What drives the debate?

Talking heads all over cable have spent a week parsing out the question of whether racism is having an undue influence on political discourse in this country. Former President Jimmy Carter has weighed in, attributing to racism an “overwhelming portion” of the ugliness directed of late at President Barack Obama — who, for his own part, has offered his predecessor a gentle rebuke, insisting that the heated arguments are really all about policy. This morning’s Washington Post offered parallel views of people in two South Carolina congressional districts; one represented by “You Lie!” shouter Joe Wilson, and the other, right next door, by the man most responsible for bringing congressional disapproval of that outburst to a vote, Majority Whip James Clyburn. Each appears to fairly represent the views of his constituents. Who’s right?

In my own irenic way, I’d like to suggest that everyone is right, sort of. Let me explain. No, is too much. Let me sum up:

I think Carter is right that there is a strong racial undercurrent to much of the extreme rhetoric that has surfaced in recent weeks; so much so that some of it has become overt and personal in the way Obama has been relentlessly attacked by his opponents. And I think Obama is right that it is policy disagreement, not this undercurrent, which drives the debate. What I suggest is happening is as follows: those who oppose Obama on policy, and would have opposed any Democrat who seemed poised to accomplish the things he has set out as goals, are not necessarily racist, and are not motivated by racism. But they know that one way to amplify the negative image of any politician is to find ways to emphasize the other-ness of that person, and they know how to stir up the reservoir of unacknowledged fear, suspicion and prejudice which many Americans have not as yet overcome. So race is not a cause, but it is a means, and to the extent that spokespersons and leaders use these means, the dynamic of racist fear grows. But here’s my point, put another way.

Suppose Hillary Clinton had won the primary and the election, and were now in the process of seeking to accomplish a very similar agenda to that of this president. The same cynical opponents who use buzzwords and code words to stir up feelings of racial discomfort, with the sort of effect that now drives the airtime of the talking heads, would have found a different set buzzwords and code words to make personal attacks on the character and motivations of the first female president, for the purpose of derailing this same agenda. We’d be hearing a lot of words like “feminazis” and who knows what else, and sinister-looking pictures of Clinton and Pelosi would figure heavily in anti-healthcare (or anti-whatever) demonstrations. And the talking heads would be asking each other the same anxious questions about resurgent sexism in this country, as they now do about race.

So Obama is right. It is policy, not race, that drives the debate. But Carter is also right. Deep-seated, longstanding cultural fears are being exploited to fuel the engine.


2 thoughts on “What drives the debate?

  1. Jimmy Carter is one of my favorite Christian men of all time. He ranks right up there with my father. I thought his comments were quite out of character for him, unfounded and a little kooky…. that was until something happened in my office last week.

    My boss’ father, a Christian man and very much an evangelist, was in our service department and in the company of a half a dozen ‘unchurched’ folks, when someone brought up the president. What came out of this Godly man’s mouth blew one of my co-worker’s minds; to the point she came to me later to repeat the conversation because I wasn’t witness to it. He evidentially refered to the president by the “N” word several times. My caucasian female co-worker took offense to this personally (she was actually hurting) because of how this Godly father figure could switch to vitriol and be so vulgar over nothing more than a difference in political opinion! As she was trying to work the “why” of why this word hurt her, we figured out that it wasn’t the word, it was WHO was saying it and the hateful emotion behind its use. It is sad to me that he lost his witness with this young woman. It also concerns me that any sincere act of faith from this point on is falsified if he tries to justify this due to his dissatisfaction with the president. We should be concerned about what we say (especially in the company of others) when we read Matthew 12: 33″Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” **Ouch.** There is no justifying this kind of demonstration even if you have been led to believe your actions will speak louder than your words. I think all of us should do a “heart check” when we get ‘verbal diahhrea’ or voice our discontent with more class. I know I feel convicted.

    1. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. — James 3:9-10

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