April 2008 Archives

"Guess What Boys? We'uns Won After All!"

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Just when I thought I was making a little headway in convincing white folks down this way that we lost the war and it’s time to move on, here comes a Newsweek piece by Michael Hirsh that’s likely to undo all my good work:

In the summer of 1863, Robert E. Lee led an ill-advised incursion into Pennsylvania. His army was defeated at Gettysburg, and thence afterward Lee beat a fighting retreat until the South lost the Civil War. One hundred and forty-five years later, the South--or what has become the South-Southwest--has won another kind of Civil War. It has transformed the sensibility of the country. It is setting the agenda for our political, social and religious mores--in Pennsylvania and everywhere else. Allright! Up to now, I’d been totally stumped as to how Barack Obama got 43 percent of the white vote in the Georgia primary—with John Edwards still in the race—but only 37 percent in Pennsylvania. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if this could be traced to back to Gettysburg and a mighty clever plan—for southerners, at least—whereby the Rebs would push into Pa. and pretend to be defeated while trained infiltrators would slip quietly from the retreating ranks and begin the subtle program of brainwashing that, a century and a half later, culminated in one in six white Democratic voters in the state’s 2008 primary saying “race matters” to them when they pick a candidate.
These Confederate subversives have not confined their nefarious activities to the Keystone State or to politics, however. Upon reading that an American Idol contestant was bumped after singing the provocative title song from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Hirsh saw immediately that southern “nativism and yahooism” have clearly overwhelmed northern “eagerness for the new and openness to innovation--art, or at least high craft.” In a warp-speed history lesson, Hirsh explains that “the "radical nationalism" that has so dominated the nation's discourse since 9/11 traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and much of the West and Southern Midwest--in other words, what we know today as Red State America.” According to Hirsh, RSA was settled by fiercely combative Scots-Irish immigrants who, after whipping up on the Celtic Catholics in Northern Ireland, came over here and fought off the Indians, rallied behind frontier ruffian Andrew Jackson, and clung thereafter to "a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores" that was traditionally “balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest.” Alas, as of late “that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers--and cultural weight.”
Hirsh eschews (Bless You!) the argument that the final groundwork for the South’s ruinous political and cultural takeover was laid by self-exiled Crackers who flocked to job-rich northern industrial cities during and after World War II, and despite being the nation’s most reviled and ridiculed non-immigrant whites of their era, managed somehow to imbue more rational, better educated northern whites with their peculiarly depraved racial and religious sensibilities. However, he does quote yet another in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of books bemoaning the so-called Southernization of America to the effect that " the nation's population center has been 'moving south and west at a rate of three feet an hour, five miles a year.'" I must confess that, until reading Hirsh, I couldn’t quite comprehend how our country’s supposedly recent turn to the right could be attributed to the South’s population growth when so much of that growth came courtesy of whites who were abandoning the ostensibly liberal North. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why these folks turned so suddenly and rabidly conservative once they got here? Is there something in the water, I wondered, in anti-gay, pro-gun, pro-creationist Cobb County, Georgia, where nearly 40 percent of the population comes from outside the state? Thanks to Hirsh, I now understand that these relocating right-wing Yankees had obviously already been “southernized” before they got here. Why else would they have come, after all?

To Hirsh, the extent and severe consequences of South over North are readily apparent and beyond question: “The coarsened sensibility that this now-dominant Southernism and frontierism has brought to our national dialogue is unmistakable. We must endure 'lapel-pin politics' that elevates the shallowest sort of faux jingoism over who's got a better plan for Iraq and Afghanistan." (Note to Hirsh: Take a close look before jumping to conclusions about which flag is more popular in lapels down this way.) "We have re-imported creationism into our political dialogue in the form of "intelligent design". (OK. I see. It’s actually an outbreak of “Southernism” that’s the matter with Kansas.) "Hillary Clinton panders shamelessly to Roman Catholics, who have allied with Southern Protestant evangelicals on questions of morality, with anti-abortionism serving as the main bridge." (I can’t believe this was happening right under my nose. I clearly missed the emerging spiritual bond between the RC’s and their natural allies, the Southern Baptists. Hirsh doesn’t mention it, but I ‘ll bet this affinity for Roman Catholics is particularly strong among black southern Protestants, who consistently show the strongest opposition to abortion, gay marriage, etc.) "On foreign policy, the realism and internationalism of the Eastern elitist tradition once kept the Southern-frontier warrior culture and Wilsonian messianism in check. Now the latter two, in toxic combination, have taken over our national dialogue, and the Easterners are running for the hills." (And here I’d thought all along that the Ivy League JFK retreads like Bobby McNamara and McGeorge Bundy were generally encouraging LBJ to jump right in on Vietnam while his southern buddy Dick Russell was trying to convince him to stay out.)
If one is not thoroughly convinced by the depth of Hirsh’s analysis and the strength of his logic at this point, there is our man, “W,” the absolute embodiment of nationally ascendant “Southernism.” In Bush, Hirsh finds “little trace left of the Eastern WASP sensibility into which he was born and educated, and which explains so much of his father's far more moderate presidency. The younger Bush went to Andover, Yale and Harvard, but he rebelled against the ethos he learned there. "(Drat! ol’ W. was probably on his way to being John Kerry until that scurrilous bunch of southernizers who so frequently prey on unsuspecting graduates of Harvard and Yale pulled the Confederate flag over his eyes.) "The transformation is complete, right down to the Texas accent that no one else in his family seems to have. Bush is a Jacksonian pod person. " Insofar as a “pod person” is either an “impostor” or “someone who mindlessly goes along with the official dogma or party line,” Hirsh has flat-out nailed our current prez, but even the most adamant Jacksonophobe would cringe at this monumental injustice to “Ol’ Hickory.”
All seriousness aside, the biggest problem I have with Hirsh’s piece is not his condescending, stereotypical treatment of the South, but the facile, arrogantly ignorant outrages he has committed against history in order to concoct an explanation that allows him to absolve his own crowd of any responsibility for the current state of national affairs. To be perfectly honest, when I first read the thing, I actually thought it was a spoof of a northeastern elitist’s view of America. The second time through, however, I realized that, instead of having his tongue placed firmly against the side of his mouth, the author apparently had his entire head wedged between some other, more remotely situated cheeks.

"Sorry, No Refunds or Exchanges!"

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It’s hard to escape the sense that a lot of Democrats these days are feeling like a guy who bought a car that looked all showroom sparkly and pristine in the photos on eBay, only to have it arrive covered with all sorts of dents and scrapes and spewing oil like an Oklahoma gusher. From the time of Ms. Oby’s grudging admission that she was finally proud of her country to the revelations about Pastor Wright to what seemed to be a fairly condescending analysis of why beaten-down and bitter working-class whites become gun-toting religious fanatics who oppose free trade to the thorough working-over the Illinois senator took from Mrs. C and the guys from ABC during last week’s debate, the once shiny and powerful Obama-mobile seems to have morphed into a rusty, rattling Ford Escort badly in need of a ring job.
From the Obama perspective, the nine-plus points separating him and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania look pretty good compared to the twenty-point spread of a month ago, but not nearly so sweet as the three- to five-point gap pollsters were reporting as recently as last week. Although his lead over the Billarys has actually stretched out to eight points among Democrats nationally, the most recent Rasmussen poll pitting Oby against John McCain shows his three-point lead in another poll last week has now evaporated into a three-point deficit, putting him in roughly the same position as his Democratic opponent in a head-to-head matchup with the GOP’s forgetful old warrior.
Thanks in no small measure to the extended Chinese Fire Drill that passes for the Democrats’ nominating system, Oby still enjoys what amounts to a commanding lead in pledged delegates, but Hillary’s protagonists are right to point to the fact that her suddenly merely mortal opponent has harvested much of his earlier hay in fields where few Democrats actually graze. More than two-thirds of Oby’s 151 pledged-delegate advantage comes from wins in five Southern and seven Western and Midwestern “fly-over” states where the Democrats lost by margins ranging from 14 to 45 percent in 2004 and where, for the most part, their current prospects appear to reside somewhere between Slim and None, with Slim reportedly on his way out of town.
Hillary, meanwhile, gathered most of her nuts and berries in more traditionally Democratic electoral powerhouses like California, New York, and Pennsylvania, and when she won a Republican state, such as Ohio, she at least picked an important one. In current polls, she actually leads McCain in Ohio, while Obama trails. The same is true in Florida. The demographic breakdown of who backed whom in Pennsylvania looks much as it did in January. Oby’s got blacks and more educated whites while Hillary’s gang consists of blue-collar white men, white women, and old white coots in general. Perhaps suggesting that we, the long-suffering public, have by now enjoyed about all of this campaigning foolishness we can stand, the unfavorable ratings of all the candidates have gone up noticeably in recent weeks, but none have risen more sharply than those of Commando Clinton. Among much-courted Independent voters, over a three-month span she has gone from a 59 percent favorable rating to 58 percent unfavorable. If this keeps up, she’ll soon be dodging real sniper fire in this country.
Although this trend has doubtless long been apparent to the poll-obsessed Clintonistas, Hillary’s willingness to make herself even more of a She-Beast in order to scorch at least some of the Teflon off her opponent’s butt has clearly had some effect. The Barackster meanwhile, has done himself no favors. His response to an increasingly rough-and-tumble campaign has been to appear both whiny and patronizingly weary of it all, impatient to be done with a tedious and protracted process that exposes him to questions he can’t believe anyone would ask and to people who clearly make him uncomfortable.
Apparently, the Billary pitch to the Superdelegates— “We’d like to believe him when he says he isn’t an America-hating Muslim, but he still has a big downside that most folks who voted for him or were coerced into caucuses in his behalf three months ago just couldn’t see”—hasn’t gained much traction at this point. Reduced to pure political calculus, the Super-D’s decision comes down to something like this: ” Do we risk alienating a huge chunk of our most loyal constituency, blacks, because we think that Hillary Clinton is more likely to attract our most-needed but least predictable constituency, blue collar whites?” Even with Democratic voting in the 90 percent-plus range among blacks, southern states have remained effectively unattainable and are likely to remain that way, regardless of the nominee, so it comes down to whether Hillary ‘s greater popularity with working class whites in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio might offset losing the 5 to 7 percent of the total vote that defecting blacks might represent in those states. Unless I really miss my guess, there’s too much “if” in this proposition for the Democratic insidership to chance turning their upcoming convention in Denver into a horrific flashback of what happened in Chicago forty years ago. Slightly more than forty years ago, when pressed to remove F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ was said to have responded that he would rather have Hoover “inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” If the Dems do decide to turn a deaf ear to Hillary’s entreaties, I’d definitely suggest that they get themselves a waterproof tent and keep the flaps pulled tight.

" I Got Them Ol' Elitism Blues"

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A few weeks ago, in what was hailed as the most candid and insightful speech about race since the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama observed that "most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. . . . They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. . . . to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns—this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”
Like many others, I praised Obama’s candid analysis of the way things look for a lot of whites these days, but I also remember thinking at the time that sometimes people who complain of being misunderstood are not particularly appreciative when someone appears to think they understand them better than they might understand themselves.
Now comes Obama last week explaining why he’s having a hard time connecting with blue-collar whites: "It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.''
There’s a great deal of truth in what the Senator had to say, of course. The problem is that it also smacks just a bit of the same condescending rhetoric that could have been lifted from a speech by Al Gore or John Kerry. Regardless of Sen. Obama’s intention, his remarks recall a familiar Democratic liberal dichotomy wherein “we,” the educated and enlightened, are reminded why “they,” who enjoy neither of these advantages, behave so as to invite our contempt but really deserve our pity. Obama was trying to portray a people rendered bitter and dysfunctional by the failure of their government to meet their needs or listen to their concerns, but in listing the supposed results of their victimization, he also managed to make religious faith, gun ownership, and opposition to free trade seem as pathological as racism and nativism.
For all his soaring rhetorical transcendence of race, even sympathetic observers have noted that Obama, whose humble beginnings hardly qualify him for the Born on Third Base Club, seems almost palpably discomfited when he is required to interact personally with regular old white folk. Whoever arranged the bowling fiasco is surely manning the copier in the campaign’s Lubbock office by now, but what can you do with a candidate who goes to resolutely blue collar Hershey, Pennsylvania, and proclaims a Wilbur’s chocolate bud “quite tasty”?
The saving grace in this current flap is the icy and aloof Hillary Clinton’s laughably contrived effort to manufacture political capital out of it by reinventing her own Wellseley-Yalie, “ain’t bakin’ no cookies” self on the fly as a bible-thumping, gun-totin,’ beer-and-a-shot re-do of Rosie the Riveter who is personally offended by her opponent’s elitism. Hillary is already way into her characteristic overkill mode, and the media is flogging the story like a borrowed mule, but general reaction thus far doesn’t quite suggest the PR disaster that the talking heads have been talking up.
The possibility that he might emerge from this most recent dust-up relatively unscathed doesn’t mean Oby shouldn’t learn from it, however. The ability to convey empathy is the dominant component in the DNA of the successful politician. In head-to-head matchups, empathy trumps intelligence every time. If you doubt this, ask the aforementioned Messrs.Gore and Kerry. In his prime, Bill Clinton exhibited both these qualities, but stretching way back to Adlai Stevenson, a long line of failed Democratic candidates can lay their defeats at least in part to the gap between their prodigious abilities to stand back and explain what ails people and their utter incapacity to move in close and convince the same people that they truly understand how it is to live with those ailments.
At his best, Mr. Clinton brought to the hustings not only knowledge and smarts but an uncanny ability to sound absolutely convincing when he insisted, “I feel your pain!” The difference between Clinton and his would-be Democratic successors is the difference between the great many artists who can play and sing the blues and those few who can also seem to actually feel the blues. I’m not suggesting that Senator Obama’s ultimate success depends on turning himself into another Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, but a little bit more B.B. King sure wouldn’t hurt.

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