Race

For the first time in my life as a voting citizen, I cast my ballot for a presidential candidate for whom I’m truly happy to vote: Barack Hussein Obama.  I voted absentee and early in my town in Massachusetts, as I’ll be out of the country next week.  Since my first vote, against Nixon in the NY primary during his 1972 campaign (I was a registered Republican due to some historical confusion on the part of my Australian immigrant father, which gave me an opportunity to vote against Tricky Dick on my first outing), it has been, at best, the lesser of two mediocrities.

I could consider this is my first vote for a black president.  But I’ve come to realize that it is much more—and much less.  The media constantly call Barack an African-American, but I think this is actually a piece of typical racism.  It embodies the blood rule that anyone with some black African blood is African-American, as if being white were a state of non-pollution.  Besides the basic issue that any “white” in this country has at least a one-in-five chance of having a “black” relation from the not-too-distant past, Barack is not the offspring of two African-Americans, but of a white American woman and an African man. 

This fact makes my vote more than a vote for the first African-American president—in terms of the American racist equation, I’m voting for the first miscengenated president.  Besides being an objectionably racist term, this phrase actually has an electoral origin.  Its first use, according to the OED, was in the title of a pamphlet issued in New York City in December of 1863:

The word was coined in an anonymous propaganda pamphlet published in New York City in December 1863, during the American Civil War. The pamphlet was entitled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It purported to advocate the intermarriage of whites and blacks until they were indistinguishably mixed as a desirable goal, and further asserted that this was the goal of the Republican Party. The pamphlet was in fact a hoax, concocted by Democrats, to discredit the Republicans by imputing to them radical views that offended the racist attitudes common among whites, even those who opposed slavery. In New York in particular there was much opposition to the Federal war effort, such as the Draft Riots that included numerous lynchings.

The pamphlet and variations on it were reprinted widely in both the North and the Confederacy by Democrats and rebels. Only in November 1864 was the pamphlet exposed as a hoax. The hoax pamphlet was written by David Goodman Croly, managing editor of the New York World, a Democratic Party paper, and George Wakeman, a World reporter.

By then, the word miscegenation had entered the common language of the day as a popular buzzword in political and social discourse. The issue of miscegenation, raised by the opponents of Lincoln, featured prominently in the election campaign of 1864. 

[Wikipedia]

Apparently (and a surprise, I’m sure, to all the white rural voters of downstate Illinois whose strong support of a black Chicago politician first caught my attention in the case of Obama) I have also voted for a Marxist, a Socialista hardened ideologue and a charismatic demagogue.  

The latter pair of scare-mongering handles are but a small sample of the veritable encyclopedia of right-wing obsessions on display in Mark Levin’s recent screed at The Corner.  This is actually a minor masterpiece of self-revelation, such as Freud recounts in analyzing the dreams of neurotic patients.  It’s so densely loaded with the arcana of wingnuttery that it’s difficult to unpack.  For example, Levin claims there is a “cult-like atmosphere around Obama”, including

Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world.

If I’m not misusing my special handshake and wingnut apron in my effort to pick up this peculiar transmission, I think he’s actually calling Obama a closet Nazi in combining “world” and “Berlin” in that final sentence there.  I am particularly delighted by the daft image of camouflaged teenagers chanting the professions Obama will open to them.  Other than being a bizarre importation of Kim-Il-Jung-speak into US punditry, what would be so strange about teenagers excited by new professional possibilities?…I mean, other than the camo…

But what is worse than any of this?  What does Levin come down to at the end of his confession?

“Obama’s appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the “the proletariat,” as an infamous philosopher once described it”…

Answer: the non-renewal of the Bush tax cuts.  These cuts, which mathematically and demonstrably give back taxes at previous rates to the most wealthy Americans, will not be renewed by Comrade Obama, and the revenue from restoring the upper crust tax rate of the pre-W era will fund middle-class tax cuts (in fact, for 95% of us “middle-class” people earning under $250K a year).   

Obama replied that those making over $250,000 would be taxed more but that money would be returned to the middle-class through tax cuts. “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama said.

The McCain campaign seized on that remark.

“When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you’d better hold on to your wallet,” McCain told a Miami crowd. “Senator Obama claims that he wants to give a tax break to the middle class, but not only did he vote for higher taxes for the middle class in the Senate, his plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don’t pay taxes. That’s not a tax cut; that’s welfare.”

[AP in Newsday]

Tax cuts for the middle class, unless I’m missing something basic, will mean that more middle class income stays in our pockets.  There’s nothing to redistribute but the tax break that five percent of the richest Americans have received under George W. Bush, that by definition came out of the rest of our hides.  This is a restoration, not a redistribution.

But that’s not really the point of McCain’s essentially mendacious rendering.  It has three key racist evocations: street crime (“hold on to your wallet”), giving tax dollars to “those who don’t pay taxes”, and “welfare”.  McCain’s misinterpretation has been often repeated since then by the ticket under the rubric “spread the wealth around”.  

Despite the superficial dressing, it is not about anti-socialism.  McCain is probably pretty secure in assuming that his Miami audience relates to “their” tax dollars being given away—but they will also get the sub rosa message as well: be afraid, be very afraid, because worse than a socialist, worse than a Marxist, worse than a pal of domestic terrorists, Obama is…Black!  And the purpose of this rhetorical tactic is exactly the same as the purpose of the pamphlet that first introduced the term “miscegenation” in an election 150 years ago, except with the parties reversed: to “discredit the Republicans [Democrats] by imputing to them radical views that offended the racist attitudes common among whites”.  

But appealing to racism presents a surprising problem in the case of Barack Obama.  I’m certain that he would prefer something altogether different at this point for his grandmother than her descent into an apparently life-threatening condition.  Seeing her picture in the news as Obama took two days off from campaigning during the last two weeks of the race to visit the oldest survivor of his mother’s white family brought home again what we are really dealing with here in the candidate’s race.  I would be proud enough to vote for the first black president, but this vote is for something really much less dramatic than that, something more ambiguous and something more inclusive in terms of race in America.  And because of that, I can say I’m even more proud today to vote for someone who is neither black nor white, who is black and white, who is descended from Kenya and from Kansas, and who will help us demonstrate as a first step in healing our body politic that we are capable of political acts without regard to race, creed or color.

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