Sunday, March 28, 2010


I guessed where Frank Rich was going with this week's column as soon as I read the title -- "The Rage Is Not About Health Care" -- and he delivered exactly what I expected:

...If Obama's first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House -- topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman -- would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It's not happenstance that [Barney] Frank, [John] Lewis and [Emanuel] Cleaver -- none of them major Democratic players in the health care push --— received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan "Take our country back!," these are the people they want to take the country back from.

They can't. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. ...

Rich is singing his usual song -- this is all about fear of everyone who isn't a straight white male, with the reassuring message that demographics spell the haters' eventual doom -- so I'll sing mine: no, it isn't that simple.

Rich is downplaying the fact that that plenty of hate was directed at the likes of Bart Stupak, Tom Perriello, and Russ Carnahan. And he's ignoring the fact that crazy, angry right-wingers have no problem with their side's female and and non-white leaders, and even, to some extent, with sympathetic gay people. They love Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. If John Roberts weren't around, they'd be delighted if Clarence Thomas were chief justice. Ultimately, there was quite a bit of support for the gay group GOProud at CPAC, and the blog Gay Patriot is widely linked in the right blogosphere.

And yet the attacks on Nancy Prlosi are sexist. The attacks on Lewis and Cleaver have been racist. Barney Frank is attacked homophobically. But that's because this stuff isn't simple.

If you turn from Rich's column to today's New York Times Book Review, you'll find a review of Nell Irvin Painter's book on whiteness. Linda Gordon, the reviewer, tells us this:

In [early-20th-century America], anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability....

I wasn't there, so I'm not sure which came first -- the sense that certain people were "other" because they had radical views or the sense that they were "other" because they had dark or olive skin. I don't know if it's possible to say. And I don't know if thinking about "otherness" was the same then as now.

But I know that the people who hate Obama and Pelosi and Cleaver and Lewis and Frank and Stupak and Perriello and Carnahan (and Louise Slaughter and Anthony Weiner and every other Democrat and liberal, straight white Christian males included) hate us because they think we're crazy radical jihadist Marxist Nazis. Does our alleged radicalism make us effectively non-white? I wouldn't say that. I think the haters just hate our ideas, or what they think are our ideas, regardless of our race, creed, color, or affectional orientation -- and the usual group affiliations that lead to prejudice are just add-ons. I think every Democrat in government could be a straight white male right now and the hate wouldn't be diminished one iota, because they'd be seen as standing for "others," and be seen as "others" just for their weird, evil, rootless-cosmopolitan ideas.

The present-day haters have distilled the old hatreds, the ones based on race and sex, and can apply them just as well outside the old categories as within those categories. Bigotry, in other words, evolves in order to adapt.

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