Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On an open request for clarification

Okay, so I'm sincerely kind of embarrassed. I feel like there's something I've missed, like there's something I'm supposed to be automatically picking up on and that I'm just not seeing because I'm blinded by privilege. And if it turns out that I am, I sincerely ask to be set straight on the matter.

But I don't really understand why the Joe Wilson thing cracks of racism.

I'll be the first to point out how much racism has been ladled on President Obama and family since his presidential campaign really kicked up (okay, not the first, but I have said my piece). And the Deep South doesn't exactly have the best reputation for universal acceptance and colorblindness, with Wilson's own South Carolina taking a particular hit for classics like its Confederate state flag and the "McCain's illegitimate black baby" push-polling and the stupid use of Facebook by a So.Car. GOP activist.

But when Jimmy Carter says that Wilson's outburst was "based on racism" and fears of a black president, I just can't follow his logic. No matter how many times I review the video and the transcripts and the context of Obama's talk, I can't find anything in those two shouted words that can only be attributed to racism and nothing else.

There is truth to what Carter said. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president"; that's definitely true, as is his assertion in an interview with Brian Williams that a lot of animosity is directed at Obama because he's a black man. But I find myself unable to take the next step that bridges the gap between premise and conclusion, saying, "Not only are these things true, but they are the reason that Joe Wilson shouted the way he did." I'm looking, but I don't see the causality.

Similar is the assertion that all anti-Obama signs carried at "tea parties" and outside of townhall meetings are racist in nature. Sure, absolutely, many of them are--your "Home Don't Play Dat"s, your "White Slavery"s and "What You Talkin About Willis"es, your wandering white supremacists who neither side will claim. And many of the signs aren't racist. "Obama = Hitler" (or Stalin, or Che, or whoever) signs are both cheap and poorly thought out, but are they racist? Are they any more racist than the "Bush = Hitler" signs that went up during his presidential campaigns, just because Obama is a person of color?

My assertion is that sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. Sometimes, a tea partier or a townhall protester is just insulting and uncreative, with the underlying factor being stupidity rather than racism.

On "Hardball" today, Chris Matthews interviewed Senator Donna Edwards (D - MD) on the subject, unabashedly prompting her again and again to assign racism to Wilson's outburst. And again and again, the congresswoman, herself black, refuted it:
MATTHEWS: Do you think this is a race thing?

EDWARDS: I don't think it is at all. I mean I spent my time over the weekend in my district, you know, black folks, white folks, you know, across the stripes. Democrats and Republicans, who themselves expressed their disapproval and really their dismay. And so I don't think it's really about race. It's really about our institutions and the rules that govern us.

MATTHEWS: No. I think, I wasn't clear Congresswoman. I mean was it a racial thing on the part of Wilson? Was he expressing contempt for Barack Obama because of his heritage?

EDWARDS: I don't think that at all. I mean, I think there's been a vigorous debate about the policy and about health care. The problem is that, you know, while he offered a personal apology, it was actually a public offense to the institution. We just don't do that and we, we have to distinguish ourselves and, in fact, our rules are what distinguish us from other kinds of governments.

And so, unable to dig the response he wanted from Edwards, Matthews had to move on to Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post to find someone who'd agree that Wilson "smacks of the old days."

And then we have Maureen Dowd, who insists in her New York Times column that what we could have heard, had we been listening hard enough, was what Joe Wilson had meant to say--"You lie, boy." And once again, she brings up valid points--attempts to deligitimize Obama as president, the fact that some people will never accept a black man in the White House--and yet fails, such that I can see, to connect them causally to Joe Wilson's outburst.

Now, I think we can all agree that Joe Wilson is generally pretty racist. From there, the question becomes: Is a statement automatically racist if it comes out of the mouth of a racist person? Is racism like pernicious B.O., making everything around you stink even if you don't personally wear it? Or is it possible that a person who can easily come up with racism came up with, in this case, bad manners, a lack of propriety, and partisanship?

I'm not saying that his outburst couldn't have been rooted in racism; I'm just saying that once we come up with that possibility, we shouldn't shout "Eureka!" and decide we've found the answer. Maybe it was full-on racism. Maybe Wilson was simply overcome with passion and anger and couldn't control himself. Maybe he wasn't overcome at all and just didn't have the home training that would help him keep his mouth shut. Maybe he was trying to get attention and it didn't turn out as he'd hoped. Maybe he expected his fellow GOP representatives join him in a righteously outraged chorus and was embarrassed when they didn't. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it's a combination of several of those things. But I don't see any signs that tell me I should stop digging when I hit "racist."

A lot of people, largely on the left, are saying right now that we as Americans need to have respect for the office of the president, and righties are cheering as patriotic and brazen all of the tea-partiers with their "Obama = Socialism" signs. This is in contrast to the Bush administration, when the lefties were protesting and holding the signs and the righties were calling them unAmerican and telling them to leave the country. Protesting, holding stupid signs, and having not nearly enough respect for the president are things that surpass time and race; that kind of assholishness is the great uniter.

Which is not to say there aren't some differences. While Bush was generally accused of stealing the 2000 election, Obama was accused of being Kenyan (and delegitimized for being a black man in what some saw as a white man's office)--there's racism behind that. When Bush was compared to a monkey, it was usually about his ears, and when Obama was, it was usually a slur on his ethnic heritage--there's racism there. It's not that it never happens. But it doesn't always happen, and when we automatically jump to that conclusion-to the exclusion of all others--whenever someone shows disrespect to Obama, we run the risk of dulling that message, and we miss a valuable opportunity to address a significant source of conflict that we might not otherwise see.

Unless I'm missing something, which is possible.

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