Shut up and listen for a change!

by Karoli on September 29, 2011 · 208 comments

Here’s a little test for you. I’m going to give you two snippets of posts written yesterday and you get to tell me whether they were written by a progressive or conservative writer:

Here’s clip number one:

Hope-and-change has now sunk into little more than a tawdry spectacle of racial spoils, as the president of the United States desperately cobbles together squabbling special-interest racial, ethnic, and gender groups in lieu of restoring the nation’s prosperity. Before the age of Obama, I don’t recall that some members of the Black Caucus were so ready to invite political opponents to “go straight to hell,” or to allege that they were veritable murderers eager to lynch blacks and restore slavery.

Here’s clip number two:

This just in: Not all the fools are Republicans. Recently, one Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.”

See, nobody ever criticized Bill Clinton, another centrist Democrat who faced a hostile Republican congress. Indeed, he was “enthusiastically re-elected” in 1996. Therefore, “[t]he 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.”

The professor actually wrote that. See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. Not killing Osama bin Laden, not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness.

Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds. Otherwise, Harris-Perry’s becoming a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV.


Kind of hard to tell, isn’t it? But if you guessed that the first clip was a snippet of a snarky right-wing view of what race relations should look like, written by Victor Davis Hanson in the conservative journal, National Review, you get a brownie point.

But where was the second clip from? Well, dear readers, it was from that liberal — oh, excuse me, I mean — progressive bastion known as Salon.com, written by a guy by the name of Gene Lyons, who evidently has some sort of idea that he is helping. Or something.

Yes, that’s right. A grey-haired white dude who co-wrote a big book defending the Clintons just spewed out racist crap more contemptible than the grey-haired white dude who writes for the conservative journal.

In what can only be described as a piece that makes little sense but certainly serves the purpose of marginalizing African-Americans and certainly African-American women right alongside the President, Lyons makes the case that Melissa Harris-Perry is simply being a ridiculous bigot because, well, clearly the President is now doing what Lyons and others have said he should do all along, so what’s the problem?

In other words, since President Obama is now flying right and in line with his expectations, Harris-Perry’s criticisms of white liberals are utterly and totally out of line.  That contention, in itself, proves the truth of Melissa Harris-Perry’s original thesis posted on The Nation, which you can find here, with a followup here.  She contends that white liberals apply a double standard with regard to this nation’s first black President and in so doing, are showing their own racist tendencies.

Professor Harris-Perry walked a careful line in both articles. For example, this was her first bottom line conclusion:

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Evidently, Mr. Lyons has some difficulty with his reading comprehension, since there is a material and clear difference between the words “it may be possible to read that result…” and the words “it is racism”.  But then, people read what they want to read, despite the words written on the screen, page, or wall, and Mr. Lyons chose to read them his way instead of how they were actually written.

In order to make sure I’m crystal-clear here, I’d like to ask Mr. Lyons what he means by the phrase “a photo negative of KKK racial thought.” See, I read that and what I take away is that he is equating Harris-Perry’s carefully-phrased hypothesis as something like the KKK. What does that even mean? To me, it’s a nasty, snarky attempt to use hyperbole to marginalize not only her writing, but the woman herself. As for the Bachmann reference, that’s just bullshit insults to make a point. Fact-free bullshit insults, at that.

Here’s the thing. I’m a white chick. A white liberal (but evidently not liberal enough) chick who happens to think Barack Obama has been an exemplary leader to date, despite overwhelming opposition not only from his political enemies, but with aid from cable networks, right-wing publishers, and yes, the left wing of the party as well. Lyon’s gratuitous equation of a hate-driven, violent and still prevalent group in our society to Professor Harris-Perry’s hypothesis seems to me to be nearly hysterical and unworthy of attention. But that’s from a white not-liberal-enough chick. Let’s see how it plays with African-American thinkers.

Joy-Ann Reid:

But that passage provides a valuable insight into the roots of the chasm between black people — writ large — and white liberals — writ large. The latter sometimes demonstrate a stunning lack of interest/understanding of the complex but still present interplay of race in our politics, and really, in our daily lives. The truth is, Perry made a point that is not only not uncommon among black Americans, it is almost rote. Black people experience the opposition to Barack Obama differently from white people, and their observations about his treatment, by the right AND by the left, are not invalid.

Angry Black Lady:

At this point, I much prefer the comment section of Fox Nation to the comment section of Salon.com or Firedoglake.  At least when you walk into the lion’s den at Fox Nation, you know what to expect — unabashed, KKK-style racism.  But on the left?  As a black person, you never know how you’re going to be received.

Maybe on Monday you’re their best friend and they invite you to a panel on their podcast or radio show.  But then on Tuesday when you speak out about something that they don’t want to hear, they try to silence you.  They demand proof and data.  They discount your experiences. They call you divisive. They turn your life experiences into a joke.  They play the victim.  They start naming black people who agree with them (because Negros are a hive-mind, you see).  They tell you about that one time they wrote an article about how racism really sucks and that proves incontrovertibly that they aren’t racist.  They play dumb and act like they don’t know the difference between being A Racist, and Saying Racist Shit. They tout their liberal bona fides, thus ending all discussion. White liberals cannot be racist.  It’s in the Bible.  LOOK IT UP.

To AngryBlackLady’s point, I would add only this. There seems to be a knee-jerk need on the part of those of us who are liberal to deny that we might, and please read this carefully and literally — Say Racist Shit. Read those last three words again. Please place emphasis on the verb. Saying racist shit doesn’t mean one is racist. It might, however, mean one is ignorant.

See, I’ve made this mistake, and not just once, but more than once. So if you won’t listen to the ones who are hearing you, maybe you’ll listen to me. Sit down and shut up. Listen to what they are saying. Really listen. If you are not racist, that’s what you should be doing. Listening. It takes nothing but attention and sensitivity.

I listened, and learned something. Like this: When you call President Obama a wimp, you may think you’re tossing a pretty weak epithet at him. But really, here’s what you’re saying, because you haven’t listened:

Why do I liken this expression of frustration with two examples of “Othering” done by the hard right? Because like those examples of otherness calling the President a coward is racialized speech.

History lesson. The first black cadet at West Point was dismissed in his fourth year for cowardice after being strapped to a chair and tortured all night by white classmates who couldn’t imagine him graduating.

The argument against integration of the military was that blacks were cowards. That we lacked the fundamental grit to stand up to hard fighting. All evidence to the contrary in every war fought.From the black regiments of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI and WWII, black soldiers were some of the hardest hit, used and bravest. A history that is almost impossible to convince people of, because of the hidden stereotype of racialized thinking and speech. So calling the president a coward is like calling an accomplished woman “a chick” or “a girl”. It is condescending and aggressively so. And it is NOT an accident of speech. 

So, that’s a pretty BFD. First black cadet. First black President. Now we haven’t strapped President Obama to a chair and tortured him, but the fact is, there have been some really effective right-wing talking points borne out of left-wing criticism, like these:  he’s “weak”, he “caves”, he “needs to get some balls.” And beyond that, how many people knew these facts? How many people realize what tossing off “grow a pair” sounds like to someone else? Are the ones who said it racist? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s the act of Saying Racist Shit that turns into this crazy are-too-am-not argument that tries to deny that yes, we liberals do indeed Say Racist Shit.

You know, this really comes down to being open enough to listening, and being sensitive to how things appear to others. Sort of the Golden Rule of political criticism, at least when it comes from those who are ostensibly on the same side of things. Does that mean all criticism is off-limits? No. But I’ve written before about the knee-jerk response of some high-profile lefty writers to everything the President does. The ratcheted-up rhetoric that I’ve never heard before in reference to another Democrat in office in my lifetime. The never-ending willingness to cede territory to the right wing in the name of ideological purity, the idea of “teaching a lesson” by staying home at the midterms, all of it. It boggles my mind because it really just comes down to being smart enough to listen and abandon one’s “rightness” for half a minute and maybe learning something in the process.

One last thing. Salon’s founder and returning CEO David Talbot announced a relaunch of the site with these promises attached:

In these increasingly hard times, Salon is dedicating itself to an American revival. Our editorial mission will become more explicitly and aggressively populist. We will be publishing more investigative pieces, exposing the shadow dance of power. And both Democratic and Republican targets will be fair game, since both parties are increasingly under the control of the same corporate forces.

He prefaces that declaration by making the case for our national depression:

Americans are deeply worried and dispirited. Three years ago, as the country slid into a bottomless recession, we rallied around a presidential candidate who promised real change, only to see him fall captive to the same forces of greed and endless war that have brought us to ruin. The alternatives presented by the Republican Party would only accelerate this national decline. We’re faced on the one side by a well-meaning but ineffectual leader who has waited far too late in his presidency to rally the people around the powerful themes of jobs and economic justice — and on the other side by GOP leaders who are competing to see how quickly they can dismantle the last decent vestiges of public life in America.

There it is again…that perception of our President as weak, ineffective. And which group of Americans is he talking about? Does he somehow think African-Americans are viewing their President in the same light that he is?

My question for Talbot: Would that be a solely white populist mission or does he intend to include minorities in his vision for an American Spring? Because if Gene Lyons’ and David Sirota’s responses are any indicator, there’s a whole big chunk of the “populists” going unrepresented.

Oh, and then there’s this:

We’re inspired by Robert Kennedy, who — after failing to convince President Johnson to end the war in Vietnam — came back to his Senate office in a mood of dark despair about the fate of America. “Oh, to hell with it,” RFK told his young staff, with a new fire in his voice. “Let’s start our own country.”

It’s time to start our own country.

Saying something like that and doing it are two separate things entirely. I might note that RFK’s version of that was to run in a primary where no incumbent was running, rather than handing a victory over to the Republicans by dividing the party. RFK was very, very much a Democratic Party kind of guy. So perhaps Talbot could clarify who “our” is? Would that include Melissa Harris-Perry, university professor and writer for the very-independent-and-populist The Nation? Our incumbent President?

Evidently not.

Sorry, Salon. I’m done. This white chick who is evidently not-liberal-enough is going to keep listening to everyone who wants to have an honest conversation. For those of you who simply play the “it’s not good enough” game, have at it. I opt out.

Update: Bob Cesca’s brilliant post here unpacks the whole false construct of the “Obama isn’t left enough” meme that underpins most criticisms made of him by the high-profile left bloggers, and also relates it back to the idea of a double standard. It’s a must-read.

Also this one: The Cavalier Connection: Gene Lyons, Suck THIS Up.

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