Is It Racist to Say Obama's Untested?
Senator Joseph Lieberman almost became the Vice President of the United States in what would have been a Democratic administration. Now an independent, he speaks on behalf of John McCain, who has voted in lockstep with the Bush Administration 95 percent of the time. "The choice could not be more clear: between one candidate, John McCain, who [has] been tested in war and tried in peace, another candidate who has not. Between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not. Between one candidate who's a talker, and the other candidate who's the leader America needs as our next President."
At least Lieberman had the decency to leave the Democratic Party. But his three-point refrain is one that an alarming number of Democrats (including one in five disaffected supporters of Hillary Clinton) seem to be echoing. First, he maintains that Obama is untested in war. It's an oddly ironic reason for independents to vote for a Bush-backed Republican; surely, heroic military service alone isn't a qualification, or those swing voters would have had more respect for the same in the showdown between Kerry, the veteran, and Bush, the draft dodger.
Second, it is demonstrably false that Obama has not worked across party lines; this much is a boldfaced lie. But the rhetorical force of Lieberman's accusation lies not in what Stephen Colbert would call its "truthiness" but in its innuendo: that Obama doesn't play well with others, that he doesn't place America's interests "first." What exactly does he place first, one wonders? This space is filled with the gas of right-wing shock jocks and Fox News: he places himself first, of course! He's full of himself! Arrogant! Condescending! Elitist! If he can't bowl with the common man, how on earth can he be Commander in Chief? He may puff himself up as a citizen of the world, but the man can't digest homegrown grits 'n' gravy!
Third, we have the peculiar attempt to defame Obama as "a talker." If politicians were once valued for their ability to speak lucidly and compellingly, today significant parts of the electorate apparently delight in a President who can't string words into a coherent thought. But being "a talker" is also code for having no substance. Its meaning is elucidated, again, by AM radio, Fox and certain parts of the blogosphere -- sites whose audiences are largely white and male and number in the millions. In this world, being "a talker" is not, heaven forbid, to be confused with what brave and fearless demagogues like Sean Hannity do. Obama's "talk" is the equivalent of being a hypnotist, a mesmerizer, a magician, a siren, a soulless malefactor who snares you in the singsong of his pretty words and mellifluous voice, then sucks out your brains while you sleep. (Talk about transference!) Recently, when denigrating Obama as a cocky-ass, crowd-pleasing "rock star" didn't work, this line morphed into more chilling descriptions of his appeal as "fascist" and "Hitlerian."
Obama's campaign has been bookended by astonishingly contradictory stereotypes. In the beginning, Senator Joe Biden framed him as surprisingly clean, articulate and unsaddled with racial baggage. As we come to the finish line, Obama is being assaulted by an inventive hybridity of prejudices: he's under-qualified yet overeducated; he's holier-than-thou but wallows in the mud of slinging the race card; he's effete and effeminate but simultaneously an angry black hate-ah who swears secret allegiance to a separatist Afrocentric Nation; he's a liberation-theology Christian who prays to a Muslim God; he "dictates" from on high while having no clear positions, "allowing others to define him."
Then, of course, there's class resentment. We love the narrative of Horatio Alger, but we only have to read Henry James to remember how terribly ambivalent Americans have always been about outsiders who make it against big odds -- those "big odds" often marking our deepest resistances and prejudices. We chide young inner-city kids who taunt their aspiring peers for talking "white," but that's exactly what white commentators do when they trash candidates for talking "elite." This much is not new: lower- and upper-class blacks have always been marked and derided in differing ways. If, in the public debate, few call Obama the "N-word" (lower-class marker), a lot of commentators have come pretty close to calling him an uppity pretender (upper-class marker).
Yet in a historical sense, the incoherent range of resentments directed against Obama mirrors so-called "white privilege": the refreshing self-assurance that comes from always having people of color to feel lucky beside -- a not-entirely-conscious investment in feeling as though you're a good overseer, a kind benefactor, a source of uplift, a model to be emulated, a sharer, a provider, a dispenser of tough love. A feeling of impoverishment sets in when a member of that lower class you're supposed to be uplifting says, "I am one of you. I am your peer, and I'm equipped to represent you in taking the helm."
This is not racism in an overt, self-aware sense; it's racism in the thoughtless, cognitively dissonant way that allows good people who identify as open-minded Democrats to embrace an overtly counterfactual mess of impossibly contradictory slanders and slurs. The only true consistency in the lies that trail Obama is the degree to which they allow a diversity of options with which to express that resentment.
As McCain's politics are virtually identical to those of Bush, so Obama's stated platform is virtually identical to Hillary Clinton's on every matter from women's issues to defense. Eight years of horrendous policies have left us a corrupted justice system, undue executive secrecy and governmental unaccountability, scandals too numerous to count, "endless" war, colossal levels of administrative mismanagement and a ruined economy. If one was going to vote for Clinton but will not now for Obama, what else could it be but the most insidious, self-defeating form of identity politics? If one were at all invested in practical outcomes, however could one fail to heed these larger stakes?