Quiet around here. Alright: about that Britney/Paris ad. First, I take it to be obvious the dog whistle ‘he’s coming for your daughters’ subtext was, if not expressly intended, then well appreciated by the ad’s producers. But here’s something else about these ads in general. McCain is an old man without a lot to say, policy-wise, running against a charismatic younger man in an environment that favors the younger man for a lot of age and charisma-independent reasons. There is really no choice but to go for the ‘but he’s too young’, ‘he’s not ready’, ‘he’s all smile, no substance’ line. Obviously there isn’t really any reason to think so, and obviously the Republicans don’t actually think so. This isn’t their reason for voting McCain – namely, they’ve thought hard about the age issue and concluded it favors McCain. It’s just: what else are you going to say? Joe Lieberman: he’s a “good young man.” Who calls a 46-year old man ‘young’? Lieberman just called Obama ‘boy’, in effect. Is Lieberman racist? I doubt it, so why did he do it? Because there isn’t anything else for him to say that would make Obama sound bad, in a general sort of way. He would have done the same for John Edwards, if Edwards had gotten the nomination.
But: there’s no way for old white men to call a professionally accomplished, intelligent, articulate, younger – but not actually young – black man ‘boy’, in effect, without it being heard as racist. There’s no way for an old white man to drop hints that such a man might have a certain animal magnetism, might be qualified to be an entertainer, but should hardly be placed in a position of professional responsibility. (Perhaps someday, but for now, people like this ‘aren’t ready’, for obscure and unspoken reasons.) Again, Edwards would have gotten the same treatment: he’s a blow-dried lightweight. But the race angle changes it. And there isn’t any way for the attackers to convincingly deny they were making a racist attack because the true defense, if any, would be: ‘I wasn’t making a totally baseless attack on his race, I was making a totally baseless attack on him personally.’ That’s a funny corner to be driven back into. Hence the rather strange ‘these ads are just fun, sit back and enjoy it’ defense. But what’s the alternative? ‘What’s the country coming to when an honest man can’t unfairly attack another honest man, personally, without that other man saying the unfair attack is against his whole race, which is just plain an unkind thing to say and drags our political discourse through the mud? This is where Political Correctness has gotten us!’
So where does this leave us? A couple points. On the one hand, I’m not surprised that the response to the McCain vs. Obama over the ad has broken McCain’s way. I won’t go into that, but it makes sense that Obama’s angry response rubs a lot of white voters the wrong way. They really, really don’t like to be called racists, and they empathize with McCain when they see him accused of racism for something that might be racist but, on the other hand, might just be political mud. (I think if you think about it, the right to make baseless attacks without being accused of making a different sort of baseless attack is not such a precious pillar of democracy. But, on the other hand, not being able to make baseless attacks in politics would be a serious handicap.) There have been some murmurs to this effect on conservative blogs. What might unite the conservative base would be an identity politics of shared victimization, based on a principled opposition to any such identity politics. McCain has had his problems with ‘the base’:
But when McCain called out Obama for playing the race card, conservatives really cheered. How often have their views (on everything from opposing racial quotas to insisting on anti-fraud voting measures) been labeled “racist”? They have noted with a mixture of wry amusement and irritation as Obama declared each and every argument against him to be “inappropriate” or “unacceptable.” So when McCain blew the whistle and said, in effect, “You’re the only guy playing racial politics, Senator Obama,” the base gave a collective whoop. Finally, someone had said “enough.”
The cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows usually applies to politicians of different parties. But in this case it’s an apt description of the bonding that is taking place between McCain and his fellow Republicans in the furnace of a presidential election. The base and McCain need each other and they finally found common ground. There will be plenty of fights and irritations ahead, but for now they are joined in a common defense. And McCain has to thank the astounding overreach by both MSM and Obama for that.
So it’s going to be race card rope-a-dope. Make unfair attacks on Obama that sure sound like dog whistle politics and then swear you never heard the whistle yourself. or that the only whistle you blew was an anti-dog whistle dog whistle. And get paid on both ends: the attacks work, the innocent schtick pays off extra. (I’ve been reading Perlstein’s Nixonland, so I’m inspired with appreciation of conservative victimology rope-a-dope.) But I just don’t think it’s going to work because you can’t keep it up forever. The operative word is ‘argument’, as in “Obama declared each and every argument against him…” Obviously McCain doesn’t have an ‘argument’ that Obama is like Paris Hilton. If McCain comes up with actual arguments between now and November, Obama can hold his own and then some. But McCain can’t blanket the media with completely substance-free attack ads, all of which imply that there’s just something obscurely wrong about this Obama fellow – something not quite right about him, can’t quite put your finger on it. Because after a while the ‘it’s all just fun’ defense is going to wear thin. (By contrast, I think Republicans could have kept up substance-free ‘he’s too young and blow-dried’ attack ads on Edwards from now until forever.)
I would recommend that Obama do one or the other of two things: first, nothing. Let others in the media chronicle the descent of John McCain. Second, Obama could challenge McCain to elevate the discourse – could call the conservative bluff in effect. Call for an end to all such ads, on both sides, to clear the air. Stick to arguments and policy, no personal attacks. This suits Obama but not McCain, whether McCain answers the call or not. If McCain keeps making attacks, just ignore him. Normally that’s not a good strategy, but I think it would be in this case.
I’m not worried either way. I don’t think that McCain can lash his whole base together, until November, with rope-a-dope ‘you called me a racist’ grievance. Even if McCain runs sly ‘is it a dog whistle/is it not?’ attack ads right through November, and Obama is baited into reacting angrily to every one, I think the end effect will be negative for McCain. It just isn’t going to wear well.
In other news, how do you feel about the adaptation of Johann Krauss’ character for the screen in Hellboy 2? It’s kind of an interesting case because, in effect, they already packed half of his personality into Abe Sapien’s character in the first film. The quirky-dainty Niles Crane mannerisms and nods and bobs and delicate fingers. You can’t really have two of those in the BPRD. So I think it was a wise decision to make him an absurdly jaunty, Prussian-ectoplasmic disciplinarian. I thought the film was pretty good – not as good as the comics, of course – but I hated the take-this-job-and-shove-it ending. It didn’t make a lot of sense.