A Devolving, Depressing, and Debased Debate

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

Policies No, Obama Maybe…

Barack Obama is charismatic. He can charm, and has mastered the art of set cadence, pause, articulation, and voice modulation, in the manner of a JFK. He has appeared on television far more in nine months than have prior presidents in an entire administration. But his problem is that his policies — cap and trade, nationalized healthcare, $2 trillion deficits, fringe-politics czars, therapeutic foreign policies, etc. — poll below 50 percent. So his advisors quite understandably assume that by sheer magnetism Obama can still sell the public a product they doubt — sort of like GM’s top salesman thinking he can sell a Honda Accord buyer a new Malibu. (Trust me, it does not work.)

In response to his own declining polls, his initiatives are stalled — and, more importantly, his centrist Democratic supporters are themselves dug in, fingers in the wind, waiting until his polls go back up to 55%.

When in Doubt…

Barring sudden changes in the economy, or a Clinton-like 1995 flip to the center, the Obamians feel that they can still overwhelm the public through two strategies: have subordinates (but never the White House) demonize opponents as “racists”, and unleash Obama on the media, convinced that his attractive personality can become persuasive as well (the two are not the same: I like Bruce Springsteen’s music and enjoy his occasional talks, but would never follow his political advice; Tommy Lee Jones is one of my favorite actors; but would never follow his enthusiasm for Al Gore).

Wolf, Wolf and More Crying Wolf…

A variety of liberal icons has weighed in on the racist theme. What is again sad is that many of the most prominent accusers have forfeited credibility, given their own past record of wolf-crying.

I remember in the campaign that most of the race embarrassment, in fact, was on the liberal side: the imbroglio over Bill Clinton’s charges about the “race card” played on him; Joe Biden’s “clean” black remark and Indians in donut shops; Howard Dean’s wild charges about Republicans and black servants; Geraldine Ferraro’s suggestion that being black helped, not hurt Obama; the 95% black majorities in the primaries that voted in bloc fashion against a white, very liberal candidate; Obama’s own racial baggage with Rev. Wright, “clingers”, typical white person, etc.

In other words, eighteen months ago at this time, Obama was struggling with the suggestion that his past record illustrated that he was close with racists like Wright, and saw the election in racial prisms. Meanwhile, liberal rivals had tried to emphasize those very contradictions, often in clumsy terms. Currently, he vehemently denies a racial component to criticism against his policies (he reads the polls that to do so is political suicide), but oddly apparently does not privately send the word out to his operatives in the media and in Congress to cool it, since he also sees political advantage if such charges blunt criticism of his unpopular initiatives. (A note: part of the problem is that elites dominate the issue: calling someone “racist” does not work in the workplace for most people who are not so easily intimidated; but our talking heads and journalists are themselves passive-aggressives who are as timid in real life as they chest-thump in public.)

But Is There Any Credibility?

Fast forward: I just read the charges of Bob Herbert, the New York Timescolumnist, who now swears racism fuels anger at the Obama new deal. He even cites the Kenney assassination as dire warning. But, wait — JFK was killed, as the Warren Report detailed, by a pro-Soviet, Fair Play for Cuba Marxist.

Bob Hebert himself not long ago alleged on television that a McCain ad was abjectly racist because it had two supposed phallic symbols in the background: those Freudian bogeymen, the leaning tower of Pisa and the Washington Monument.

The racists in the McCain campaign, Herbert swore, used subliminal imagery to scare us about purported black sexual prowess. But wait once more: Herbert crafted all this. The image was simply the Victory Column in Berlin. It was chosen as a backdrop to remind viewers of the pomposity of Obama himself using the icon (after being turned down for wanting the more presidential set of the Brandenburg Gate). Even grade school students can distinguish the Washington Monument — and most likely the leaning tower of Pisa as well. (By the way, given the hysterics of the New York Times in its Obamania and the lengths to which it has gone, and given its dire fiscal condition, and given the federal bailouts under Obama, and given the spread of czardom, we know what will follow very soon….)

And on and on…

Maureen Dowd had no evidence of racism either. No matter once more — she inserts the word “boy” into Joe Wilson’s unfortunate “You lie” rude interruption, to invent a racist rather than a merely boorish remark. But with all due respect once more, why believe Ms. Dowd, who just recently lifted sentences from another writer, used them as her own, and then, when caught, claimed she absentmindedly cut and pasted from an email?

Jimmy Carter, at 84 no less, of course had his say. In blanket fashion, without qualification, he blasted opponents of Obama as racists. Projection? One of the reasons as a Democrat I did not vote for Carter ages ago in 1976 was his own racist past. During the 1976 campaign, it surfaced that in the 1950s Carter himself as a school board member had tried to block new black schools as part of Byzantine efforts to circumvent integration.

In his past, he has apologized several times for condescending racial language, and his brother and his family came off even creepier than he was. In this context, his virulent attacks on Israel and the supposed Jewish lobby were logical rather than aberrant. Again, no credibility at all on matter of race or racial tolerance.

More of the Usual Suspects

Then there was the failing career of Gov. Paterson in New York. Seventy percent of liberal New Yorkers don’t want Paterson to run again because he is inept and without political sense. No matter. He too cries racism. And he warns Obama is the next target of the haters. But rumors now blanket the news that Axelrod, Emanuel, etc. (on orders from Obama himself) want the albatross Paterson gone, lest he lose them New York to a Giuliani or centrist Republican. I think the real narrative would be better expressed as, “I am a victim of a racist whispering campaign to undermine my reelection bid emanating from the racist White House.”

We come to Nancy Pelosi. She’s now warning about extremist language and its dangerous wages. Pelosi cites the 1970s hatred in the Bay Area that killed Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. But wait, wait again. Dan White was a Democrat who shot the two officials in a long running political dispute that came to a head with his sudden resignation from his supervisorial seat and the unwillingness of the two other officials to allow the erratic candidate to get back on the board. Pelosi, of course, used to praise protestors until she detected Nazi symbolism in the latest manifestations of dissent, and then tried to demagogue the issue with as much inflammatory language as she could muster. Republicans don’t say much about her speakership, because they know that her tenure, along with the presence of the ethically-challenged Rangel and Murtha, are political godsends.

The Rationale

What, then, is behind the “racist” charge? Let us count the strategies in calling wolf, wolf.

Preemption. The American people by overwhelming majorities reject the desperate retreat to the racist charge. But no matter. Elites know that by preempting criticism with “racist!,” they can fire a shot across the bow of potential critics. Conservatives scoff, but some of them will be wary of spending hours writing mea culpas that they are not racists.

Bewilderment. Many who employ the desperate tactic are themselves bewildered by criticism of Obama. They had assumed that his ratings would stay at 70%. Apparently, they thought anger at Bush, the Iraq war, Wall Street after the meltdown, and the McCain campaign, all translated into grass roots demands for a new humongous mother state, in which the government would run 40-50% of aggregate GDP, under the aegis of bureaucrats like a Timothy Geithner, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, or Van Jones.

Exemption. There are no downsides to the charge. It is akin to calling someone a wife-beater or molester. Conversation turns to “No, I’m really not!” It ends all discussion. The perpetrator suffers no censure. If one doubts that, just examine the strange career of Al Sharpton. He went from street theater and inciting violence to a respectable talking head, largely because he knew the more he charged racism, the more others would not wish to waste time denying it, and so reinvented him as a mainstream civil rights leader.

It is prophylactic. Van Jones in his own language is a racist. By his own words, one sees that he see problems, whether environmental or homicidal, in terms of white pathology. Charles Rangel is a racialist: he too charges white pathology anytime he is targeted as tax cheat. And so on. Legitimizing the racist charge ends any discussion of whether there is a real problem in the black community of elites using such preemptive charges in lieu of rational argumentation. E.g., “You are a racist, and therefore cannot critique my argument on its logic.” Or “I can use racist tropes, but am myself exempt from charges of racism.” It reminds me of proactive armor that explodes in the face of incoming charges.

“Racist!” supersedes the real problem of class. In today’s multiracial society, class is no longer predicated on race. The elite Stanford students of color I encounter during the week are far more privileged than many poor whites I see in the southern San Joaquin Valley on weekends. Asians have higher per capita incomes than Californians at large. I am here at Hillsdale for four weeks of teaching, and, to engage in stereotyping, the poorer whites of southern Michigan (and almost everyone of the proverbial middle and lower middle class here) seem to be far worse off economically than their counterparts, or indeed Hispanics in general, in a Selma or Reedley in central California, in a state that is literally bankrupt. Race does not seem to have much to do with status, social standing, or wealth. Class and education are the greater determinants. Add the ubiquity of modern intermarriage into the equation, and race seems to be increasingly passé, and now largely diminished to an ID badge for elites who see careerist advantages in tribal identification (when they can even establish it in the age of hyphenated nomenclature). Most others go about their daily lives, and do not predicate their waking hours on their own or others’ particular race.

Not Hope or Changed

As I wrote often, the election of the “healer” Barack Obama, I felt, would make racial relations worse, despite the bipartisan appreciation of his historical candidacy. Why? Obama had, by his voting record, proven the most partisan Senator in Congress. His career in Chicago was predicated on racial-identity politics. His 20-year membership in the racist Rev. Wright’s pulpit was predicated on the need for establishing street credibility and racialist credentials. I was not convinced by Michelle Obama’s campaign rhetoric that I was in error.

And his offhand remarks on race — more calls for victimization studies in the schools, calls for reparation (withdrawn when the media publicized them), and unfortunate slips, from the Pennsylvania stereotyping to “the typical white person” flippant, second-nature remark — did not disabuse me of that initial impression. Nor did Chris Matthews’ tingle or Newsweek’s “A god.”

In other words, I thought it would be very difficult for a candidate who had seen problems in terms of racial identity to transcend his past, however elegant and moving the rhetoric. In contrast, there are dozens of major black political figures, and, I believe, the vast majority of Americans of all races, who see race as incidental rather than essential to their personas.

Again, nothing these past nine months has persuaded me that my fears were misplaced. And now we witness a new development in which the serious and once legitimate word “racist/racism” tragically has lost all currency (despite the continual presence of racists and racism). In political discourse, it means nothing other than a tactical move to obtain political or careerist advantage. (By the same token, “Nazi” means nothing now either. It too has devolved from a descriptive term of a nightmarish philosophy that engineered the murder of 6 million and started a war that led to 50 million dead to a debating tool to end debate entirely).


I have not posted this week due to the flu here in Michigan; I haven’t gotten the flu in five years, but surely did this past week. Our Danube Munich to Budapest historical trip is almost sold out, the most quickly so in the brief history of our trips.

We plan to take 60, but this week are nearing 55 signed up, even though we advertised the May 2010 trip just a month ago. We will have two historians on the trip with me, and at least two guest historical lectures by major European intellectuals. A great deal on emphasis will be on the eastern fronts during World War II.

I’ve been posting irregularly because I’m trying to get out four books in the next 18 months — a Princeton edited Makers of Ancient Strategy (10 essays by classicists on terrorism, preemption, counter-insurgency, etc. and their classical antecedents; due out in May), War, the Father of Us All (14 essays I wrote on war over the last decade, but 70% rewritten and expanded, due out in late summer, Bloomsbury), No Man A Slave (a historical novel on the great liberation of the helots; another Bloomsbury book, due out in early 2011), and the Savior Generals (six case studies of wars deemed lost and then saved by unique ancient and modern commanders, Bloomsbury/early 2012). For these reasons, I have tried to cut back this year (and next) on travel, speaking, and media things to ensure all four are finished on time (three are completed). I’ll try to keep these posts shorter and more frequent. I appreciate the comments, and the general level of debate which I try to follow closely.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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