Right Wing Identity Politics
Adam Serwer has written a good post today about Obama and political identity. It hits many of the same points Will Bunch hit in his post from last night about white privilege and the threat of "the other." I think this discussion is vitally necessary for liberals and progressives to have in order to understand what's happening in our culture right now.
Serwer flags this post from John Hinderacker at Powerline who take umbrage at the AP for noting that large numbers of Americans incorrectly identify Obama as a Muslim:
I love that "incorrectly." The AP has evolved into an opinion machine, so it's rare and a little startling to see it stand up so boldly for a "fact." He's not a Muslim, dammit! I guess that would freak me out a bit more if there wasn't precedent for right wingers cheering the ignorance of their followers. I can't help but be reminded of this gem from 2003:
AMERICANS GET THE WAR ON TERROR [Kathryn Jean Lopez]That whole "reality based community" thing didn't come out of nowhere. But Hinderacker has an explanation for why it's ok to believe that Obama is something that he isn't:
even if the Washington Post thinks they're just MidEast-phobic: 70 percent believe Saddam Hussein was tied to 9/11.
Posted at 07:45 PM
Hinderacker is a clever fellow, but this alleged anti-American exoticism is more of a convenient (if thoroughly neanderthal) excuse for traditional right wing tribalism, which is largely based on the notion that they are under seige by "lesser" people, who are simultaneously tremendously powerful. It's also called know-nothingism and along with the repression of women and worship of the wealthy, it's their raison d'etre.
The second factor, I think, is Obama's effort to project a post-American, above-America persona. Obama postures as a citizen of the world who has graced America by condescending to be our President and to instruct us. Some liberals accept this posturing gratefully, but most Americans don't. Obama has defined himself as literally exotic. Small wonder that some Americans attribute exotic qualities to him. We're not sure who he is, exactly, but he certainly isn't one of us. Given the currents that swirl through world events these days, being a Muslim is one interpretation of Obama's exoticism. Those who construe Obama in this way may well be wrong, but it is not hard to understand why they interpret his aloof non-Americanism in this way.
Right now that tribe is obviously feeling threatened by any number of things, although I would guess that it's not only the loss of their white privilege but a sense of tribal failure in general. At some point you have to look around and realize that the culture is radically changed and is likely to stay that way. And, like many people who feel displaced and betrayed, they blame "the other" rather than question their own assumptions and identity.
This reaction is human, but then humans are often stupid and immoral, so that doesn't excuse it. And when it comes to scapegoating innocent people and making ethical errors of this magnitude, it can't be sanctioned. Even if you can understand that people don't want to blame their own tribe for their problems and that their feelings are very raw, America in 2010 simply cannot properly function if these impulses are socially tolerated.
Simply put, it is not an accident or a coincidence that the right is attacking African American institutions, Hispanic immigrants and American Muslims in the wake of the election of the first black president. As Serwer wryly points observes about the growing willingness to call Obama Muslim as if it were an epithet:
"In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word."
Indeed. When you rub off the veneer of this very recently formed religious bigotry, you find the same old All American impulses. And catering to those impulses never, ever did anyone any good. There is no compromise possible. As Lincoln said at Cooper Union on the eve of an earlier tribal battle:
What will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
Think about what it is they really want us to do today. And then recognize that they will settle for nothing less than our complete and total capitulation. We must cease to call racial, ethnic and religious bigotry wrong and join them in calling it right and it must be thoroughly done in acts as well as words. We must place ourselves avowedly with them.
Or we fight it. This time we can assume that it probably won't turn violent, at least on any massive scale. But these dark impulses cannot be finessed and they can't be compromised with. It's the story of our country. It just takes on new disguises to fit the times.
Update: Exhibit 78,439