Friday, September 12, 2008

Racist realities

So, just over a week after the McCain-Palin ticket went public, the mainstream media have returned their favorite pastime -- wondering what's wrong with Barack Obama, and just what it is about him that keeps preventing him, or so it seems, from pulling away from a Republican who, by running against his president and party's own record, should be have been left for dead months ago.

Is it that Obama just can't "connect" with the white working-class?

Is it that Omama is elitist, aloof and condescending?

Is it that Obama is distant and indifferent to the "average American?"

Is it that Obama is secretly a Muslim, as one in five "small-town" white Americans apparently believe he is?

Is it that he is soft on terrorism? Unwilling to commit American military force?

Is it that he promotes sex education for kindergarten children?

Is it that he lacks experience?

Uh, no . . .

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Seven weeks or so out from the November election, the Democrats are starting to get the jitters about Obama's chances of defeating McCain. This is a Democratic year, or so I keep being told by "political experts," many of whom are the very same people that told me that Hillary would win the Democratic primary walking away, or that Rudy Giuliani would be the Republican nominee, or that John McCain was going to select Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Obama's failure to win in November will mean that the Democrats should have nominated Hillary, who would have tapped into the voters with whom Obama struggles. At minimum, Obama should have picked Hillary as his running mate, thus shoring up his weakness with over-50 white women. Obama, we are now being told, should be running a more aggressive campaign and avoid falling into the Gore-Kerry cerebral trap . . . except that he should remain true to his early campaign theme of staying above the fray by appealing to Americans from across the demographic and socio-economic landscape . . . except when he shouldn't . . . or that he should emphasize his personal biography as a man who grew up with feet in the white and black worlds . . . but that he shouldn't emphasize "identity politics," except when he should, since more small-town white Americans need to find something about Obama that helps them relate better to him, even though they can't because, you know, he's black . . . but without kow-towing to the Know-Nothing politics of the "You bet your ass that Obama is a Muslim" crowd that enjoys nothing more than a few beers, a warm gun and a night out at the local Hooters with the boys, especially the kind of boys whose girlfriends and wives might actually work there, if not already doing the matinee at the local strip club.

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I'm glad that Barack Obama is the nominee of the Democratic party. I thought he was the best candidate in the field, and I think he is a man of enormous talent and possibilities. I think he is, in many ways, the perfect candidate for our times. By perfect, I don't mean that he is without flaws or, as president, would not make mistakes. Like all politicians, he has said and done things that are at odds with the image he wants to project. And, as president, he will say and do things that won't square with this-or-that campaign promise. So what? There is a big difference between a commitment to a big idea and going back on it, and finessing around the margins because of the realities of interest group politics.

Rather, I mean that he is the right candidate for an America that is changing rapidly at home and must, as a consequence of its own diminished status, the rise of China, India, the re-emergence of Russia and a developing world raged by disease, fratricidal wars and violence, engage in the world on a more co-equal level, and not operate as if the United States is always right and diminish the voices of other countries. Obama is young, smart, reflective, thoughtful and possessed of a presidential temperament. For eight years, the United States has been disastrously served by a president who operated on his "gut," and is now being offered another Republican nominee who believes his "gut" will point his moral and political compass in the right direction. John McCain's first major decision as a presidential candidate was to select a running so spectacularly unqualified for a major national office that she is impossible to take seriously. True to form, the mainstream media are giving McCain a pass on his selection, intimidated by the right-wing cable and radio media that bellow filth every day about Obama (as they did Hillary), concerned not in the least about their "fairness" and "objectivity."

Do I think, like the "jittery" Democrats I read about in the mainsteam media, that Obama's recent rough patch (over such important issues as sex education in kindergarten, the "lipstick on a pig" comment or his too-cool-to-be-real persona) means the Democrats should have nominated Hillary instead? No. The Democrats faced a bit of a Hobson's choice in their primary. Either they could have nominated a woman who would have mobilized the right-wing as never before in American presidential politics and watched her national support top out at 49%, with very few of those adorable white working-class Americans really going to vote for her in key Democratic states like Ohio, Indiana (remember how this state that hadn't voted for Democrat since the Civil War became the be-all, end-all of Obama's appeal?) and Pennsylvania and Michigan. Or it could nominate a self-made, self-identified black man who, despite his talent, intelligence, accomplishments and potential, has been derided by the right-wing media as a phony, inexperienced, Muslim who has a secret plan to turn the White House into Gangsta Heaven, where MTV or BET will go to film the latest episodes of "Pimp My Crib." How's this for irony: the Democrats had two candidates pursue their party's nomination who personify the mythical American dream more so than any of the Republicans did or do, and yet ultimately had to confront the "elitist" label to defend their success going against the America's two most visible social sicknesses: racism and sexism. Obama's bowling and Hillary's gun-totin'-just off from the late shift at the diner-routine was painful to watch, especially when juxtaposed against McCain's "man of the people" reputation that he built on the life of privilege that he was born into and later married.

In the end, this race will come down to one issue: race. In 2008, to hear Americans, whether the "average" ones talking politics at soccer games, PTA events, or in the Washington media's favorite place for "average American" knowledge -- a small town diner -- or elite opinion-makers ask themselves whether America is "ready" for a black president is, however offensive, to acknowledge that racism is alive and well in the United States. As white America prepares to descend into a minority in this country, sometime in the next 15 to 25 years, the question isn't whether America is ready for a black president; it's whether America should be electing another white president to govern and represent a country that is more multi-racial and multi-ethnic than ever before. By continually asking the question about readiness and race, Americans are acknowledging that they are nowhere near the point where we select our candidates based on merit. Hearing one story after another from friends active in Democratic grass-roots politics on the unwillingness of traditional Democratic voters to support Obama because he is black should not make anyone happy. It should be viewed as a great shame.

My own feeling on the Democratic dilemma is this. Hillary lost because she was Hillary first and a woman second. Contemplate all the strategic and tactical errors her campaign along the way you want. Sure, Bill was an albatross and her strategists should have paid attention to the caucus states. In the end, Hillary came with too much baggage and simply failed to inspire the next generation of voters who will ultimately take charge of the country's culture and institutions. If Obama loses the presidential election -- and at this point, I think he will, just as I have always thought he probably would but held out hope -- he will lose because he's black first and Obama second. In the next seven weeks, the entire world will be watching to see if the United States can actually walk the walk on the rules it writes for everyone else on race, tolerance, openness and enlightenment. If and when it fails this test, if you think that there is any other reason for this nation to reject a superbly qualified Democratic ticket over a Republican ticket that proudly boasts its anti-intellectualism, inexperience and bellicosity than race, you are sadly, sadly deluded. So, with such a pessimistic perspective, does this mean I'm still glad that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee? Yes. If Obama loses in November, Americans will finally have no one to blame for themselves for their adherence to a racial politics that will no longer be our secret shame, but one that will be on full display for the entire world to see.

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