Part 1—Perlstein belittles Winfrey: Last week, historian Rick Perlstein took out the knives in a street fight he launched against Oprah Winfrey.
Or did he?
This street fight, which we have imagined, concerns the role played by race in the denigration of President Obama. In the course of disagreeing with Winfrey’s view, Perlstein displayed his rather obvious sense of white privilege.
Or at least, a person could say that he did!
In a lusty, name-calling piece at The Nation, Perlstein claimed that the tea party is just the latest example of a well-known, recurrent force in American political history. Name-calling to the side, we’re inclined to agree with that view.
Eventually, Perlstein offered his assessment of the vituperation which has been aimed at Obama. We’re inclined to agree with this too:
PERLSTEIN (11/25/13): This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”On balance, we tend to agree with the thrust of that paragraph. Is the denigration of President Obama something new? On balance, we’re inclined to think that it’s more like the denigration of President Clinton than it is different.
Quite often, we liberals act as if the denigration of Obama is an utterly puzzling new phenomenon, like nothing that’s ever been seen on the earth. We then attribute the vituperation to Obama’s race. What else could it possibly be?
As a general matter, we find that reaction maddening. That said, let’s be clear about what Perlstein seemed to be saying in this part of his piece.
Let’s be clear, though Perlstein isn’t! As he continues, Perlstein seems to say that the denigration of President Obama actually is “racism-soaked.” It’s just that the wars against Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were soaked in racism too.
In some ways, we don’t understand the next paragraph in Perlstein’s piece. In particular, we don’t understand what his mid-paragraph examples are meant to be example of.
That said, Perlstein’s overall view seems fairly clear. According to Perlstein, the denigration of President Obama really is “racism-soaked:”
PERLSTEIN (continuing directly): All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks. Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic (and further in the past than that: Thomas Jefferson, after all, was derided as “the Negro President”). When former IRS Commissioner T. Coleman Andrews ran for president in 1956 on a platform of abolishing the income tax, it was no accident that his war cry—he was fighting against the “degeneration of the union of states into an all-powerful central government!”—was indistinguishable from that of the Southern governors enacting a policy of massive resistance against Brown v. Board of Education. Every time the government acts to expand the prerogatives of citizenship and economic opportunity to formerly disenfranchised groups, a racism-soaked backlash ensues. Defeatism—or ideological accommodation—only makes it worse.Our first observation would be this: everything becomes possible when we let ourselves list the things The Others believe “unconsciously.” (“Liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.”) Once we grant ourselves that power, there’s no judgment we won’t be able to make about the vile hearts and ugly souls of those in The Other Tribe.
Ironically, liberals of previous generations understood this better than we do now, despite decades more experience watching how the right’s game is played...
Even granting ourselves that license, Perlstein’s mid-paragraph examples seem a bit hard to parse. Are they meant to be examples of “racism-soaked backlash” fueled by “right-wing antigovernment rage?” For example:
When Jefferson was derided as “the Negro president,” it wasn’t exactly a case of “right-wing antigovernment rage.” The denigration came from forces in the north. They were complaining about the way Jefferson won the White House despite receiving fewer popular votes than his opponent, John Adams.
(For a brief overview, click here.)
Jefferson’s margin of victory came from the twelve electoral votes he won due to the “three-fifths” rule. Under that constitutional provision, an enslaved person in the south was counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation.
Because he won the White House on the basis of those extra electoral votes, Jefferson was derided as “the Negro president.” It’s hard to see how this was a case of “right-wing antigovernment rage,” if that’s what Perlstein is saying.
In the modern liberal world, the need for clarity disappears when we fulminate about the racial bad faith of everyone who isn’t Exactly Like Us. No precept could be more obvious.
Second example: Was T. Coleman Andrews’ very minor campaign in 1956 an expression of “right-wing antigovernment rage?” Did it bear “a racial component?” Was it “racism-soaked?” Was Andrews engaged in “racial rhetoric?”
To us, those claims seem like a large and pointless stretch. Andrews ran in opposition to the “steeply graduated” income tax rates of the day, which included a marginal rate of 91 percent. He received very few votes and is little remembered.
That said, it seems that everyone else agreed with his general view. Over the next three decades, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan kept lowering the marginal tax rate until it reached 28 percent. Under Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama, the marginal rate has bounced around between 31 and 39.6 percent.
Is Obama himself racism-soaked? Can we discern that from his embrace of a sub-91 percent rate? Remember, everything is possible when we liberals get a good snootful, then start to declaim about race!
We’re puzzled by Perlstein’s examples; we’re not even entirely sure what they’re example of. That said, Perlstein’s overall claim seems fairly clear: All opposition to modern Democratic presidents seems to constitute a “racism-soaked backlash” driven by “right-wing antigovernment rage.”
Maybe that isn’t what Perlstein meant. His writing is a bit hard to decipher. Rules of clarity do disappear when our tribe declaims about race.
In fairness, Perlstein’s name-calling is loud and impressive all through his piece. Even so, we’re inclined to disagree with his overall claim, if we understand what his overall claim actually is.
We’re also inclined to think that our tribe should be a bit less promiscuous with our charges and claims about race. Is there a way for us liberals to challenge The Others without scattering R-bombs all over the land? Without scattering our bombs in an incoherent, promiscuous manner?
We know, we know—it feels so good to do it! Still, we think it’s possible to go without this ultimate tribal pleasure.
We agree with one basic part of what Perlstein said. On balance, we think the vituperation aimed at Obama is similar to the vituperation which was aimed at Clinton.
For Kevin Drum’s view, click here.
Tomorrow, though, we plan to examine Perlstein’s race-fueled attack on Oprah Winfrey, the race-fueled attack we’ve imagined. Let’s face it. White privilege is never far from the surface when people like Perlstein start to spout.
Or at least, claims like that can be voiced!
In making that ridiculous statement, we are behaving in much the way Perlstein has done in his lusty piece. We have only forgotten one rule:
That is the way our liberal tribe goes after the people known as The Others. Among Our Own, in best tribal fashion, we’re much more discerning, more sane, more fair.
Tomorrow: What Oprah said!
A fascinating interview from 1956: When T. Coleman Andrews ran for president in 1956, was he involved in a racism-soaked backlash fueled by right-wing antigovernment rage? Was he spewing “racial rhetoric?”
It sure feels good to say so! It makes us liberals feel Better Than Them. It makes Us, the living dead, feel like we’re really alive.
Let’s set that thrill up our legs to one side. What are the actual merits here? Was Andrews involved in a racism-soaked backlash fueled by right-wing antigovernment rage? Was he even offering “racial rhetoric” in any discernible way?
You can judge for yourself! In May 1956, U.S. News published a lengthy interview with Andrews. And oh, what a different world it was! Here you see one exchange:
U.S. NEWS (5/25/56): Shouldn’t everybody have the same income? President Franklin Roosevelt said nobody should have more than $25,000—Things were different back then! Imagine a time when a politician could denounce a “socialistic” proposal without even stretching that much!
ANDREWS: You know I don’t subscribe to such socialistic demagoguery as that. I say everyone should have what he can make honestly, with a minimum of taxes. Everyone should be able to keep a much larger share of his income than he can at present, and everyone’s right to expect to be protected in his possession of what he makes should be respected, especially by the Government.
Does Andrews seem to be racism-soaked? We link, you decide:
For the full interview with U.S. News, just click here. You will be whisked to a different time—a time when the top tax rate was 91 percent and the most conservative of the weekly news mags might ask a question like that.