September 17, 2009
The debate is falling along predictable lines – Fox News and its provincial minions defending Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst last week as a noble act of dissent, while the left-leaning dailies and Democrats accuse the blue-eyed right-wing Southerner of racism.
Who’s right? We may never know. Yet America is gaining from the controversy.
It is reminding us of that racism still haunts America, seen if not in Wilson’s lack of decorum, then in the overnight sensation the rebel flag-defending member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has become among the Right; in the heightened anti-Obama fervor the episode incited; in the $1 million in campaign contributions that were subsequently rushed to his doorstep.
The episode is forcing us to think more deeply about what’s driving anti-Obamamania, as we should. After all, it is curious that the such a smart, thoughtful, inspiring, bridge-building centrist who is reviving America’s image globally and is committed to cleaning up the staggering mess his predecessor left him should be attacked so savagely – branded a Nazi, a communist, a socialist, a foreigner, a Muslim and African even – at a time no less when most US presidents would still be in the throes of their honeymoon.
Then along comes Joe Wilson to utter the two words heard around the world – and bam. America’s asking, is the Right’s seething anger really all about Obama’s “leftist” policies? Insisting so is a good way to hide whatever else might be at work.
Some whites have grown wary of black claims of racism, and that’s somewhat understandable given how quick some blacks are to perceive a racist slight in matters they find disagreeable. It happened to me just last week on the light rail in Baltimore. As I asked the conductor why the trains were consistently running late, a woman hissed, “Why you bothering the black man about the service? Why you have to be racist?” Needles to say, my query had nothing to do with race and everything to do with undependable service.
The prevalence of such paranoia, however, is not proof that racism does not exist. Yet the Right insists on dismissing the charge out-of-hand. They did it when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in his own home, now when Joe Wilson shouts “You Lie.” A top headline on Foxnews.com about Wilson’s remark is illustrative. It read, “It’s Just Not About Race” (though of course Fox’s Glenn Beck was right to call Obama a “racist”). That headline might have been vaguely accurate had it been made to read, “It’s Not Just About Race.” Instead, what we get from the 24-hour mock-news infotainer is 24 hours of unequivocal denials – just no way, just you must be crazy, just you must be a commie and an immigrant and a bleeding-heart liberal.
But the damage is done; good ’ol Wilson got America thinkin’. How a good many among us even in the 21st century maybe can’t handle the thought of a black president, one no less who’s suave and intelligent; how race may be entrenching political allegiances.
It’s encouraging to note that it’s not primarily dem pesky Negroes who are considering whether Wilson’s comments were racist – no, suh! – but white commentators and white legislators, notable among them former president and southerner, Jimmy Carter, who said Wilson’s comments were “based on racism” and that “there is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.” Is it just coincidence that so much of the blind opposition to Barack Obama is emanating from the South? Carter says no. “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care – it’s deeper than that,” he said.
Chances are pretty good that if people in the South don’t approve of mixed marriages – 40 percent, according to the American Enterprise Institute – they aren’t keen on a black president either.
Conservative firebrands like Rush Limbaugh have been quick to issue unequivocal denials that at least some opposition to President Obama may be racially motivated. But who are they to speak for the hidden feelings of millions of people? They expose the falsity of their claims when they do. Try as they might to divert attention away from what might lurk in the recesses of the Republican party’s collective unconscious, a good portion of America is now reconsidering whether the new opposition should be taken at face value. Were, for instance, the Town Hall types who went ballistic this summer really just all about health care? It would be unfair to conclude that racism is at work. But it’s responsible at this point not to rule it out either. After all, while racism may be less overt today, having grown less acceptable since the Civil Rights movement, it has not ceased to exist. Indeed in this era of political correctness the protean legacy hasn’t so much gone away as hid away.
Joe Wilson is a reminder of the fact. And that’s why the party that purports to stand for “wholesome” Christian American values is suddenly so defensive.