Sunday, May 11, 2008

Footnote to a link

Updated I linked to The Daily Howler in the previous post and I list it under my "News, Analysis, and Other Information" heading. So obviously I think it's a good source, even as I admit I don't read it every day.

But y'know, there's this thing about Bob Somerby. He's often right and often insightful: His notion of "the script," the idea that the mainstream media quickly settle on an easily-expressed storyline about a candidate or story into which all future coverage must fit, is one of the most useful tools for media analysis I've come across. (As an illustration, in 2004 the script was "down-to-Earth, like-to-have-a-beer-with-him George Bush" versus "elitist, flip-flopping John Kerry.")

But when he goes wrong, he in most such cases doesn't just go wrong, it's a full-fledged train wreck. Such is his effort for May 9 about "The Divine Right of Pundits" in which he first trashes "white liberals" in general and then black columnist Gene Robinson in particular for considering racial aspects of the Democratic primary campaign. (Yes, I know I said I wouldn't write about the primaries. But like the last time I brushed by them, the primaries aren't really the issue here. Bob Somerby's post is.)

The "white liberals" were indicted, tried, and convicted of being "pseudo-liberals" guilty of "class condescension" and making "sweeping assertions about downscale white rubes." This was based entirely on the fact that some liberals or presumed liberals or some such have argued that race plays a role in the amount of support Obama gets from working-class whites and pointed to the fact that his support among them dropped in the wake of the Rev. Wright crap as evidence. Go ahead - read the column and see if you can tell me honestly that that is not his entire argument.

But of course race plays a role and of course the Wright flap played a role in increasing racial fears and of course those fears affected Obama's support among all whites and particularly among working-class whites (the latter argued on the basis that that's where the effect of Rev. Wright appeared greatest). For Somerby to claim otherwise, to insist it's "presumption and condescension" to suggest any such thing, is, to use an old favorite word of his, clownish.

In fact, he even admits as much:
Did some working-class whites vote against Obama this week due to “race?” Presumably yes - though we don’t know how many.
Leaving aside the notable curiosity of putting the word "race" in quotes as if it was an oddball concept that doesn't exist outside the minds of "pseudo-liberals," Somerby's ability to deny the significance of his own admission lies in the escape clause provided by the last phrase: "We don't know." Interestingly, that inability to quantify doesn't bother him when he makes his own "sweeping assertions" about "liberals."

But it's when he gets to Gene Robinson that it gets really - to use another favorite Somerby word - dumb.

First, Somerby excoriates Robinson for referring to Clinton as having campaigned as if she had "a divine right" to the nomination out of a "majestic sense of entitlement." Feh! cries Somerby. You pundits, you're the ones with the sense of entitlement! After which he goes on to complain for the 1500th time about the press treatment of Al Gore and to quote something George Will just said.

Well, I absolutely agree that the press treatment of Al Gore was (and often still is) horrendous and that media pundits quite often have an overweening sense of entitlement. How that in any way rebuts what Robinson said about Clinton, how it in any way disproves her own sense of entitlement, escapes me and I strongly suspect it escapes you as well. (As I'm fond of saying, the fact that it's the pot that's calling the kettle black doesn't mean the kettle isn't black.)

Because the fact is, that is exactly how Clinton campaigned, that is exactly the attitude she took, she did come across with an "of course, me" air, Robinson was far from the first to have said it, it did undoubtedly cost her early on, and I even read some of her own supporters at various websites complain that she didn't take Obama seriously enough until it was too late. Or at least almost too late if you want to be a rosy optimist. But none of that matters to Somerby. If you're a certain type of person - specifically, a pundit - you're apparently not "entitled" to say it even if it's true. I'm not clear why.

It gets worse. Robinson's focus is on Clinton's statement on Wednesday that an AP article "found how Senator Obama's support ... among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again. I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on." Robinson calls that
a slap in the face to the party's most loyal constituency - African Americans - and a repudiation of principles the party claims to stand for. Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry.
That last bit is what really sent Somerby around the bend and off a cliff. He calls it a "tirade," sneering unreservedly at Robinson's description of what Clinton is "really saying" as having "showcased his sense of entitlement." Note first that Somerby again grants to himself an ability he would deny to others, in this case that of being able to discern the underlying importance of another's words. Note second that again he does not deal with the actual argument but with whether or not Robinson is allowed to make it.

But that is the meaning of what Clinton said. There is no other rational explanation. There is no other way to interpret that statement than to say that Clinton is arguing she is more electable because those white working class voters will vote for her but will not vote for Obama (or at least not in sufficient numbers). There is no policy difference between them large enough to justify that assertion. There is only one difference. As Robinson put it,
Clinton implies but doesn't quite come out and say ... that Obama is black - and that white people who are not wealthy are irredeemably racist.
Somerby's attempt to dismiss that idea is simply childish:
Why might these people vote for McCain? Perhaps because they’re part of that group long described as “Reagan Democrats?” In short, people in this group have sometimes voted Republican before ... and some may vote Republican again....
Oh, please. The question is why would these white working class voters who are now casting ballots for Hillary Clinton turn around and ignore someone who on policy and program is 95% the same as Clinton in order to vote for someone who is not. What is the factor that is so much more important, the factor that outweighs political compatibility? What do Hillary Clinton and John McCain have in common that differentiates them from Barack Obama in such a way that a Clinton supporter becomes more likely to vote for McCain than for Obama? Somerby's answer that "well, you know, sometimes they vote Democratic, sometimes they vote Republican, it's just, you know, the way it happens" is unworthy even of the "third-graders" he invokes. In fact, when you recall that so-called "Reagan Democrats" were built into a political demographic by playing on fears of (black) crime and resentment over (black) "welfare," Somerby's I will stretch the word enough to call it logic doesn't get out of kindergarten.

(It's important to note at this point that Somerby's defense would likely be - he hints at it in his column - that he's not talking about what Clinton said, he's talking about Robinson's "sense of entitlement." But the plain fact is, by raising the argument about "Reagan Democrats," Somerby was attempting to refute one of Robinson's central contentions about Clinton's statement. So he did indeed argue about what Clinton said and that "defense" is utterly unavailing.)

Hillary Clinton was suggesting that white working-class voters are too racist to vote in sufficient numbers for Barack Obama. There is, again, no other rational understanding of her argument. And frankly, I didn't need Gene Robinson to tell me that and I sure as hell don't need Bob Somerby to still be so pissed about something Robinson apparently said about Somerby's (yes) personal friend Al Gore eight years ago that he becomes incapable of understanding the words right in front of his face.

Footnote: I don't believe Hillary Clinton is a racist. I believe rather that she is playing on worries about the very real racism in the US to portray herself as the stronger candidate in the general election. I'm not really concerned about if the tactic will be "divisive" among the Democrats - what I'm concerned about is that it provides an excuse to be racist: "It's okay to refuse to vote for Obama 'cause he's black. Go right ahead. We kind of expected it."

One other thing: Because I believe she is not a racist and because it was said off the cuff, I'm going to give Hillary Clinton a pass on something. But I have to say that the phrase "hardworking Americans, white Americans," as if the two were synonymous, clanged on my eyes like a hammer on an anvil. (Is that a mixed metaphor or just a lousy image?)

Updated with Another Footnote: Another valuable Somerby phrase is "The Cult of the Offhand Comment," where media types feel free to pounce on candidates (and others) for ad lib remarks, acting as if every word out of their mouths was carefully rehearsed and so could be analyzed like a policy speech. The days of pontificating about Barack Obama's use of the word "bitter" was one example, the buzz about Hillary Clinton's reference to "hardworking white Americans" - the precise phrase on which I gave her a pass - is another.

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