The benefit of the doubt goes to those who haven't lost it yet

>> Wednesday, March 31, 2010

David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics responds to Frank Rich's Sunday New York Times piece with a bit of malarkey (as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight notes; there, is that enough hyperlinks in a single sentence for you?). Kuhn writes:

We heard the same arguments [that teabaggers are motivated by racism] last September. Liberals were struggling to make sense of the angry town hall meetings. "An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Jimmy Carter said. Days before, the Times' Maureen Dowd concluded that the "shrieking lunacy of the summer" had "much to do with race."


And yet Kuhn still manages to notice:

Clearly, some Tea Party activists are driven by racial animus. We read it in the signs. Dale Robertson, Teaparty.org founder, held up a sign last year that read, "Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar." Recently, in an ugly scene near the Capitol, some Tea Party protesters reportedly hurled racist epithets at members of the Congressional Black Caucus (including civil rights hero John Lewis).


It would obviously be a gross exaggeration to say that all teabaggers are racists. But then again, and at the risk of Godwinizing this whole thing before it even posts, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that all Nazis were antisemitic. There were almost certainly members of the Nazi party who had Jewish friends, who liked Jews individually, who even thought der Führer was a bit off the rails for obsessing over Judaism so damn much; but men and women of conscience either resigned from the party or actively subverted its aims from within while using their ostensible party membership as a cloak for sabotage--they didn't sit around saying, "Oh, no, we're not a bunch of anti-Semites despite the fact that our loudest and most vocal and most opportunistic members are batshit crazy in their antisemitism."

Sure, not everybody who opposes healthcare reform is a racist. And Albert Speer's mother loved the parades.1 The problem is that there are a lot of obvious racists, carrying around signs and spitting on and threatening Congressmen, and I don't exactly see teabaggers leaping to condemn their misbegotten brethren--I suppose it would be too much to ask such an inchoate and disorganized rabble to actually oust any members or issue anything like a formal condemnation. Rather, what we seem to see are trickled-down versions of the "defenses" that conservative intelligentsia like Kuhn and unintelligent conservative popstars like Sarah Palin offer--we're not racists, and that's just an attack by the liberal elites, and anyway what about the time some liberal said something more-or-less similar (except, of course, I'm not aware of any liberals carting around a picture of the President with a bone through his nose--but even if you take the most excessive liberal insults to George Bush as somehow equivalent to an overtly racist depiction, I suppose if a liberal had jumped off a cliff, these conservatives would do it, too).

Kuhn isn't wholly wrong. There were excessive, belligerent and flatly irrational attacks on Clinton and Franklin Roosevelt (and if you must be fair, I'm sure George Bush didn't deserve every swipe against him; while proudly anti-intellectual and clearly unimaginative, there's no doubt Bush wasn't stupid--stupid people don't position themselves to be elected President twice, however many stupid mistakes they might otherwise make in the meantime). But pretending there's not a racist dimension to the assaults on Obama is at best naïve and at worst dangerously blind.

Before letting it go at that for now, I can't help highlighting what may be the most singularly stupid and ironic thing Kuhn says as an example of how far off the beam he really is. In discussing the rhetorical excesses of opponents of prior administrations, Kuhn accidentally goes too far and proves too much when he writes:

Most infamously, recall North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard." And this was a time of booming far-right militias, on a scale unknown today.


The problem with using Helms as an example in this context is, of course, that Helms was an inveterate racist, a trait that was inseparable from his particular brand of Southern Dixiecrat Republicanism: Helms began his political career as a pro-segregation Democrat until North Carolina's Democratic party was taken over by reformers such as Helms opponents Franklin Porter Graham and Terry Sanford while nationally Lyndon Johnson was "losing the South for a generation" with his push for reforms like the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Helms switched to the Republican party around the same time Nixon campaign advisor Kevin Phillips was promoting the "Southern Strategy" to win Republican votes by appealing directly to racist Southern whites. Helms would add to his considerable infamy in his penultimate Senate campaign by running a racist campaign ad designed to convince ignorant white voters that they would lose their jobs because of "racial quotas" if Helms' African-American opponent, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, were elected to the Senate. Helms' racism was, as I said, inseparable from his version of conservatism: that isn't to say all racists are conservatives or all conservatives are racist, but Helms' version of conservative doctrine was racist, nativist, and Helms' concept of large, meddling Federal government was synonymous with the government that forced Reconstruction on the South in the 1870s and desegregation on the South in the 1950s and '60s. The fact that Helms implicitly threatened the life of a President from the party of desegregation and civil rights reform, a President who was popular with African-Americans and was indeed described (perhaps excessively) by Toni Morrison in 1998 in these terms:

Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.


...is hardly a mere coincidence or partisanship on Helms' part. Kuhn, as I say, proves too much--one would be hard-pressed to find rhetoric from Helms that wasn't influenced by Helms' essential bigotry and/or loathsome willingness to exploit prejudice.

Observing racism in teabaggery isn't "liberals struggling to understand" a popular movement; those of us who have lived in the South and studied its history and iconography and learned its codes are, I think, perfectly capable of understanding the evidence of our own senses. The reluctance of some people to call something what it so obviously is is commendable, to be sure; after all, accusations of racism are frequently overblown or unwarranted, and not every act of opposition or statement of criticism is an act of bigotry, and "racist," happily, has become one of the worst accusations you can make against someone (having been the target of that accusation myself, and I think it was unwarranted, I can appreciate the discomfort of being on the receiving end). But one might avoid that accusation fairly easily by pointedly calling out, condemning and disassociating from obvious racists, and I frankly have seen nothing from teabaggers and their abettors but encouragement of such bad behavior. Lie down with pigs and be mistaken for a swine. The benefit of the doubt goes to those who haven't lost it yet.





1
It must have been during these months [Winter or Spring 1931] that my mother saw an SA [Sturmabteilung] parade in the streets of Heidelberg. The sight of discipline in a time of chaos, the impression of energy in an atmosphere of universal hopelessness, seems to have won her over also. At any rate, without ever having heard a speech or read a pamphlet, she joined the [Nazi] party. Both of us seem to have felt this decision to be a breach with a liberal family tradition. In any case, we concealed it from one another and from my father. Only years later, long after I had become part of Hitler's inner circle, did my mother and I discover by chance that we shared early membership in the party.
-Albert Speer
Inside The Third Reich, trans. Richard and Clara Winston,
(New York: Macmillan, 1970), 21.

2 comments:

beemodern Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 4:26:00 AM EDT  

Good post!

In reference to your final quote by Speer, in college I spent well over a year studying in-depth the role of women and the family in turning Germany from what was arguably the most progressive country at the time into the horrific nightmare it quickly became under Hitler and the Nazi party. I researched what was happening in Germany when Hitler introduced himself on their national scene, and how the Nazis used propaganda to convince German women to support him. They were key to his success (and he and his henchmen betrayed them just as they did everyone else.)

Eric Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 11:48:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Beemodern!

That research topic sounds fascinating, actually. I don't know if that's something you've blogged on somewhere, but I'd certainly love to see your thoughts if you have.

I think a lot of people overlook one of the core things about Germany between the wars, which you mention: that Germany really was, as you say, arguably the most progressive country in Europe and possibly even the world during that era. Despite economic turmoil through much of the era, Germany had a strong democracy and continued to lead the world in the sciences, arts and philosophy. And all of these things were expertly turned on themselves by the rising Nazi party, which opportunistically gutted German culture while successfully labeling what they couldn't co-opt as "decadent" and therefore further reason for their stranglehold on the nation. It's important to remember this because "it can't happen here" is possibly something that's only true where vigilance is maintained.

Thank you again!

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