Obama, Racism...and Digby--with Update
by Pol C, Mon Jul 28, 2008 at 08:53:08 AM EDT
Like many others, I was appalled by Obama's decision to conduct a support rally for himself in Berlin last week. The only U.S. political figure who has any business conducting political rallies on foreign soil is the President or a President-approved proxy, and even then only with the endorsement of that country's government. Obama is not the President, and Angela Merkel would have stopped this if she could have--the decision to allow this spectacle was made by the municipal government in Berlin. Foreign nationals should stay out of U.S. politics, whether it is Elton John at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, or the German citizenry at the Obama rally Thursday.
In a short essay last week, posted Wednesday on my blog Pol Culture and cross-posted as a diary on Alegre's Corner, I wrote that I considered Obama the same sort of callow narcissist as George W. Bush: a man with little interest in public policy who sees the Presidency as the brass ring in his quest for self-aggrandizement. I wrote that I didn't want to see his equivalent of Operation Flightsuit. I believe we may have seen the first version of it Thursday, with the allusions to Reagan's 1987 Brandenburg speech serving as the requisite Spinal Tap cucumber.
My disdain for Obama's conduct Thursday, which violated the spirit, if not the letter of federal law, has been echoed by many online and in the traditional press. As Bob Cesca at The Huffington Post noted (given the source, please find your own link), many of the complaints in the press tended to have one thing in common: they all pushed the meme that Obama is being "presumptuous." Nothing too surprising there; the press is notoriously lazy, and they're most likely recycling language from a press release from either the McCain campaign or one of its proxies. And it's no big deal; being presumptuous is synonymous with hubris, and questions of hubris should always be on one's mind when considering the conduct of political leaders.
But then along came Digby. Now Digby is one of our leading liberal bloggers, and her reputation is such that even in these dark, divided days of the liberal blogosphere she is generally held in regard by all. Among many (including myself) she is seen as a voice of wisdom, and even if we no longer visit the sites where "What Digby Said" was a frequent link tag, we still appreciate the sentiment. However, in an extremely unfortunate post Friday, she revives one of the most odious tactics of the Obama campaign during the primary season: deconstructing perfectly reasonable--even factual--statements by Obama critics into racist statements or racist appeals. Here's the offending paragraph:
That's right. If you think Obama's rally in Berlin arrogantly crossed the bounds of propriety, or if you find Obama himself a study in hubris, it's because deep down--deeper than you may even know--you're a racist. And to criticize Obama for arrogant conduct is to fan the flames of racism in others.
Keep in mijnd [sic] that the GOP does not do this stuff for a knock out [sic]. They operate on the death of a thousand cuts. Little criticisms, relentlessly played, dribbled out over time designed to create a running theme. This one is obvious: elitist, aloof, and --- presumptuous. That last carries quite an amazing amount of freight --- presumptuous, uppity, doesn't know his place. It applies neatly to any Democrat who deigns to lead Broderville but the historical, subliminal American memory that attaches to such a word when the person in question is black is particularly powerful. (I smell the mark of Rove on that --- he's really good at stuff like this.)
Digby has apparently decided to turn this into her own little meme. An ironic reference to Obama as "the Presumptuous Uppity One" appears in a subsequent post, and in a third, she uses this language to impute race-baiting motives on the part of McCain in his criticisms of his opponent:
[McCain]'s saying that Obama is more interested in "others" than he is Real Americans. Typical elite. Uppity at that. It's hard to know if this approach will work, but it makesa [sic] certain amount of sense for Republicans. People are in a sour mood. They want to blame somebody. Why not a young, black guy?I've personally asked Digby to stop this in the comments section of her blog. All she's doing in the name of fighting this alleged race-baiting is to sow the seeds of hatred against those who dare to criticize Obama. Calling someone a racist in the U.S. today is akin to calling them a child molester, and fringe groups like the Klan and Aryan Nation are held in much the same regard as NAMBLA. We've seen this tactic before from Obama supporters, most notoriously after the time Bill Clinton outlined Obama's shifting positions on the Iraq War and called the depiction of Obama as a steadfast opponent of Bush on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Well, no, the Obama supporters claimed. Bill Clinton isn't calling the depiction Obama's position on the Iraq War a fairy tale. You have to read between the lines; you have to "deconstruct." What's he's really doing is calling the notion that a black man could successfully run for President a fairy tale. Bill Clinton is a racist! (Those looking for a recap of that whole sorry episode, click here.)
Depending on what part of the country you're from, you're long familiar with these sort of tactics. I come from the Detroit metropolitan area, which has been one of the most racially polarized regions in the country for the last few decades. I grew up watching local African-American politicians, most notably Coleman Young, Detroit's mayor between 1974 and 1993, reflexively yell racism every time something didn't go their way. The goal is to rally African-Americans and the non-AA liberals behind them while intimidating the opposition into silence. If you want a more recent local example, look no further than Detroit's current mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and his responses to the situation that resulted in the eight felony indictments brought against him in March.
In the short term, the strategy works. However, in the long term, it does enormous injury to the body politic, and you end up with places as polarized as the Detroit area, where one side sees the other as racists, and the other side sees the first as fools. Hate-mongering of the sort Obama, Digby, and others are engaging in needs to stop, and it needs to be aggressively called out when it occurs. These tactics are just as divisive as true racist appeals and tactics such as Nixon's "Southern strategy,"Reagan's assorted "innocent mistakes," and George Bush the Elder's use of Willie Horton in his 1988 Presidential campaign. In the United States of 2008, they may be even more divisive.
Personally, I have no idea what Digby even knows about racism and race relations in this country. She's a white resident of white-bread Santa Monica, California, where the African-American population is less than four percent, and she writes as if all her knowledge of the subject comes from books or news reports. There's no sense in her writing that she has any firsthand knowledge or experience of racism in this country. Has she ever lived in a predominantly black or racially mixed working-class community? (I emphasize working class, because an affluent African-American who doesn't affect identifications with working class blacks, is, in the words of Archie Bunker, "one of the good ones.") Does she know firsthand what it's like to live in a racially polarized area where politicians cynically stoke racial divisions for their own benefit? I don't know, but my impression is that her knowledge of racism is entirely in the abstract. Perhaps it's for the best if she restrict her criticism of racism to overt expressions and actions. Interpretations not rooted in experience tend towards the solipsistic.
As for what to do about Digby, my recommendation is to let her know how you feel about her peddling this garbage. You can write her--be polite--at . I also recommend dropping her from your blog rolls until she stops this hateful behavior and apologizes for it. I know I will. The opportunity to let this pass quietly in the night is gone.[Note: The update reflects repairs to some technical coding glitches in the post. The text has not changed.]
UPDATE: Digby has informed me in an e-mail that she has no intention of halting or backing off the statements criticized in this diary. I shouldn't have expected better, but I always hope.