Demonizing Michelle Obama

How can you tell that the objections of some of Hillary Clinton's most ardent supporters to  sexism and misogyny in campaign coverage didn't quite cover all women? From their near total silence on the viciously misogynistic and sexist (as well … Read More

By / June 6, 2008

How can you tell that the objections of some of Hillary Clinton's most ardent supporters to  sexism and misogyny in campaign coverage didn't quite cover all women? From their near total silence on the viciously misogynistic and sexist (as well as racist) attacks on Michelle Obama that are sure to multiply over the coming months. Indeed, it was Larry Johnson, the lead blogger of the deranged pro-Clinton site No Quarter (I'm not going to link), who recently began spreading rumors of a "secret" video tape of Michelle Obama "hating on whitey." The sourcing of those rumors was a closed loop between Johnson and Nixonite ratfucker Roger Stone, and as David Weigel reported for Reason, the entire story appears to be a fabrication by Johnson, who has now changed his tune multiple times. Moreover, the bullshititude of the Michelle Obama whitey tape was evident from the moment Johnson first started prevaricating. Robert A. George explains:

You know why I know no tape exists? Because all copies of it were wrapped up in an American flag and burned on a woodpile ignited by Hillary Clinton and Kitty Dukakis…This is the '08 version of a really weird conservative urban legend that pops up every four years. The names change, but the basics remain the same: 1) It always involves the wife of the Democratic presidential candidate; 2) It always portrays the wife — not the candidate — committing some anti-American, unpatriotic act.

So Johnson was lying (or at best, wishfully thinking) through his teeth. But you can't prove a negative, so the meme will continue to occupy space on the fringes of politics and fester. Which is the whole point of the rumor-mongering exercise.

At the same time, the respectable mainstream version of the whitey-tape smear has already begun to take shape: Barack Obama might be alright on his own, but that awful wife of his is a disturbing anti-American, anti-white influence. Ta-Nehisi Coates spelled it out in this brilliant takedown of an alternately silly and horrifying Christopher Hitchens column attacking Michelle Obama several weeks ago. Like Ta-Nehisi, I grew up in awe of Hitchens' writing, which makes giving his piece the respect it deserves somewhat unnerving. Here's the gist: Hitchens accuses Michelle Obama of being a black racial separatist who inclines her husband towards black racial separatism like an extremely well-tanned Lady Macbeth. His evidence consists entirely in one sentence of the then Michelle Robinson's senior thesis at Princeton, "Princeton-Educated Blacks and Black Education."

Hitchens describes the essay as harder than hard to read; apparently it was impossible for him to read, since his accusation that Mrs. Obama was a disciple of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's Black Power movement is the result of careless misreading at best, straightforward lying at worst. What she wrote in her thesis is that she used Carmichael and Hamilton's definition of 'Black Power'; that is equivalent, as Ta-Nehisi observes, to accusing to someone who uses Mein Kampf to define 'Nazism' in an academic paper, of being a Nazi. Which, of course, no one would ever do; Hitchens' guilt by association logic is self-evidently racist. (It's particularly inauspicious of a collegiate "Luxembergist-Trotskyist" to go around anathematizing people for being campus radicals; maybe if Michelle O. had dedicated her thesis to the soixante-huitardes, all would have been forgiven.)

Ta-Nehisi points out the obligatory to-be-sures: Hitchens understands the wrongness of racism on a deeper level than most, and has written perspicuously about it, etc. ad nauseam. But Ta-Nehisi himself has noted elsewhere that that's ultimately irrelevant:

Dog, we don't care whether you have any "racial animus" or whether you "understand the essential evil of racism." If you're willing to feed the fears of those who have "racial animus," how are you any better? Indeed, Intentionally playing into racist stereotypes–which you know not to be true–is arguably WORSE than actually believing them. At least the believer is being honest, and perhaps, can be talked off the ledge.

Over the coming weeks and months, we'll undoubtedly discover that there are a multitude of Americans whose best friends are black. (So many, in fact, that one has to tip one's hat to the superhuman stamina of black people: There are about 240 million white Americans and 40 million black Americans; each black person must be a best friend of six white people on average, and just the cross-country travel that entails would take a lot of energy. No wonder there are so many of them in professional sports.) Being BFF with a black person doesn't excuse lying down in a gutter with racists, let alone doing your part to lend mainstream legitimacy to racist paranoia.

Precisely because the demonization of Michelle Obama trades so bluntly and crudely on racist stereotypes, its (marginally) subtler sexist and misogynistic elements are likely to receive secondary attention. But all the classic tropes are there on ample display: The conniving, domineering woman; the henpecked man whose virtue is corroded by a temptress; female transgression against natural authority, whether her husband's or her nation's. Underlying it all is a reflexive assignment of blame to women — which is the translation, out of innuendo, of Hitchens' insistence that "there is an inexcusable unwillingness among reporters to be the one to ask [whether Michelle Obama corrupts Barack]," an unwillingness more commonly described as "minimal propriety."

In other words, one of the smaller historic opportunities this election will provide is for the feminists who accused feminist Obama supporters of treachery to show the greenhorns how it's done. Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Robin Morgan — the floor is yours.

UPDATE: Details of the "hate whitey" tape were lifted from a novel. Thanks, National Review, for fact-checking Larry Johnson and Hillbuzz.

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