Identity Politics: Not What Dr. King Was About
I remember not too long ago asking my old professor Christopher Hitchens whom he was for in this presidential election.
Choice one was Rudolph Giuliani, who'd at least shown some pluck and ingenuity in making the work of Al Qaeda just a little harder on a day we all remember. Choice two-given somewhat reluctantly, I thought-was Hillary Clinton, who, despite a lifetime of co-sponsoring her husband's falsehoods and using any and all means of getting ahead in politics, at least showed that, as a congresswoman serving on the Committee on Armed Services, she wasn't shy either about bringing the fight to the forces of theocratic reaction.
But the problem with Clinton, as we're all rediscovering again, is that she loves to remind you of every reason you ever had for wishing her into some unscrupulous senior partnership at a third-tier M&A firm.
Attentive readers will have already seen Hitchens's brief against her candidacy.
Perhaps anticipating the national holiday we're today celebrating, he followed this up with a keen assessment of a phenomenon I once heard him refer to (in a slightly modified context) as the "auction of ethnic self-pity." Here it is as it applies to the junior senators from New York and Illinois:
Mrs. Clinton, speaking to a black church audience on Martin Luther King Day last year, did describe President George W. Bush as treating the Congress of the United States like "a plantation," adding in a significant tone of voice that "you know what I mean . . ."
She did not repeat this trope, for some reason, when addressing the electors of Iowa or New Hampshire. She's willing to ring the other bell, though, if it suits her. But when an actual African-American challenger comes along, she rather tends to pout and wince at his presumption (or did until recently).
Here again, the problem is that Sen. Obama wants us to transcend something at the same time he implicitly asks us to give that same something as a reason to vote for him. I must say that the lyricism with which he does this has double and triple the charm of Mrs. Clinton's heavily-scripted trudge through the landscape, but the irony is still the same.
What are we trying to "get over" here? We are trying to get over the hideous legacy of slavery and segregation. But Mr. Obama is not a part of this legacy. His father was a citizen of Kenya, an independent African country, and his mother was a "white" American. He is as distant from the real "plantation" as I am. How -- unless one thinks obsessively about color while affecting not to do so -- does this make him "black"?
Clinton may be forgiven as the wife of America's "first black president" in thinking that she was anything other than obscene to invoke African bondage to describe the follies of the current administration. (Perhaps she took a note from the songbook of Harry Belafonte, who once referred to Condoleeza Rice as a "house slave.")
But leaving aside the fact that members of her campaign have used both subtle and unsubtle bigotry to defame her main Democratic rival, Clinton herself sounds like a holy fool whenever she talks about civil rights on the stump. Earlier in the month Obama - answering her charge that he was trafficking in "false hope" - tried to brush up against the optimistic grandeur of Martin Luther King. Her response? To imply that she was crafted more in the mold of Lyndon Johnson, who converted that grandeur into hard legislative currency.
The younger Hillary might have paused before identifying with the architect of the Vietnam War, an event still cited by her as central to her political awakening. Thus does the politics of "identity" make a mockery of everything else you may have once believed in.
Clinton also apparently found that being a woman is not without its easily manipulated charms. The New York Times has been no help in disabusing her of this notion. When it isn't publishing a cringe-inducing editorial by Gloria Steinem, who claims that "[g]ender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House" - it is quoting Geraldine Ferraro accusing Obama of underhandedly stealing black votes away from Clinton in an article focused on "race and gender."
"As soon anybody from the Clinton campaign opens their mouth in a way that could make it seem as if they were talking about race, it will be distorted. The spin will be put on it that they are talking about race. The Obama campaign is appealing to their base and their base is the African-American community. What they are trying to do is move voters from Clinton by distorting things. What have they got to lose?"
Is it a coincidence that the newspaper of record asked the only woman vice presidential candidate to comment on how a black presidential candidate is exploiting race to damage the first woman presidential candidate? What new and inventive ways will we come up with next to shuffle the stacked deck of race and gender "cards"?
Unless you think that the "audacity of hope" refers to making Harvard Law Review, you will admit that Obama has used the perception of his lineage to his advantage. This is a trick that works both ways, of course, as he's recently found with the minor scandal engulfing his openly "Afrocentric" hometown church, the head pastor of which lionizes Louis Farrakhan.
I didn't like the demands placed on Obama to repudiate a notorious racist Jew-baiter whom he has never professed to admire. Something about this struck me as being insecure and commissar-like at the same time. However, I found it equally disturbing that Obama's defenders rushed to remove his eyebrow-raising house of worship from the same scrutiny they'd happily apply to, say, the Mormon Church.
If a black aspirant to the White House belongs to a Christian congregation that is stained by demagogy and charlatanism and he doesn't have to justify this to anybody, then have we really moved beyond the condescending and conservative mental categories of the 1960's?
I've been asked what MLK would have made of the sorry national burlesque in which ovaries and melanin are all but exit poll determinants. It's wasn't the "I Have a Dream" speech I chose to consult, but rather King's more polemical and pessimistic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which was addressed-it can't be stressed enough-to "white moderate" clergymen:
... I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously closed on advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
How's that for self-criticism and telling people what they don't want to hear? And when's the last time you heard the moral conscience of any movement argue that the middle-class was a hindrance rather than an agent of social progress? Such candor came, moreover, from a man who really might have benefited in the short-term by selling his core principles to purchase a broader coalition of desegregationists. No candidate for high office, whatever the out-group he or she purports to represent, would ever get very far by striking such a "polarizing" chord. (By the way, the letter King was replying to in this brilliant prison-house tract was titled "A Call for Unity" - the numbing slogan of electoral consensus if ever there were one.)
Instead, what today's identity politician offers is a kind patchwork quilt of competing and contradictory claims of entitlement. It's an embarrassing state of affairs, all right, and one that would have deeply disappointed a great exemplar of universalism.
Michael Weiss is Pajamas Media New York editor. His own blog is Snarksmith.