Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Racists versus the Sexists

I'll admit it: I did not, and to an extent do not, understand why Obama's "bitter" remark was supposed to be offensive. A presidential candidate--who is in almost all cases well-educated and wealthy--has two choices when discussing those less well-off than himself. He may emphasize that he is, contrary to appearances, one of the people (ahem, Edwards); or he may admit that he's in a different position in the world, but maintain that he would nevertheless help the working classes if elected. Obama's remark falls in the latter category. He wasn't pretending to be someone he's not, but was showing how, if elected, he would try to improve things for even those not socioeconomically like himself. Of course the problem is that the usual approach is for candidates to feign or exaggerate their enthusiasm for Jesus, corn dogs, or wide open fields, so Obama's remark was a break from the usual, including his own usual approach. (Bush is clearly in the camp of those who emanate of-the-peopleness as a substitute for helping actual people.)*

So when Bob Herbert stepped up to defend or at least explain Obama's remark, I had high hopes. Then... not so much. Herbert explains that many white voters in Pennsylvania would not vote for a black candidate. Herbert's evidence? This is common knowledge. Hmm. Just like it's common knowledge that poor whites wear mullets and eat squirrel for breakfast? In other words, back to where we started.

To refer to broad swaths of the U.S. population as racist without offering evidence is itself bigoted, and adds nothing to the conversation. But here's where Herbert's column goes really awry: "No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it’s certainly not racist to vote against him." Herbert, remember, has just gotten through saying that without any evidence, we can confidently assume that a significant number of votes against Obama are racist votes. So while a vote against Obama might not be racist, the Hillary voter's motives are suspect. So, there's that.

Herbert continues: "But the senator can make it clear that it is wrong to dismiss a candidacy out of hand solely because of the race or ethnicity or gender of the candidate." He certainly could, and perhaps should. But it is up to voters themselves to decide that one candidate is preferable to another, using whatever criteria we see fit. Anti-discrimination laws do not and should not govern the individual's thought processes, neither when voting nor at any other time. If you think it takes a man to stand up to John McCain and choose Obama for that reason, that's your call. (And it could be that the "racist" voters Herbert has invented are in fact convinced that a black man would have worse luck than a white Clinton at winning the general election for the Democrats?) And even I, the blogosphere's most knee-jerk Zionist, if some commenters are to be believed, do not believe there oughta be a law preventing someone from voting against Joe Lieberman on account of his being a Jew. Your vote, your choice, however offensive others would find the inner workings of your brain.

I happen to think political correctness has been overall a positive influence on this country, and that we're in a better place if people are ashamed to be racist or sexist. But it would be worse for democracy if we were coerced into believing that there were limitations on what is a legitimate basis for choosing a candidate. And when the candidates themselves are constantly reminding voters of qualities that ought to be personal, it's harder still to expect that Americans will be poring over candidates' policy records and ignoring the rest. Even if the question is not of rejecting a black person or a woman, the question remains which historic moment one wishes to endorse. When voters are presented with symbols, of course pundits assume voting choices reflect feelings about the broad categories each candidate symbolizes.

*After drafting this post, I noticed the following post on "condescension or pandering", which sums things up quite nicely.

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