Down in Kent you’ll find the port city of Dover and those famous white cliffs – they’re chalk actually, accentuated by streaks of black flint – very picturesque. And they can be symbolic. “There’ll be bluebirds over the the white cliffs of Dover” – that was the refrain from one of the most popular songs from World War II – suggesting things make look dark now but things will get better, and everything will work out. The song is from 1942 – the darkest of days. And Dover is right across the Channel from Calais, at its narrowest point. On a clear day you can see mainland Europe, or a hint of it – a bit of the French coast. Bad things were happening over there back then. But one day there would be those bluebirds – the war would end and everyone would come home safe and whole. Yes, bluebirds are not indigenous to England. But it’s the thought that counts. When what you really need is hope you don’t worry about ornithological details.
And at the foot of those famous white chalk cliffs there are the narrow beaches – shingle beaches – rough pebbles, not sand. And back in the middle of the nineteenth century, the poet Matthew Arnold walked those beaches, or at least imagined them, and wrote his famous poem of despair, Dover Beach – where it’s twilight, and low tide, and on the French coast the light gleams and is gone, and it seems everything anyone ever believed in is gone now too:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
That’s not exactly cheery, and he ends with this:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Bummer! But Matthew Arnold wasn’t a bluebirds-in-the-sunshine kind of guy. He is the poet of loss – cultural loss, societal loss, loss of faith – all of that. The world just isn’t what it used to be.
But many feel that way, and of course any former English teacher thinks of Dover Beach when he comes across a comment like this from David Brooks – “I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.”
Yes, Brooks slyly echoes Arnold, but that’s just a throwaway line in Brooks’ chatty notes on mixing with the crowds and the candidates on the trail in South Carolina, the week before the Republican primary there this year. Brooks doesn’t run with it. But it captures quite a bit, as odd things were happening down there, particularly in the candidates’ debate on Martin Luther King Day. And in his New York Times blog, Charles Blow covers that:
That’s the way I like to spend my Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: watching Newt Gingrich sneer at Juan Williams, a black man, for having the temerity to ask him if his condescending remarks about the work ethic of poor black people are indeed condescending…
The actual exchange was this:
Juan Williams: Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also say poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed as at a minimum as insulting to all Americans but particularly to black Americans?
Newt Gingrich: No, I don’t see that (applause).
And then there was the real sneer:
Gingrich went on to say that the children would be “getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”
The world just isn’t what it used to be, of course, and Blow adds this:
The first implication here is that elites are liberals, not men like Gingrich – whose net worth The Los Angeles Times has estimated to be $6.7 million, who was a history professor, who was paid $1.6 million dollars by Freddie Mac for “advice,” and who had a half million dollar line of credit at Tiffany’s.
If Gingrich isn’t among America’s elite, the word no longer has meaning.
The second implication about those “elite” liberals, like President Obama, is even more explicit.
And Blow points out that Gingrich said that outright earlier in the evening – on the issue of how long former workers should be allowed to collect unemployment benefits:
It tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Barack Obama and the five of us: that we actually think work is good (applause). We actually think saying to somebody “I’ll help you if you’re willing to help yourself” is good (applause). And we think unconditional efforts by the best food-stamp-president in American history, to maximize dependency, is terrible for the future of this country (applause).
The phrase “maximize dependency” is a particularly interesting one because it suggests a systematic, orchestrated campaign by the president and liberals in general to keep blacks poor and dependent on “big government” as a way of insuring their continued political support. This is a classic, right-wing, race-based argument in a new suit.
And here is Blow’s transcription of the key moment in all this:
Williams: Speaker Gingrich, the suggestion you made was about a lack of work ethic, and I’ve got to tell you that my e-mail account and twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. We saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina.
(Boos from the crowd drown Williams out as Gingrich smirks. When the boos subside, Williams continues.)
You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” It sounds as if you’re seeking to belittle people.
(More boos from the crowd.)
Gingrich: Well, first of all, Juan –
(Crowd giggles. Talk about belittling people. “Juan.”)
The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history (applause). Now, I know among the politically correct you are not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable (more applause and laughter).
Gingrich went on to say that he was going to continue to “find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job.”
Blow notes that also got applause “as if poor people don’t work.” Blow has pointed out before that most of them do. But that doesn’t matter:
These exchanges, and the audience’s response to them, underscore how Republicans’ gut reactions and their official rhetoric diverge, particularly in the south. They also underscore the fact that a clever politician like Gingrich, who understands this cleavage and knows how to exploit it in subtle and sophisticated ways, still has a chance to cause Mitt Romney some headaches on his presumptive march to the nomination.
And there’s history:
Gingrich seems to understand the historical weight of the view among some southern whites, many of whom have migrated to the Republican Party, that blacks are lazy and addicted to handouts. He is able to give voice to those feelings without using those words. He is able to make people believe that a fundamentally flawed and prejudicial argument that demeans minorities is actually for their uplift. It is Gingrich’s gift: He is able to make ill will sound like good will.
But maybe it’s just the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return – where blacks were lazy and shiftless, and not Harvard Law grads who become presidents.
But Peter Beinart offers this:
I’m sure Gingrich also sees nothing offensive in calling Obama the “food stamp” president. After all, under Obama the number of people using food stamps has gone up! So because Alan Greenspan presided over predatory lending policies by banks, perhaps we should have called him the “Shylock” chairman of the Federal Reserve. And if child molestations by priests rise on this administration’s watch, perhaps we should call Joseph Biden the “pedophilia” vice president.
Gingrich would never use those phrases, of course, because he’s familiar enough with Jews and Catholics to understand why they’d find them offensive. But for Gingrich – a veteran politician from the state of Georgia, speaking at a debate in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday – not to understand why calling the first African-American in the Oval Office the “food stamp” president would offend African-Americans is simply amazing. The most plausible explanation is that Gingrich inhabits a cultural and intellectual bubble. A bubble called the Republican Party.
And then there’s David Frum, who seems disgusted:
Food stamp usage is an indicator of an economy in crisis. The non-incumbent party will of course want to use that crisis to arraign the incumbent party and to argue for a change in direction: that’s normal politics.
But it’s not normal to imply that the people cast into the position where they must use food stamps to feed themselves are somehow the villain of the piece – or to depict blacks as somehow uniquely undeserving of the aid they get.
But that’s the world Gingrich knows, and he misses it – or he assumes that’s still the way things are. But with a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, that world is leaving us, and Frum asks this:
Shouldn’t a man who wants to be president of the whole country show equal understanding of the troubles and dangers facing all those who depend on government assistance: the poor as well as the old, the black as well as the white?
Well, yes – theoretically. But that’s just not Newt, and at salon.com Joan Walsh tells the tale this way:
Gingrich looked as happy about Williams’ questions as he looked deflated at the last New Hampshire debate. The former NPR analyst referenced Gingrich’s belittling comments about poor kids lacking role models with a work ethic, and the NAACP “demanding” food stamps not jobs, and asked, “Can’t you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to African Americans?”
“No,” Gingrich said petulantly, with a slight pause. “I don’t see that.” The crowd screamed with glee. Gingrich went on to bash unionized janitors in public schools, and I realized that his student-janitor comments represent a right-wing political trifecta, bashing anti-business regulations like child labor laws, public sector unions and lazy “urban” kids. Oh, and he also got to attack elites this time around, insisting his janitor plans drew liberal disapproval because “only the elites despise earning money.”
But Williams didn’t back away. “The suggestion you made was about a lack of work ethic,” he told Gingrich. “It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.” The crowd booed Williams lustily, and Gingrich got a special twinkle in his eye. He looked at Williams like he was a soon-to-be ex-wife.
That wasn’t very nice. But it was apt. And as for Gingrich saying that he knows that among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable (as he sees them), Steve Benen has this comment:
Even if we put aside the racial subtext, Gingrich is playing a dumb game and hoping voters won’t know the difference. The implication is that President Obama loves food stamps and wants more Americans to rely on them to “maximize dependency.” That’s ridiculous. The number of people on food stamps did go up in recent years, but that’s because there was an economic crash shortly before Obama was inaugurated. When the economy is devastated, more American families struggle and become eligible for benefits. And since the nation wants to help these families eat, the benefits are automatic. For that matter, food stamp participation was rising before Obama took office, in part because the Bush/Cheney administration “encouraged low-income people to seek aid for which they were eligible.”
If Gingrich believes food-stamp beneficiaries – nearly half of whom are children – should have less food, he should simply make the case.
But something else is going on here, which Digby explains by quoting the architect of the famous Republican “Southern Strategy” that netted them so many votes, those George Wallace votes, over all the years, and that would be the late Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
If Newtie were saying this about a white president, it would indicate sympathy or pandering to African Americans, a standard slam against liberals. But the president himself is a black man, which changes the context considerably. After all… he could have picked any number of ways to express the idea that he’s been bad for the economy: “foreclosure president”, “bailout president”, “pink-slip president”. Picking food-stamps goes directly to Atwater’s comments above, where the questioner even brings up food stamps as a way to appeal to the Wallace voter.
Atwater thought these racist appeals would be totally abstract by now, and for many people they still are. But when you have a black president in a time of economic turmoil in which millions of people have lost their jobs, using phrases like “food stamp president” isn’t abstract at all.
And then she quotes what Gingrich originally said:
More people are on food stamps today because of Obama’s policies than ever in history. I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history. Now, there’s no neighborhood I know of in America where if you went around and asked people, “Would you rather your children had food stamps or paychecks,” you wouldn’t [SIC] end up with a majority saying they’d rather have a paycheck.
And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps. And I’ll go to them and explain a brand new Social Security opportunity for young people, which should be particularly good for African-American males – because they’re the group that gets the smallest return on Social Security because they have the shortest life span.
So, if the NAACP invites him, he’ll go to their convention and rip them a new one for being lazy bastards who demand food stamps, when, if they were more like good white folks, they’d demand jobs – and he’d scream at them for never ever wanting jobs – just food stamps. That should go over well.
As Digby says:
Food Stamps = African American. No daylight there. He couldn’t have been more clear. By Atwater’s standards, we’re going backwards.
Ah, but when you’re standing on the pebbly beach at low tide, in the fast-gathering darkness, and the Sea of Faith is receding, as are all things that once were but are no longer as they should be, you do want to go backward. You want what once was, or once should have been. Sigh.
But that Arnold poem is about how things just don’t work that way. And Newt and his Republican fans are waiting for those damned bluebirds. But there are no bluebirds in Dover. There never were.