Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Oppressive, Bloodsucking, Arrogant, Muslim, Alien
The mainstream media are finally starting to state the obvious: The ad-hoc group of conservatives that coalesced around the nation's capital on 9/12 are motivated by racial hatred. In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd finally connected the dots following Joe Wilson's outburst ("You lie!") during the President's speech on health care reform. Dowd writes,
"Surrounded by middle-aged white guys — a sepia snapshot of the days when such pols ran Washington like their own men’s club — Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” at a president who didn’t. But, fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!... I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race... But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it."
I am torn between celebrating this development in the mainstream media's approach to covering Obama's presidency and my frustration over the fact that it took the regular appearance of white men wearing guns and threatening violence against the President for it to happen. However, there is by no means an MSM consensus, as various voices (on the Right and the Left) are suggesting that either a) there is no racism involved in the opposition toward Obama and his policies or b) that there is no profit in publicly exploring it. The cat is out of the bag however when no less a personage than former President Jimmy Carter says, in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams,
"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man... I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that share the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans... And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief of many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply."
I am happy that a former President (and not incidentally a white Southerner) would express this sentiment openly on a network news program, thereby introducing it into the mainstream news cycle and ensuring that it will stay there. All of this is very good and necessary.
As in the election, while the issue of race is considered (or rather, the question of whether or not it should be considered is discussed) there is still absolutely no discussion of the blatant Islamophobia and Orientalism that characterize the arguments of his detractors. While (perhaps predictably) race has haunted the discourse around Barack Obama since he first appeared on the global stage, the most durable slur leveled against him during the election was not about his racial identity, but rather the lie that he is a Muslim. This lie became racialized at various points, as when radical Zionist nutcase Pamela Geller published an "expose" titled "Obama: Arab American?", Rush Limbaugh announced authoritatively that Barack Obama was "not black" but rather is an "Arab", and infamously when an elderly white lady told John McCain that she didn't like Obama because she had heard he was "an Arab" at a campaign event... To which McCain gallantly replied "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man and citizen...", as if an Arab identity, decency and American citizenship cannot coexist. As a result, the Obama campaign adopted a chilly distance from Muslim and Arab constituents.
But this is old news now. Right? Nope.
The use of "Muslim" and "Arab" as (somewhat confused) conjoined slurs against Barack Hussein Obama have persisted under his presidency and so has his silence about it. This Orientalist and Islamophobic meme has evolved into (among other things) the "Birther" movement's assertions that, in fact, Obama was not born in America, and is therefore constitutionally disqualified from the Presidency. Orly Taitz, the putative leader of the "Birther" movement is an Israeli emigre who produces forged Kenyan birth certificates with alarming regularity. Her irrational opposition to Obama seems to be motivated by what Buzzflash.com editor Mark Karlin, a self-described "Jew who knows the landscape of Israeli politics" calls, a "Netanyahu paranoid style" devotion to Israel, a position that criminalizes Arab and/or Muslim identities as a matter of course. Karlin writes, "The birthers are a group of psychos... anti-Semites, skinheads, political malcontents, white firsters, and a radical right wing Jew (Taitz)... who would be shooting each other if they didn't share a common hatred of Obama and the fear of America becoming a nation where whites are in the minority and our foreign policy is to join as partners in the international community." In describing the otherwise-conflicting philosophies of the "Birthers" Karlin captures perfectly the cocktail of racist self-interest that unites them in hatred of Barack Obama. But, like Dowd, while he asserts the "unspoken" anti-black racist thread in this coalition of fringe conservatives, he neglects the obvious (and often spoken) anti-Arab and Muslim elements of their opposition.
I am not suggesting that one form of prejudice is worse than the other, but rather that they work together-- something that is particularly apparent in the viciously personal attacks against Obama. The sign pictured above, which was carried by a tea bagger during the 9/12 protest in Washington DC, illustrates this convergence perfectly. That the overwhelmingly white protesters feel "oppressed" by Obama is a classic inversion of racism in which white people imagine themselves to be persecuted and "bloodsucking" seems to be a political reference to higher taxes articulated in monster-movie terms. Calling an accomplished black man "arrogant" is a textbook racist move and "Muslim" explains itself in this context, doesn't it? But "alien" is the clincher: it unites the local "uppity black man" and the foreign "menace of the marauding Arab/Muslim horde". Dowd comes close to articulating this when she writes of efforts to paint Obama as the "Other"... but while the "Twelvers" and the "Birthers" et al have not been shy in saying exactly which "Other" they mean, Dowd doesn't specify.
I think there are two reasons for this oversight. In the United States all discussions of prejudice default to a Black/White binary and Obama is a black man. But the other reason is that Islamophobia and Orientalism are so ubiquitous in our culture that they barely inspire comment. So, Barack Obama continues to express his discomfort with any taint of foreignness that comes along with the Arab and Muslim identities suggested by his name, the Right keeps using it as a slur to generate suspicion about his motives and the Left keeps ignoring it unless it is to make a joke of it. But the persistent refusal, even on the Left, to acknowledge the Islamophobic and Orientalist elements in the racist attacks against Barack Obama only reinforces them.
Oh, and Guantánamo is still open.