An Opportunity Not Just Missed But Thwarted
What was noticeable from the start was that no evidence was produced in support of this accusation; the thing was simply asserted with an air of authority. And the attack was made with a maximum of personal libel and with complete irresponsibility as to any effects it might have on [race relations].
But so long as no argument is produced except a scream of "Racist]!" the discussion cannot even begin.... In such circumstances there can be no argument; the necessary minimum of agreement cannot be reached. What purpose is served by saying that [Obama's opponents] are [racist]? Only the purpose of making serious discussion impossible. It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched. Libel settles nothing.
The two preceding passages are from Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, except that the terms in brackets have been substituted for, in order: "the war," "Trotsky-Fascist", "men like Maxton," and "in Fascist pay." Orwell is describing the Communist attack on those of the Left who wanted a thoroughgoing revolution in Spain. When I read the pages from which these extracts are taken, I was struck by their applicability to the treatment of President Obama's opponents by many of his supporters.
The two accusations are similar not only in their tactics but in their import, which is the charge of being in league with some malignant conspiracy. As the term "racism" is wielded by the left, it encompasses everything from the mildest negative impression to membership in the Ku Klux Klan. And to charge someone with racism is to charge him not with some sort of personal fault but with the active intention of oppressing black people (or "people of color" in general). Until recently it has been the most poisonous of political accusations; it may still be, though it has been weakened by excessive and trivial use.
One of the hopes for Barack Obama's presidency, shared even by many of those who did not vote for him, was that it would improve race relations simply because it happened, constituting proof of immense progress since the days of segregation. That there was some racially-based opposition to Obama as a presidential candidate, I have no doubt, nor that there is racially-based hostility to him as president. But there was also, early on, a general wave of good will which included many who opposed him, typified by the sign I saw here in very Republican Alabama: "Not my choice, but now my president." (I posted about it here.) Even those who were worried about his views and his qualifications were pleased to see that it was possible for the country to elect a man of mixed African and American ancestry who, according to the peculiar racial logic in place here, is classified as "black." We hoped that even if he pursued policies we thought wrong (as seemed likely--otherwise we would have voted for him) there would at least be some benefit to the nation in a lessening of racial hostility.
But exactly the opposite has happened, because so many of Obama's supporters chose to treat any opposition to him as evidence of racism. Whether they really believe this or simply find it politically useful doesn't matter. What matters is that they have done it from the time Obama became a candidate until right now, and it has had its effect. It has encouraged blacks to believe that anyone who opposes Obama wants to oppress them. It has infuriated whites who feel themselves falsely accused. It has prepared the way for a permanent escalation of racial hostility and paranoia, especially in the event that Obama fails to win a second term: his loss will be taken as a victory for racism.
I'm used to hearing all this as a general charge against conservatives, of course. But I recently had the accusation made directly to me, and it was pretty startling. I avoid getting into political debates on Facebook, and have generally regretted it when I've broken that rule. One of my "friends," someone I knew years ago but haven't seen since around 1990, is a very vocal Obama supporter. A couple of weeks ago he posted his discovery that the doctrines of Mormonism are seriously at odds with those of anything resembling orthodox Christianity, and wondered if the "fundamentalist Repubs" were aware of this, and if so how they could vote for Romney. Against my better judgment, but inclined to defend fundamentalists against inaccurate or unreasoned attacks, I commented that evangelicals in general are very aware of the religious difference, but nevertheless believe that Romney would be a better president than Obama. I thought this an inoffensive observation. Someone else added a rambling comment to the effect that he didn't see why there would be a problem. I was startled by the next one, from a person completely unknown to me, which I quote in full exactly as it appeared:
translation of last 2 teabilliy comments" Better the Devil than the N"
"Teabilly" was a new term to me; I take it to be a portmanteau of "Tea Party" and "hillbilly." "N" obviously stands for "nigger."
I didn't respond--what would have been the point? But the incident brought home to me just how unreasoned and malicious the tactic can be: the fellow not only accused evangelicals of an intense hatred of black people, but included me in the charge, when I hadn't even mentioned my own views. This is a crude instance of the basic tactic used reflexively by many on the left. When the Tea Party appeared, it was immediately branded as racist, on the basis of flimsy and questionable evidence, by the usual illiberal techniques of emphasizing, exaggerating, and attributing to every member of a group the faults of the worst instance available.
And of course sheer audacious and unsupported assertion goes a long way in these efforts. I recall another Facebook "friend" quoting Anthony Bourdain on Tea Party racism, with the comment "No wonder I like Anthony Bourdain so much." I had no idea who Anthony Bourdain was, or what might be the source of his authority on the subject. It turned out that he is "a chef, author, and television personality," clearly not someone to be taken lightly when he speaks on politics. I could multiply examples at great length. Some are laughable to almost anyone not disoriented by political passion, like the MSNBC commentator who found racism in a joke about the amount of time Obama spends playing golf.
The basis of what I'm tempted to call this tragedy is that we have suffered the misfortune of having as our first black president a man with views well to the left of much of the country. In current political topography, a majority or a very large minority of Americans are center-right, and Obama is significantly further to the left, with evidence that he would be much further in that direction if it were politically feasible. There is a lot of opposition to his policies, and his supporters have chosen to encourage racial resentment as one of their tools for defeating that opposition. Chosen: it needn't have been this bad. The election of our first black president has been the occasion not for unity but for further division.
It is true that libel does not settle an argument of fact. But it is not without effect. Obama's supporters have managed to increase black hostility to whites, by telling the former that most of the latter are racist, and to anger whites who do not support Obama by libelling them. If you hate Jones you may succeed in making Smith your ally by assuring him that Jones is plotting against him. The question of fact is almost irrelevant when the settlement sought is the social destruction of Jones.