Update March 2010: It took six months for the mainstream to catch up, but now Frank Rich is saying pretty much the same thing in the NYT: white people are upset that they are not in charge any more.
UPDATE: This article has attracted the usual trickle of informative and thoughtful reader comments, which are always welcome, plus a torrent of venomous stupidity, which, unfortunately, I have had to look at in order to reject. It is quite clear that the US is headed in the direction of very stupid, hurtful and dangerous politics. What is also clear is that I have neither the time nor the interest nor the stomach for it. I regret having to do this, but I am disabling comment submission.
I happened to be in Washington, DC last weekend, and on the way to and from the National Gallery I had the opportunity to observe the March on Washington, which was in full swing. Once upon a time I had joined demonstrations, not out of some misplaced idealism, but to pick up women (I was still single at the time). The demonstrations were always full of pretty, high-spirited young women, and the context of marching and chanting slogans together rendered them approachable. And so my first question concerning the crowd marching around the Mall last weekend was, "Where are all the pretty young women?" There weren't any! Surprised, I observed some more. What I saw only deepened my consternation. Not only were there no pretty women to be seen, but the crowd included exactly zero blacks, Latinos or Asians. I don't believe I have ever before seen so many middle-aged, obese, shabbily dressed, melanin-challenged individuals gathered in one place!
What political interests bind over-the-hill flabby white people to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups? What is the shabby white agenda? Perhaps the signs the marchers carried might offer a clue? Most of them carried white corrugated cardboard signs stapled to a sharpened pine stake, of the sort designed for displaying on suburban front lawns. The slogans they scribbled on them were of their own devising, but the form factor of the signs was identical throughout. The slogans related to disparate interests: health care, monetary policy, constitutional law. I eventually stumbled on a pile of the stock they used to make their signs. These were printed signs: the printed side said either "Office Space for Lease!" or "Condos for Sale!". The demonstrators would pry the cardboard off one sign, staple it to another sign face down, and scribble on the blank side of the one in the front. These people are refugees from foreclosure-land that somebody organized and shipped in, together with their props!
Although the topic of war did not seem foremost on their minds, some of the men, and even a few of the ruddy, rugged-looking women, were clad in warrior garb of one of two varieties: quite a few aging road warriors sported motorcycle gang leathers decorated with Harley-Davidson insignia, while others wore frumpy US Military camouflage pyjamas. One very large would-be warrior paraded with a sign that read "I will defend the Constitution by any means necessary." He could certainly snuff one or two enemies of the republic by belly-flopping onto them with his gigantic gut! But this wasn't a rabidly militant crowd, unlike some of the pro-war demonstrations I've witnessed. For this bunch, militarism is clearly just part of the clutter in their mental attic.
The one theme that seemed to tie it all together could be summed up by the statement "Obama is bad". This message was often couched in laughable, preposterous bits of hyperbole: "Obama is a socialist/Marxist/fascist". (To my knowledge, Obama holds no Marxist credentials whatsoever.) Interestingly, some of the signs were decorated with the hammer and sickle, but I did not see a single Swastika. I would venture a guess that this was to avoid mistaken identification; it is probably easier for these people to be mistaken for fascists than for communists. Not that they are either of these: clearly, they are just some regular old shlubby people, self-organized along strict ethnic lines, self-selected by their hatred of Obama.
Since Obama happens to be a politician, a superficial assumption is that these people joined forces in opposition to Obama's politics. It is, however, difficult to see much daylight between Obama's politics and those of his predecessor. There is a dearth of ideas on how to reverse the country's economic slide and point it in a new, more promising direction. Instead, there is a great deal of continuity: in financial bail-out strategies that benefit large financial institutions and wealthy investors (who are part of Obama's base of support just as they were of Bush's), in the policy of open-ended military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Obama's refusal to investigate and prosecute the previous administration for war crimes, and in most other areas of policy as well, Obama has tuned out to be a Bush in sheep's clothing.
The latest, desperate effort to avoid national bankruptcy at the hands of the medical-industrial complex is not a new initiative. Medical reform has been attempted before, and the outcome can be foretold with some accuracy: efforts at reform will fail because any meaningful reform would be financially damaging to powerful vested interests, and so national bankruptcy will have to be an essential part of the work-out. Feelings of the electorate on the matter are irrelevant. But opposition to medical reform is a convenient ruse to hide the real motivations of these self-selected white demonstrators. Now, could these perhaps have to do with... racism?
Jimmy Carter has recently blundered into the fray, making the following statement on CNN: “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,” Carter told NBC News." This has caused a bit of an uproar. Captain Obvious was immediately paged but declined comment. The Obama administration immediately started to distance itself from Jimmy. Jimmy does say the darnest things, such as calling Israeli policies toward Palestinians "Apartheid". (Speaking truth to liars is a dangerous sport, because if you do, their lying turns vicious. Everyone knows that anything short of a glowing endorsement of Israeli policies brings an automatic charge of antisemitism. When is Jimmy going to learn?)
Obama's ethnic and racial identity is ambiguous. He is a self-described mutt. If he is black, then he is black in the way a puppy born of a black Labrador and a golden retriever might be black, not the way a lot of the US prison population is black. He is a cross between a Kenyan and an anthropologist, and a privileged, pampered member of America's ruling class. His people did not come from Africa in slave ships to be auctioned at Charleston and work on plantations.
He may not be particularly black, but he is definitely not of the same tribe as the Washington demonstrators, who were predominantly of Scots-Irish or English or German descent. This is who America's proud owners and proprietors have been through most of American history, the ethnic groups that have built the American empire, driving slaves, running factories, fighting the natives and driving them into reservations, driving the Mexicans out of the Southwest, and manning the police departments, the military bases and the prisons. They are the ones who worked to impose Pax Americana on the Americas, and, for a short while, almost succeeded in having their way with the rest of the world.
And now they have grown old, fat and sick and are mired in debt. Their time is over, and they are every bit as upset about it as they ought to be. I can't fault them for it. Up until last year, they could comfort themselves by thinking: "We may be poor, but at least we ain't black!" But now they have a black President. What a shock that must be!
What is lost on many simple minds is that the concept of racism is actually a lot of ridiculous nonsense. The term should be retired. It initially presupposed the existence of some sort of natural hierarchy, with a master race (English aristocracy) at the top and semi-evolved animal-like barbarians (Africans, Asians and such) near the bottom. This theory was responsible for a great deal of misery and injustice, but now it has been thoroughly discredited by genetics. The human genome is not differentiated according to race or skin color: we are all one race.
What remains of the concept of race is irrational racial hatred, but racial hatred is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce ethnic strife. Privileged ethnic groups do not have to hate ethnic groups they oppress any more than I have to hate chickens in order to steal and eat their eggs. Ethnicity-based feelings of entitlement and a clan mentality work just as well to divide a multi-ethnic society into warring factions. You might think that intermarriage and a long history together might mitigate against this risk, but there was plenty of intermarriage and a very long history together between Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, and between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, and look at where that got them. Multi-ethnic societies are fragile entities, and have a tendency to explode. When they do everyone loses.
Whenever two or more ethnic groups live side by side, the danger of ethnic strife, civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide is always present. What usually triggers it is the presence of politicians who are willing to exploit ethnic differences in order to grab or hold on to power. Do we have any of those here? Do they even know that they are playing with fire? The poor people I saw parading around Washington last weekend didn't seem so threatening, but where there is smoke there is fire.
It is possible to excuse those who are upset with the way things are in the country. It is, after all, a sad state of affairs. It is also possible to forgive people for being upset that their leader doesn't look or act like them. Bush did his best to appease them by playing a redneck on TV, cutting up logs with a chainsaw, driving a pickup truck around his ranch during his lengthy and numerous vacations, and cultivating a fake Texas twang to mask his New England upper-class roots.
But what of those in positions of influence who are willing to exploit public frustration and stir up ethnic hatred, all in order to defeat health care reform? Isn't that exactly what we should expect of those who want to continue to extort money from sick people in order to make profits even while the country teeters toward bankruptcy? Are they too stupid to realize how dangerous a game that is? Or do they think that it might not be too bad for them, and that a bloodletting might be good for their business, making it even more profitable?
In the US, politics is a stupid, pointless, but mostly harmless game. Let's all do our best to make sure that it stays that way.