I had just finished reading the news and was staring down a bottle of bourbon, deciding whether to pour a drink or douse myself and light a match, when I got an e-mail from a friend:
“In my opinion, there's nothing . . . that could begin to account for the wild-eyed, fanatical, irrational, foaming-at-the-mouth, knee-jerk opposition to each and every single thing Obama says and does other than racism.”
My friend, who is white, is a political liberal, which is not to be confused with a Nazi or a Socialist or a Communist, although a belief in liberalism is often an invitation to be equated with one or all of the above. He also knows, as do I, it’s still not possible to peer into the hearts and minds of others.
And politics is, of course, an adversarial business — a perpetual conflict over, as the political scientist Theodore Lowi once put it, “who gets what of what there is to get.” Truth is the first casualty of war, but civility ends up in the pine box right next to it.
If you write with the hope that your words will be published in a middle-of-the-road publication like the daily newspaper, you hesitate before making what might be read as a connection between rhetorical excess and raw bigotry. Having spent a good part of my career in journalism straddling that (ahem) white line, I know better than to conflate principled opposition to Obama with Jim Crow-style racism.
Yet I have to agree that what we’re seeing and hearing from folks who consider themselves “real” Americans reflects something more insidious than simply a battle over the spoils.
Can an honest disagreement over the virtues of one political philosophy versus another explain the “birthers,” whose claim that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore not eligible to be president has been thoroughly debunked?
Can the question of whether politicians ought to steer clear of the classroom explain the hysterical reaction to a benign presidential message to school children?
Can protesters who plead “Take Back Our Country!” really believe that America is in deep peril of a socialist takeover?
Or is it because a black man with an exotic name and an unusual background is now at the switch?
After all, we’re talking about a president who has disappointed some of his most passionate supporters by failing to exploit an electoral mandate and his party’s control of Congress to reform the country’s health care system.
He’s also declined to reverse such Bush-era national security initiatives as domestic surveillance and the prison at Guantanamo, both of which even some conservatives have criticized.
Meanwhile, the president has shown an admirable, if misguided, patience with congressional Republicans, who have made clear they have no purpose in mind other than to defeat his every initiative, the good of the country be damned.
I’ll admit it was all a bit confusing until a recent drizzly Saturday afternoon when I read a small book called “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama,” by the antiracism educator Tim Wise. In two extended essays, Wise explores what Obama’s election means and, “more importantly what it doesn’t mean,” about the state of race relations in America.
What Obama’s election means is that Americans have the collective will, exercised through the time-honored tradition of voting their individual self-interest, to overcome “old-fashioned Racism 1.0.” What it doesn’t mean is that America is necessarily ready for a black president.
That might seem, at first blush, incongruent. It isn’t.
Consider, for example, how many people have most recently justified their contempt for Obama by pointing to his association with another black man: Van Jones.
Wise’s book was published early this year, well before most people had ever heard of Jones. Yet his predicament is a perfect illustration of what Wise describes as “white folks inability to conceive of our nation in any but the most patriotic and un-self-critical terms.”
Obama had appointed Jones to advise the administration on “green energy” initiatives. But, some years ago, he signed a petition calling for an investigation into government culpability in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jones denounced the conspiracy theory and, in fact, he and other signatories say they were mislead by the petition’s authors.
But Obama critics were outraged that a member of the administration might be a so-called “truther.” Led by Fox News host Glenn Beck, who returned to the topic night after night, they succeeded in forcing Jones to resign.
You might wonder what this story has to do with race. Well, while Jones was being hounded into unemployment for a years-old act of questionable judgment, Beck’s audience has grown since the morning he announced that Obama harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people ....”
One year ago, to suggest that skin color might keep an eminently qualified man out of the White House was to reveal what liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich called a “prevailing anti-white bias.” Indeed, opinion makers of every stripe had declared that Obama’s political ascent proved that “we have overcome.”
Given the continuous litany of petty complaints, ridiculous accusations and outright lies that accompany almost everything Obama tries to do, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to drink to that.
Brian Wallstin is a Columbia resident and a former city editor for the Missourian. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.