The left is pleased with the president right now, because his rhetoric is affirming to liberalism (and mocking and condemning of Republicans), and contains sufficiently high voltage language to constitute a rhetorical “fight” against the right — this despite the fact that legislatively, his plan is probably dead on arrival in the House, barring some huge chane in fortune, and would even be iffy with skittish Senate Democrats.
The left is livid at the president when his strategy of compromise and negotiation has the chance of actually producing legislation, even when he is essentially chumping the tea party and John Boehner (as has happened in each of their head-to-head negotiations) because the satisfying emotional, rhetorical content is not there.
As I’ve written before, politics really is about theater on a fundamental level. And it isn’t just the tea party that badly wants to be affirmed by their leadership. Sometimes that affirmation means more than legislation, because there are no incrementalists on either the right or the left. Both sides are angry, and both sides respond pretty much to only one thing: rhetorical attacks on the enemy camp.
It is in that context, that I post this link by AngryBlackLady, to the text of a piece by Gene Lyons of Salon.com. In it, he praises Obama for finally adhering to the strictures of liberal behavior which the vocal left has been beating him up for failing to adhere to for three years. It’s not just the right that imposes ideological orthodoxy, and Obama has been guilty of blatantly unorthodox behavior for most of his first term, to hear the “professional left.” Lyons is pleased that the president is finally banging Republicans over the head, and pushing for Keynsian spending on infrastructure. That’s fine, and there’s certainly an argument to have, whether the smarter electoral strategy for the president is to tack toward his base, which George W. Bush proved in 2004 is one successful re-elect strategy, or to drive to the center, a la “era of big government is over” Bill Clinton in 1996.
But in his piece, Lyons also casually, and rather nastily, dismisses the racial elephant in the room when it comes to what more than handful of black Democrats believe are the impossibly high standards imposed on the nation’s first black president by some of his “supporters.” Here’s the key passage:
This just in: Not all the fools are Republicans. Recently, one Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.”
See, nobody ever criticized Bill Clinton, another centrist Democrat who faced a hostile Republican congress. Indeed, he was “enthusiastically re-elected” in 1996. Therefore, “[t]he 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.”
The professor actually wrote that. See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. Not killing Osama bin Laden, not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness.
Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds. Otherwise, Harris-Perry’s becoming a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV.
The sheer political stupidity of turning Obama’s reelection into a racial referendum cannot be overstated. It would be an open confession of weakness. Whatever its shortcomings, this White House is too smart to go there. Harris-Perry will have to fight this lonely battle on her own. Voters can’t be shamed or intimidated into supporting this president or any other. They can only be persuaded.
And with the U.S. economy stagnating, they’re going to need lots of persuading. Which is why the good news is that Obama has actually started talking like a Democrat again.
After that, Lyons launches into praise for the president’s American Jobs Act gambit. But that passage provides a valuable insight into the roots of the chasm between black people — writ large — and white liberals — write large. The latter sometimes demonstrate a stunning lack of interest/understanding of the complex but still present interplay of race in our politics, and really, in our daily lives. The truth is, Perry made a point that is not only not uncommon among black Americans, it is almost rote. Black people experience the opposition to Barack Obama differently from white people, and their observations about his treatment, by the right AND by the left, are not invalid. Part of liberalism, at least in my understanding, is NOT invalidating the experience of marginalized groups. Simply brushing off Perry’s concerns as “foolish” strikes me as being of a piece with, say, scapegoating black Obama voters in California for supposedly causing Proposition 8 to pass — something that more than a few white liberals did, even though the premise wasn’t actually true. As I said before, the disconnect between white liberals and black Democrats is real. It’s tangible, and it stems from, frankly, a simple, basic, lack of empathy and experiential understanding of how the other half lives.
By the way, note that Lyons tosses in killing Osama bin Laden with high unemployment, as if it goes without saying that most liberals/blacks would see the former as a bad thing (most Americans, black and white, see killing bin Laden as an unalterably good thing.) But more importantly, jumping on board the David Sirota train, by equating black beliefs about the treatment of the country’s first black president with the Ku Klux Klan is so far out there, and so offensive, it’s hard to believe that some editor at Salon didn’t pull Lyons back from the brink. Saying that black people who believe, as Melissa does, that there is a different standard for this president, are just like Klansman, is no different than tea partiers saying that anyone who believes in increasing taxes on the wealthy are just like Marxists. Isn’t that kind of bottom-line obvious?
Moreover, calling Melissa Harris Perry a “fool,” and attempting to diminish her as “just another Michele Bachmann” is really not a smart play for the vocal left, particularly at a time of rising distrust between black Obama supporters and the overwhelmingly white liberal elite. Ms. Harris-Perry is much more respected by your average black person than, say, the pet black intellectuals of the “professional left,” like Cornel West (or Tavis Smiley). If you don’t believe me, ask 10 black people who they value more: West or Perry. I can tell you what at least 9 of them will say. Trust me. Because I’m sure I talk to more black people on Monday than Mr. Lyons talks too all week… or maybe all month. I mean, I won’t presume to know who Lyons hangs out with, but Salon’s masthead, like those of most of the leading liberal blogs, isn’t exactly teeming with diversity.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The chasm between black Democrats and white liberals is real. It needs to be addressed in the open.
UPDATE: Bob Cesca weighs in with a very smart column that’s worth a read.