Race: Danger or Distraction? Bomb or Bomb Scare? [UPDATED AGAIN]

September 11, 2009 at 12:54 am (By Amba) (, , , , , , )

Tonight on MSNBC I heard a parade of Democrats, including Ron Reagan, saying solemnly that they thought Joe Wilson’s “outburst” last night was about race, that such incivility would not have been directed at a white President.  (Bush II was booed in the same chamber.)  I had to turn it off.  I blew my stack on Twitter, because it seemed to me they had all received their talking points and were setting up a story line in which opposition to Obama’s health care plan could only be motivated by racism.  Makes me nuts.

(UPDATE II, Sunday the 13th:  James Pinkerton nails Maureen Dowd doing her duty for the cause:  “Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” Pinkerton comments:

The cultural elites can’t have it both ways: They can’t simultaneously trash the middle class–labeling reasonable skepticism of Obamacare as “racism”–and then expect that same middle class to simply take the elites’ word for it that Obamacare is a good idea.

And I agree with Pinkerton’s terse prognosis:  “bad politics. It’s not going to work.”)

This led to a fascinating conversation with my brother David (True Ancestor), that I’m reproducing here, starting with Twitter.  (Still can’t bring myself to say “my tweets.”  I’d prefer a George Carlinesque “brain farts.”)

Sometimes I wonder if Obama was elected largely because his race is such a convenient way of ending an argument and silencing debate.

Tremendous barrage of “it’s race, it’s race” on the Left’s pet channel MSNBC today. A concerted campaign–this is how they plan to pass HC??

To get back to the subject of liberal Dems browbeating on “race” theme–I am disgusted beyond measure. This is exact flip side of Birtherism

My own bro falls for & perpetuates the “it’s race” meme re: Joe Wilson http://tinyurl.com/ljsvnt I bet a very liberal white prez wd get same

Here my bro’s so right tho: “I see signs all around me that people are pissed off and paranoid, self-righteous and self-absorbed.”

Please pause here and read David’s post.  It’s a very good and very thoughtful expression of the alarm that is the theme that has sincerely gripped many liberals (and David, as you can see, is no ultraliberal), just as alarm at loss of freedom to an overweening State is the theme that has sincerely gripped many conservatives.

I would have been astonished no matter who called the President a liar, and no matter who the president happened to be. But because Barack Obama is an African American man, in a room populated mostly by white men, it seemed to me that a little bit of mob mentality spilled over the decorous bounds inside of which presidential speeches have always been safely held. The fact that Joe Wilson hails from South Carolina added to the chill in my blood.

I don’t consider rough politics out of bounds. I don’t consider Barack Obama beyond reproach. I don’t consider all Republicans bad people (I vote for them sometimes). But moments like this disturb me deeply. It makes me wonder anew whether the animus against Barack Obama is heightened because many cannot stomach the thought of a black man being president.

I commented:

On the other hand, Obama’s race is very convenient for Democrats. No one can criticize his policies without being suspected/accused of racism. (I’m not suggesting that Joe Wilson’s incivility was legitimate criticism. I doubt it was a spontaneous outburst either. More likely it was a bid to be on the 2012 ticket.) That’s THE big theme on MSNBC today (as much a propaganda organ of the L as Fox is of the R). That so sucks — it’s one of the tactics that makes people feel like something’s being put over on them by trickery, thus aggravating the paranoia.

A lot of conservs on Twitter, and NOT crazies, are saying Wilson shouldn’t have apologized (in their wishful fantasies at least), because they believe the president WAS “lying” (illegal immigrants WILL be covered de facto because there’s no test) and somebody had to say it. These people are in a sincere (if well-fanned) panic about “statism,” and I think THAT has zero to do with Obama’s race.

David responded:

First of all, saying that Obama’s race is convenient for Democrats takes nothing away from the very real peril of racism, and the very real possibility that it may be playing a role in the way Obama is confronted, and the way he was confronted last night.

Furthermore, all leadership, in all eras, in all countries throughout time, have sought to take advantage of the convenient. That this is no different doesn’t make it less real or any less ominous. To merely view it cynically is to deny that racism occludes sensible judgment of Obama — judgment that could help mount a more effective opposition, that could lead to better legislation, and that could do less damage to the perception and the effectiveness of leadership in Washington. Racism is a flame that can be fanned. Last night, I felt the heat. Like a fever, it was a heat that chilled.

My concern was not aroused by any talking head on any network with an ulterior motive or an agenda; it arose as I watched the event unfold in real time, unadorned by commentary. Not only that, in what little commentary I watched afterwards (a bunch of talking heads on CNN, followed by Larry King’s interview of John McCain), the issue of race was never brought up.

Second, the non-crazy conservatives to whom you refer believe the president was lying; I believe they are wrong. There are reasonable interpretations on both sides, pointing to the fact that weaknesses in the legislation could allow illegal immigrants to be insured. Most of the CNN panelists I saw, and stuff I’ve read today, said they felt that could and likely would be addressed in upcoming negotiations. Whether or not Obama was lying does not make what Wilson did OK, any more than yelling invective at Bush, Bush II or Reagan at a similar (or any) occasion would have been OK.

If “somebody had to say it,” that somebody could have done much more good for their cause by saying so in a more intelligent way at a more propitious time. I don’t mind that somebody had to say it; I strenuously disagree that that was the forum and the moment in which to do so, and there seem to be many — including about $300,000 worth of South Carolina Democrats, and virtually every leader on both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate — who agree with me.

I answered (warning:  I get a little vulgar):

To merely view it cynically is to deny that racism occludes sensible judgment of Obama — judgment that could help mount a more effective opposition, that could lead to better legislation

It’s not a matter of viewing it “cynically.”  Of course there is racism out there.  What’s frustrating is that no one can criticize Obama without being accused of it!!  That makes him, in a weird way, bulletproof (I know how ironic it is to use that metaphor, and I’m still worried about assassination attempts myself).  And he and Democrats are willing to take full advantage of it.  It means that his being black is, after all, an obstacle to his being an effective president, because of variants of race-ism on both sides.

I believe that while one edge of the hysteria about Obama is racist, much more of it is ideological, and that part would be much the same directed at a white liberal.  Christ, look at the insane attempts to destroy Clinton, who wasn’t even that much of a liberal.  Just a Democrat.

Which leads to the insight that Republicans are just as willing to fan fringe racism to get power back as Democrats are to fling accusations of it [to hold on to power].

In this climate, those who are, in fact, trying to mount a sane and civil opposition (Gingrich, Pawlenty, some of the others with counterproposals to the public option) can hardly even get heard.  Everyone’s walking around with a (metaphorical) hard-on, with adrenalin in full flood.  It’s very scary.  But Democrats are fanning the flames in their own way, because it will let them off the hook if Obama fails.  You must consider how creepy it is to have legitimate policy disagreement blamed on racism.  Wouldn’t that make you paranoid if the roles were reversed?  It would look like a diabolically clever way of silencing debate and ramming through an agenda.  Even if you believe in that agenda, getting it done that way will have too high a cost.

I’m scared sick too, I just think there’s blame to go around.  Dangerous times.


If “somebody had to say it,” that somebody could have done much more good for their cause by saying so in a more intelligent way at a more propitious time. I don’t mind that somebody had to say it; I strenuously disagree that that was the forum and the moment in which to do so, and there seem to be many — including about $300,000 worth of South Carolina Democrats, and virtually every leader on both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate — who agree with me.

Jeez, I’M not arguing that “somebody had to say it,” or that the president was lying!  I’m trying to tell you why Wilson might have been angling to be on the 2012 ticket!  Some people were saying he was a hero (until he apologized), and that’s not about race at all!  The hysteria about immigration and “statism” was in full cry on the Right before Obama was a gleam in the Democratic party’s eye.  The point I’m trying to make is that the Democrats are so fixated on getting the public option (and I’m not sure Obama is, but he’s captive of the base) that they are going about this in a way that feeds into it and aggravates it, as extremes so often do incite each other.

David replied, in response to my first just above:

Yeah, you hit on it. It’s the whole hard-on for battle that’s got me a little on edge. It seems there’s almost a bloodlust. How can you can negotiate when you just want to murder the person across the table.

Do you really feel that “no one can criticize Obama without being accused of” racism? I feel like he’s been roundly, and in large part justifiably, criticized for his handling of this issue, among others. His approval ratings haven’t been bulletproof, nor should they have been. I don’t read as much as you do, but I simply haven’t seen any “legitimate policy disagreement based on racism.” In either direction. (Remember when Clarence Thomas referred to his confirmation hearing as a “high-tech lynching,” and the opposition just withered on the spot? That, to me, was a classic example of what you’re referring to.

I’m still naive enough to believe that if you have real debate, you will not be able to stymie it with fear. But you don’t have to look too far back in history, or too far afield, to see how naive that belief might be.

And in response to my second:

I see your point. And I’ll predict this right now: he’ll [Joe Wilson] narrowly lose his reelection bid; he’ll claim to have been bullied by Emanuel into making his apology; he’ll become a champion of the victimized right; and he’ll wind up on the 2012 ticket. It may all have been choreographed, soon after Obama became that gleam in the eye you mentioned.

So I said:

Wilson’s already claiming that his own party’s leadership made him apologize, that it wasn’t from the heart!  “Grassroots” Republicans are as mad at their own party’s elite as they are at Democrats.  People like Peggy Noonan who disdained Sarah Palin are toast, with them!

No, I don’t mean that no one legitimately criticizes Obama without being accused of racism, but if you listen to MSNBC (the left’s Fox), today they paraded one person after another pushing that line — including Ron Reagan.  It’s as if they got their talking points/marching orders, just like on the R when everyone starts parroting whatever Rush said that day.  Wherever it’s coming from, it’s a stupid ploy, because it makes reasonable people feel like they’re being had.  It’s a huge diversion/distraction from the question of what kind of healthcare policy we should have, and what better kind we can manage to get to given our disagreements.


Remember when Clarence Thomas referred to his confirmation hearing as a “high-tech lynching,” and the opposition just withered on the spot? That, to me, was a classic example of what you’re referring to.

Oh, definitely!  Definitely.  Nothing was more cynical than his appointment.

There are people who are doggedly (blue doggedly?) trying to have a real debate; they’re just being drowned out.  Too many people don’t have a taste or a hunger for substance any more, only for emotion.  To continue the hard-on metaphor, lots of people are looking to be jerked off.

And David (thankfully changing the metaphor) said:

That’s what happens on the eve of a conflagration. The tinder is dry. A few sprinkles here and there are no match for the lightning.

UPDATE: The plot thickens: David sends “more on Joe Wilson” (presented as evidence for the prosecution?):

Allegedly member of a far-right group called Sons of Confederate Veterans, and one of only 7 SC Republicans who went against his own party and voted to keep the Confederate flag flying over the Statehouse.

(If you follow the link, you’ll see that the SCV is actually split into two warring factions, one that is innocuous and one that is virulent.  No word on which one Joe Wilson is or was a member of.)

Does that change the equation?  It does change the 2012 equation, I think.


  1. amba12 said,

    A P.S. for my friends who will take offense at my calling anger and fear at the prospect of statism “hysteria”: I don’t think the concerns are hysterical at all, but I think they are hysterically exaggerated. For example, the notion that Obama wants to be a dictator is a hysterical exaggeration of the true observation that liberal intellectuals think they know best for everyone (as did neocon intellectuals). For another example: we are not Canada, we are not Great Britain, and you’re right: we should not be and will not be. But to equate Canada and Great Britain with the Stalinist U.S.S.R. is just nuts.

  2. Peter Hoh said,

    A very good exchange. Would that we could conduct all our political and cultural discussions as well.

    It never crossed my mind that Joe Wilson did what he did because the president is black. The idea was foreign to me until I read this post.

    I am very glad that I don’t have cable. I’m sure that a couple of hours of MSNBC would put me over the edge.

  3. amba12 said,

    It never crossed my mind that Joe Wilson did what he did because the president is black.

    Me neither!

  4. Rod said,

    The suggestion that everyone who criticizes the President is racist is as ludicrous as claiming that anybody who disagrees with Ruth Bader Ginsberg is antisemitic or that anyone who found fault with Bush was a closet terrorist. This reality is sufficiently self evident to most people that there is no danger the attempt to paint all opponents of the President as racists will stick. The racism charge will only resonate with true believers.

    Moreover, if it persists it will backfire. People who disagree with the President on a particular issue – say, health care – will be offended to be labeled racists. This will ultimately reduce the credibility of Obama’s supporters in the minds of independent voters, and that will hurt the President. It is a little like the recent suggestion that you were somehow un-American if you thought the Iraq War was a tragic mistake.

  5. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Heh, I just gave your brother hell too. A little bit different thread: I keep hearing people say this is some kind of “crossroads”, as he put it, by calling Obama things they were calling Bush a few years ago. As to whether it was an actual lie, well, which is more apparently racist: to say he’s lying, or to say he’s not competent to stay informed about what’s in the legislation to implement his own core programs? In any case, the Senate Democrats moved quickly today to actually include the restriction the President said was already there.

  6. Theo.Boehm said,

    Racism never crossed my mind, either. I thought “You lie!” coming from the chamber was not crude or vulgar, but weirdly inappropriate. It seemed like some affected attempt to import British Parliamentary behaviour. It’s instructive, occasionally, to listen to Prime Minister’s Question Time. Americans are often taken aback at the noise and the level of insult (often very high, in fact). The House of Commons is a very rough crowd, perhaps the roughest political crowd in the world, much to its credit.

    But that’s not the behavior we expect in our more dithering, superficially polite, and slow-witted Congress. So, Wilson, shouting, as he did, his very 18th century invective, seemed more like an embarrassing poseur than some crypto-bedsheet-wearer.

    For my part (and I think this is true for most people I know), when I see Barak Obama, I do not think “black man.” To me, he seems fairly post-racial, and race has receded to the last thing I notice about him, on the level of some personal detail of grooming or style. I know his own history with race and politics, and am fully aware of the attempts to continue to use his race for political purposes, as we see here, but I think to most Americans it just isn’t a big deal.

    Obama’s supporters, including the media, playing the race card here seem as forced and ridiculous as Joe Wilson’s cunningly spontaneous outburst. You just want to say, “Puhleeze!” and turn away, hoping the idiots will somehow have the decency to slink out, while everyone else, embarrassed, looks into space, hoping to hear the door slam soon.

  7. Jason (the commenter) said,

    Anyone who observes normal behavior directed at a black person and sees a helpless individual who is being victimized because of their race IS a racist.

    Me, I feel sorry for black people having to put up with all the condescension from Liberals. I get it being gay and simply wont put up with it.

  8. wj said,

    It is equally inaccurate to blame every criticism on racism as it is to insist that none of the criticisms of Obama are due to racism. In Wilson’s case, simple boorishness seems like a sufficient explanation. Bad manners are nothing new (although this was a low in recent times), from partisans of either party.

    On the other hand, it felt like a substantial majority of the criticisms of Obama for speaking to school children were racism in large part. There were some legitimate concerns about whether the message was centered on politics. On the other hand, even at the beginning there was no way this speech was anywhere near as politically based as Reagan’s address to the nations school children was. This one was pretty narrowly focused on “stay in school” and “take responsibility for yourself” and other general messages which, viewed objectively, were pretty much what a lot of the people objecting claim to believe we should have more of.

  9. Peter Hoh said,

    Wait a sec, Rod, but I get called a terrorist sympathizer fairly often at Althouse, so if you ever want to make that statement over there, I’d much appreciate it.

  10. amba12 said,

    Wonderful comment, Theo.

  11. amba12 said,

    wj, I agree that the message Obama conveyed to schoolkids was one conservatives would heartily approve of coming from … a conservative. I don’t see the objections to the speech remotely as racism, though. Not remotely. I see them as what you could call liberal-ism — the hate and fear of liberals, of state intrusion into private lives. A fear and indignation the White House played into by having that stupid lesson plan.

  12. amba12 said,

    People who disagree with the President on a particular issue – say, health care – will be offended to be labeled racists. This will ultimately reduce the credibility of Obama’s supporters in the minds of independent voters.

    Very true — if “ultimately” was yesterday!

  13. david said,

    Rod: You’re probably not talking about me, but just in case: I never suggested that “everyone who criticizes the president is racist.” In fact, I did quite the opposite.

    Charlie: you may have given me hell, but the comment never showed up. (And no, I’m not lying.)

    Theo: According to Andrew Sullivan — by no means a definitive source — the one thing you may not say to the PM in those brutal House of Commons sessions is that he’s a liar.

  14. david said,

    PS: Peter Hoh pointed out the Andrew Sullivan comment to me.

  15. Peter Hoh said,

    amba, I agree that the lesson plan was a stupid idea, but lesson plans are ubiquitous these days. They are nothing and they mean nothing. The educational establishment expects a lesson plan to accompany everything done with students.

    One of my favorite teachers once said, “I do not teach from a lesson plan. I teach from the back of a galloping horse.”

  16. amba12 said,

    My goodness — what a fascinating sole exclusion!! What does that say about lying, and about the British??

  17. Peter Hoh said,

    Amba, it’s because the claim “you lie” ends the conversation.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has three posts about the notion that Wilson’s act was related to race. In the first, he says that he’s not going there. In the other two, he reiterates and explains himself a little more.

    First, second, and third.

  18. amba12 said,

    Peter, I’m going to share that quote with the educators in my family. Splendid!

  19. Randy said,

    FYI, this is from the website of the UK Parliament:

    Unparliamentary language: Language that breaks the rules of politeness in the House of Commons chamber. MPs are not allowed to:

    * use insulting or rude language
    * accuse each other of lying or being drunk
    * misrepresent each other’s words

  20. Randy said,

    Bad manners are nothing new (although this was a low in recent times), from partisans of either party.

    True. Witness the fact that the best prior examples partisans of either side can come up with are smatterings of boos from the other side during one speech or another by a President.

  21. amba12 said,

    Well, if this were the UK Parliament instead of a blog, Icepick would be reprimanded on #2 (having recently accused wj of intoxication) and Reynolds on #3!

  22. amba12 said,

    David sent me the link to Andrew Sullivan’s piece. From an American perspective, the British practice seems both wise and quaint. The wise part (though I don’t know if this is spelled out, explained somewhere, or Andrew’s interpretation):

    [O]ne thing you are not allowed to shout in the Commons is that another speaker is a liar. A lot of circumlocutions evolved to bypass this – “terminological inexactitude” is my favorite (Churchill, of course) – but the ban is for a reason. Once the opposition starts yelling “You lie!” they have essentially abandoned the deliberative process, by questioning the good faith of a speaker. Without an assumption of good faith or a factual rebuttal, just calling someone a liar abolishes the integrity of the debating process. It ends a conversation. And parliament is about conversation.

    And this is the quaint part:

    The Speaker will direct a Member who has used an unparliamentary word or phrase to withdraw it. . . . Members sometimes use considerable ingenuity to circumvent these rules (as when, for instance, Winston Churchill substituted the phrase “terminological inexactitude” for “lie”) but they must be careful to obey the Speaker’s directions, as a Member who refuses to retract an offending expression may be named or required to withdraw from the Chamber.

    For all the world like kids saying, “Take it back!” “I take it back!”

  23. Randy said,

    As Peter said, shouting “You Lie!” ends up being a conversation-stopper. (Reynolds uses “Racist!” the same way and Icepick ended any hope of serious conversation about his points by alleging drunkenness.) FWIW, I think Jason’s point above is worth serious consideration in this instance.

  24. amba12 said,

    Hear, hear! I second that.

  25. Theo Boehm said,

    I was aware of the rules against accusing someone directly of lying or of being drunk, which is why I didn’t quote those as examples of Parliamentary behavior.

    Catcalls and cries of “Sit down!” are the order of the day, however. I listen to Parliament about once a month or so, and the general level of abuse…er…lively debate is pretty astonishing to those of us used to boring Congressional Kabuki or Symbolist drama.

    The Prime Minister, being a Member of Parliament is more like the first among equals, rather than the Head of State the American President is, and so is not given anything like the deference we accord Presidents. That’s IN Parliament. Outside of Parliament, the P.M. is still not given that much deference, but has much more relative governmental power than the U.S. President, while the impotent pomp and ceremony are reserved for the Monarch.

    As I said, Wilson’s calculated outburst may have been technically “Unparliamentary,” but outbursts of a more acceptable sort are not at all uncommon, as has been outlined above.

    Wilson’s preplanned blurt just seemed to me to be a weird echo of the Parliamentary treatment of the P.M., but so totally inappropriate and totally “off” on so many levels that I, for one, wish that he had fallen through a hole in the floor before he had that opportunity to embarrass himself, the Congress, and, ultimately, the country.

  26. Courtney Haynes said,

    I know I said on Twitter that I wondered if race was a part of the hostility against Obama, but I quickly decided not to dwell on that. Yes, there has been some bad news (there always is), but I saw that an ample number of people objected strongly to Wilson’s comment. Some of the other good news is that the President would not have been elected if too many white people still harboured deep racial prejudice. I also recognize that Obama appears to be self assured enough to not let such comments affect him unduly. He always seems to have his eyes on the goal. I think it is good to remember that while he is a black man, he is also a white person, truly biracial, having been raised by his white family and having had plenty of opportunity to know white people up close and personal. I think he has well balanced attitude about race, probably a lot better than many of us. I wish that, in the 60s and 70s, I had been courageous enough to speak up when I saw racism happen, but now I’d rather do or say something helpful in such a situation, and not give too much attention to bad behavior since that seems to make things worse.

  27. Peter Hoh said,

    I have not done any research on this, but I heard that Wilson used to be a member, and that some time after that the nutters took over the organization. I’m not going to put a lot of stock in this guild by association unless it turns out that he was in the organization while the nutters were in charge.

  28. PatHMV said,

    Peter is of course right that labeling an opponent a liar is pretty much ending the conversation (as is accusing them of holding their views due to racial bias). But if we’re going to focus on merely the cry of “liar,” absent from the particular rules of civility attendant upon members of Congress during a joint session, then we really do have to examine the President’s remarks, and his own charges of lying leveled more broadly against an entire class of critics.

    It would be one thing for the President to say “Of course this is a 1200 page bill, and it’s written by lawyers, so some confusion is inevitable. I know some of you have concerns about illegal aliens benefiting from American tax dollars. Here’s what’s going on with that charge. The bill categorically says that illegal immigrants aren’t eligible for benefits. My critics say that because there’s no verification requirement, illegal aliens will be treated anyway. Here’s why that’s not right….”

    That would be engaging in debate. Instead, he basically erected straw-men, refusing to address in any way the actual charges being made by serious critics. It shuts down the conversation.

  29. Rod said,

    David: I was not talking about you. Peter: You may quote me as an authoritative source: questioning why we would declare war on a government which had nothing to do with 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, and was hemmed in by no fly zones and other sanctions such that it could no longer threaten its neighbors, does not make you a terrorist sympathizer.

    Of course, some of the people who criticize the President, especially those who prefer insults to discussion, are racially motivated. And, some of the people who attack anyone who criticizes the President are racially motivated, as well. But, I believe the vast majority of the people attending Tea Parties are worried about deficits and taxes. Does anyone think the now infamously boorish Mr. Wilson would have shouted at Colin Powell if he was addressing Congress?

    This country has for some time been dividing into camps which are generally “conservative” and “liberal.” The first African American President, who was supported by well over 90% of African American voters, is in many ways a standard liberal. OF COURSE, the half of the voters who are conservative will disagree with his policies.

    If Hillary Clinton were elected and Mr. Wilson shouted the same insult, would he have been sexist instead of racist? If someone associated with a right to life group pulls out a sign that says, “Baby Killer” at an Obama rally, the default assumption should be that the sign holder is protesting the President’s position on abortion rights, not his race.

  30. Rod said,

    A postscript to my last comment: The more I think about it, the more I think the people (left or right) who try to inject race into policy debates are doing so for partisan purposes, not the other way around.

  31. Peter Hoh said,

    Thanks, Rod. Yeah, there ought to be a race-based equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

  32. Rod said,

    Peter: Many years ago, student radicals of the late 1960’s interrupted a class at my college, calling the professor a Nazi because he didn’t support some student left proposal. His response was that, unlike the students, he had actually fought the Nazis. I was called a racist because I didn’t think it was a good idea for black students, who were dispersed throughout the residential colleges that provided undergraduate housing, to intentionally segregate themselves into one residential college. Meanwhile, my future in-laws thought I was a communist because I preferred Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.

    Name calling is the cheapest substitute for thought.

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