May 12, 2008
Journalists covering the primaries in January characterized Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” remark as “injecting” race in to the campaign, as if this was an illicit or improper development. This mistakenly implies that race was not already an aspect of the campaign—how could it not be?—or that it should not be part of the discussion. ~John Hartigan
Actually, there’s a much bigger mistake in this response, since the “fairy tale” remark referred to Obama’s self-presentation as a consistent, bold antiwar leader, when, in fact, his position once in the Senate was basically indistinguishable from Clinton’s and about half the Democratic caucus, including all the former supporters of the war. The fervently antiwar Democrats, led by Feingold, could never get these others to vote with them against funding for the war. For journalists (and the Obama campaign) to treat Bill Clinton’s statement about the “fairy tale” as something to do with race suggests more about their preoccupations with weaving the legend of Obama and their own view that the Obama campaign is a kind of fairy tale, the one in which all divisions are healed and everyone (i.e., everyone they know) lives happily ever after. Journalists (and the Obama campaign) freaked out about this statement on Obama’s record because it was accurate, and they knew that the main thing, perhaps the only thing, Obama had going for him on substantive policy was his early opposition to the war, which became muted and more moderate over the next few years.
If there is one thing that has seemed to unite a great many people this election cycle, it has been a tremendous desire to not want to talk about race, or rather to promote Obama in the odd hope that his election will mean that we won’t have to talk about it anymore (when, of course, his election would require us to talk about it incessantly, as we are already doing). That was certainly the initial mainstream conservative response, typified by the likes of Wehner (who has since denounced Obama quite ferociously):
A third reason for Obama’s GOP appeal is that unlike Clinton and especially John Edwards, Obama has a message that, at its core, is about unity and hope rather than division and resentment. He stresses that “out of many we are one.” And to his credit, Barack Obama is running a color-blind campaign. “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina,” Obama said in his victory speech last weekend. “I saw South Carolina.” That evening, his crowd of supporters chanted as one, “Race doesn’t matter.” This was an electric moment.
It was electric for Wehner because it is particularly important for Americanists that race does not matter, or at least no longer matters, because Americanists accept the “original sin” critique of our country and, in keeping with their missionary zeal to Americanize others, they interpret national history in terms of fall and redemption. For a certain kind of triumphalist, it is acceptable, even necessary, to recite the errors of the Old America to justify its abolition, provided that the New be recognized as free of that sin. Nothing is more unforgiveable for the Americanist than to suggest that history did not end in, say, 1964 or that race may yet matter. Those who preach American messianism in the world must see the nation to be as “pure” for its messianic role, and for liberals and mainstream conservatives of a certain generation who find their ancestors somewhat embarrassing the craving for a moment when “race doesn’t matter” is strong. This is at the heart of the resistance to having race be a substantive part of any discussion: it should not be part of the discussion, it has been decided, because “race doesn’t matter,” and, tautologically, if it doesn’t matter there’s no reason to talk about it. Those who do so are “injecting” the subject into the debate, just as anyone who observes that Obama’s mixed racial background was essential for his success is denounced for “raising” an issue that almost all of his supporters “raise” without being asked.