Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

“The Respectful Prostitute” (1952)

February 11, 2014

Last night it was The Respectful Prostitute, taken from Sartre’s play about racial tensions in the Deep South, a movie surprising both for its perceptiveness about American culture and its adult, no-bullshit approach. A prostitute (the rather scrumptious Barbara Laage) becomes a pawn in a powerful politician’s plan to frame a black man for rape, but the seemingly predictable theme of two outsiders is undercut by the Northern woman’s inability to comprehend the utter helplessness of the Southern black’s position. Though a word from her could save his life, she’s too busy launching a romance with one of the local bigots—himself a beautifully complex creation—to get involved.

Produced by a French film company, and performed in French by French performers, it’s nevertheless indistinguishable in look and feeling from many American movies of the period, to the point that it’s a through-the-looking-glass vision of what our movies might have been like had they never been subverted by the Production Code: unapologetically political, sexually frank, and pragmatically blunt in language. This is a movie in which unmarried lovers are seen waking up together after a one-night stand, and whose script freely employs the words “bullshit”, “whore” and “nigger” whenever those terms are called for—which is often.

Like the gathering of the lynch-mob in Fury or the road-trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, this X-ray of America by a foreigner is so revealing that in places it’s almost embarrassing. Certainly no white American movie I know of ever bothered to capture the atmosphere of a “coloreds only” railroad coach, much less did it so convincingly. It’s also noteworthy for being the last film of Marcel Herrand, who played the lethal Lacenaire in Children of Paradise, here playing the senator who clouds Laage’s mind with some subtle racist logic. However, I can’t pinpoint in the credits the name of the black actor who played the accused man—which is fitting, in a sick kind of way.

respectful prostitute

American Shame

July 3, 2013

James Agee is remembered today for a few things: his perceptive, funny film criticism; his script for The Night of the Hunter; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his exhausting but indispensable prose poem about Alabama tenant farmers, a book which taken simply as a thing is as fundamentally an American object as a handful of dirt from the Little Bighorn battlefield or Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule; the atmospheric remembrance of his father’s sudden death in the novel A Death in the Family; and the myriad stories told by those who encountered the loquacious, footloose, irrepressible Agee in the flesh.

But he ought also to be remembered for this essay, which provides a glimpse of American daily life in a past that’s much closer than it seems. It lay in his papers, undiscovered, for almost 50 years, and it came to mind again two weeks ago after the Roberts Court decided to rip the guts out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If a look back at history doesn’t provide reason enough to sustain the VRA, what Rick Perry did less than two hours after the decision came down tore the veil off its opponents’ intentions. The gains granted by the Court to gays provided a watershed moment in America’s civil rights battle, but if Texas and other backward states are indeed allowed to roll the clock back on minorities, we’ll have taken one step forward for four or five very large steps back.

agee shame - Copy

America, Look at Your Shame!

I keep remembering those photographs of the Detroit race riots which appeared in PM. Pages of them, and that typically PM headline, all over their front page.


That disgusted me, as their headlines so often do, but as I looked at the photographs I got a good deal of respect for the paper in spite of everything. Then I realized that with a few exceptions PM had cornered the photographs. They were unavailable to any other paper. That was as perfect, and typical a low as I had ever seen them touch. I wanted to write them. Or to do them as much damage as I possibly could. The liberals and the left. They had never shown themselves up better.

Look at your shame, indeed.

There was one in particular, that I couldn’t get out of my head; one of the less violent of them. It was the one which particularly showed that there were white people who were not only horrified by the riots but brave enough to do all they could for the Negroes. It showed two young men. They were holding up a terribly bleeding Negro man between them, and they looked at the camera as if they were at bay before a crowd of rioters, as perhaps they were not. The mixture of emotions on their faces was almost unbearable to keep looking at: almost a nausea of sympathy for the hurt man and for the whole situation; a kind of terror which all naturally unviolent people must feel in the middle of violence; absolute self-forgetfulness; a terrific, accidental look of bearing testimony—a sort of gruesome, over-realistic caricature; which was rather, really, the source of those attendant saints or angels who communicate with the world outside the picture in great paintings of crucifixions and exalted agonies

The thing that made it so particularly powerful to me was that both these young men, one of them especially, so far as you could judge by study, were of a sort which is often somewhat sneered at, by most bad people and by many pretty good ones: rather humbly “artistic,” four-effish people, of whom you might think that any emotion they felt would be tainted, at least, with fancy sentimentality.

It made me ashamed of every such reflex of easy classification and dismissal as I have ever felt—the more ashamed, because I had to wonder whether, in such a situation, I would have been capable of that self-forgetfulness and courage. It made me half-ashamed to keep looking at them, for that matter, as I had been doing again on that afternoon I am especially thinking of now. I care a great deal for such photographs; they do more, in certain ways, than any other art can. But there is also, in proportion to its best use, something criminal and indecent about the camera; and there is a great load of guilt on the eye that eats what it has predigested.

On this particular afternoon, which was the Sunday after the riots, I was up on East 92nd Street seeing a friend of mine, a photographer, and we spent quite a bit of the afternoon looking through things he clipped and a few I had brought along. I had not seen my friend at leisure for a long time and we had a particularly good afternoon of it, in which the photograph I am speaking of turned up powerfully but casually, and moved off to become a sort of tinge in the back of the mind. By the end of the afternoon I had the unusual, gay sort of good opinion of myself, my friend, photography and what my senses could enjoy, which you are liable to get out of whiskey and easy pleasure if work causes the latter to turn up seldom enough. By the time I left to go downtown for supper, I was at the high point just short of where intoxication begins to droop into clumsiness or melancholy; and the minute I was outdoors the streets, in the very beautiful late of afternoon weather, improved, that if it can be improved, with the feeling of being alone for a little while, and with the sharp, tender enjoyment of a city I am ordinarily tired in.

At 91st Street, on York Avenue, I got on an 86th Street crosstown bus and sat far forward on the right. It started nearly empty, and filled up rather quickly; I did not much notice when, or with whom, because I was looking out a great deal through the front and side windows, especially as soon as the bus swung west onto 86th Street and the street and the bus were filled with the low, bright sunlight. It was a light so gay, generous and beautiful, it was almost as if it tasted of champagne and smelled of strawberries, hay and fresh butter. What it smelled of more, of course, was carbon monoxide, which can also be a festal sort of smell, when everything is right, and was now; and the edges of the hundreds of doors and windows, along the street, were cut in a blue-gold, clean compound of sunlight, monoxide and stone. I watched all the people, puddling and straggling along the walks, and as usual, wondered which were the Hitchcock agents and which were the harmless, and what might be going on in each mind as they thought, if they did, of what was happening to Hitler and his idea and his people, over where it was dark now, and they were counting their losses in the East, and giving out modified reports in the middle, and staggering under the bombers from the west. In an easy insensitive way, I began to be very sorry for all those people caught in the hopeless middle; even for Hitler and his damned idea, so monstrous except that they already seemed so hopeless.

Around me, I realized the bus was thicker and thicker with people, some standing, some packed on the seats, all swaying, pleasant and patient-seeming in the green and gold light which filled the bus. Across the aisle were some sailors, sitting, their faces very young and very red, in their very white uniforms. Halfway back in the bus were some young soldiers; the same quality of variegated physical perfection and of almost indecent cleanness, which so few civilians ever seem to have—like so many priests, or Sunday babies, or little girls in bride-of-heaven regalia, but even more likable; dumb, very likely, cruel, very possibly, developed and perfected for something I feel no trust in; yet about the best thing that ever turns up in human life. I liked them a great deal, and all my doubts of it cleared; I might not be perfectly sure what I wanted, but I was no longer personally sorry that within a week I was coming up for induction; I was almost glad; and if I were taken, many things could be worse. One of them, very possibly, would be to come out the other end of the war, still a virginal civilian.

I liked them still better as I watched them and began to hear them. I especially noticed one quite strong young sailor, just across from me; a big boy, bigger than I am, a little; and because his eyes and his face had a good deal in them which as a child I used to fear, and have always been shy of, I now liked him particularly well. It was the sort of face which only turn up, so far as I know, in the South—heavy jaw, a slightly thin yet ornate mouth, powerful nose, blue-white, reckless, brutal eyes. I knew the voice just as well, and the special, rather crazy kind of bravery; they made me feel at once as isolated and as matchlessly at home as if I were back in the South again. Nearly all these boys, it turned out, were Southerners, the soldiers as well as the sailors, and the loud large sailor and the loudest and littlest of the soldiers were just finding this out about each other. One was from Atlanta; the other knew Atlanta very well. They began testing each other out on street names and bars, then on people, which did not go quite so well, and now and then the others chimed in with a wisecrack or an exclamation more simpleminded, They were happy as hell to run into each other like this—not even Viennese refugees can lay it on so thick, and enjoy it so much, as Southerners when they meet by surprise in an alien atmosphere. They were drunk, about as drunk as I was, and that helped; but they would have leaned on their dialects like trimming ship in a yacht-race even if they were sober. It is a very special speech, as unattractive to most Northerners as it is dear to natives, and I will not try to reproduce it here, beyond suggesting that its special broadenings, lifts, twangs and elisions, even if you didn’t know the idiom by heart, which I do, were as charming and miraculous as if, in the same New York bus, a couple of Parsees had saluted each other according to their own language and ritual.

A part of it, of course, was that they were basically insecure; it was insecurity and the southerner’s incomparable, almost pathic pride, as well as love of country and loneliness and the aching contempt for the North, which made them so spectacular, made so many Northerners on the bus look warm, cold or uneasy accordingly, and made the young sailors and soldiers begin to vocalize about the niggers on the bus and the God damned niggers in this f—ing town and the f—ing niggers all over the whole God damned f—ing Nawth. The word cut across my solar-plexus like a cold knife, and the whole bus, except for those two voices and the comments of their friends, was suddenly almost exploded by an immensely thick quietness. I glanced very quickly back; one of the soldiers met my eyes with eyes like hot iron, and two seats behind him sat a Negro (it is a word I dislike, but most of the others are still worse); sat a colored man of perhaps fifty, in nickel-rimmed glasses, a carefully starched white shirt, and a serge suit, managing so to use his eyes that you could see only the nickel rims and the lenses.

The flailing voices went on and on, more and more fanciful, naked and cruel, and though I was listening with great care for every word, and heard every word, I was also so occupied that I heard very little, and remember almost nothing, now. It was all the old, ugly routines; what we wouldn’t do to Boy son of a bitchin nigguh that tuck a seat by a white woman if we was in Atlanta; dey would; get a Nawthun nigguh down deah, you’d see what dey’d do; yaanh, reckin dey’d see thang a tyew. Three any ovem tried it, black rapin bastuhds; but there was very little of this I heard, because I was too sick to hear much, and too busy. I was trying to think what to do and what to say. I had, repeatedly, a very clear image of the moment I would get up, draw a standee aside, and hit the big young sailor who was, after all, very little bigger than me, as hard as I could on his bright, shaven jaw. I also had, repeatedly, the exact image of what would happen then. Singlehanded, that boy could tear me to pieces; what the crowd of them could do was a little beyond my imagination. I had the image of looking him in the eye; various ways, in fact, of looking him in the eye. One was the cold, controlled rage which is occasionally used to pick a fight and which my kind more occasionally uses to bring a sexual quarrel or an intellectual argument as near to nature as we are likely to go. One was the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look which is liable to compound some genuineness of feeling with plagiarisms from photographs of Lincoln and paintings of Veronica’s veil; it is occasionally used, and effective, when somebody else’s neurosis goes wild, but unless you are too good a human being to know you are using it, there is no uglier or more abject device of blackmail. One, worst of them all, was the blank eye which commits itself to nothing. But none of these, it was easy to see, were of any use unless I was ready to back them up physically, and I could hear, just as clearly as I could visualize, the phonograph-records of talk they would bring on; nigger-lover is the favorite word. I was also trying to think what to say; for I know from the past—and might have known by some of the Detroit photographs if I had thought of them just then—that their kind of talk and even action is sometimes completely quieted by the right kind of talking, and better quieted then into sullenness; quieted into deep abashment. I have a friend, a small and elderly man, who would have brought that effect almost instantly. But his size and his age would have been a part of it; still more, his perfect self-forgetfulness, his unquestioning intrepidity. I was neither small nor elderly, nor self-forgetful, nor intrepid, nor singlehearted in any one of my perceptions or emotions; I was simply fumbling at words and knowledges: Look here. What are you fighting this war about. I know how you feel, I know you’re from the South, I’m from the South myself, I know (I may be but the way I say it makes it a lie). Things are different there, and all this you see here goes against every way you believe is right. But you’ve got to get used to it. You’ve got to know it. This is one of the main things this war is about (is it? is it?). If it isn’t about this we might as well not be fighting it at all (we might as well not, indeed). You’ll ask me where I’ve got any right to tell you what you’re fighting for. I’m not even in uniform. I’m not I know but I’ll be in one soon—next week (will I? do I want to be?). But that’s not the point anyhow (this is falling apart). Anyone on this bus has got a right to know the point and to tell it to you, white or black (I sound like a Tennessee senator; race, creed and coluh), we’ve got to make this a free country where every human being can be well with every other human being, regardless of race, creed or color, we’ve got to make it a world like that. I don’t believe you mean the harm you say, honestly, but you’ve got to realize it, you might as well be fighting for Hitler as to fight for this country feeling the way you do.

It was all so much cotton-batting on my tongue. I couldn’t gather a phrase of it together and make it mean anything, even to myself. Talking to them, talking for the corroboration of most of the bus, unable to talk in my own language because my own language would mean nothing even if I could use it with enough belief to make it mean something to me. All the hopeless, bland, advertising-copy claims of the Four Freedoms was running in my head; all the undersupplying of the Chinese; all the talk of the “magnificent courage” of the Red Army, and all the Rice Krispies which took the place of a second front; all the Bryn Mawr girls, planning to police post-war Europe; all the PM articles and the Wallace speeches and the slogans; I cannot know to this day with how much justice they undermined me, and with how much cowardice. I only know I could not believe a word I said; and had images of saying it and having the hell beaten out of me, and other images of saying it with effect; and other images of a fight which could be stopped by cops who are as much a phobia to me as rats; and others of modest and of carefully worded and of modestly rhetorical statements by myself, repeated in the press; a small yet not wholly undistinguished instant in the history of the world’s long Fight for Freedom; that hit me with self-disgust like a blow in the belly; and I noticed that the big sailor was now standing, and an elderly Negro woman had his seat.

Whether he had stood rather than sit beside her, or out of an instant genuine courtesy, quickly repented, or out of mock courtesy, I could not tell from anything he was saying; and this still further perplexed me. If his motives were the first or the third, then it was more than even I could bear, not to fight him; if he had felt one moment of reflex courtesy, I felt friendliness towards him in spite of all he was now saying. I listened hard, to learn, and could not make out. One reason I could not make out was that I was also listening to the woman. She was talking very little, and crying a little, and telling him, and the whole bus, that he ought to be ashamed, talking that way. People never done him no harm. Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.

There was an immense relaxation in the quiet through the whole bus; but not in me. I caught the eye, at that moment, of a man about my age, in one of the longways seats across the aisle. He was dressed in a brown, Sunday-looking suit. He may have been a Jew, and more certainly would have described himself, without self-consciousness or satire, as “an intellectual.” We looked at each other, and a queer, sick smile took one corner of his face, and I felt in my own cheeks that tickling, uncontrollable, nauseating smile which is so liable to seize my face when I tell one close friend disastrous news of another.

I remembered the photograph in PM, and looked sternly at the floor, with my cheek twitching. That evening I told of the whole thing, as honestly as I could, to several people who were down for drinks. They were quite shocked by it, and seemed also rather favorably stirred by my honesty. That embarrassed me a good deal, but not as painfully as I wish it might have, and I found their agreement that they would have done the same almost as revolting as my own performance in the doing act, and in the telling.

So now I am telling it to you.


Krazy in So Many Ways

June 26, 2012

sweet jesus

June 18, 2012

“Night Catches Us” (2010)

February 14, 2011

Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us is set in 1976 Philadelphia—a specificity aligning it with Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer as stories whose time and place aren’t a mere backdrop, but a bedrock for their characters’ interactions. A former Black Panther named Marcus returns to his old neighborhood for the first time in years; his father has died, but Marcus is almost immediately consumed by the living network of friends and neighbors who once made up his life. Practically none of these people are happy to see him, blaming him as they do for the police assassination, years earlier, of his closest friend in the Panthers. The only exceptions—the dead man’s widow (Kerry Washington) and her young daughter—have surprisingly tangled personal reasons for taking Marcus into their home.

A lot of the ’60s-era revolutionaries gained in interest only after it was apparent how little they were actually going to change the world. The fragmentation of the left after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the FBI’s counterintelligence work against leftist groups, and the natural passage of time all worked to undo the “revolution”, leaving most of its participants free and clear to cut their hair and start raising families of their own—which more than a few of them had in mind all along. A few ideologues hung in there, but most of these were little more than human barometers, forever scouting the political heavens for signs of a favorable pressure system that would never come. And then a few—a very few­­—had to hang in there simply because they’d climbed too far out on the limb of those heady times.

Night Catches Us is about the unresolved anger of the ’60s, and the need to find a way forward when the Promised Land has, despite all assurances, failed to materialize—as fundamentally American a theme as one can think of. The dilemma is most achingly expressed by Jimmy, a young man whose rage against white oppression sparks in him the most self-destructive version of Black Power. Hamilton’s movie may be a noticeably un-slick and sober affair, but it’s far from flat or boring; starting from a deliberately remote vantage point, it tracks in closer and closer to its characters until we can see the exact dimensions of the social web holding them in place. If that sounds familiar, fans of The Wire will appreciate seeing Wendell Pierce a/k/a “Bunk Moreland” as a callous police detective and Jamie Hector playing a stormy-tempered bar-owner. (Hector, several pounds heavier than he was as Marlo Stanfield and sporting a full beard, is simply on fire in this thing.)

It’s a given that Night Catches Us wouldn’t catch on with rock-headed American audiences, but it still deserves more than the measly $72,000 it’s grossed to date. It deserves respect. As it is, the movie lost a shot at finding some just last Friday, when The New York Times, in an article explicitly devoted to the paucity of films about African-Americans, failed to mention it at all. Yeah, that’s right. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott were so busy running down their checklist of old Hattie McDaniel yarns that, in a story citing thirty-plus movies, they didn’t mention Night Catches Us a single time, despite referencing Anthony Mackie—its star. It’s nice to know that the Times cares and all, but damn, people. At least try to act like you know which way up your ass goes.

he also needs a manssiere

July 16, 2010

Having a smoke downstairs and a coworker, funny-talking guy about my age, comes strolling back up to the building. Rough summary:

Tom: Nice day out here.

Guy: Yes, except for the black racist I just met.

Tom (mentally): Here we go.

Guy: A black guy up at the corner is yelling “Racist!” at all the white drivers. I gave him a look so he yells “Racist!” at me. I say “No, mate, you’re the one who’s racist.” Just because [rubbing his forearm] he, he’s got a little skin condition, he calls me a racist!

Tom: …

Guy: Do you understand this? I’m from South Africa! How can I be racist?

Tom: …

Not for the first time, how hard is it to take a step back from yourself?

“The Well” (1951)

March 17, 2010

The Well is a quirky little number, a plea for brotherhood along the lines of Pabst’s Kameradschaft but with the action transferred from Alsatian coal country to the American boonies. It’s flush with postwar idealism, but like Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story and Albert Band’s Face of Fire it assays the purity of America’s civic values by focusing on the trauma of a single small town. Wisely avoiding an accusatory look, it’s located in a place so anonymous that we can’t even be sure which part of America we’re in. The townspeople’s clothes may scream “Hattiesburg ’51”, but there are no telltale drawls, no root cellars, catfish or cotton crops, no whittling or eating of “vittles”. The sheriff is a well-spoken man leading a team of mostly professional deputies while a handful of educated young blacks, probably students at a nearby university, have the most clued-in perspective in town. Despite some festering resentments the town’s racial problems are under control—people are getting along.

Then, one morning, a young black girl, dawdling on her way to school, falls into an abandoned well. The sheriff barely notices her disappearance until a couple of witnesses recall seeing a man speaking to her—a white man. (“Twist!”, as Liz Lemon would say.) The girl’s parents grow more upset, more vocal in their demands. The whites make quiet jokes among themselves; the blacks trade quiet rumors. The man is found—he is a young civil engineer, new to town. (It’s Harry Morgan, aka “Colonel Potter” from MASH. He’s terrific here.) He admits talking to the girl and buying her a snack, but that’s all he did—he swears. His answers don’t add up, though, plus he’s a bit of a smart-ass. The blacks, monitoring the situation and not expecting justice, grow angrier. The suspect’s overfed employer doesn’t help anything when he shows up—he’s gentry, and acts like it. The flash-point comes: a shoving incident outside the jail. Now gangs of blacks and whites, captured in Dutch angles, race through the streets gathering axe-poles and handguns, and begin laying into one another. Tit for tat beatings spread like plague, and it’s only because the girl’s belongings are discovered at the wellhead that open warfare is averted. The townspeople, all of them, rush to the field. The civil engineer—a suspect just minutes ago—and his pig-eyed boss coolly supervise the sinking of a parallel shaft. This intensely rushed effort to save the child is cut to the rhythms of the machinery’s percussive booms; the drilling spans an entire night, with the workers spotlighted by the glare of circled cars.

The Well was respected enough at the time to rack up writing and editing Oscar nominations, but after that it fell into its own black hole: it was no gimme finding even a semi-decent still for this post,  the cover for its DVD carries the poster from another movie altogether, and its director, Russell Rouse, is remembered (if at all) as the man responsible for that Mount Everest of bad taste called The Oscar. But Rouse and The Well’s producer, Leo Popkin, collaborated again a year later on The Thief, a Cold War spy drama that takes as its hero a Communist agent,  and which aside from its sound effects is entirely silent—not a word of dialogue is spoken. The Well appeared in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education and four years before Emmitt Till and Rosa Parks became known to the wider world, which is only to say that it was that much ahead of its time, and that it was made only because somebody thought that a picture of two troubled peoples coming together for a higher good couldn’t do the world any harm. Based on events that inspired Billy Wilder’s exercise in exaggerated cynicism Ace in the Hole, The Well settles for exaggerated optimism instead, and suffers from shaky production values to boot. None of that matters a damn to me—I’ll take it just the same.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

March 9, 2010

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger…

The tempered, almost lawyerly voice that recounts Carroll’s history; the unforced off-rhymes that would look at home in a Dickinson poem; the unconventional, doom-laden repetition of the same word at the end of three consecutive lines; the surprising appearance in a 1963 song of the phrase “a whole other level”, here given a slight mystical nudge even as it’s yoked to the image of some dirty ashtrays; the harmonious coexistence of assonance, internal rhyme, alliteration, and Biblical echo all in the single line “Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane”; the way all of this builds to a description of the murder that’s journalistically precise yet, when heard sung, comes at you in sections like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; and finally, all of this taken together yet never detracting from the obscenity of the actual deed…Even for a young Dylan it’s impressive.

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Signs o’ the Times

September 19, 2009

The last few days I’ve been following—well, at least as far as my stomach will allow it—the “national debate” about whether the rightwing’s protests against Obama are racially motivated. The discussion has grown somewhat blurry because one of the things kicking it off—Rep. Joe Wilson’s shouting “You lie!” during Obama’s healthcare address to Congress—also helped to ignite a separate but equal debate about the loss of civility in society. Of course we could have had that debate at any time since the first Vince Foster rumor started flying around, but what the hell—better late than never.

One comment in the racial “debate” (read: “media-generated doo-da”) did make me do a mental double-take. It was delivered during one of The Lehrer News Hour’s drowsy-making roundtables in which a handful of scholars and wonks work overtime to cancel each other out. One of the panelists (most of whom were black, if it matters) opined that the current debate is not racially motivated because none of the markers he’d expect to see in such a case—a lot of noise about affirmative action, f’rinstance—are actually present in it. This begs the question, of course, that Obama, drawing fire from all quarters for his activities on any number of other political fronts, has barely said boo about affirmative action since announcing his candidacy for the White House. It also ignores the fact that racial markers can be seen in debates where they don’t belong, a perfect example being the phony siren call that Obama’s plan will provide healthcare to illegal immigrants—which, of course, was the very point under discussion when the clock began running on Joe Wilson’s 15 minutes of fame.

Obama foodstamp Signs o the Times

In any case, the current round of iffy behavior only builds upon the last round of iffy behavior—that series of racially skuzzy emails and tweets that magically emanated from only Republican congressmen—and on backwards to such savory treats as the “Obama foodstamp” which appeared during the presidential campaign. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, we’re always told, and in this case I believe it.

That News Hour segment did provide its viewers a glimpse of that sorry picture of Obama in witch-doctor drag, a work which absolutely tortures the concept of “plausible deniability.” (That phrase may be musty but it never seems to lose any relevance.) Of course it wouldn’t matter a whit if it was Marcus Welby, M.D. who had a bone stuck through his nose—such a picture would still have a racial component thanks simply to America’s complicated history when it comes to blacks, to Africa, and to Third World societies in general. Some things just aren’t possible in White America, such as the idea that we can dress up cartoon figures in, say, sombreros and serapes, and make them funny-talking people who only want to take a siesta, without it echoing all of our historical biases against Mexicans. And, of course, it isn’t Marcus Welby in the witch-doctor picture, but a sitting U.S. president who, as the saying goes, “just happens to be” an African-American. In what may be the most damning fact of all, none of the picture’s admirers seem to mind that a witch-doctor is off-center as an expression of their ostensible criticism of Obama’s policies. The rightwing’s primary complaint against “ObamaCare” has had little to do with medical acumen; it’s mainly revolved around the bogeyman’s plan to enslave America by taxing our asses to death for generations to come. Given the chance to forego the racist baggage and pick a symbol which actually addressed their stated concerns, they decided instead to shame their children and go with the witch-doctor, all for the sake of a cheap cracker laugh.

obama witchdoctor Signs o the Times

The vision of Obama as totalitarian golem can’t get any lower than it does in the various drawings, posters, flyers, etc., that depict him as a modern-day Hitler. Do you really think there’s no racial component in those works just because Hitler was Caucasian?  (Not that we claim the dude with any pride.) The second most visible historical figure on anti-Obama literature is Osama bin Laden, and whenever Adolf or Osama need a break—this political allusion stuff is hard work!—yet another mass-murdering anti-Semite, Uncle Joe Stalin, is ready to step in and spell them. If the rightwing’s objections to Obama center around his tax policies, then why all these comparisons to history’s worst monsters? Why overreach and garble your own message? Exactly which group is it that Obama has targeted for scapegoating and murder? If you start out by comparing tax-and-spenders to Adolf Hitler, who can you use as a panic-button if a dictator bent on genocide actually comes along?

obama hitler Signs o the Times

All of this makes sense if we just remember the whisper campaign—or rather, the stage-whisper campaign—about Obama being a closet jihadist. The Hitler posters aren’t intended to reference the Third Reich’s economic policies in any meaningful way; their only point is that Obama, somehow, for some reason, wants to “destroy America.” They play on all the what-if rumors of his secret birth in Kenya and the notion that, as an agent for radical Islam, he’s the best positioned Fifth Columnist in the history of espionage. Boo! Unsurprisingly, these jackass hallucinations fit hand in glove with the more artfully phrased dementia issuing from the Kristols and the Kagans of this world, folks who are glad to exchange support with any dimwit quarter, even if it’s Princess Chuckles of Wasilla and her nutty rants about “death panels.” Invoking the Hitler-Stalin-bin Laden triad really makes no sense when you consider what other historical models are available out there. You don’t need to be Will Durant to think of King George III, Mr. No-Taxation-Without-Representation himself, and a figure who left a Sasquatch-sized footprint on our national identity. It’d be pretty hard for liberals to yell “Racist!” about a picture of an overfed Obama draped in ermine and sporting a powdered wig (they might even find it funny), and as a protest against his tax policies it hits the bull’s eye without the overkill Holocaust vibes. But expressing himself in a cogent, proportionate way is almost always a low priority to the rightwinger, who’s usually most concerned with feeding his cherished sense of victimhood no matter how destructive the results are.

At least the wingnuts’ artwork is more polished than it’s ever been, consisting as it does of a lot of Photoshopped propaganda posters. Socialist Realism was an eye-catching art form if ever there was one, but today’s crop of work is just a little too ugly, a little too raw and stupid, to inspire anything other than revulsion right now. Someday I hope to view it with the distanced and bemused incredulity evoked by the old “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters of World War II, but that day isn’t here yet. It can’t get here soon enough.

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