he needs to say that publicly and be judged accordingly. And if he is not seeking the Presidency on his genetic heritage, than he needs to publicly denounce efforts to portray criticism of him as racist. He needs to be pressed about this in the MSM, and he needs to be pressed about it now. This is very much a substantive issue.

What I wrote in that post applies directly to what Professor Patterson is doing with his argument above.

On a final note, if this is typical of the intellectual level amongst Harvard professors, than our nation is in a lot of trouble. Professor Patterson obviously sees everything through the lens of racism. He has no business whatsoever passing on his prejudices to our nation’s best and brightest. Or if they truly are our best and brightest, than I hope they realize just how sophomoric and poisonous Mr. Orlando Patterson truly is.

Update: The WSJ arives at the same conclusions as have I:

Already, prominent Obama sympathizers, such as Harvard's Orlando Patterson, are detecting racial overtones where none exist. In a New York Times op-ed this week, Mr. Patterson said a Clinton political ad designed to question Mr. Obama's readiness as Commander in Chief contained a "racist sub-message" because none of the people depicted in the TV spot are black. Counting people of color in an ad about national security is hardly consistent with the Obama theme that "race doesn't matter."

We suppose some of the current back and forth is due to the diversity preoccupations of Democrats. But it bodes ill for an honest fall campaign if Mr. Obama and his allies are going to play the race card to blunt any criticism. A campaign in which John McCain couldn't question Mr. Obama's policies, experience and mettle without being called a racist is not what the country needs. Or wants.

Democrats have repeatedly touted the diversity of their party's White House hopefuls. And it is true that a Clinton or Obama Presidency would make gender or racial history. Americans of all backgrounds can take satisfaction in watching the country field its first black Presidential candidate with a chance to win. But voters also want their would-be Presidents properly vetted, by the media and by each other. To that end Mr. Obama would do better to focus more on answering his political critics with specifics and less on questioning their motives by crying wolf on race.

Read the entire article.


MK said...

"To follow this logic, any communication from a white individual that does not contain some affirmative statement of non-racism is to be considered racist."


Perhaps he thinks that if he repeats it enough times, it'll just become true.

el said...

Question, using the "if A were B" argument that has gained so much traction in this election cycle...

If Obama were a Republican would he be getting he support he is? My answer---yes, he would!

And the conclusion is that his supporters are voting for the man, not the party!

Ok, so far, so trite...but consider this unconsidered spanner in the works of this election...if the Obama people feel that Hillary can "steal" the election from their man THEY WILL RUN OBAMA AS AN INDEPENDENT!

Why not? If the man is above Party why tie him to one, especially one that doesn't truly appreciate him! He can raise more money, get more votes, wield far far more power as the creator of a viable new party than as the creation of an old one!

And now my point...Obama as the front man of an Independent Party could reasonably create a VIABLE THIRD PARTY (The Independent Party? the Outsider PartY? The Rainbow Party?) with staying power over the long run.

90% of blacks, the White Liberal Elite, and a fair few Hispanics, and you've got all the makings of a huge upset!

Now if Obama were truly interested in change and in breaking with old Washington, This is what he should do!

Or does anybody out there really believe that Obama is a man who will put his Party allegiance above his personal ambition?