Monday, December 13, 2010

Racism, Obama and the Progressive Left

In The Best of the Web blog at the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto considers the proposition that criticism of Barack Obama from the Left could be racist (prompeted by a joking comment by Rush Limbaugh):
As reports, Ed Schultz of MSNBC took Limbaugh's remark personally: "[Limbaugh] is now accusing me of being a racist," the talking horse said on MSNBC's "The Mr. Ed Show."

This leads NB's Noel Sheppard to observe: "Any person with even a room temperature intelligence quotient would know that Limbaugh was claiming racism because any time anyone on the right has criticized Barack Obama since the moment he threw his hat into the presidential candidacy ring in February 2007, said person has been accused of racism by the Left." Sheppard thinks Schultz didn't get the joke, which seems unlikely. After all, Limbaugh explained the joke.

But maybe it's not entirely a joke. That thought is prompted by a pair of opinion pieces that appeared in liberal newspapers over the weekend, both by black writers: columnist Colbert King in the Washington Post on Saturday and novelist Ishmael Reed in the New York Times on Sunday. Neither man goes quite so far as to call Obama's progressive critics racist, but both travel a significant distance in that direction.

Taranto presents the kernels of the arguments by King and Reed, and concludes:
As we have argued, the leftist charge that conservative opposition to Obama is racist is in part a cynical appeal to fear, aimed at persuading blacks to continue voting Democratic. But this could backfire. If Reed and King are right, there is no reason to assume that the progressives' self-definition is widely accepted among blacks. Thus the progs' harsh attacks on Obama are likely to look as racist as the conservatives' attacks do.

In our view, progressives are largely innocent of the racism charge. As we argued Friday, they have turned against Obama because they are infantile, not because he is black. To put it more gently, their quarrel with Obama is over policy, not race--and that much they have in common with conservatives. Which of course was Limbaugh's point.

I would argue that Progressives (and others) are guilty of racism toward Obama from a different perspective. Progressives are prone to believe in the myth of the "Noble Savage" and to idealize the "Magic Negro."

Taranto summarizes Reed:
His central argument is that those who "criticize President Obama for keeping his cool"--who urge him "to 'man up' " and start "slapping people left and right"--do not understand the cultural constraints under which black men operate in America: "If President Obama behaved that way, he'd be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people."

But at the same time, Progressives have their own set of cultural constraints that they impose on Black Americans. Progressives are more likely to see Barack Obama, because of his skin color, his direct African parentage and his partial upbringing in exotic Indonesia, as a being outside of the dominant American ethnocentric and nationalist culture.

Surely as a Black man born of an African Muslim father, Obama must (in their view, and the view of those less Left-leaning but equally seeking a healer for America's racial wounds) possess the power to resist the pernicious influences of American culture and history and to be able to govern differently. To them, Obama represents both the Noble Savage, untainted by inbred Americanness, and the Magic Negro, untainted by the victimhood and resentments of the African-American experience.

When Obama cuts a deal to preserve tax cuts for the "wealthiest" Americans as a response to mere political considerations, he violates the trust that Progressives put in him to be truly different from other American Presidents. Obama himself seems not to understand this: not only has he lashed out at disappointed and angry Progressives with anger and disappointment of his own, but he's fed the perception of being the "same old, same old" by relying so heavily on Bill Clinton, to the point of leaving Clinton to handle a Presidential press conference without the presence of the present President.

During the Clinton Presidency, Progressives seem to have forgiven Clinton a multitude of sins against Progressivism. They didn't necessarily expect any more from a Southern good ol' boy. But seeing Barack Obama commit some of those same offenses has sparked an outpouring of rage, and I contend it's not unfair to say that he's being held to a different standard by the Left because of his race.

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