Jonah Goldberg and the Meaning of Racism

So, according to Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Senator Harry Reid said (quote via):

that Obama’s political advantages included his light skin tone and his ability to speak “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Based on this quote, he stands accused of racism by numerous critics, including Jonah Goldberg in a recent NRO column. But more on that below. First, it’s worth looking at Reid’s assertion and seeing if, and in what way, it exhibits racism.

Before we can credibly do that, however, we should agree on a definition of “racism.” Merriam-Webster provides the following definition of the word:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2: racial prejudice or discrimination

So, was Harry Reid asserting that black people are less capable than white people, and that, therefore, Barack Obama, whose light skin and way of speaking identified him as less “black” and more “white,” would make a better president than the average black person?

I sense a much simpler and more likely explanation: Reid was correctly diagnosing the predilections of the voters in the United States. Although conservatives wish it were not so, the United States has a history of actual racism, and racism continues, even at this moment, to be problematic for our country. It seems likely that it is factually true that Barack Obama’s light skin and avoidance of speaking in what is perceived as a black manner would be helpful assets in a political campaign.

As for the term “negro,” it’s worth recalling that Harry Reid was born in 1939, and, during the time he grew up, that term was not the slur it is today.

I don’t mean so much to mount a defense of Harry Reid as to point out that racism is about the content and intent of someone’s words and ideas, and not about some list of embargoed words. So, on to Mr. Goldberg’s recent column. Mr. Goldberg asserts (I think?) that Reid’s remarks were racist:

That he’s been caught talking like one of those racists is a delicious irony.


A Republican says something stupidly offensive or offensively stupid about race and he must be destroyed, even if he apologizes …. But when a Democrat blunders the same way, the liberal establishment goes into overdrive explaining why it’s no big deal.

What stands out here is that Mr. Goldberg at no point makes a claim regarding what about Reid’s remark, specifically, is racist. The idea seems to be that the language Reid used is similar to language used by racists, and so it is racist. But, sad to say, this is not convincing. As I showed above, there is reason to doubt  the racist interpretation of Reid’s remark.

He goes further, though, and says that this moment should serve to highlight the double standard whereby Republicans get tarred and feathered for saying racist stuff but Democrats don’t. If we understand the word “racist” to mean “talking about racial issues using the wrong words,” then I suppose this makes sense, but there is a quite interesting claim Mr. Goldberg makes when he writes:

Yes, there’s a double standard, but the point is that the standard used against conservatives is unfair, not that that unfair standard should be used against Democrats as well.

Whatever [RNC Chair Michael] Steele’s other strengths and weaknesses may be, a major benefit of having a black leader for the GOP was, for me, that Republicans could have a more credible voice in attacking the unfairness of such race-driven scalp hunts.

I wish I had a mite less intellectual honesty, because then I could hysterically accuse Mr. Goldberg of racism for claiming that Mr. Steele’s race endows him with superior capacities etc. It seems clear, however, that Mr. Goldberg is merely identifying the facts of the case: it is easier for a black person to tell everyone to stop getting mad at Republicans for using the wrong words. This is because black people are immune to the charge of racism.

Or something. In opposition to Mr. Goldberg’s view of things, I would offer the following: the Republican party is the more racism-friendly of the two major parties, and this is why its members take it on the chin when they say something that seems racist. Defending that contention will have to be the work of another post, though. For now, simply consider how it compares to Mr. Goldberg’s explanation of today’s racial politics:

The bittersweet irony is that racism is such a nonissue in U.S. politics today.

If the argument is that race is no longer a factor in politics, that the races are all equal and all the protestors should go home, then the response should be laughter and disdain. To pick a few from a sea of examples: there exists a large income disparity between black and white people; african americans receive worse medical care; black people have shorter life expectancy (PDF) than white people.

Now, perhaps Mr. Goldberg wants to claim that these disparities simply reflect a natural difference between the races, and shows that one of them is superior to the other. But one hopes not. That would be textbook racism.

The Future Gets Worse and Worse

So, this happened:

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

Basically, just as people have been saying over and over, if we don’t do something about global climate change, it will happen. We have not done something, and things keep getting worse.

Check this out:

from the Washington Post article linked above
from the Washington Post article linked above

Now, knowing US politics, I would put my money on the red line. This is just horribly tragic.

On the Hotness of Their Women

photo courtesy flickr user Muffet
photo courtesy flickr user Muffet

It can be challenging to pick out individual threads from the tapestry of jaw-dropping nuttiness that constitutes the right-wing of the current Republican base. Watching the incoherent, but violent, tempest that was the teabag protest inspired feelings of despair. Here, it seemed, were a mass of people wholly uninterested in fact, in dialogue, who were convinced they knew the truth of how things were. Their desire, from all appearances, was to threaten, to establish that President Obama, and liberals generally, ought to back off, lest they bring repercussions down on themselves.

Yet it is crucial nonetheless to understand the reasons that undergird these seemingly reasonless actions. In the spirit of addressing the question, of what those reasons might be, I submit this recent comment from one Jason Mattera. At the recent Values Voter Summit, Sarah Posner reports

During the panel, Mattera took the David and Goliath metaphor another perverse step: If conservatives (David) smite liberals (Goliath), they will be rewarded with the hot conservative women, just like King Saul promised his daughter to the warrior who slew the evil giant. “You know his daughter must have been beautiful because there’s no guy whose gonna die for an ugly girl,” Mattera chortled. “Our women are hot. We have Michelle Malkin. Who does the left have, Rachel Maddow? Sorry, I prefer that my women not look like dudes.”

Now, there are numerous easy targets in those comments. There is the tiresome insistence that one of the main, if not the main, component of female power and influence is their appearance, specifically their appearance as it interacts with the sex drive of the heterosexual male. This is obviously terrible but also uninteresting. There is the dig at Rachel Maddow for not being attractive like Michelle Malkin (spoiler alert: she doesn’t care if you’re attracted to her, Jason!). The sinister linguistic tic of referring to women in a possessive sense– “our,” “we have,” “my women” –revealing, of course, a certain degree of uncertainty about the degree to which the speaker really has control over the women in his life.

It is no news flash that female freedom terrifies and infuriates the Republicans. The interesting element here is the presumption that sexual attraction must be the underlying factor in David’s decision to fight Goliath. Now, of course we must note that Mattera is likely making a joke. Still, it’s worth remembering the actual reason David fought Goliath: David’s people were at war with Goliath’s. Of course, no one knows how exactly this all went down, but I found it interesting that Mattera, at the Values Voter Summit, emphasized not the religious angle, and not the war/nationalism angle, but the sexy daughter angle.

The thread I am picking at here is the growing trust in emotionality that partly characterizes the recent Republican party. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” Glenn Beck weeping. Town hall protestors screaming at their representatives, in some cases expressly hoping to end discussion rather than participate in it. It is a movement that, more and more, relies on the instinctive, passionate, emotional responses to the world. Sexy women are awesome. Ugly women are bad. Obama is black, he is different, he is not to be trusted.

This mindset is, sad to say, awful at all the things a citizen of an advanced nation needs to be doing during a time of crisis and struggle. Complicated issues do not benefit from an emotional consideration.

Plenty of Blame

In his column today, Frank Rich pointed something out that I think us liberals would do well to remember.  President Obama’s inauguration speech was not only a statement of his intent to make some changes, to rectify some of the mistakes that his predecessor made, but

Obama wasn’t just rebuking the outgoing administration. He was delicately but unmistakably calling out the rest of us who went along for the ride as America swerved into the dangerous place we find ourselves now.

Indeed. Although I would point out that it may be hard for people who didn’t vote for Bush, who criticized his every move, to feel especially responsible for the actions taken in our name–especially in the foreign policy arena. Nevertheless, point taken: fix the country first, complain about Bush later.

Of course, that being said, it’s still the case that Bush and his associates must face consequences for their war crimes, their perjury and obstruction of justice.  Many ideas are being floated to deal with this, but something must be done.  It would be unacceptable for such crimes to go unpunished.

A New President

So, readers, I have been working on refitting this site after a long absence–during which time, it seems, wordpress has gone through some changes.  Overall, though, I am reminded what a terrible time the last 8 years have been.  President Bush led assaults on science, choice, open government, fiscal sanity, peace, and our reputation in the world, just to name a few.

Obviously, the election and imminent inauguration of President Obama will be a titanic step in the right direction.  Still, worries linger.  The economy has been cut down, and our military creaks under the strain of 2 wars, neither pursued with acumen or wisdom.

Can Obama solve these problems?  Is there hope?  These are the questions I think about.  Of course, no one person can save us; we must save ourselves.  What, though, does it mean to save ourselves?

I propose that we should save ourselves from the cruelty of chance, by instituting universal health coverage.  From the avarice of the powerful, by taxing income at one rate without regard to the source, and by regulating financial transactions more rigorously.  From the whims of our leaders, by strengthening our constitutional freedoms and protections against abuse of power.  And, finally, from the delusions of the many, by supporting the full separation of church and state.

The preceding paragraph may come as no surprise, given the political views of this blog, but it’s worth noting that, although we have elected a Democrat, many battles lie ahead.  Good luck, Mr. Obama, and good luck America.

The Return

Hello friends and readers.  I have been on hiatus for quite a long time now, but I am happy to report that I am back, and I hope to post insights and analyses of interest in the new year, and for years to come.

Exxon’s Huge Profits

As was reported earlier this month (for instance, in this New York Times story), Exxon Mobil made humongous profits in 2007, amounting to $40.6 billion. Higher prices for oil led to the increase, although Exxon has been making tons of money for a while. Two divergent responses to such news are possible. On the one hand, we might think that succes for an American business is a great thing, that Exxon Mobil clearly provides a desired commodity. On the other hand, we might feel anger that Exxon is profiting from the financial hardships of many Americans who are squeezed at the pump as well as the Iraq war, which has destabilized international markets and thus contributed to the increase in oil prices.

Predictably, Exxon has pointed out (in the story linked above) that they bear huge costs for exploration, which is, they say, crucial as the global demand for energy increases. Other defenders have brought up the taxes that such large corporate incomes generate. The argument, it seems, is that Exxon’s success is our success, because it will guarantee continued supply and also because Exxon pays a lot of money back to the government.

On the other side, critics point out that the success and wealth of Exxon, the government, and corporate America haven’t been trickling down to the rest of us. Robert Scheer writes:

The lifeline of Exxon is not its oil-drilling skills but rather the power of the US government, particularly the military, that can be marshaled to intimidate those nations that would dare challenge Exxon’s right to profit exorbitantly. Whether it’s about pushing for a pipeline crossing Afghanistan or tying up Venezuela’s foreign assets in international courts, as Exxon managed to do last week, the US-based oil giants strut with the full confidence that Uncle Sam will back them up.

All of this indicates a vicious cycle, wherein Exxon’s profits and taxes benefit the American government, which then acts around the world to protect Exxon’s interests. Making this observation doesn’t mean we are wandering into conspiracy theory territory at all.

On top of all of this, global climate change is a real and imminent problem. Carbon emissions from human-created sources are causing it. Given this, it isn’t necessarily a good thing that Exxon is exploring for more oil–we should spend money to find other energy sources, not more of the same.

The arguments of the defenders fail to engage with the reality of our situation. The fact of Exxon’s huge tax bill doesn’t make our government policies better, and the fact that they feel compelled to undertake expensive oil exploration doesn’t mean that such exploration is a good idea. The success of private companies must be contextualized before it can be thought good or bad. In the context of this nation, where people have no choice but to consume oil, where there is no way for them to find better prices from competitive sellers, and where the price of oil has been rising because of the actions of the government, the success of Exxon should be seen for what it is: the successful extraction of money from all Americans for the purpose of continuing our insane addiction to oil.

Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight

Another element in the developing debate over Bill Clinton’s behavior and Hillary’s campaign is the posture of transcendence that the Obama campaign has been adopting. Obama, the message goes, prefers not to get involved in politics-as-usual mudslinging. He would rather bring us together than divide us. This narrative is rhetorically effective, but it’s worth looking more closely at the political implications of this stance.

Paul Krugman offers a thoughtful take on this subject in his column today. In it, he looks at the similarities between the political climates of 1992 and 2008, and reminds us what can happen when vague idealism meets Republicans. He writes:

to the extent that Barack Obama 2008 does sound like Bill Clinton 1992, here’s my question: Has everyone forgotten what happened after the 1992 election?

In particular, after the election of Bill Clinton,

Within just a few months the country was wracked by the bitter partisanship Mr. Obama has decried.

This bitter partisanship wasn’t the result of anything the Clintons did. Instead, from Day 1 they faced an all-out assault from conservatives determined to use any means at hand to discredit a Democratic president.

And this, I think, is a telling point. The Republicans are still there, seething with hatred at abortion, homosexuality, liberals, taxes, atheists, and the whole gathering of ideas and concepts that-to them-represent the core of the Democratic party. It is hard to remember this during primary season, when the parties aren’t fighting each other. It is easy to be transported by the powerful rhetoric of Obama to an ideal United States where everyone agrees about what must be done, and genteel debate will hammer out the details.

In truth, we don’t agree about what must be done. The Republicans are committed to theocracy, permanent war, and gilded-age wealth inequality. They are not prepared to be polite and genteel. Whoever we nominate will be hammered with criticism, based on both truth and lies. If our nominee wins the presidency, the Republicans will be vicious and relentless in their criticism and their attempts to destroy that president.

You really should read Krugman’s piece, because it clearly and succinctly reminds us of these issues. Of course, I support John Edwards, but it seems unlikely that he will win the nomination. I’m not sure which would be worse: the seductive idealism of Obama, or the less-liberal pragmatism of Hillary.

Frank Rich Decries Billary

I love Frank Rich’s columns in the New York Times. I look forward to them. But this week I was a little surprised by his thoughts on the role of Bill Clinton in Hillary’s campaign for president. As I have written about, it seems weird to me how every time Bill disagrees with a reporter, he is described as angry, as lashing out, etc. Frank Rich echoes this theme:

In the Democrats’ case, the full-throttle emergence of Billary, the joint Clinton candidacy, is measured mainly within the narrow confines of the short-term horse race: Do Bill Clinton’s red-faced eruptions and fact-challenged rants enhance or diminish his wife as a woman and a candidate?

I still haven’t seen any eruptions or rants from Bill, and the purported examples of such behavior have seemed to me more like intent—but calm—argument. In fact, the developing problem seems to me not to be Bill’s behavior but the media interpretation of his behavior.

Rich reasons that, since Bill has become so aggressively involved with his wife’s campaign, he is now back on the table as a target for full Republican attack. As he puts it,

For the Republicans, that means not just a double dose of the one steroid, Clinton hatred, that might yet restore their party’s unity but also two fat targets.

Again, though, there are really two levels of this discussion. There are, first, the things that actually happened, i.e. Bill Clinton’s actual statements, and things of that nature. On top of those things, there are the interpretations, spin, mischaracterizations, and representations of those things that come from various sources in the media and throughout the culture.

Of course, it does seem to be the case that the emerging problem of Bill’s role in Hillary’s campaign influenced voters against Hillary. To what extent, though, could that influence be based, not on Bill’s actions, but on the relentless characterization of his actions after the fact? The underlying problem, I think, is that our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with a female candidate for president, specifically in terms of the role of the spouse.

In fact, a psychological tool called the Implicit Associations Test (described here, and here, you can take the test here) shows us that, in our culture, it is more difficult for most of us to associate leadership with women. This is an unconscious bias, which would explain the gravitation of attention and importance away from Hillary to her husband. The effect is much more pronounced because of the charisma, fame, and previous associations with leadership that Bill possesses.

There is a dissonance, though, in our conscious thoughts about Hillary and Bill. Why, we wonder, is Bill trying to steal the spotlight from Hillary? In reality, he may not be—the spotlight of our cultural attention may be hunting him. After all, we could have more coverage of the day to day activities of Elizabeth Edwards or Michelle Obama, but we don’t.

Of course it is a particularly touchy problem, how a former president would act as a First Gentleman (or whatever his role would be titled). In fact, I think it was unwise of the Clinton campaign to continue to use Bill after it became clear that the narrative of Angry Bill Lashing Out At Reporters was established—tactically, they should have recognized that his effectiveness would be impaired. At the same time, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the underlying cultural forces at work in this strange emerging dynamic.


In anticipation of the coming general elections, in which debate about abortion will no doubt figure prominently, I wanted to highlight and discuss two developing debates on that topic. In both cases, we see groups who do not believe that a woman should have the right to decide what happens to her body willfully distorting the facts of the case to forward their agenda. The challenge, though, is for those of us who do believe that women should have that right to find effective ways of countering the lies.

First, there is the recent news that abortion rates have gone down in the United States. As this New York Times editorial explains,

Abortion opponents like the National Right to Life Committee seized upon the numbers as vindication for their strategy of demonizing abortion and making it harder for women to obtain one. Many states now mandate counseling sessions beforehand. But a harder look at the data suggests another explanation.

Almost two-thirds of the decline in the total number of abortions can be traced to eight jurisdictions with few or no abortion restrictions: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Oregon, Washington State and the District of Columbia. These are places, notes the Guttmacher Institute’s president, Sharon Camp, that have shown a commitment to real sex education, largely departing from the Bush administration’s abstinence-only approach. These jurisdictions also help women avoid unintended pregnancies by making contraception widely available.

So much evidence—not to mention common sense—exists that real, scientific sex education combined with access to contraception constitutes an effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy that it is astonishing anyone would argue the opposite. That, however, is just what the anti-choice groups do. In this way, they win either way. If abortion rates go up, they get to decry the dissolute culture and stir up their followers. If they go down, they get to claim success and stir up their followers. This scenario, though, reveals that these groups do not actually care about the sexual health of young women—they care about politics.

If they cared about the sexual health of young women, they would acknowledge the human teenager’s sex drive and favor sex education. In the states that do this, you see a decreased abortion rate.

I found this Nation piece very interesting as well. Apparently, some opponents of women’s rights have decided that a syndrome called Post Abortion Syndrome (PAS) exists. This syndrome is a mental disorder that, supposedly, afflicts individuals who have had abortions. The emphasis of the article, though, is on male victims of PAS. The author, Sarah Blustain, deftly narrates the strange intersection of junk psychology, religion, and sexism that generates this new mental disorder. There are, if you believe the PAS groups, many victims of abortion. The problem, as Blustain points out, is that

The data to prove the existence of PAS come from a combination of deeply flawed original research—featuring tiny samples and lack of controls—and the manipulation of large samples into correlations from which pseudo-researchers claim causation. Among the most prominent forms of “data” circulating in the American political system are a few thousand PAS testimonies collected with the express purpose of being used in court to help overturn Roe v. Wade—hardly a scientific sample.

As usual, science and reality are the twin Achilles heels of the anti-choice movement. They substitute faith and absolute ideology for any reasonable discussion of sexuality and health.

I mentioned the need for tactics to counter these new moves. It is difficult, because the facts and figures that prove our case are not effective against the emotionally and religiously charged rhetoric of the anti-choice groups. We must adopt a passionate rhetoric ourselves, and the focus must be women. It is fundamentally wrong to force a woman to undergo a pregnancy against her will. Her body is her own. This fact, and the fact that some groups wish to reduce women to government-enforced gestation units, should be enough to generate some rhetorical fire.