The Birtherism of a Nation

Mitt Romney is now and has always been running the “I’m the white guy” campaign. The strategy’s not his alone. The GOP’s four-year approach to the 2012 election has been, “The President’s black! The President’s black!”

In case you missed it, Romney went birther today during an appearance in Michigan. “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Wild cheers from the all-white crowd followed.

Romney campaign officials tried to shrug it off as an off-the-script joke. It is not a joke. Nor was it off script. They’ve run at least five ads lying about President Obama’s welfare policies, claiming against all known facts that the President has eliminated the work requirement. Message: white America, Obama’s taking your money and giving it to lazy non-whites. Across the country, the Republican Party has led efforts to make it harder for non-white citizens to vote.

The Romney campaign believes it can win if just one clear thing about Romney is sold to voters: Romney is white. That’s why they are content to avoid all specific policy discussions, to hide their finances, to flip flop on issues they do discuss. None of it matters. This year’s election is, you might say, black and white.

We’re at a strange place in America with regard to race. Somehow, it is considered less polite to call racism racism than it is to do or say racist things. I don’t believe most Republicans are racist. I think many racists are Republicans. And I think many GOP candidates are more than willing to exploit racism and bigotry if it helps them win elections. Everyone knows this was Nixon’s famously successful “Southern Strategy.”

That just makes our reluctance to talk about these things publicly all the more shameful. None of the facts at hand are in dispute. It’s just that we don’t like talking about these things as they appear within the frames and narratives of race.

Over the years, conservatives have grown far more sophisticated in their use of race. While building the foundations of a New American Apartheid, they quickly turn accusations against them into attacks on their accusers. They say their critics are “playing the race card.” They talk of dangerous divisiveness. They make up stories of “voter fraud.”

More sophisticated, but no less morally condemnable. The Republican campaign has turned into a remake of D.W. Griffith’s sadly racist “Birth of a Nation.” Call it “The Birtherism of a Nation.”

GOP Wolves In Grandma’s Nightie — Run, Red, Run

The male-dominated Republican Party really is engaged in a nationwide campaign to give government – the government of their dreams – control of women’s bodies, at least those women’s bodies that survive the deep cuts in women’s health care.

Todd Akin is no lone puppy. If anything, he’s just a weak follower of the GOP pack led by the likes of Paul Ryan and Rick Perry. The attack becomes even more sinister when Ryan and others deny it.

Ryan’s now the wolf in grandma’s clothes ready to gobble down Little Red Riding Hood. Ryan,  worried that a nation of Red Riding voters will run away, says, “Nobody is proposing to deny birth control to anybody.” Asked about the big, sharp lie, he might have answered, “All the better to eat you with, my dears.”

A goodly number of Republican women voters are trying their darndest to overlook this medieval state of affairs. Some actively want to return to an era of female subservience. Others probably don’t really believe these dangerous and regressive policies will ever be in place.

We have to ask two questions: What so haunts these men that they want so badly to control ladyparts? Are they threatened? Given their embarrassing public statements about female physiology and biology, it’s clear that it’s not facts that worry them. Where have you gone Sigmund? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

The second question: Since they dress up in their grandmas’ nighties to disguise their intentions, they must realize that most women want nothing to do with their sick quest, right?

Run, Red. Run.

Recognition Through Violence

Within a few hours of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the film critic Roger Ebert made a provocative observation in a New York Times essay:

I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news…

…Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in.

I don’t want to dismiss the extreme nature of Holmes’ obvious mental illness. Like psychiatrists say about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Holmes might suffer from schizotypal personality disorder. Certainly he suffers from serious disturbances.

I do, though, want to make two additional points: 1) Recognition through violence is a common theme in American culture; 2) In the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, everyone seems to have access to a significant audience, but the recognition it brings is, usually, an illusion. When everyone’s a star, no on is a star.

Thinking a little about these things might open some avenues for understanding the epidemic of mass killings and other violent episodes in our recent history.

First, what do I mean by recognition? Isaiah Berlin said it best in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted – in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposed of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against – I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do.

All humans want such recognition. But two things combine in our culture to make it problematic: the celebration of individualism and a mass culture which renders the individual invisible.

The viability of violence as a road to recognition may be uniquely exaggerated in America. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin wrote of “regeneration” rather than “recognition,” but the centrality of violence to the pursuit is the same:

Continue reading “Recognition Through Violence”

The Right’s Dreams of American Apartheid

It’s tragic but not surprising that the election of the nation’s first black president would accelerate a racist, nationwide movement to disenfranchise people of color, the poor and the elderly. A new map of states with restrictive voting laws indicates the scope of the problem: racism is not restricted to the former Confederacy.

Many conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, argue that 1965’s historic Voting Rights Act is obsolete and in need of repeal. The opposite is the case. The VRA, which currently applies to a limited number of states, counties and townships, should be expanded to include all 50 states.

Conservative arguments for repeal are based in part on the election of Barack Obama. The New York Times 2008 election-night headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls,” says it all. Charles P. Pierce chides Americans about their “post-racial” wishful hallucinations with his repeated sarcasm, “It’s Not About Race because It’s Never About Race.” By 2011, though, even the NYT’s was forced back up a bit on the wish, running a piece by Toure′ pleading for an end to claims of a “post-racial America.”

We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America.

Todd Donovan’s intriguing 2010 study, “Obama and the White Vote,” shows that racial context influences voting behavior. Obama did less well in states with large African American populations, confirming the “racial threat” theory that says racist attitudes among whites grow as the population of people of color increases. Donovan concluded:

Race was clearly a factor in the 2008 presidential election. Independent of innuendo about Obama that was associated with his race, there are reasons to expect that some white voters might still find it difficult to support an African American candidate for president.

The right-wing voter suppression movement is not new, but it has picked up steam. Every honest, thinking person knows that so-called “voter ID” laws are intended to suppress the votes of blacks, Latinos, the elderly, the infirm, and young college students – all constituencies that historically favor Democratic candidates.

Continue reading “The Right’s Dreams of American Apartheid”

Eagle Forum backs Limbaugh, says Sandra Fluke “should be absolutely ashamed”

You really don’t want to look under some rocks, but then sometimes the rocks are picked up by others and you have no choice. That happened to me this morning on Scott Braddock’s Houston talk-radio program (News 92 FM) .  I was on with Cathie Adams, a board member and international issues chairman of the national Eagle Forum. She’s also president of the Texas Eagle Forum and a former chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The topic was Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke, and the (gasp) contraception controversy. Here are Adams’s words from under the rock:

“This young girl [Fluke] should be absolutely ashamed of herself. When she goes before a Congressional committee and then be off the record. C-span is going to show it.  The whole world should know it. So what did the girl call herself, other than irresponsible?”

And:

“As I matter of fact, I, as a woman, am very offended not by anything that Rush Limbaugh had to say, but that we have a coed at a Catholic University who goes before the United States Congress and testifies, and now her testimony is supposed to be taken off record. We’re not supposed to hold her to account for what she had to say. But she is demanding that you and I as taxpayers pay for her birth control.  That is absolutely something that that woman ought to be taking care of herself.”

I think she means that because she testified Rush Limbaugh should get to call her whatever names he wants to. Now, I suppose it’s not surprising that the paragonettes of moral virtue at the Eagle Forum see non-Eagle Forum members as sluts and prostitutes. They’ve more or less argued that for decades, ever since Phyllis Schlafly entered the national circus tent. But I have to admit that when Adams decided that calling Fluke a slut and a prostitute was okay and that Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers shouldn’t mind (much less the rest of the civilized world), I was shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Adams went on to repeat other right-wing lies about President Obama’s contraception policy,  making the contradictory claims that the policy forced people to purchase coverage they were morally opposed to and then saying the policy forced taxpayers to pay for the coverage for others. Oh, Adams also claims the policy will force taxpayers to pay for others’ sex change operations. Huh? Well, at least we won’t have to pay for their birth control, I guess.

Here are links to the audio of my little talk with Adams:

Part I

Part II

The Aspirin Papers

Henry James’ novella, The Aspern Papers, is about an unscrupulous obsessive who tries to deceive two vulnerable women to obtain the objects of his desire, the letters of a long-dead poet.

This, “The Aspirin Papers,” is about a group of unscrupulous obsessives who try to deceive all of America to fulfill their obsessive desire: a return to an ancient dreamtime when men ruled the universe and women, when not dutifully and passively prone before their masters, kept their mouths shut.

Reference is made, obviously, to the following comment from Foster Friess the Fabulous Plutocrat and Rick Santorum mega-contributor:

You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.

Friess was commenting on the wildly anachronistic dust-up over contraception, during which some Catholic bishops and other members of Friess’ all-male club decided that employers ought to have the right to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives to their female employees.

The scoundrel and narrator of James’ story, says, “It is not supposed easy for women to rise to the large free view of anything.” Friess & Company agree, I assume, and call upon science to confirm that “the large free view” is simply unavailable to womankind owing to the decumbency of their holy and true vocations, pleasing men and birthing babies.

Implicit in Friess’ statement is the belief that women are always there before their male superiors, their legs open and inviting. Depending upon circumstances, this is, in the Friess frame, either proper, wifely duty or such devilish temptation that it is too much to ask even god-faring men to resist. Therefore, steps must be taken. Here, ladies, please hold this aspirin in place with your knees until you are called upon. Continue reading “The Aspirin Papers”

Poll Finds Americans Support Sex “Contraptions”

Surprised that 65 percent of Americans support President Obama’s contraceptive initiative, we decided to look a little deeper into the poll. We were surprised only because we heard so many D.C. pundits go on and on about Obama making a mistake with the initiative. Still, we wanted to see where this overwhelming support was coming from.

It turns out that the answer is a little embarrassing for those of us who live in or near the more red neck enclaves of red states. I use the term “enclave” to protect the innocent. Anyway, in or near those enclaves,  it turns out that male voters think the controversy involves sex contraptions, not contraceptives. They are, it seems, intrigued by the prospect that their little darlins will now have access to some kind of new fun stuff for after closing time.

My guess is this support will evaporate soon as one of the male respondents gets up the guts to ask his new girl companion where her contraption is. It’s conceivable that it might be the last thing he ever asks, so maybe it won’t matter for support of Obama’s initiative in the long run.

We’re No Angels: Americans, Church Doctrine, and the Pill

What’s all the fuss about Americans not following religious doctrine? Seriously, we all know that none of us dance and drink as passionately as Baptists. Few are as happy with the invention of the Pill as Catholics. Many seem grateful that Jesus’ plea to help the poor is taken no more seriously than an Ogden Nash poem.

Oh, I have no doubt that Catholic Church leaders are quite frustrated that their flock no longer does what they are ordered to do by the self-regarding, closer-to-god Church hierarchy. And, it’s probably true that Mormons are, as these things go, a little more obedient to doctrine, right down to their underwear, than members of most other faiths. Credit where credit is due.

Lurking behind the church/state controversy over the morally righteous effort to make contraceptives available to American women is the certain truth that even the most devout Catholics ignore the Church’s medieval doctrine on this one. The controversy was truly like arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. There are no angels; there are no pins. Just pundits and panderers.

Denial may not be a river an Egypt, as the 12-steppers say, but it’s broader than the Mississippi in America. If there’s anything we do better than escaping religious doctrine, it’s denying that we escape it.

Now, it must be admitted that many can get themselves into a righteous snit when they discover that others have also sawed through the bars and run away across the fields. High-tailing it to freedom like the trio of miscreants in O Brother Where Art Thou, they look over their shoulders and shout at the escapees behind them, “Get thee back to God’s House, sinners!” Their indignation is born of two parents: seeing themselves unhappily mirrored in their doctrine-denying brethren makes their denial a little more difficult; and, they are worried about the lack of parking spaces near the bars, the dancehalls, and the contraceptive-dispensing pharmacies.

Speaking of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, the scene where Delmar is saved by the preacher may be the most accurate portrayal of Americans and faith on film:

Delmar: Well, that’s it, boys. I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Everett: Delmar, what are you on about? We got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar: The preacher said all my sins is washed away,
including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Everett: You said you was innocent of that.

Delmar: Well, I was lyin’. And the preacher said that that sin’s been washed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now.

Secretly, we’re all thankful for the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. God forbid (pardon the reference) that the State should enforce church doctrines under penalty of the criminal law. If we think we have a prison crisis now…

So what’s behind all the hooting and hollering over the Obama Administration’s contraception initiative? Why is it that even some progressive pundits are arguing for more deference to the Catholic Bishops on an issue that’s not even about religious freedom, but women’s health? I think it’s because they feel we’re not showing enough deference to pretense. That the health of American women would be put at risk by such deference is kind of beside the point.

I don’t mean to in any way mock religion. Many – most – of us draw deep and abiding values from the faith traditions we were raised in or discovered on our own. I think humans come with a wonderful ability to look for answers beyond what’s immediately at hand, and religions can facilitate that and a give us a sense of community, too.

But I do mean to mock those who argue that we must sacrifice women’s health on the altar of a religious doctrine no one in America takes seriously. On the other hand, Republicans who think this is a viable wedge issue might discover it’s a wedge between themselves and the rest of America. I’m tempted to say, go for it.

And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy

When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.

As part of his notorious race-based “southern strategy,” Nixon led the efforts of conservative elites to co-opt American country-western music. He got the idea from George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, which Wallace had filled with country stars like Hank Snow and Hank Williams Jr.

At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”

Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.

The right-wing colonization of country music is still very much in play. Continue reading “And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy”

Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit

Alone in the walnut-paneled music room, his favorite of Fair Lane Mansion’s 56 rooms, automobile tycoon Henry Ford picks up one of his two Stradivarius violins. It is 1920 or so and Henry, cocooned in his woolen three-piece suit despite the summer heat, stretches his bow arm for a little elbow and shoulder room.

Henry plucks the A string uncertainly, then steps to the grand piano at the far end of the room and searches the keyboard for A. Counting forward on the white keys from Middle C – C, D, E, F, G, A – he pokes at the A, then plucks the A string of his violin again. His ear hears the same pitch. Unison, they call it, a good name for the sound of happy hands on his assembly line. He plucks the other strings and touches a couple of tuning pegs lightly, but doesn’t adjust them. Close enough.

Tucking the fiddle just so under his narrow chin, he bows each string once, and then, pinching his eyes at the difficulty of playing in E-flat, he begins to play one of his favorites, the 19th Century hit “Home, Sweet Home.” He whispers John Howard Payne’s lyrics as he plays.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Henry Ford’s industrial brainstorm – a moving conveyor that brought parts for assembly to stationary workers – was matched only by his insight that mass production was worthless without mass consumption. So, he helped invent American consumers. They, like his assembly line workers, would have the goods brought to them for assembly into an all-American consumer lifestyle. In this there would be harmony.

Continue reading “Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit”