January 31, 2007

The Racism We Refuse to See

Has there ever been a person in public life who projects such an overwhelming sense of pomposity and the absolute and certain knowledge that every word he speaks is Sanctified Wisdom from On High, while simultaneously uttering the most shatteringly stupid statements, as Joe Biden? One has the feeling that he believes that, if he were to be taken from our presence, all life on this planet would immediately cease and the Earth, and perhaps the entire universe, would vanish completely in a moment. Biden is not only the Transmitter of Knowledge, but the ultimate Giver of Life Itself.

Since he is, after all, the man who delivered a eulogy for Strom Thurmond ("The truth and genius and virtue of Strom Thurmond is what I choose and we all choose to remember today."), Biden's recent remarks should come as no surprise. It is irrelevant in this context that Thurmond may have played a role of some significance in Biden's own life. All our actions matter, and our public actions carry particular significance. Thurmond was one of the most vicious racists in our recent history. To praise him publicly, while sanitizing his hateful and destructive record with nauseating sentimentality, is to grant him a respectability he never deserved, and should not have been accorded. If Biden had personal ties that mattered to him, he could have declined the request and paid his respects privately. Would you have delivered a public eulogy for Thurmond? If so, please don't introduce yourself to me if our paths should cross.

You've already seen it a hundred times, but for the sake of completeness here, this is what Biden said about Obama, after detailing what he considers to be Hillary Clinton's faults:
Mr. Biden is equally skeptical — albeit in a slightly more backhanded way — about Mr. Obama. "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."
And the predictable "debate" ensues: Just how awful is this? Is Biden merely dumb as a box of rocks, which stupidity leads him to make ungraspably offensive and patronizing remarks? Or, heaven forfend, did the writer leave out a comma? Or is Biden actually, really, truly a racist? One wonders if those liberals so carefully weighing the precise meaning of Biden's words would manifest the same measured care if the words had been spoken by a Republican. Well, no: one doesn't wonder for a moment.

Back here on solid ground, I note the following: of course Biden's remarks were racist in nature. "Articulate," "bright" and "a nice-looking guy" might proceed from Biden's conviction that he is the final source of judgment, and that he is uniquely qualified to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of others. "Clean" falls into a very different category. Those people just aren't like us, don't you know. They're lazy, shiftless, and dirty. They don't clean up after themselves. They're barely presentable in public. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Biden heard the vile phrase, "dirty nigger," many times in his life, and perhaps he used it himself more than once. Such phrases carry descriptive as well as moral meaning. And he did spend a lot of time with Thurmond. It might be illuminating to know what his other friends and acquaintances are like, and what their attitudes are on this subject.

"Clean" is simply not a word that pops into your head in this context -- unless you hold a viciously false view of what those people are really like. Case closed. [As I'm about to post this, I see that Biden is now "explaining" this by referring to the common phrase his mother supposedly often used: "Clean as a whistle and sharp as a tack..." Dear God. Biden's own phrase was: "clean and a nice-looking guy..." Translation: "That darkie cleaned up good!" And remember the Thurmond eulogy.]

The fact that a very prominent national politician has obviously "unreformed" racist attitudes deeply troubles us, as it should, and as is evident from all the nonsense being nattered about the precise significance of Biden's comments. It is rather astonishing that people are taken aback in this manner: vicious racists are hardly unknown in our political life, and they are numerous in both political parties. Moreover, with the ascension of people like Michelle Malkin and Charles Murray into our national discourse, naked racism has become a staple of our debates. Malkin justifies racism in the name of "national security," while Murray seeks to "explain" it with "science" -- but it is all racism.

We are troubled by a still deeper conflict, between our preferred vision of ourselves and the facts of our history. We see ourselves as citizens of the greatest and most civilized nation in all of history. Our nation is also the most moral country in history, and we as individuals are exemplars of personal virtue. The United States represents Absolute Good, or as close to it as humanity will come. (I've discussed this mythology in a number of essays. See, for example, "The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism," "A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do," and "Myths of New Orleans.")

People who are Good cannot be racists. Obviously, many of us are. What to do.

This sanitized version of our history ignores or unforgivably minimizes the genocide of Native Americans, the slaughter and enslavement of African-Americans, a century following the Civil War of government-enforced segregation, discrimination against Jews, the Irish, Italians, Germans, and Hispanic immigrants today -- yet all of this is set aside so the myth can continue.

It also ignores another manifestation of the racism that inevitably proceeds from our mythologized self-assessment: the racism that has permeated our foreign policy for over a hundred years. We forget this (from Hampton Sides' book, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, excerpted here):
Perhaps to dignify the nakedness of Polk's land lust, the American citizenry had got itself whipped into an idealistic frenzy, believing with an almost religious assurance that its republican form of government and its constitutional freedoms should extend to the benighted reaches of the continent then held by Mexico, which, with its feudal customs and Popish superstitions, stood squarely in the way of Progress. To conquer Mexico, in other words, would be to do it a favor.
And we forget this:
To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex [the Philippines]: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians.
And we forget this:
Theodore Roosevelt wrote to the poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, that before he could deal with the Philippines, he had to deal with "the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting." William Howard Taft, who became the Philippine commissioner in 1900, referred to "our little brown brothers," and contended they would require "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."
We saw the most virulent strain of racism unleashed against Germans during World War I, and against the Japanese in World War II.

Our current imperial project reveals that these attitudes have never left us. They are held by both Democrats and Republicans. For example, I wrote the following about a NYT op-ed piece by John Kerry:
[L]ike the parent who decides that the first brutal beating wasn't enough, Kerry insists that "Iraqi leaders have responded only to deadlines." You see, they're simply children who are misbehaving -- so we need to give a few more orders, and make sure they understand that we mean it this time:
Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.

If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year's end.

The nauseating depths of the Western conviction of its own "exceptionalism" and its unquestionable "right" to coerce the rest of the world to act as we demand are revealed in Kerry's final paragraph:
For three years now, the administration has told us that terrible things will happen if we get tough with the Iraqis. In fact, terrible things are happening now because we haven't gotten tough enough. With two deadlines, we can change all that. We can put the American leadership on the side of our soldiers and push the Iraqi leadership to do what only it can do: build a democracy.
Let me repeat the only fundamental point that matters here: we have no right to be in Iraq in the first place. Since we have no right to be there at all, by what damnable "right" are we entitled to get "tougher" with the Iraqis? Endless violence, instantaneous death or dismemberment, the inability to live any kind of normal existence, and the destruction of an entire country are the "gifts" we have brought to Iraq. And now we're going to get "tougher"? To call this sickening does not even begin to capture the degree of immorality and dishonesty involved.

Kerry's approach thus veers perilously and disgustingly close to the American military commander who said toward the end of 2003: "You have to understand the Arab mind. ... The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face."
This paternalism and condescension -- which proceeds directly from our racism, which posits that we are uniquely "exceptional" and no other peoples in the world can equal our achievements and nobility -- reaches its apotheosis in Bush's recent statement (noted in my essay, "Yes, I Want the United States to Lose"):
I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.
But we deny all of this, so convinced are we that our "exceptionalism" is axiomatic and unchallengeable.

Biden is harshly criticized (when he is) only because he revealed our sickeningly primitive attitudes in a manner that renders them too obvious to deny. Meanwhile, we invade and occupy nations that never threatened us, while we tell the entire rest of the world how we will permit it to conduct itself. We condemn the individual instance of blatant racism that cannot be overlooked (although some still try to mitigate it) -- but the racism that is an inextricable part of our foreign policy for over a hundred years is denied by almost everyone.

We treat other nations and peoples with contempt and derision, as ill-behaved, ignorant children who have to be taught manners and all of civilization at the end of a gun, and still many of us wonder "why they hate us."

If we were capable of taking the full and accurate measure of our actions and our attitudes, if we assessed ourselves in any manner even close to the way the rest of the world does -- and with full justification -- we would not wonder at all.

Biden provided a very small window onto the much more significant problem. As in all such cases, the brief glimpse of the truth will be quickly brushed aside. After all, we're not like that. We're America the Good. Such faults are not ours.

Our national self-delusion is all-encompassing. One day, it may finally be fatal.

UPDATE: Becaused I was focused on other issues, I didn't discuss the obvious and revealing historical inaccuracy of Biden's comments; I took that inaccuracy for granted. I see that Obama himself pointed out Biden's seeming ignorance of the relevant (and recent) history in his response, but that response raises further problems. Obama "didn't take Senator Biden's comments personally..."? For at least several reasons that come immediately to mind, it's very interesting that Obama thought he needed to say that. I'll have some additional observations about the remarks from both Biden and Obama in the next few days.