Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Pestle of Assimilation

Bob Johnson of BET explains what's wrong with the candidacy of that boy Obama:

“[I]f you take a freshman senator from Illinois called ‘Jerry Smith’ [i.e., a white man] and he says I’m going to run for president, would he start off with 90 percent of the black vote?” Johnson said. “And the answer is, probably not.”
Not without being called a commie, a racist, a terrorist, an elitist, an opportunist, a class warrior, an empty suit, a demagogue, and a hypocrite, that's for sure.

It'd be terrible if blacks voted for Obama simply because he's "one of them," instead of looking at more important factors...like whether or not they'd like to have a beer with him, or how well he bowls, or whether he prefers orange juice to coffee, or how many times he mentioned Jesus in a speech. Doing so would confirm their adherence to "identity politics," which can be broadly defined as the belief that the United States comprises a variety of people who have vastly different experiences of what it's like to be American, and whose problems won't necessarily be solved by another round of corporate tax cuts, or some splendid new war.

People who believe in this fairy tale have forgotten the ideal of equality on which this country was founded; in doing so, they've revealed themselves as the second-class citizens we always suspected they were.

Summoning the better angels of our nature is supposed to be effortless for Americans, like hating fags or snubbing panhandlers. And yet, I can't quite bring myself to respect Johnston, despite his status as a poster child for Black Capitalism and his earnest efforts to repeal the Death Tax. There's something especially ugly about accusing black voters of a shallow approach to politics, at a time when powerful media personalities are worrying themselves sick over Obama's bowling skillz and diner etiquette.

Conventional wisdom says the black population is susceptible to identity politics largely because of ancient grudges that it refuses to give up. Presidential candidates are accordingly supposed to repudiate this dour outlook, and lead black voters towards a more "mature" political understanding (c.f., Obama's claim that America can atone for past crimes by clinging to the dreamy exceptionalism that made them possible).

White America has its own forms of identity politics and its own grudges, God knows, but candidates are generally supposed to treat those as common sense, or badges of authenticity, or worse yet, as "values." To put it another way, blacks are flattered for what they may become, if they submit to the Mortar of Assimilation, while whites are flattered for what they are (i.e., the hand that wields the pestle).

This is a longstanding and important tradition, so it's no surprise that Obama's occasional attempts to turn it on its head have landed him in hot water. You're not supposed to pity "regular" voters, or psychoanalyze them, or accuse them of being somehow unaware of where their own best interests lie. Those approaches are strictly for teh darkies, queers, and bitches, all of whom have a boundless need for constructive criticism from the likes of Georgie Anne Geyer and Maggie Gallagher.

The way to show respect for regular folks is to portray them, per Atrios, "as part of some community of simpletons whose comfort zone is so narrow that they all freak out if someone dares to drink a different brand of beer," while interpreting their legitimate resentments and insecurities as tacit approval for offshoring, deregulation, and the destruction of the social contract.

Anything else would be elitist, you see.

(Illustration: "The Mortar of Assimilation – and the One Element That Won't Mix." From Puck, 1889.)


Kip W said...

You wrote this back on Tuesday, and there's no pile of people here agreeing with you? The blogosphere is truly broken. At least Avedon is on the job, pointing people to what you wrote, but in a just universe, there would be some positive feedback for it right here.

That said, yeah, it's pretty insane that the GOP has managed to redefine corporations as the heartland, and whole genders and economic classes as "special interests." As a longwinded fishwife once said, "Words have meaning." Quaint sentiment, eh? I guess they don't now.

Phila said...

Thanks, Kip!

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