Rush half wrong, Keith half right

Keith Olbermann, pompous asininity of MSNBC, this week attacked another infamous asininity, Rush Limbaugh, for an allegedly racist rant. At the end of Olberman’s stock-in-trade worst-of-the-worse critique, he asks Oprah to “crush this schmuck.” (Consult the Huffington Post for the video, if you are interested in Olbermann’s full intellectual monty.) Rush’s offense? This:

[Obama] wouldn’t have been voted president if he weren’t black. Somebody asked me over the weekend why does somebody earn a lot of money have a lot of money, because she’s black. It was Oprah. No, it can’t be. Yes, it is. There’s a lot of guilt out there, show we’re not racists, we’ll make this person wealthy and big and famous and so forth….

This sort of rant would not be interesting if either Limbaugh or his critic, Olbermann, were wholly right or wholly wrong. But, as usual in the punditocracy, both sides appear to veer off the true Tao and embrace crude facsimiles of wisdom.

First, Rush’s contention that Oprah is a talentless beneficiary of reverse discrimination strikes me as borderline crazy. I don’t much care for talk show hosts of her ilk, but surely she’s one of the better ones, and she’s even done some small sliver of good for what’s left of our literary culture (pace Jonathan Franzen).

As near as I can make out, people like her for being the person/persona she is/presents. She does what chat show hosts are supposed to do, and does it (or did it) exceptionally well. People just like her. People also like the very different David Letterman. They also like Jon Stewart. And Ellen DeGeneris. There’s a vast spectrum of entertaining talkers out there, of several different colors, skin-wise and idea-foolish. They succeed in the marketplace because people like to be entertained. And people have different tastes, so a variety of personalities and talents will be on display. It seems awfully rude to suggest that whites who like Oprah and blacks who like Oprah and yellows who like Oprah have racist agendas.

For the record, I’m not a big fan of most talk-show pseudo-intellectuals. These professionals are paid to flirt with ideas in public. They never really get into heavy-duty idea-on-idea action, and their resulting philosophies tend to sheer off into the thinnest superficiality.

And they tend to get stuck preening for their prospect audience, often courting their audience’s baser instincts. Rush was doing that when he dismissed Oprah.


But then, Rush also made a statement about Obama that is certainly defensible. Barack Obama owes his presidency to racism. Wow. What a shocker. You could easily dismiss it, I think, had African-Americans appeared less universal in their celebration at his election. If blacks vote for a black man as president not for his qualifications for the job, but because of the color of his skin and their hope (readily apparent almost everywhere) for racial advance and joy at his racial identity, then race is surely a factor. Of course, many did agree with his stances, such as they were. But the only blacks I know not to be racist are those who didn’t vote for Barack Obama.

But that’s not why Barack Obama won. That’s not the major form of his racist support. What he benefited from was a form of reverse racism. Many, many whites promoted Barack Obama for reasons of reverse racism. The attitude? It’s not just guilt, as Rush contends. Some of the support is better termed impatience. Let’s get this fucking racism thing over with. We like the guy. He may not be best for the job, but he can’t do much worse than the last ninny. Let’s vote for him and prove that we aren’t racist! A lot of whites are simply tired of talk about their alleged racism, and a vote is a simple way to scuttle such talk. They want to move on.

How do I know this was in play? Introspection.

Early on I promoted Barack Obama to Democrats who were otherwise pre-disposed to vote for the vile Hillary Clinton. Part of my strategic support was simple revulsion against a known quantity. Part of it was because I’d tired of rough, ill-spoken louts such as George W. Bush. Part of it was my opposition to a war that Obama also opposed (though I knew almost to a certainty that, were he to get into office, he would do nothing to disengage from Bush’s foreign entanglements). But certainly a part of my interest in seeing Obama beat Hillary and then (perhaps) the vile Republican candidate, John McCain, was racist.

There’s no great shame in admitting this. We are all a little racist. Sometimes. Racial elements creep into all sorts of bizarre nooks and crannies of our culture. Though I despise the old racism of both the South and the North, it doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t let racial considerations trump more reasonable and pertinent concerns.

And then of course sometimes, when race becomes the issue, dealing with race is just what we do, and is not (by definition) racist.

But what many white people do when confronted with a savvy, apparently honest, and likable African-American is pump up the support just a tad more than otherwise warranted. Reverse racism. It is not malign. Just a little pathetic.

Rush, however, has another axe to grind:

If Obama weren’t black he’d be a tour guide in Honolulu or he’d be teaching Saul Alinsky constitutional law or lecturing on it in Chicago.

Hyperbole? Yes. But this is the same kind of allegedly humorous overstatement that Olbermann uses nightly. That it is applied against a black man whose policies Rush disagrees doesn’t make the hyperbole racist. It just makes Olbermann uncomfortable. Olbermann would only say such things about white guys. Just to prove he isn’t racist. (Of course, by discriminating in precisely this way, Olbermann shows just how un-color-blind he really is.)

To repeat, the form of racism Rush has identified is not very pernicious. Reverse racism as a general hiring policy can be, because it can breed resentment in better-qualified, discriminated-against candidates. But who cares how John McCain feels?

Though not pernicious in this instance, it is racist. It is discrimination on grounds irrelevant to an ideal type of the situation at hand. Ideally, one chooses a president (whether of the United States or the local Rhododendron Club) based on his or her knowledge, ideas, character, social skills, experience, and commitments. Race shouldn’t have much to do with that.

Indeed, if we were choosing an employee, and not a stand-in for the Deity, we would place all such thoughts to the far side of mind.

But, in America, on some issues, that’s just not possible. Vast segments of the population still think that what group you happen to fit in by nature or census designation matters most. And, when that hits politics foursquare (and the vast economics of expropriation and privileging) it’s going to have some crude consequences.

As near as I can make out, Rush’s insinuation that Barack Obama owes his position to racism seems not only defensible, but likely to be true. That this is worth a lot of scorn? Not so much. If Rush reacts with umbrage at this, rather than bemused chuckles, it strikes me that he’s less sophisticated about race than he would like to pretend.

Olbermann, being a simpleton, simplifies. Explaining Rush’s logic, he says,

You see, the United States is tilted in favor of black people. That’s the premise. We’ve made it so easy that human beings inferior to the great Rush Limbaugh . . . have been made wealthy and big and famous . . . they have not earned it; they aren’t actually talented; they haven’t actually done the job. Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama and presumably every other black person in this country has not succeeded despite the fact that they are black and the country if filled with racists like this homunculus Limbaugh, they’ve succeeded because they are black! And only because they are black!

Now, that’s an inference of Rush’s logic. And because Rush also attacks Oprah, it sounds plausible. But might not Rush be trying to say, merely, that there is an element of reverse racism out there, and a few African Americans who are powerful are the obvious beneficiaries of this? Many other blacks are unsuccessful, and these people may be the victims of racism, but (presumably, this being Rush) they are the victims chiefly of their own character flaws and cultural values, and also of the welfare state.

This latter point presents an avenue worth exploring at greater length. One of Rush’s favorite replacements on his talk show (at least, in the days when I occasionally heard the man’s show) is an economist named Walter Williams. Williams is not obviously a nitwit. Indeed, I have heard him offer profound views of how society works (though not, I admit, on Rush’s show or in those columns I’ve read of his in the paper). His little book The State Against Blacks portrays a view of the factors of success and failure for African-Americans in today’s society quite a bit at odds with Olbermann’s, though apparently not at odds from Rush’s. I’m pretty sure that Rush would not say that he has used Williams as a stand in for himself on his show because of reverse racism. So by his deeds, not his words, we have reason to believe that Rush would deny the universal attribution of reverse racism to “all blacks” and their successes, as Olbermann would have it.

Olbermann also engages in weird parries and thrusts that undermine his half-believable point. He refers to Rush as a college dropout and says (as if it mattered) that Oprah is twice as wealthy as Rush. The latter point is logically odd, implying that earning power on the market is a factor in reliability of opinion. Trouble? Rush earns far more than Olbermann.

But I don’t want to criticize Olbermann too hard. It strikes me that, in this match, he is about half right, and Rush half wrong.

On Olbermann’s side, he sees what I see in Rush: a nasty, unduly petulant streak, too often whipped to a frenzy on the subject of race. That raises more than mere suspicions. But it doesn’t mean that Olbermann is right about everything in his attack on Rush.

But then, I could be wrong. It could be that I — who didn’t vote for Obama, but did say a few kind things about him early in the 2008 campaign — am the only white person to sometimes flirt with reverse racism.

It could be that Olbermann and millions of other whites did not want to “send a message” to the world that America is no longer racist, and thereby prove themselves reverse racist. Perhaps they were all less interested in race than I am.

Somehow, that just doesn’t seem possible. Olbermann and his political audience are obsessed with race. They are constantly patting themselves on the back for having gotten over racial discrimination, unlike the evil Republicans.

Methinks they protest far, far too much.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • One can only laugh at Limbaugh, noting he would be rotting in jail for about 20 years if he had a politically correct skin tone.

    Olbermann has proven himself not be the reincarnation of Edward R. Murrow; maybe Edward R. Murrow’s sock puppet.

    Both of these guys get paid to delegitimize political enemies, and we are informed by their collective entertainment that American political legitimacy is a struggle to the death between subversive socialists and subversive racists. Hooray for Democracy. Give them each a megaphone, they are allies of radical libertarianism.

    Don’t misconstrue the fact of the 50% bad comedy and 50% bad drama that each bring to the table with a 50% right narrative. It’s a 100% wrong farce.

  • Great essay. The one thing that you left out is that no other President would have been elected if they weren’t white (if not because of the electorate, then because of their earlier opportunities and inherited power)–so why should we be surprized that the same is true for Obama? Also, it’s hard to tell if the race-based support for Obama outweighed the race-based opposition to Obama.

    Another way to look at it is that America is racist, at least in the sense that Americans learn to be aware of racial categories. No broad social phenomenon can be independent of that fact.

    There’s also the issue of “race” as a historical process (as you alluded to)– America was broadly and officially racist until just 40-60 years ago. During that period, the “races” were forcibly separated. Now that “we” (by which I mean, the dominant groups in society) have abandoned that ideology, we are still dealing with the process of integration. When people complain about reverse racism, I think one of three things about them: they are playing the race card for personal advantage, they fetishize anti-racial ideals and ignore the historical process de-racializing America, or they are trying to whip up racial resentment for political advantage. I attribute that last (damnable) motive to the likes of Limbaugh and Buchanan–and many others.

    Finally, as you point out, there’s that false ideal of what elections are about — elections are not about personal merit, they are about the group. They are fundamentally about group identity, whether that identity be based on nationality, party affiliation, locality, ideology, or ethnicity. Group identity is intimately tied up with symbolism. Furthermore, the voters don’t really “decide” who will be President, they just make collection of symbolic acts (such as marking a ballot).

    Voting in fundamentally a symbolic act, so we would be wiser to vote based on considerations of “how will this be perceived” rather than viewing our vote as the path to making a (poorly informed) decision about who is the best person for “the job”.

    As I wrote at the time: Symbolism for President!