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Friday, July 23, 2010

White Noise III: Postscript

L'Affair Shirley Sherrod seems to have turned, however briefly, into the right-wing stunt propagandists' equivalent of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? The outrage generated over that show didn't put much of a dent in the steel carapace of shamelessness that reality-Tv producers have to wear at all times, and this fiasco won't send Andrew Breitbart into a monastery or a bread line, but it has inspired some of the people in his fox hole, such as Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, to at least seem defensive, bleating about how his enemies must have conspired to send him a video that they knew he would be unable to cut up and call attention to. Breitbart, who would be incapable of experiencing embarrassment if he shit his pants while delivering the televised eulogy at the Pope's funeral, will continue to be devoted to his life's calling, which is mocking black people and those who don't swoon at the thought of black people holding powerful jobs, and trying to get them fired and their organizations shut down, which he does because he hates racism so much. (By now, Breitbart, like Beck and Rush Limbaugh, has given us enough examples of what he sees as racist for us to assume that he thinks black people commit racism pretty much every time one of them is so thoughless as to remind him that they exist.)

Last I heard, Breitbart's explanation of what he thought he was up goes something like, the NAACP is a racist organization, and to expose them, I slandered a black woman by accusing her of racism so that those black racists would show their true colors by taking the word of someone like me. In a piece in Slate, William Saletan summed up the mess--Breitbart's cruel, cynical hoax and the NAACP's hasty acceptance of his propaganda as the truth--as a reminder that both left and right are too happy reducing people to skin color, with "each side depicting the ruckus over Sherrod as proof of the other's bigotry and dishonesty. We still don't get it. This isn't about your side or mine. It's about the people we trample while fighting. It's about the common weakness that makes us susceptible not just to racism but to political polarization: our propensity to see one another as members of groups rather than as individuals."

I don't think this is quite right. The NAACP, and whoever in the White House made the call to fire Sherrod as soon as the story went into high rotation on Fox News, weren't motivated by anything to do with race but sheer terror and a desire to stub out a right-wing meme as quickly as possible. They didn't care what Sherrod had or hadn't done, they just wanted to be able to stand tall and talk about their tough zero-tolerance policy towards racism when the reporters showed up. They probably didn't give Sherrod's reputation or position enough thought for anyone to say that they sold her short. More likely they were guilty of not selling Breitbart and Fox News short enough. They probably figured that the story was bogus but took it on faith that Breitbart wasn't so dumb that he'd have gotten the ball rolling in this way if there was evidence that might be produced to show that he was a liar. Maybe they figured that even if the truth did come out, it would never be able to outshout the impact of the original allegations, which is what happened with Breitbart's previous big get, the Candid Camera stunt that brought ACORN to the bankruptcy court. (Perhaps the best of the many reasons for finding Breitbart's situation hilarious is that he earned his reputation as some kind of genius media manipulator with his slow roll-out of the ACORN tapes, allowing ACORN spokesmen to make defensive comments that would be contradicted by the next video to be released. He must think that fact-checking is some special condition that only preys on liberals.) One thing's true, though: in these post-racial times, during the administration of a president whose election was greeted by the media as beginning a new age when no one would dare use coded racist signals to appeal to voters, at the end of an economic crisis that was supposed to give us a chance to address the state of economic inequality that has driven this country batshit for some thirty years, a woman's attempt to tell people that race shouldn't matter and class does has been warped and twisted into one more opportunity to scream about race.

Back during the 1976 election, Garry Wills wrote that Jimmy Carter, running for president four years after he made the cover of Time magazine as "the face of the new south", had a potential for a national career that most Southern pols older than him, and many who were his age, didn't have because he was immune to the sickness of racism. Back then, not yet a decade after the murder of Martin Luther King, it did seem as if the South was divided between those who welcomed or were adjusted comfortably to the changes that desegregation and the death of Jim Crow had brought to the country, and those who never quite would, and that the former had a brighter future than the latter. Yes, the Republican Southern Strategy was already in place, but still, in 1976, what political analyst other than Archie Bunker would have guessed that so many people would never fully adapt to the changes that all thoughtful people agreed had been for the best, and that they would become less and less comfortable with them as they got older and their country and TV screens and neighborhoods began to seem less and less ivory white, so that almost 35 years later, politicians would still be running on what amounted to a pledge to repeal the '60s and '70s, with United States Senators using a Supreme Court nomination hearing to establish their bona fides as reasonable people by characterizing Thurgood Marshall as a scary radical?

These people are not going to win in the end. The numbers are against them. I don't just mean that this isn't going to remain the white-majority-population country of Pat Buchanan's dreams, either; most of the people who look at Obama and start thinking such deep thoughts as, "We need to take our country back!" probably have kids who grew up in the post-King era--hell, in post-Yo! MTV Raps-era--and they have no idea why Mom and Pop are so het up. That only fuels the fire, of course, and leads to insane, desperate gestures like the attempt to bring back "literacy tests" as prerequisite for voting, this time ostensibly to protect us from the evils of immigrants pulling the lever, and the recommendation from the Texas State Board of Education that textbooks include a guideline calling for students to "evaluate changes in the United States that have resulted from the civil rights movement, including participation of minorities in the political progress and unrealistic expectations for equal outcomes." But for now, it's easy to see America, weakened by the economic consequences of treating regulation and taxes as something for the kids to play with while mommy and daddy are in Vegas for the weekend, not to mention the failed shot of Viagra that the Bush administration's foreign policy was for neocons and other jingo-minded puddingheads, slipping into a state similar to Britain during the Thatcher years, with crusty old boogers sitting on their stoops on every street corner, wearing the medals they won in the invasion of Grenada and bitching under their breath at all the brown people who must be involved in some government conspiracy to keep their convenience stores open when all the nieces and nephews can't hold down a job.

That's not meant as an apocalyptic vision: there are lots of worse ways for a dying empire to wind up than with everyone playing in a crowd scene in a Hanif Kureishi movie. I actually look forward to the quieter phase of it, when everybody in the Tea Party now notices that whoever they elect this fall has turned into a [gag! choke!] "politician" and bitterly admits defeat, stops going to rallies, and starts picking up a couple of six-packs on the way home every night, so they can get plowed while blearily muttering "Ditto!" at whoever takes over Limbaugh's slot after his latest wife gets tired of him and starts leaving prescription medication invitingly strewn around the house. I've known people like this all my life, and while I guess saying this won't win me any "Friend of Democracy" plaques, the quieter they are, the better. I know that living in a world that the Fonz and Richie Cunningham never made is rough on them, but in a way, they brought their seething misery on themselves. They look at all the people who disgust and bewilder them because they're not howling in protest about the black president and the immigrants and the welfare bums whose existence they register like a fish bone in the throat, and they can find no peace, a condition made all the more unbearable by the fact that so many people who ought to be on their side find peace with it just fine. They suffer from an apparently unbeatable psychological condition, one that I think George W. Bush described best: they look at all the sane people in the world, and they hate us for our freedom.


Anonymous said...

DAMN, dude. That's some rhetoric.

Another fine and incisive article, with an ending that just about gave me chills. Please to keep it up.

Ken Pidcock said...

I shouldn't say it,but....Ditto.

Tehanu said...

Yeah, me too. My list of Notepad .txt files starting "Phil Nugent on ...." is getting longer all the time so I don't have enough room on my desktop for all of them. Wish I could write like you, Phil!

Dan Coyle said...

Funniest defense of Breitbart I've heard: "A piece of public access excerpted, but not edited, sets off a firestorm." Oh yeah, like whoever gave Breitbart that tape didn't edit it.

And really, considering what happened, what's the difference between "excerpting" and "editing" here?