We Need to Talk

All guys dread hearing those words – we need to talk. Yep, you’ve obviously done something quite awful. Of course you don’t know what it is, so you do the quick panic-review of the last few hours, or the last few days. What was it – something you forgot, or something you said, or something you should have said but didn’t, or was it something you did, or something you didn’t do? Was it your attitude or your lack of attitude (neutrality or indifference) about… what? You have no clue. Of course you mastered the usual – no, dear, that outfit doesn’t make you look fat – of course I like your mother, she’s a wonderful woman. But there’s always something new. And you’re supposed to know what you’ve done wrong. What sort of idiot would know that? How could you have been so thoughtless and insensitive?

You have a number of options – the usual hang-dog look that’s always useful, along with the by now standard somewhat ambiguous but heartfelt all-purpose cover-all-possibilities apology, or angry defiance. Yeah, you can get mad, about someone making up rules you must follow or else, but never telling what the rules are, then ragging on you for breaking the one big rule your weren’t allowed to know, because you should have known that big rule anyway, by osmosis or magic or something. You say the whole thing is absurd – you did nothing wrong.

But either way there’s going to be the talk. You’re going to be asked what you were thinking, and what you were really feeling, and what your motivations were, and what sort of way of seeing the world led you to do what you did, or didn’t do, or what you said, or didn’t. You’ll be asked to open up, so the two of you can get to the bottom of the matter. You consider drinking heavily, or joining a monastery.

In short, you feel like Joe Wilson. Yeah, he was the congressman who shouted out “You Lie!” And he did so right in the middle of the president’s formal address to that Joint Session of Congress, right at the president. The whole of the Republican Party came down on him immediately and told him to apologize, so he rang up the White House and did just that. Yep, it was rude and thoughtless. The president accepted the apology and that should have been that. But it seemed a good number people decided that we needed to talk – first Maureen Dowd in the New York Times and then Jimmy Carter, and then everyone on the cable news channels. When a white congressman from South Carolina is the first person ever to have the balls to do such a thing during one of these events, and the president in question is our first black president, of course people decided this was really about race, and we need to talk. There was that, and all the talk about Obama not being born here and not one of us, and this:

Representative Roy Blunt, the former Republican whip who is giving up his House seat in Missouri to run for the Senate, offered his take on life these days in the nation’s capital to those gathered at the conservative Values Voter Summit on Friday.

He told a tale about British soldiers who had built a golf course in India and had to adapt to the game in a whole new way. They didn’t anticipate that they’d be joined on the course by monkeys, who would swoop out of the nearby jungle, grab the golf balls and toss them around, he explained.

The golfers had to establish a firm rule. “You have to play the ball where the monkey throws it. And that is the rule in Washington all the time.”

Steve Benen comments:

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the relevance of the monkey/golf allegory here. As Blunt described the British golfers’ predicament, he noted that the players “tried to eliminate the monkey problem, but they never got it done.” Instead, they had to adapt to the monkeys’ ball-throwing habits.

At salon.com Mike Madden adds this:

Blunt, who’s running for Senate in Missouri next year, didn’t explain precisely why he chose an analogy about monkeys to illustrate the difficulties posed by the party that opposes the country’s first black president. (They both like to screw up the white man’s golf game?) Perhaps it was just a really, really stupid parable to choose.

Benen doesn’t buy that. He suggests listening to the audio – the evangelical value-voters on the right cracked up. It brought the house down. It’s come down to monkey jokes, even from the folks who think all that evolution stuff is bunk. Maybe we do need to talk about race.

But like the befuddled hypothetical husband, Wilson just didn’t get it. He was rude, and he apologized for being rude, and says he’s not a racist. He was just angry, and anyway, Rush Limbaugh is now behind him, and the campaign contributions are pouring in. He was mad at something else entirely, that even though all versions of this healthcare reform stuff explicitly exclude illegal immigrants from any benefits of any kind, everyone knows they secretly do include such benefits for such folks. And that’s not racist, or at least has nothing to do with black folks, just brown ones, but not even all of those. He just sees what other people refuse to see, or can’t see, as they foolishly take words to mean what they seem to mean. They don’t, and that’s something to talk about, not race. Everyone on the right has decided to agree with him. What’s there to talk about? This was never about race. Only fools like Jimmy Carter bring up such stuff. It’s not only insulting, it’s beside the point.

And President Obama seems to agree, as one week after the Wilson outburst, and apology, there was this:

Addressing suggestions that recent criticism of his health care reform efforts has been grounded in racism, President Obama this afternoon quipped, “I think it’s important to realize that I was actually black before the election.”

The comment, which the president made in an afternoon taping of CBS’ “The Late Show,” promoted laughter from the audience and this response from host David Letterman: “How long have you been a black man?”

Yep, everyone should lighten up:

Mr. Obama said the notion that racism is playing a role in the criticism, which has been voiced by former President Jimmy Carter and others, is countered in part by the fact that he was elected in the first place – which, he said, “tells you a lot about where the country’s at.”

Yes, logically, if we had a problem with him being black, John McCain would be president, with Sarah Palin waiting in the wings. That didn’t happen, so this is a minor matter. And Obama said all presidents take crap:

“One of the things that you sign up for in politics is that folks yell at you,” the president said, noting that “whenever a president tries to bring about significant changes, particularly during times of economic unease, there is a certain segment of the population that gets very riled up.” He pointed to the experiences of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as examples.

The Letterman interview came after Obama appeared on five different networks on the Sunday after Wilson, to win public support for his healthcare efforts, but always being asked what he thought of what Jimmy Carter had said. The answer was always the same. He won the election. You expect people to be angry when you propose big changes. And talking about race doesn’t solve any problems.

And, man, there are problems. Josh Gerstein at Politico notes that those came up on Letterman:

President Barack Obama’s often-lighthearted banter with TV host David Letterman took a serious turn Monday as Obama discussed the possibility of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

In an unusually somber exchange, Obama spoke of the gravity of the decision and suggested he would not consider approving a troop increase for weeks or even months.

“Afghanistan is a real difficult situation,” Obama said on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman.” “Moving forward, we’re not going to have easy decisions … I don’t want Americans to be under illusions that we will. There are those that argue that now’s the time to completely pull out of Afghanistan. There are coherent arguments for that, but there are enormous risks involved in that. There are those who say, let’s double down and put more troops in Afghanistan. There are good arguments for that but also enormous risks.”

And this was Obama’s first interview since the Washington Post published a leaked copy of a report in which the our commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, warned of “mission failure” there if many, many more troops were not sent over there now, like yesterday. And the leak was interesting. The military was challenging Obama, for who should run the country, as civilian control of government was a loser. It’s not for nothing that David Petraeus might be the Republican nominee in 2012 – there’s talk of that. We worship our military, so let them run everything. And you want to talk about an old episode of In the Heat of the Night or your favorite scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird?

Obama knows there are bigger things afoot. He’s had McChrystal’s report for almost a month and is thinking about it:

“The country is weary of the war. The Afghan people are frustrated that they haven’t seen more concrete improvements in their own lives,” Obama said. “What I’m trying to do at this point is to make sure that both on the military front on the diplomatic front on the civilian front training Afghan military and police that, on all these elements, that we’ve got a coherent strategy that can work.”

After all, it’s only life and death:

“The most important duty I’ve got is before I send some young man and woman in uniform over there and I’m answerable to their parents that if they don’t come back I’ve got to write a letter to them saying that their child has sacrificed on behalf of America – before I make those decisions I’ve got to make sure that the policy in place is worthy of their sacrifice,” the president said. “That’s something that we are going to work through systematically in the coming weeks and months. We’re not going to make a decision about any further troop deployments until we know what exactly is our strategy…”

So, it seems, Jimmy Carter can say what he wants, and it’s interesting and all that, but not very important.

Still it’s hard to let go, as with the hypothetical wife grabbing your lapel and demanding that the two of you talk about it all, even if you don’t know what it all exactly is. But you know the talk will be unpleasant. One of the early op-ed pieces captures that, the one from the editors of the Los Angeles Times:

Only in America would a white former president attribute racial animus to opponents of a black president who declines to make the same accusation. Could both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama be right in a debate that has eclipsed the incident that ignited it, Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson’s outburst during a joint session of Congress?

It’s the usual newspaper editorial, down the middle, as no one is right, really, but really, both sides are:

Even so, Carter has a point. It isn’t just “socialized medicine” and bank bailouts that enrage some Obamaphobes. They’re also upset by the seismic social change symbolized by an African American president who, for good measure, bears the middle name Hussein. That shouldn’t be surprising. Throughout this nation’s history, populist movements have comprised both a resentment of economic elites and a suspicion of blacks, Jews and immigrants. Conservatives who deny that reality are just as obtuse as liberals who dismiss all of Obama’s detractors as racists.

Okay – a plague on both their houses. Mercutio is dying, and he’s not happy about it.

But see Joan Walsh:

President Obama said all the right things when asked during the Sunday news-show Obamarama about the role of race in the organized and sometimes hysterical opposition to his policies. “The media loves to have a conversation about race,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory. “This is catnip to the media because it is a running thread in American history that’s very powerful. And it invokes some very strong emotions.” When asked on ABC whether he was frustrated that some supporters are pushing the race issue, Obama answered: “Look, I think that race is such a volatile issue in this society, always has been, that it becomes hard for people to separate out race being a sort of part of the backdrop of American society, versus race being a predominant factor in any given debate … The overwhelming part of the American population, I think, is right now following this debate and they are trying to figure out, is this gonna help me. Is healthcare going to make me better off?”

Walsh doesn’t see Jimmy Carter as the problem. She sees what Obama is slyly hinting at – the media gins this up, as it really is good copy, and always has been good copy. See cites Darren Hutchinson – “the media would rather debate whether right-wing Obama critics are racist than rebut their lies about his policies.” Hutchinson goes into great detail, but that’s about it. Look – something bright and shiny! We look. We always do.

But she can see Obama’s point, and also Hutchinson’s point:

Obama is certainly right to stay above the racial fray and focus on both valid and spurious opposition to his policies. He is our first African-American president at least partly because he found creative ways to duck or defuse issues of race and racism, and made white voters comfortable that he was not going to rely on guilt or racial grievance to get elected. He needs to continue that approach; it’s working, despite the shrieking of the fringe.

Hutchinson is devastatingly right about the media’s preference for bright shiny controversies, over the dull slog of explaining policy differences. Thus we have cable shows, even ones I love, featuring in-depth segments and debates over whether Obama faces racism, rather than over, say, whether the public option will bring down healthcare costs – and how opponents of the public option think they can do so without it.

But these aren’t mutually exclusive, as she thinks her site, salon.com (she’s managing editor), is right to cover both sets of issues. And Hutchinson does see Wilson’s presumed racism as something more:

I am not even intrigued by Joe “You Lie” Wilson’s racial mind-set. His prior work for Strom Thurmond and his reaction to the “unseemly” possibility that Thurmond had a “black” daughter indicate that Wilson is not the most advanced mind on issues of race and sex. But focusing on this obvious fact detracts from the content of Wilson’s own “lies.”

Wilson, for example, has rallied his conservative constituents against the inclusion of a public plan option in healthcare reform. Wilson makes typical Republican arguments regarding this issue, claiming that a public plan would interfere with doctor and patient relationships and reduce the level and quality of care. Wilson, however, has spoken quite fondly of TRICARE – the government-run health system for military personnel, veterans and their families. Wilson and his children and their families are all on TRICARE. Wilson has said that TRICARE delivers “world class” medical care. Wilson has also noted that TRICARE receives high marks from participants.

TRICARE also establishes treatment options (just like private insurance) that define the contours of a doctor-patient relationship for patients who lack private insurance or the ability to self-pay. Wilson’s contradictory positions on this subject are far more important than whether he hates Obama because he is black.

As Walsh says, whether Wilson is a racist is something one cannot prove empirically, but you can prove empirically that Wilson is lying about government healthcare. That’s something you can work with.

But she does also argue that the media’s recent interest in the topic of racism is a good thing, overall, not just something that show their “weakness for sensationalism.”

If race is now “catnip” for the media, I’d argue that’s an improvement over the days when it was a hugely uncomfortable issue for pundits and reporters, routinely handled badly when handled at all.

To see debates on CNN or MSNBC about whether and how race plays a role in the way Obama’s opponents demonize and dehumanize him – to see media understand that racial stereotyping and marginalization can occur even without the use of racial slurs or outright discrimination – is a big step forward. Also, to have white pundits and politicians willing to decry racism, while black scholars and politicians downplay it, seems like racial progress in itself. It’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back march to social justice. I’d say this debate is part of getting there.

The debates on CNN aside, in these pages one of the team that founded CNN back in 1980, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, doesn’t agree:

If even now you have a hard time recalling that historic moment when Joe Wilson shouted at Barrack Obama, “You lie, nigger!” – it has to be because it never happened that way.

But short of his saying anything that blatant, it’s pretty hard to know if Wilson was thinking it that night. In fact, as much as I disagree with his politics, I doubt very much that he was, or that his intentions were racist in any way.

But even if Wilson (to paraphrase an idea from Jimmy Carter, way back when) was “racist in his heart,” why should we care, as long as he keeps it locked up deep inside, where nobody can see it?

In playing the race card, Jimmy Carter is being counterproductive. First of all, whether or not they are based on racial hatred, I think the criticisms of Obama’s policies should be able to stand on their own. Most of them don’t. But if you choose to speculate that all opposition to Obama is based on racist attitudes, you give up being able to argue against the critics, since they are obviously being disingenuous and therefore haven’t earned a seat at the table.

What we all need to do is give any Obama critic (assuming he doesn’t use the “N” word or otherwise say something obviously racist) the benefit of the doubt. The problem is, if we always assume racism, we’ll never be able to elect a black president anymore, since no opposition to him will ever be seen as legitimate. And who wants a president that can’t be criticized? It does Obama – or any other future black president, for that matter – no good for his supporters to treat him any differently than they would if he were white.

So once again, I find myself siding with President Obama on this: Just leave it alone.

In an email, Rick’s Georgia neighbor, Phillip Raines, says he just cannot go along with that:

Race may not be the overriding factor in all this but it is the underlying factor. Had Wilson said specifically it wasn’t race, and then said if money was sent to him because there was a racial or supremacist motive, then let him know and he would send that money back because racial supremacist beliefs, or disrespect for our president based on race, was something that he was absolutely against…

He didn’t say or even imply any of that in his press conference that I saw. It was his chance to be definitive and clear that he was dead set against racism as much as cannibalism or pedophilia or any other sickness of the human condition. He didn’t because as a southern born man he knows he struggles with it in his own head every day. And believe it that a significant percentage of his constituents think we as a culture aren’t ready for a black man to be our commander in chief and the color of his skin proves he is less than a white man. The N word still comes out if left unsaid. Carter recognizes it, and so do I.

Do we need to talk about this, or not. Ah well, when in doubt, look at the data:

As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.

Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.

Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.

There you have it. It’s all mixed up together. See Michael Lind, Uninsured Like Me – “Diversity is healthcare reform’s worst enemy. White America has never liked social insurance for people of color.” It goes way back.

Yes, but should we talk about it? Maybe it’s a guy thing, but what’s the point?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Post-Racial America, Race and Politics, Racism Lives On and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to We Need to Talk

  1. raymond mcinnis says:

    alan, i followed up on the link to michael lind, where he lays out his evidence about how white america bridles at the thought of extending benefits like SS health insurance etc to folks who don’t look like them. for any readers liking to know more, i commend to them michael lind’s 1995 “the next american nation: the new nationalism and the sourth american revolution”.

    i think all who read the book while find lind’s twin concepts, “over-class” vs “under-class” both compelling and frightening

    this is a link, http://books.google.com/books?id=-Ca9DH6hgysC&q=michael+lind&dq=michael+lind&lr=&ei=WPW4SoP0JJPSNMW6ubEP

    but the book is not oline fulltext

  2. Rick says:

    Okay, Phillip, you and Jimmy may be right about what was happening inside Joe Wilson’s head, although maybe you’re not. But whatever.

    My larger point is, what difference does it make? What good would it do us to know that he’s actually slinging secret racist brickbats behind our backs? In other words, even if he’s blowing a dog whistle that can only be heard by those who know what to listen for, the nice thing is that the rest of us all have an excellent opportunity to ignore his smarminess and get on with our lives.

    At some point, when confronted just once too often, these people will have to stop speaking in code and have to revert to American English. If they can’t explain themselves in terms that stand up on their own merits, without relying on arcane southernisms, they will go the way of those diehard governors who stood fast against the ebbing tide of history, shouting “Segregation Forever!”, only to eventually be left high and dry and wondering how it was that they missed the boat.


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