Saturday, October 11, 2008

I have an uncle who's got a white collar job and a college degree and who would be horrified if anyone called him a racist, because he understands that being a racist is a terrible thing and that to appear to be one carries some social cost. He probably believes that he isn't a racist, and as evidence of that, he'd point to the fact that there's a world of difference between him and the kind of people who show up at McCain rallies and scream "Kill him!" at the mention of Obama's name or call black cameramen "boy." Still, my uncle, who used to love Law & Order, had to stop watching it a couple of years into its run, when they hired the African-American actress S. Epatha Merkerson to replace the white actor who'd been playing the police lieutenant. It wasn't just that he felt uncomfortable watching a black woman boss around the actors playing the cops. It was that, even though he doesn't think of himself as a racist, he does think of himself as a conservative with good family values, and he associates the idea that anyone might ever hire a black woman--whether to work as an actress or a real police lieutenant or whatever--so long as there's a white man anywhere in America who could do the job with "liberalism" and decadent thinking and the decline of the American empire. He couldn't relax and watch a cop show if it had a black woman giving orders in it, because then he felt like liberal elitists were trying to make a point and muddying up his light entertainment with their propaganda.

In the almost forty years since the Republican party developed its squalid, corrupt, but spectacularly successful "Southern strategy" based on siphoning off votes from the Democratic party's economic base with coded racist appeals to white voters, there's been a little ritual that the party's handlers have forced their candidates to go through. The candidates attend NAACP conferences and other settings where they can "reach out" to black voters, urging them to enter the "big tent" that is the Republican party and belly up to the trough that the unregulated free enterprise system would like to provide for everyone. It is not the point of these events to court black voters. If black voters wanted to vote Republican in droves, the Republican party would be very happy to have them, or at least it would be very happy to have their votes, but they have long since abandoned any realistic hope of this ever happening. (George W. Bush's great dream was to bypass the African-American vote altogether and bring Latin voters, en masse, into the Republican party. Then some genius in the region of the Texas-Mexico border started talking about building a fence.) The whole point of the ritual of Republican voters "reaching out" to blacks has always been to reassure people like my uncle, to tell them that, even though they know that white racists in this country tend to feel closer to the Republican party if they have any feelings of solidarity with either major party, this is just some weird fluke and voting for Republicans is nothing to feel guilty about. This dance requires a careful balancing act, one where the candidates plastering TV screens with photos of black ex-cons and regaling audiences with stories of welfare queens in Cadillacs have plausible deniability and can always retreat to safe ground with a look of Alfred E. Neuman-style "What, me racist?" consternation and cluelessness if called on their bullshit. It is very hard to keep up this innocent-miss act once people at your rallies start looking like a crowd scene from The Ox Bow Incident.

The look of desperate obsequiousness on John McCain's face in that well-circulated video where he assures a woman who's been whimpering at how afraid she is that Barack "the Arab" Obama might become president, and McCain tells her that there's no reason to fear the man he's spent the last couple of weeks denouncing as the man who fell to Earth, is, I think, the look of a man who's begun to fantasize that his legacy will be the self-immolation of his own party. What a sick joke: if McCain had been the maverick he thinks he is and expects to be taken for, if he had continued to tell George W. Bush to stuff it and conducted an honorable campaign, he might have single-handedly redeemed his own party, the party whose rank and file voters and most powerful member famously regarded him as some kind of traitor. But by trying to fit in and play by the established rules, he's treated fence-sitters and swing voters to a sight designed to convince them that to support McCain/Palin is to sign on to march off a cliff with the rest of the caveman army.

When McCain got through trying to get his bewildered, probably betrayed-feeling new fans to put their petty hatreds aside--or at least not express them so enthusiastically when they're within camera range--he got hit with a verbal broadside by Representative John Lewis. "What I am seeing," said the honorable Lewis, "reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse." By way of invoking historical precedent, Lewis added, "George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama." Predictably, McCain, rather than link arms with his estimable colleague and sing "Kumbaya", fired back in his now patented apeshit style:
"Congressman John Lewis’ comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama’s record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign." McCain is right about one thing: he and Palin shouldn't be compared to George Wallace. They haven't earned the right.

Wallace, like so many politicians of the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights eras, wasn't the die-hard racist that his supporters took him for but a totally cynical, manipulative master politician, a man who found his voice after he was beaten in a campaign early in his career by an opponent who didn't share the young Wallace's reluctance to use racist appeals to cracker simpletons, an experience that inspired Wallace's famous vow that he'd never be "out-niggered" again. In 1982, long after segregationist views had become unacceptable in polite American political society, Wallace came out of semi-retirement to win his final term as Governor of Alabama with support from a coalition of black supporters who understood him very well and were happy to put him in a position where he would be beholden to them and could use his considerable political skills to their service. Before that, in his rabble-rousing prime, he had manipulated the hatreds and resentments of his audience with the hard-won mastery of a circus fire eater, and however ugly his rallies may have been, I doubt that he ever got a crowd reaction that he hadn't planned on. Wallace was an amoral son of a bitch and a political genius; what we've found out this year is that John McCain is only the former. He could have had a lot of fun running for president this year, being feted at dinners and listening to crowds applaud his drab speeches and even, maybe, getting to read lots and lots of editorials decrying the fickleness of the shallow public that could not find it in itself to crown this good man as their king. But no, he just had to see if he could improve his chances a little by playing with fire, and so he got burned. That's what happens when kids play with matches; they should leave it to the professionals, like Wallace, who at least know how to control the raging winds they conjure up.

[x-posted at The Phil Nugent Experience]

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