Thursday, October 21, 2010

Of Reds, Racists and Rubes

One of the reasons I don't blog much anymore is that I said most of what I had to say between November of 2007 and the election the following November, when the general ideas I had about the state of the liberal mind in America came to life before my very eyes. Those 480 posts were me theorizing out loud. The over-arching theme was the fault line within the Democratic Party (which I had been haphazardly posting about since the previous electoral cycle in 2006, when the Lieberman debacle started to expose the fissure) that has only widened.

Accusations of racism, obsession with reducing political opponents to racists, and a reflexive lunge for racism as the true root of opposition to the Obama administration/ health care/organic produce/ insert issue of the week here looks and sounds like nothing so much as the Red-baiting tactics of McCarthy and Nixon back in the day. Just as that obsession (revived today under the "Socialist! epithet being attached to someone whose policies are well to the right of Tricky Dick's) had roots in both the pre-New Deal strength of labor and the danger of the "Commie" Russians and Chinese (usually confounded with the fascist Nazis), so, too, does the racism obsession have it's roots in slavery and segregation. As I discussed in The Whiteness of the Whale, reversal of the Democratic Party's traditional defense of racism became the defining characteristic of the party after Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act Act (about which LBJ said "I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway.").

As with the Right's use of anti-Communism, the Left's use of racism as a political trope to delegitimize opponents (to be distinguished from battling actual racism, which would entail relinquishing the historical privilege those liberal elites enjoy, just as actually abiding by true capitalist/free market ideology would wipe out the "socialism for the rich" advantages of the Right's elite) is sounding more like the crazy uncle than describing any reality I can observe.

Bob Somerby, the Incomparable One, has been documenting this phenomenon. In his post from yesterday, Interpreting the Crazy, he dissects the problem by focusing on Digby and Rebecca Traister, starting by putting right-wing noise machine activities into perspective(my emphasis throughout):
A conservative in a conservative journal, Ferguson trashes Dinesh D’Souza’s new book. In the process, he refers to previous assaults on President Clinton as a form of “insanity.” But alas! Many liberals slept in the woods during the wars against Clinton, then Gore. When this same sort of kooky behavior was later aimed at Obama, they knew what this behavior must be:

It had to be a form of racism! Let’s be candid: For many of us in the liberal world, this is the only political concept found in our tiny small brains.

Ferguson helps us recall an important point: Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy; it isn’t The Crazy and Racist. Presumably, racism still exists in the land—though many liberals are so promiscuous in their use of this term that we ourselves rarely use it. Presumably, some opposition to Obama is built out of racial feeling; Candidate Obama’s white vote in several Deep South states was remarkably small, for example. But President Clinton was visibly white—painfully so in the summer months—and he was savaged as a “Manchurian candidate” too! He was a cokehead and a serial murderer—and a major drug runner. Presumably, these ludicrous, hotly-advanced beliefs were not bruited due to his race.

Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy—except when certain types of top-shelf “progressives” start discussing the conduct and thinking of The Great Unwashed. We pondered this undying problem when we reviewed this recent Digby post. The post includes videotape of a recent discussion of the so-called Tea Party by a group of high-minded liberal folks
He then provides an excerpt from Traister and discusses the inadequacy of Digby's analysis. (I note that Digby has always been blunt about having been raised by racists and that this is her primary motivating political force - to annihilate that world view. Those who read her before she was female know it was a recurring theme in her blog.) Somerby points out the hubris and self-aggrandizement of self-appointed spokesmen of The Tribe:
Traister’s speech strikes us as blatantly foolish. By way of contrast, it struck Digby as an exposition of the gruesome ways of The Other. But if Traister really wants to know why “the left just doesn’t seem to be able to come up with either the message or then the mechanism to disperse that message as effectively as the right,” we would suggest that she click Digby’s link and listen to herself talk. In 2008, the electorate was 74 percent white; we’ll guess the percentage will be higher in 2010. Why do “progressives” have so much trouble developing a “message” which reaches these people? In part, because of the foolish attitudes blurted by tribals like this.

And make no mistake, “liberals” love to spread their dramatic race war portraits, in which The Other Tribe is a group of snarling racists and Our Own One True Tribe is driven by racial greatness. Indeed, the “liberal journal” for which Traister writes brands itself in this way, although its editor would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before she would stoop to assign a discussion of the interests of the nation’s black and brown kids. On the merits, the social progress Traister describes hasn’t all occurred “on the left;” many people have come a long way as this progress has occurred. On the politics, it would be wise for progressives to give some credit to those from outside our own ratty group. But a certain type of pseudo-liberal loves the drama of race-war portraits.
He concludes by returning to the true issue at hand - actually maintaining a hold on power long enough to get anything done - and how maybe you really shouldn't be actively hostile to the people that you need to have vote for you:
“Extremism for Dummies,” Digby’s headline said. For our money, Traister and Rich could be listed among the political dummies. They’re also lovers of The Tribe, and of all it represents. In their own form of tribal loathing—in their massive political dumbness—they help explain why “the left just doesn’t seem to be able to come up with either the message or then the mechanism to disperse that message as effectively as the right has.”

Final point: At the start of that GritTV chat, host Laura Flanders promoted “a new book I had the honor of editing.” Here is its title: “At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey Whiteness of The New Republican Right.” In an electorate which is 74 percent white, this type of casual racial denigration may not be the best political play. But such casual denigration has become amazingly common on ours, the “progressive” side.

It sometimes seems that souls like Flanders love to hate. They love it more than “progress” itself. They love the greatness of their own tribe. And they seem to love the danger of the threats from The Other.

They seem to love “multi-faceted rage.” More than progress itself?
Why are these people so determined to provide the fuel for the Republican's Southern Strategy, a political tactic based on a volatile mix of class resentment and racial fear-mongering? The mode of Whole Foods Nation - who are not progressive and rarely liberal - is increasingly indistinguishable from the followers of Tail-Gunner Joe. It's the mode of a group who can very unselfconsciously advocate calling a woman a whore and not see how that might strike a significant portion of the population as something just as objectionable as calling her by a racial slur.

Today, Somerby goes after the "Rhodes Scholar", Rachel Maddow, and her sensationalizing what the right-wing press is (or in this case, isn't) up to. The Incomparable One highlights her educational title ("This very dumb segment was performed by Maddow, who gets sold to us as a former Rhodes Scholar.") deliberately, letting us draw the comparison between Maddow and another Rhodes Scholar - Big Dog. After pointing out that reporting on the delivery of the news was not reporting the news (let alone engaging in analysis of events), Somerby pithily notes "This is now the kind of work we get from our Rhodes Scholars—with tribal hacks running as fast as they can to kiss the scholar’s ass."

The real Rhodes Scholar is out on the road, traveling and speaking on behalf of Democratic candidates, and filling up lecture halls with thousands of party faithful who come to listen to Bill rattle off statistics, talk about policy, advocate practical change and, oh, yeah, make them feel like intelligent, respected, valuable members of a political party who are making decisions in their own rational self-interest, not terrified suburban dupes being stomped by radioactive Amazons.

People are motivated by rational self-interest, especially in times of need. Projecting onto them your own fantasies of oppression and of moral pollution (not to mention more than a bit of socioeconomic guilt) is not going to win you votes. It will only engender more resentment and disaffection. While I was obviously wrong about the ability to win the general election in this post, most of what I identified as problems with the campaign tactics are now solidifying into general political problems. Looking down your upper-middle class nose at the party loyalists who are sliding into poverty because of erosion of wages, pensions, job security, health care and related practical matters because they're fat and white and probably are racists doesn't earn you many adherents.

If you consistently treat the voters you need to win over as either rubes or racists, why do you think they would give you their support?



Anonymous said...

Spot on, as usual. The Republicans do their version of the Southern Strategy because it suits them - if you serve a relatively small number of rich people against the interests of a large number of non-rich people, you have to divide the other side with appeals to race, class, and culture. However, if you're on the other side battling the rich people, who own 1 and a half of the major parties and heavily influence the MSM, you need unity. You cant't afford self-indulgent trust-fund "progressive" rants against shadowy racists, classless slobs, and the "low information voter." You have to stow that and tell that voter, again and again, that we've indulged the rich and their handymen, the financial industry, for 30 years, and the result has been to shaft all of us. And you have to tell them that you're on their side, regardless of who they are, in their struggles to stay afloat and not get screwed by the folks on top.

Let's not divide each other - that's what our elites want. If we really want Change You Can Believe In, a good place to start would be to shift the self-destructive game of Us v. Them that's based on race, class, and culture and shift it to money - let's stick together against the rich people and their buddies who are trying to stiff us.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Very good analysis.

I am haunted by something I wrote myself, when I went to see Ron Paul in Greenville, SC during the 2008 presidential campaign: how I could immediately spot who was downtown to eat at the pricey new restaurants-on-the-river, and who was downtown to see Ron Paul: Their clothes, their demeanor, their shoes, their number of kids, their vehicles, their accents.

The whiteness wasn't it.

Also, I wrote about Matt Taibbi's nasty Rolling Stone article; in fact, I went over to AlterNet and brawled when PZ Myers first cross-posted it. I was informed that Taibbi wasn't really making fun of disabled people on respirators, and besides, they aren't working people, they're on respirators! (note: Coal mining puts people on respirators, and this was Kentucky they were talking about... Rand Paul territory)

Did they think the Kentuckians would read what Taibbi said and rush out to vote against Rand? WHAT?

Feel like slitting my wrists any day now.