Thursday, April 28, 2011

Through Birtherism, Darkly

John McWhorter doesn't think that birtherism is really about racism, or about Obama being black, and really a form of political rhetoric.  He compares the flap to the way in which Clinton was attacked in the 90's.  He calls it a "deep-set animus", and that it was simply about politics.

On one superficial level the birther question is perfectly legitimate: is he really a citizen? This is an obvious question, with on obvious answer. Yet the legitimacy rapidly recedes as the question is placed into a context of Obama being black, of his middle name, of his childhood, the non-Christian rumors, the colonialism, etc. All of it overwhelms seriousness - especially as the question had been resolved to a perfectly reasonable standard of evidence long ago.

Yet, all of this "context" goes to the difficulty in identifying prejudice. McWhorter has argued before that it is standard political rhetoric, where the only point is to score points. Yet this is what is so damn tricky about prejudice. You can't put your finger on one specific statement that "proves" its existence. And who among birthers would acknowledge explicitly any racial prejudice?

No one acknowledges racial prejudice these days. And who would expect them to? It is a serious sin. But these tangled patterns, forged over decades and centuries, continue to wind their ways through our unconscious mind. We're left with all of these "tendencies" and suspicions that gnaw at the fringes of discourse - whether on immigration, the "war on terror", Islam, or welfare. And yet we can't talk about them. We can't name them. We don't understand them.

And they are so easy to deny, so deceptively simple and harmless. Each issue by itself can be separated out and a case made that they are perfectly reasonable. Asking whether Obama is an American citizen is reasonable question. But at what point does it become unreasonable? And why? Why exactly? And when a sizable portion of the electorate continues to wonder, what does that say about them? What exactly is going on?

There is nothing exact about it. And in this refuge of uncertainty, of squishiness and vagueness, those who would play upon the oldest, most devilish human tendencies find their safe haven.

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