Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jimmy Carter is (mostly) right

Of all the things in the modern world that irritate kooky conservatives, nothing -- not science, not Europeans in socks and sandals, not the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, not the Canadian national anthem sung at NHL games and not even sex -- gets their sensible shoes shaking more than Jimmy Carter. To this day, I don't know if was his decision to return the Panama Canal Zone to Panama as part of the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, which established peace between Egypt and Israel and at least tried to create a framework for Middle East peace, forged the SALT II treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, making good on his problem to create a separate Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services, failing to rescue the American hostages held in Iran for the last fifteen months of his presidency, his interview with Playboy magazine in which he confessed to "lust in his heart," rather than lust in a bus or airport restroom, bailing out Chrysler or . . . just perhaps, his refusal to schedule emerging Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell for a match on the White House tennis courts. My own take on Jimmy Carter is that he was neither among the best or the worst of American presidents. While there is much to debate about Carter's legacy, one is hard pressed to conclude that Carter was either dishonest (i.e., Richard Nixon), clueless to the point of sheer wonderment (i.e., Ronald Reagan) or dishonest and clueless (i.e., George W. Bush). And one other point I would always defend in any discussion Jimmy Carter is that he is among the brightest and most observationally astute men to hold the presidential office. Agree with him or not, when Jimmy Carter says something, whether about the Middle East, energy independence or domestic politics in the United States, he usually has a point. It just seems like most of the time Carter's comments tend to cut against the grain of the conventional wisdom peddled and, of course, embraced without skepticism by the political-media establishment in Washington.

Carter's latest faux pas? Asked for his thoughts at a town hall meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta about the yo-yos, yokels and yahoos who marched on their hated nation's capital a week or so ago, and, in particular, their characature of President Obama as part-Nazi, part-African war lord and part-gorilla, and, separately, South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's "You lie!" invective directed at Obama during his State of the Union speech, Carter said that "I think it's based on racism."There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."


"No, no, no and NO," shouted back the tea-party loonies, the right-wing cable mafia who cheer them on and those ever-patriotic Birthers dedicated to proving that Barack Obama was born in a diamond mine somewhere on the coast of Africa. "We are simply expressing our 'policy differences' with our nation's 44th president, who we respect immensely," comes the standard response. "Why else would we take the time to portray him as a Nazi or flatter him by calling attention to his heritage is such a good-natured fashion?"

And these patriots do have a point, don't they? If you think about it, perhaps there is nothing at all racist about a conservative protester raising a sign that features our first African-American president's head Photoshopped into the guise of an African tribal warrior, with a reference to the old Soviet Union underneath. Perhaps these are just honest policy differences articulated by concerned Americans who were mysteriously undercounted in the November 2008 election. Perhaps these are the same concerned Americans who nodded their heads in agreement with the assessment of the Republican party's foremost intellectuals, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who labeled Obama's first (and now confirmed) selection to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, a "racist" because of her "honest policy differences" with them on the nuances of modern constitutional jurisprudence, and not because she was a Latina who acknowledged that her life experience was relevant to her world view. And, as we all know, only minorities and women bring their "life experience" to bear on their decision-making in the judicial and political worlds. Well-to-do white, Christian men who have navigated the nation's most elite academic, professional and government institutions since they were in short pants and sailor suits, on the other hand, are scrupulously neutral in their understanding of law and politics.

Yes, yes, yes, indeed . . . there is that view, that "honest policy differences" expressed throughracist language, cartoons, photographs, broadcasts and protests are just that . . . honest policy differences. Or there is the very real possibility that a substantial number of Americans beyond the right-wing wacko fringe continue to labor in serious denial about the powerful role that race plays in our politics . . . and our culture and just about everything else that touches on American life.

Take for example a recent exercise conducted by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post. In a recent comment on Carter's remarks, Lane, whose name is not familiar to me and whose work I do not know or normally read, disagreed with the former president and offered the following analysis to demonstrate why the anger directed towards Obama, whether by someone like Joe Wilson or a plucked-from-the-line-at-Home Depot-American, is not fueled primarily by race.

"An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward Israel is based on the fact that it is a Jewish state. I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many non-Jews, not just in the United States but around the world, that Jews are despicable and a Jewish state is inherently illegitimate. I think it's based on anti-Semitism. There is an inherent feeling among many that the Jews should get out of Palestine.

Actually, I do not believe this. I’m altering former president Jimmy Carter’s own words -- substituting "Jews" and "Israel" for "blacks" or "African Americans," and "anti-Semitism" for "racism" -- to illustrate what was both true about his statement blaming white prejudice for the most intense opposition to President Obama, and what was so irresponsibly wrong about it."

First, I think Lane picked a terrible example. As an American Jew who is about as dovish as one can be on the Israeli-Palestinian question, I am nonetheless prepared to disagree with Lane that one who rejects the legitimacy of the Jewish state is somehow not motivated by anti-Semitism. Personally, I find it hard to reach any other conclusion, just as I am prepared to agree with the sentiment that opposition to a Palestinian state and the rejection of Palestinian nationalism is motivated by something other than a deep contempt, if not outright hatred, for the Palestinian people.

Second, by drawing a straight line from the experience of African-Americans in the United States to the legitimacy of a Jewish state, Lane's example employs a conventional and very common fallacy that undermines the point he is trying to make. African-Americans and Jews share a common experience in the United States: discrimination at the hands of private and public authorities that was rooted in our nation's birth culture, albeit in very different forms. And, yes, while Jews were denied the ballot in numerous states well into the 19th century, were prohibited from buying homes in "white" (i.e., Christian) neighborhoods, were prohibited from attending many colleges or, if they were permitted to attend them, only in small numbers, were barred from employment opportunities and forced to comply with Christian religious ceremonies in public schools (and often terrorized if they did not), the American Jewish experience nonetheless pales in comparison to what African-Americans have experienced in this country since they were brought here in chains to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. And that comparison applies not only to Jews, but to women (white, black, brown and beige), other religious minorities, Asian-Americans, Latinos and any other ethnic minority, and gays. I will make this as clear as I can: nothing, and I mean nothing, compares in indignity, tragedy, brutality and outright hostility brimming with hatred with what African-Americans have experienced in the United States. No other population in the United States was systematically enslaved and emasculated over a period of almost 350 years and then, almost overnight, expected to hop ride on the mainstream American cultural horse of work, money and consumption with nary a peep of anger and resentment. Remember, this is a nation that once viewed Martin Luther King, Jr. as a threat, so much so that our own F.B.I. spied on him, harassed him and once sent him an anonymous letter encouraging him to commit suicide.

My point: you cannot substitute words for experience, and you cannot substitute the experience of one group that has historically suffered discrimination as a group for the experience of another group that has historically suffered discrimination as a group. It is a testament to the hope that America can offer to almost anyone that we are willing to learn from our mistakes, correct them in public and then watch as the previously despised and disrespected enter the culture, work from within it, and somehow manage to get elected president of the United States. That said, the experience of African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and the 20th century European immigrants of Catholic and Jewish descent in the United States is not the same. The experience of men who have encountered and suffered from discrimination is not the same as women. And, to use a more recent example, the barriers that gay men and women face in their efforts to achieve social and legal parity in the United States are unique to the discrimination they face. Substituting gay for African-American, or Jewish for gay not only fails on the basis of a non-shared experience, it poses the wrong question. And a wrong question will not yield a wrong answer; rather, it yields no answer at all.

I don't know the precise percentage of people who are pissed off at President Obama because of "honest policy differences" versus those who are still apoplectic that a black man is the president of the United States. I don't know that we'll ever have any real reliable indicator of which is which since Americans are notoriously dishonest when it comes to confessing prejudice to pollsters and other professionals who investigate this stuff for a living. Perhaps it is a product of being born when I was and growing where I did (1961; Atlanta) that I simply cannot embrace the mainstream media-driven post-election narrative that Obama's election ushered in a new post-racial, post-partisan society. Although Carter has me by several decades, I, too, grew up around people who confuse white supremacy with patriotism, understand well the verbal codes and nonverbal rituals that define their world view and had little or no contact with African-Americans except as socially compliant inferiors, and still . . . still cannot grasp that a world that was once legally tilted and politically enforced in their favor no longer exists. I do believe that most white Americans reject the manner and substance with which the tea-party wingnuts are expressing their honest policy differences with President Obama. But I also believe that many of these same people have a substantial investment in the post-racial, post-partisan fairy-tale because it gets the nation off the hook of having to continue to confront our sordid and shameful history of racial discrimination. And a problem of this magnitude will never be solved by the same minds that continue to sustain it by turning a blind eye to the racial hatred that continues to fester in our midst.

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