Barack and the Straw Man

By Akil Alleyne on October 1, 2009

In the winter of 2008, knowing that the next president of the United States would be a Democrat, I decided that President Barack Obama, whatever his faults, would be preferable to President Hillary Clinton. This had nothing to do with their policy differences—which were scant—and everything to do with many Americans’ deep personal dislike of Hillary Clinton. The country had just endured eight years of monomaniacal Clinton-bashing from the Right, followed by another eight years of equally unhinged Bush-bashing from the Left. Could America not use a leader whose detractors could oppose his policy agenda without hating his guts? 

Silly me. I did not anticipate that left-leaning elites in the US media, intelligentsia and commentariat would leap to blame any and all opposition to Obama’s politics on racism. I should have guessed that one fault line in American politics would simply be replaced by another. The partisan vitriol would rage on unabated, thanks to the profound revulsion felt by conservatives and even many independent voters toward the aforementioned insinuation. What else could result from so many liberals’ readiness to paint Obama’s critics with the brush of bigotry? 

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd fairly somersaulted onto that facile bandwagon on September 12, writing, “Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” This, strictly speaking, was true: some of President Obama’s opponents are doubtless racially motivated. Dowd was reacting to South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s disgraceful exclamation at the President during the latter’s recent address to Congress. Wilson may indeed be guilty as charged. His membership in an organization called Sons of Confederate Veterans, and his leadership of a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol, are legitimate cause for suspicion. Yet Ms. Dowd and company are not content to denounce Joe Wilson alone; most or all Obama opponents have to roast with him. 

Hence Dowd implied, for instance, that South Carolina governor Mark Sanford refused to accept stimulus funds from Washington because the President is Black. Appraising the raucous opposition to Obama-style healthcare reform at town hall meetings nationwide last August, Princeton economist Paul Krugman wrote that “the driving force…is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the ‘birther’ movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.” James Ridgeway of Mother Jones magazine declared that the “election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage.” The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne likened the town hall confrontations to the lynching and disenfranchisement of Blacks in the Jim Crow South. Most recently, former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News, “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he’s a Black man. […]  That racism inclination still exists, and I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of [the] belief among many white people…that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.” Interminable is the list of leftists who have refused, as Reason magazine’s Matt Welch put it, “to begin considering that limited government sentiment is not automatically a form of sublimated racism.”  

These allegations would be more convincing if there were some indication that a white Democratic president, one as liberal as Barack Obama, would have received gentler treatment from the Republican opposition. I think this question answers itself. It is difficult to imagine Caucasian Hillary Clinton arousing much less ire from conservatives, were she in the Oval Office today. Her equally Caucasian husband was hardly pampered by Republicans during his turn in the White House. So what basis is there for blaming Obama’s opposition on racism?

Last spring, for example, actress Janeane Garofalo insisted that the anti-government activists at one “Tea Party” demonstration must be motivated by racism rather than by conservatism, because they had never protested George W. Bush’s asinine fiscal policies. Of the protestors’ hypocrisy on that score, there can be little doubt. Yet hypocrisy and racism are two different things; to attribute the former to the latter automatically is simplistic in the extreme. Far more likely is that these Tea Partygoers are Republican loyalists, and were reluctant to criticize their party’s leader for any reason. This irrational bias is partisan in nature—not racial.

Lest I overstate my case, let me acknowledge that some of the opposition has indeed shown signs of racial bias. Most disturbing to me was a photo of one Tea Party marcher holding a sign reading “Stand idly by while some Kenyan tries to destroy America? HOMEY DON’T PLAY DAT!!!” This was only one example among many. Yet the photos and footage I’ve seen of Tea Parties and town hall protests suggested that such displays were in the minority. This is corroborated by the testimony of other direct observers (besides Ms. Garofalo, and far less partial). Smearing all the participants as racist is no fairer than characterizing all the anti-globalization protestors of yesteryear as violent anarchists. Lambasting President Obama’s detractors in general as retrograde bigots is no more reasonable than dismissing all critics of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic. Would it kill Obama’s backers to restrict their complaints to the truly bad apples in the barrel? 

The principal case against “ObamaCare” has nothing to do with race, one way or the other. There are quite legitimate arguments to be made that the President’s reform plan would exacerbate the federal budget deficit, gradually crowd out private health insurers by luring more and more Americans onto the public option and undercutting private insurance premiums, eventually lead to government rationing of healthcare and the around-the-block waiting lines that come with it, stifle innovation in medical technology, and so on. This viewpoint stems from a philosophical leeriness of activist government. There are fair grounds for rebuttal of all of these arguments. These grounds do not include the claim that they are racist. 

This left-liberal race-baiting is most damnable not in its unfairness to its targets, but in its intellectual laziness, cowardice and perhaps even desperation. Whenever its proponents tire of making the substantive case for Obama-style healthcare reform, they resort to playing the racism card. In so doing, they are attacking a straw man, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Employers of this tactic do their own cause few favors, for they are unwittingly responding to only a minority of their political adversaries. These kneejerk allegations do nothing to discredit most of President Obama’s critics, who would hardly be cheering on his big-government policies if he were white.

Liberals forget that two can—and do—play at that game. Does no one remember the political climate in 2002 and 2003, when right-wingers merrily impugned the patriotism of those who opposed the invasion of Iraq? They, too, were attacking a straw man. Most of the war’s skeptics (within the US, at any rate) were anything but un-American. In any case, the point was moot, for even genuinely unpatriotic antiwar sentiment would not have made the war itself turn out any less disastrously. Likewise, even if ObamaCare’s opponents were racist, that in itself would not make the President’s plan any better an idea. 

Can Americans really look forward to another 3 ½ to 7 ½ years in which the President’s defenders see bigoted bogeymen behind all resistance to his policies? If so, we can probably expect the unnecessarily bitter partisan strife of the past sixteen years to worsen. The sentiments underlying Bush-hatred and Clinton-hatred can only be exacerbated by adding race into that already toxic mix. Can liberals imagine no legitimate, non-racist conservative (or libertarian) rebuttal to the change President Obama has in store for America? If not, then the President will have a hard time achieving his aim of bringing Americans back together. Roughly half the country will not take kindly to being portrayed as crazy or evil—or both. 

One last issue bears mentioning. African-Americans, in my view, should be leerier of glibly playing the racism card than anyone. First of all, perhaps no other community can less afford to risk undermining its own credibility by repeatedly crying wolf. Secondly, America’s long-awaited “conversation on race” can only be poisoned by this thinly veiled indictment of so many of its intended participants. Moreover, unsubstantiated presumptions of bigotry arguably demean President Obama himself. Surely truly xenophobic opinions have no legitimate place in public discourse. If almost every iota of opposition to the President is held to be the product of white racism, then what are we to conclude? That his complexion should exempt him from virtually all criticism?

I doubt President Obama himself feels the need for such coddling—certainly not on account of his race. Nor, for that matter, should any African descendant. We are a people who suffered more than four centuries of enslavement, subjugation and persecution—and yet still produced innovators, entrepreneurs, financiers, physicians, scientists and, now, a leader of the free world. What we are not is a race of tenderfeet.



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