Monday, January 11, 2010

Politics = the fine art of bullshitting

You've probably heard by now that republicans are calling on Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to resign. Reid is the Democratic leader of the Senate.

In their new book Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."

As Douglass K. Daniel of the AP reports, republicans are arguing that there is a double standard. Democrats called on Trent Lott, the former republican Senate leader, to resign after he made racially sensitive comments, but democrats are not demanding that their own leader resign.

Some object to the argument by claiming that Lott's remarks and Reid's remarks are different. You, of course, can be the judge. According to CNN, Lott said the following about former senator Strom Thurmond: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

As CNN points out in the same story,
Thurmond ran as the presidential nominee of the breakaway Dixiecrat Party in the 1948 presidential race against Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey. He carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and his home state of South Carolina, of which he was governor at the time.

During the campaign, he said, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."

Thurmond's party ran under a platform that declared in part, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
Now, carefully review what Senator Reid said. With the exception of his use of an "N" word, what did Reid say that was racist or offensive?


It is not racist to point out the racism inherent in American politics.

And using the particular "N" word that Reid used simply does not compare to a possible endorsement of pre-civil-rights era segregationism and racism.

So why are republicans making such a big deal out of this? Politics, of course. Reid faces a tough reelection campaign, and this issue might make that campaign even tougher for him if they can make this stick somehow.

That's politics. Throw around as much bullshit as possible and see what sticks. Whether there is truth in your bullshit or not is irrelevant.

That's why Liz Cheney, who is just about as repulsive as Dick—and that is pretty freaking repulsive—was trying to make an issue out of this on Sunday's This Week. Here's the transcript:
STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the most endangered Senate Democrats is the leader, Harry Reid, and he got into a little bit of hot water over the weekend. This new book, "Game Change," by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, quotes him in a private conversation, saying that -- let's show it right now. "Reid was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama, a 'light-skinned African-American' with 'no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as Reid said privately."

This has already drawn a lot of criticism. Republican Chairman Michael Steele this morning is saying that Reid ought to resign. The president has accepted Harry Reid's apology.

But Steele himself in some hot water, as well. He's got a book out this week, a lot of Republicans angry about that. And he's saying he's not going to take the criticism anymore.


STEELE: I'm telling him, I'm going to look him in the eye and say, I've had enough of it. If you don't want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program, or get out of the way.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Judy, let's talk about Reid first. He didn't need this at all, already at 52 percent unfavorable in Nevada, being defeated, behind both his opponents right now.

WOODRUFF: Ouch. He didn't need this, but, you know, he does have friends in the White House. Somebody very close to the president said to me yesterday, after all this blew up, said, you know, this is the Mormon from Searchlight with an ear of tin and a heart of gold. He's done some very good things for the White House. They know he's carried their water on -- on health care, and they're not -- they're not going to put any distance between themselves and Harry Reid.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There had been some talk which Reid -- sorry -- which Reid tried to squash that he might not even go through with the election in November. You say he's in the race to stay?

HUNT: Oh, I think he's in the race to say. This is what Harry Reid does. What else is he going to do? He's not going to go back to Searchlight. And I think the only hope he has -- because his numbers are terrible -- is that the dysfunctional, corrupt Republican Party in Nevada. I mean, with the senator, with the governor, I mean, they have more people under indictment or under -- and that's the only thing -- it is probably the worst state in the union to make the case against Harry Reid, as unpopular as he is, and that's his only hope.

REICH: This is -- this is the Democrat's great benefit. I mean, every time they're in real, real trouble, the Republican Party comes to their aid.

HUNT: Michael Steele...


REICH: And Michael Steele is a good example. This week was basically designed for the Republicans, with the Democratic resignations. I mean, it looked like Democrats in disarray. And Michael Steele comes in, and talk about disarray. He is going rogue.

CHENEY: But, you know, can I just point out that I think one of the things that makes the American people frustrated is when they see time and time again liberals excusing racism from other liberals. And I think that, you know, clearly, Senator Reid's comments were outrageous. And the notion that they're being excused...


STEPHANOPOULOS: But in a private conversation that he thought was off the record...

CHENEY: I don't think racism is OK, George, whether you're saying it in private or in public. And the excuse of it by liberals, you know, is -- is really inexcusable.

But I do think, frankly, you know, he's given the voters of Nevada yet one more reason to oust him this -- this next time around, and I suspect that's what they'll do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: George, you're shaking your head.

WILL: I don't think there's a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said. At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it.

CHENEY: George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president's skin...

WILL: Did he get it wrong?

CHENEY: ... and the candidate's...

WILL: Did he say anything false?

CHENEY: ... it's -- these are clearly racist comments, George.

WILL: Oh, my, no.


HUNT: ... quickly, Liz, I -- I think it was certainly an indelicate comment, but, in fact, during the election, there were stories and there were people commenting on Tiger Woods, Adrian Fenty. I mean, I think it's very unfortunate, but I think there is an element that says that -- that -- that some -- some blacks do better than others because of appearance. I don't think that's right...


HUNT: ... but I don't think...


CHENEY: ... this may be the way that liberal elites speak to each other in private. It is not the way that people that I know speak to each other in private or public...


HUNT: ... no one's ever accused Harry Reid of being a liberal elite.


CHENEY: ... all of us hope that this nation will be one, where we're judged by the content of our character, and that is not what that comment...


REICH: Before we banter around or use terms like "liberal elites" or "racism," let me just say that race is, unfortunately, still a factor in politics and in this country. We may not like it; we may not want it to be. And in the election, people did talk about race. That does not make them a racist.
Amen, Professor Reich.


  1. Caveat, I find Reid a hard man to defend when he is at his best.

    So... sure, the comment regarding skin color might have some truth to it (although I am skeptical). The bigger problem with Reid's comment, imho, is the term "Negro Dialect." And I don't think it is a problem because he didn't use African American English or Ebonics or whatever politically correct term would be preferable. The problem comes from the automatic lumping of race and culture that is apparent in the comparison. Speakers of particular dialects can typically code-switch to mainstream dialect if they are at all educated and/or have significant interactions with those outside their dialectal group. Who would this hypothetical black presidential candidate be that could not do this? Reid seems to place BO's ability to "talk normal" as a special skill that sets him apart from others of his "race." It is at least ignorant...

    Much ado about nothing sure, but he deserves all the grief he is getting.

  2. I think I disagree with you on this one. According to you, "The problem comes from the automatic lumping of race and culture that is apparent in the comparison." But it seems to me that Reid is not lumping them together; rather, he is claiming that American voters by and large lump them together. And he may be right about that. The problem with this interpretation for Reid is that it makes it appear as if Reid does not have a high opinion of American voters. So perhaps you're right: either way, he deserves the grief he is getting.

  3. Well, without context it is probably impossible to tell for sure, but it seems to me he is comparing BO to some hypothetical candidate that would not do as well as Obama. He is not talking about the one in other people's heads, he is proposing a hypothetical candidate - a creation of his own imagination. In the phrase "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" Reid seems to be imagining some hypothetical candidate that would have the Negro dialect and couldn't code switch if he wanted to...I mean is he saying that Mr. T. would have a hard time winning? If he was picturing Alan Keyes, would he need to comment on the Negro Dialect?

  4. Interesting. If I understand you correctly, you are saying the following: I cannot interpret Reid as saying what I think he's saying without believing that he possesses the concept of the hypothetical candidate who doesn't or can't code switch. So the question is this: does it reflect badly on Reid that he possesses such a concept? I don't think so, but perhaps I am missing something here and I need help. You say, "I mean is he saying that Mr. T. would have a hard time winning?" If I understand Reid correctly, I think that he is saying something like that, more or less. He thinks that voters will not elect a candidate who fits a certain stereotype. Obama did not fit that stereotype, so he could get elected. This seems like a plausible claim to me. I'm really not trying to be difficult; I admit that I might just be missing something, and I hope that doesn't reflect badly on me.

  5. No, no. No reflection on you for sure. I am just not making my point clear. The key word is "automatic."

    If Reid were saying, after careful reflection that "Voters can embrace Obama because he doesn't come off like Mr. T," he would be saying something plausible... but saying something very, very, unimportant (as per usual). And would deserve grief for being vapid.

    But this was an off-the-cuff comment. The baseline against which Reid automatically chose to compare Obama, the image that sprang readily to mind and come out of his mouth -- i.e., the stereotype he had in his own head, ready to go, was a candidate that would come off like Mr. T (and by this I don't mean Laurance Tureand, the actor, but the TV persona he makes money off of).

    This seems to me to say something about the way Reid views race and culture. Stereotypes are useful cognitive tools, but they are only useful to the extent that they reflect reality. If Reid's personal stereotype of an unsuccessful black candidate is Mr. T., his cognitive short-cut is out-of-whack. That's why I think he deserves the grief.

    In other words, it is not that Reid "possesses" the concept of the Mr. T candidate that I have a problem is because it was his automatic image, his default and most salient example, his go-to version of a black candidate that I think he deserves the grief he is getting.

  6. Thank you for being patient with me. You have convinced me that Reid's off-the-cuff comment may be evidence of racism. And it wouldn't be completely surprising that a white man in his 60's has a racist stereotype in his head. I appreciate your ability to make the case for your point of view. One thing that irritates me about Liz Cheney is that she simply asserted, without argument, that Reid's comment is racist. I doubt that she would be able to provide an argument if she were asked for one.

  7. Thank you for putting up with my artful bullshit (more folk art level than fine art, probably).

    The fact that Reid deserves the grief he is getting does not, however, make his statement equivalent to Lott's comment (although it is probably fair to assume that Lott had conveniently forgotten the details of the platform Thurmond ran is common to mentally edit out the uncomfortable details -- I am sure he had an "Oh Yeah" moment when the controversy hit).

    And, of course, Reid's comment is hardly "outrageous" as Cheney claims. It is at worst evidence of a subtle bias that, as you say, is likely common among people Reid's age, particularly those from small towns like Searchlight.

    I actually find comfort in the fact that we are to the point in our culture that "the race debate" is really about these kinds of subtle biases. Much different than where we were not too long ago.

    Had a nice conversation with my father-in-law over break. He is in his 80's, from Alabama, and his best friend is black. He tells stories of having to be escorted through the black part of town, and going to the movies and having to sit in separate sections, his friend not being allowed to use the front door of the house, etc...He recognizes now how stupid that was, but he said "we never thought about it. That's just the way it was."

    People thinking about it has changed the way it is.


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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson