Why Race Matters In This Campaign

One of the most attractive things about the right in recent years has been its indignation toward frivolous moral equivalency. While many on the left were noting that "our terrorism" was as bad–if not worse–than "theirs," conservatives had sense to … Read More

By / October 27, 2008

One of the most attractive things about the right in recent years has been its indignation toward frivolous moral equivalency. While many on the left were noting that "our terrorism" was as bad–if not worse–than "theirs," conservatives had sense to note that the violence perpetrated by racists and sexists and designed to maximize civilian casualties was not the same as violence designed to minimize of civilian casualties by one of the more successfully liberal and multicultural states in the world. There was something as well to be said for the difference between the end goals: the flourishing of liberal democracy (no matter how "problematized" it had become) or the establishment of Islamist rule. There was always a valid argument to be had about ends and means and "collateral damage" but whatever one wanted to say, those who said it was all the same were rightly discounted from discussion on the grounds that their faculties of judgment were severely impaired. Sadly, upon surveying the arguments over the rising tide of hate infecting both sides of the 2008 presidential race, it would seem that many of those same discerning voices have joined forces with the party of equivalency. They seem to have forgotten that all-important lesson once taught so well when the subject matter was Islamism, that all hate isn’t the same, and that all hate isn’t bad hate. After all, those who said hating terrorists was wrong always came off as the kinds of people who didn’t understand double negatives in speech; hating bad things is logically a good thing. Off the top, however, it’s notable that some on the left still haven’t failed to make the standard Nazi comparison in reference to their Republican foes. The predictable answer here might be to group these people in with those shouting lynch mob obscenities at McCain rallies and then chalk it all up to the "fringe" of either party, thus vindicating the mainstream of each. McCain told the ‘Obama’s an Arab‘ lady to sit down and Obama scolded, so aren’t they each in the clear, even if they’ll each rack up a great deal of votes from their respective fringes? This is one case where even-handedness is not the answer it might seem to be. In fact, the hate directed at the McCain-Palin campaign from the left is mainstream, not confined to the lunatic fringe, and yet very justifiable. Healthy, even. The reason, sorry to say, has to do with race. True, presidential campaigning is hard. Everybody plays rough, and everybody toys with the truth, plays with words and associative logic to attack one’s opponent. But there is a reason the Ayers issue put the McCain campaign over the edge–a reason that the rallies got uglier when the former Weatherman came up and a reason the anti-Palin crowds became filled with righteous hate. Ayers was designed to change focus from cool-headed vs. hot-headed to whether Obama is who you think he is. The way this was framed? He hangs out with terrorists. "Terrorist" being the singlemost iconic, psychologically freighted word of our era used to evoke our worst of enemies. By now we’ve heard the arguments trotted out over what Obama’s relationship to Ayers meant. But what was never examined thoroughly enough was, why did the McCain campaign think they could get this label to stick? Whether they knew it or not, they thought it had legs because Obama is not white. The glue that would saddle Obama with the slur of "terrorist" was his skin color. It could even be argued that historical specifics and the real acts of Ayers were secondary to the McCain campaign’s prime objective: just as the name Osama registers in the mind with "Terrorist," get the name Obama to do the same. It should be no wonder that early GOP robocalls worried little with Obama’s tax or health care plan. They only sought to repeat the two words together and hope that, for enough voters, they’d cling to one another. Talking about white privilege in America can turn off even the most unprejudiced of people. Plenty of whites are understandably tired of hearing about their "crimes" and the crimes of their forefathers when they themselves haven’t ever had a mean or unsavory thought about a person of any color. But to paraphrase the work of H.E. Baber, white privilege, if it means anything today, has to do with the fact that being white is transparent. It is not socially salient. In other words, if you are white–especially if you are a white male–the culture at large will more likely see you as you want to be seen. You are permitted to invent yourself without your race or gender complicating the picture. You can make mistakes without being blamed for the disposition of all white people. You can make choices without feeling chained to a script of your ethnic identity. Being non-white on the other hand, is socially salient. Your identity is already bound up in being an outsider, in a notion of how you should be or act because of your ethnicity. Self-invention is far more difficult, because your skin color renders expectations and associations, the deviation from which usually carry a heavy price. Because Barack Obama is not a white person, his ability to invent himself beyond the foreignness of his name, beyond the color of his skin, is no different–no easier–than it has been for so many non-white Americans who have attempted the same kind of self-invention on a less presidential scale. But why is this? Why in the 21st century is being an outsider still a hurdle for non-white Americans? Isn’t the narrative of the underdog, the immigrant and the outsider one of America’s most cherished? And why, in a presidential campaign like this, is otherness available to the McCain campaign to use as the glue that will stick Obama with the label "Terrorist" in a way that similar tactics could never work with a white man? While electoral demographics, Atwater campaigning, and the technique of Willie Horton-ing your opponent all mater, these factors don’t account for as much as some would like. Campaigns may use the weapon, but it’s handed to them by liberals. These days, it’s called multiculturalism. It has not been the right that has insisted on the social salience of race in the last 2 or 3 decades, it has decidedly been the left. Emerging from the New Left, the doctrine of multiculturalism, well-intentioned as it might have been, effectively established a regime of political philosophy that chided anyone for wanting to have anything to do with the West. As they saw it, differing ethnicities and cultures were the spice of the life, and their unique ways of seeing were alternatives to the patriarchal imperialism of the West. Nobody who wanted a taste of that liberal dream of identity transparency and self-invention could be anything but duped by the Man. The big, white, imperialist Man. And so the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement were replaced with a new kind of tyranny–the hard-line directive to always be black, Asian, Muslim–anything so long as it wasn’t white. Be proud, don’t be ashamed of your culture. In fact, you had better love it or risk being an Uncle Tom in-cahoots with the oppressors. Rather than helping render ethnicity and race more transparent and meaningless, thus allowing people to create their identity and future free of the dictates of genetics, these folks pushed it up front. Now, they’d like to pretend the issues bubbling up in the presidential race are just leftover bigotry from the South, or just some core aspect of being on the right. In reality, this is what the politics of multiculturalism have sown. Beating McCain should have been easier than it has been for Barack Obama. But Obama has always had a higher hurdle to jump, an otherness to eliminate. As the left seethes with hate toward the campaign that has sought to keep that hurdle high and exploit Obama’s outsider quality, this hate can be seen as nothing less than a good hate–the hate of something bad. It is a credit to Joe Six Pack Dems everywhere who don’t give a flip about the theory of white privilege and the social salience of ethnicity that they perceive the fulcrum on which McCain hoped (and still seems to hope, by the way) to saddle Obama with the label of "Terrorist." No stock response of "well the left does it too, just see the recent episode of the Family Guy" will do. Not only has the Obama campaign never tried to make a disparaging label stick to McCain using an immutable genetic trait–even if they had wanted to, they never could have. Again, the immutable genetic trait of being white has no glue because it doesn’t connote being foreign or an outsider. To hell with every leftist and Obama supporter that wants to wrangle up Nazi imagery like the lazy analogy it always ends up being. But enough too with pretending like the left wing haters are just the analogue of the off-with-his-treasonous-head fringe at McCain rallies. John McCain and Sarah Palin–or their campaign managers, whomever you prefer to blame–opted to make a central campaign strategy out of capitalizing on the notion of Barack Obama, The Outsider. This trait was made available to them by the left which has obsessed itself with the politics of outsiderism–with writing the scripts of the noble (read: non white) outsider. But when those on the left send the message of rebuke as loudly, angrily, and, yes, hatefully as they have of late, they are doing a good thing. Multiculturalism, as an ideology that prioritizes ethnicity, culture and identity as a basis for politics, proves at every turn to be a cancer in the body politic–especially for most worthwhile liberal aspirations. But the McCain campaign saw the tumor and decided to pump it full of carcinogens. It’s been suggested that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama. What it looks like more and more is a referendum on what it means to live in a multicultural society. No matter the shortcomings of the Illinois senator, the surge in support for him speaks highly of the American people and where they stand on the matter: against the party that seeks to continue emphasizing difference and separation and in favor of the one trying to explode those ways of seeing and thinking for good. Here’s to hoping that the polls indicating a decisive Obama victory on Nov. 4th reflect the necessary hate for a campaign that elevated poisonous exclusionary thinking to a virtue. But here’s to hoping that such a victory, should it come to pass, will also be the final nail in the coffin of multiculturalism as it’s been understood until now.

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