The Campaign for Leviathan
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Sunday Night Journal — October 28, 2012

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.

Comments

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The election of our first black president has been the occasion not for unity but for further division.

Not a whole lot. The enhanced vituperation of the last dozen years or so has been peculiar. The discourse about Obama (much of it on the spectrum between odd and lunatic) adds only increments.

Modern politics seems to be nothing but libel. At least here.

Maclin, I was appalled, but not surprised, by that FB comment.

I wonder whether these kinds of "conversations" come from people who have it pretty good in life. I mean, if you have a gravely ill child (for example) you don't have much time/energy for dishing out snarky remarks on FB. I only mention it b/c I saw a cute little baby the other day who has bad kidney issues and is the youngest of 8 kids. I can't imagine his parents have any time to be writing horrid things to strangers on the 'net!

Not that I have never posted a snarky comment on FB. :)

I really wasn't snarky, I promise. I can't quote myself because I deleted the comment after attracting the attention of Mr. Civility there.

As for the time spent on Fb, the "friend" whose post I was responding to works at a software company, so, like me, he's probably in front of a computer all day. I have absolutely no idea about Mr. C--he was a complete stranger to me.

Lord! I didn't think *you* were snarky! Just Mr Civility. (I laff!)

I really miss FB. I'm resisting the urge to hop back on.

No, I didn't think you meant that, I just wanted to make it clear that I was an entirely innocent victim.:-) I mean, I didn't even enjoy a slight sense of superiority in correcting their ignorance about evangelicals and Mormons. Or feel angry at being insulted.

Or if I did, I offered it up, because of course any spiritual shortcoming on my part is an occasion of great suffering for me.

Dang, I forgot to assure them of my prayers for their sorry asses.

Do you have a copy of that prayer, Maclin, I lost mine.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to find it. We might have to write a new one.

I forgot to assure them of my prayers for their sorry asses.

Now that was a real oversight, and quite blame-worthy.

I know. One should never miss an opportunity to be hostile with Christian charity.

heehee!

I didn't respond--what would have been the point?

Why not? The chump may be comprehensively unreasonable or malicious, but the set of attitudes he has thrives on being in a matrix where the subject is not challenged. Just asking for a justification might persuade him to be more circumspect later and it might persuade others reading it. You owe nothing to him and your 'friend' but basic courtesy and if your 'friend' gets his nose out of joint, so what? It is not like you are losing his company.

"...might persuade him..." Maybe. Just as likely to escalate the frenzy. And Facebook arguments are even more ephemeral than those in the public web.

Just as likely to escalate the frenzy.

The remark you quoted was not frenzied; it was snide.

I would rate it higher in the meanness dept than merely snide. At any rate I choose not to spend my time in such exchanges. By all means do so yourself if you think it worthwhile.

At any rate I choose not to spend my time in such exchanges.

Waal, you spend your time in a certain number of exchanges. You might as well defend yourself every once in a while.

I didn't feel any need or desire to defend myself. It was like being accused of being a Nazi--too far off the mark to be felt as an insult. I was intellectually and morally rather than personally offended, but I didn't think there was much chance of making a dent in the offender's carapace.

"Exchanges," yes, but very very rarely that sort anymore, and especially not on Facebook. Unlike a blog or forum where things generally remain for a long time, once something scrolls off the news feed on Facebook it's pretty much down the memory hole.

How does that joke about wrestling with the pig go?...you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.

How does that joke about wrestling with the pig go?...you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.

One of the newspaper reporters subject to abuse by Matt Taibbi said that about him. I would take that as passable advice if my opponent were an articulate attention-seeker. Mr. Civility may be that, or he may live in a bubble.

Articulate he certainly was not. There were other comments from him, and he appeared to be of the crude-is-authentic school. He probably does live in a bubble, though, if only one around his own head.

I agree with Arty that sometimes you have to hold your ground

Whether to be silent or to speak up in any situation is one of those things which seems to cause me a lot of headaches. I keep praying for wisdom.

I don't think anyone would argue against the idea that sometimes you have to hold your ground. I also don't think anyone would argue that you should always engage every hostile moron you happen to bump into on the internet, either. The question here is about that specific incident I was dealing with. In retrospect, and with the above arguments in mind, I'm still of the view that there was no apparent reason for me to respond. Sure, it's possible that I would have shaken him out of his bubble. But my experience of people like that, who are already angry, is that being challenged just gives them an occasion to give voice to the anger.

I once made a remark on FB, responding to something an FB friend said about gay marriage. Dozens of people I don't know started calling me a Neanderthal. I just ignored it and tiptoed away.

I don't think that Fb is every the right venue for that kind of discussion.

AMDG

EVER

AGREE

Fb is best suited for brief remarks, in my opinion.

FB is good for jokes, cartoons, and also photographs. I've seen some beautiful photos there.

Definitely to all those. I only meant that in reference to discussions ("best suited for brief remarks"). I'm not sure I've ever seen a substantive discussion of much length there, although I think I miss a lot due to not staying logged in for long periods of time.

Dozens of people I don't know started calling me a Neanderthal. I just ignored it and tiptoed away.

Why "tiptoe"? Don't be intimidated by these people.

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