Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Jesse Jackson, Jr., Crossed a Dangerous Line

Democrats need to be very careful that the Obama/Clinton competition does not deteriorate into a race v. gender battle, in which we are split into a nasty, bitter, and needless war with potentially enduring consequences.

How could it happen? If either campaign accidentally or intentionally walks onto--or is whispered to have walked onto--that sensitive territory fenced by ugly stereotypes, old wounds will be opended and latent fury will be rekindled, causing a chain-reaction of backlash attacks.

If that happens, the victor will be racists, sexists, and the GOP.

We could be seeing something like that now, nascent still but nonetheless worrisome, in the hyped-up matter of Clinton's tears and the way in which at least one Obama spokesman has chosen to use it.

For starters, there was no "crying." There was an emotional moment and a break in her voice as she spoke about her love for and concern for the nation, a powerful exercise of control, and a very rapid recovery. One Newsweek reporter who was present at the meeting corroborates that, and also clues us about the kind of media manipulation we can continue to expect:

Even as she spoke, a local television reporter was broadcasting live that Clinton had started crying. Other reporters tried to correct him, even as he was still on the air. No, she didn't cry.
WTF? No mystery here. Many interests would be served by a ceaseless incantion that Hillary is too weak (read "woman") to hold down the Oval Office. Republicans, anti-Clintonites, and sexists of both genders apparently wanted that Muskie moment so badly that they were willing to manufacture it. Then, predictably, a MSM snearfest ensued that even John Edwards stooped to join, full of snipes about her sincerity and her timing, and bristling with insinuations about what showing emotion might mean for a US President at war.

Garden variety smear stuff, offensive and sexist and obnoxious. But when Jesse Jackson, Jr., grabbed the opportunity to imply that Clinton never once cried about Katrina (read "the poor African American people of New Orleans") or the troops (read "the mostly poor non-white kids dying for our country"), it went way past routine media misogyny.

If my own reaction is a microcosm, the potential for angry division is unnerving. Of course, maybe it's just me and we can all go back to snooze mode. In case not, however, I want to deconstruct Jackson's nasty little smear both to explain my anger and, I hope, to show the kind of thing we should be vigilant about and quick to stamp out.

We can skip the part about how Jesse Jackson, Jr. isn't in a position to know when Hillary weeps and why, and the part about how no American politician distinguished him- or herself in the aftermath of Katrina, and the part about how any presidential candidate who had called a press conference to weep before St. Louis Cathdral would have been DOA. Those are dime-a-dozen smears and implied untruths typical of slimeballers.

But Jackson took this a step further. His was a callous, calculated, and obscene effort to politicize a national disaster in order to trash a fellow Democrat and a woman, using Rove-worthy smear tactics: the gender card, innuendo, race-baiting, and putting Clinton in the unwinnable, impossible position of proving a negative. I not only don't want this kind of crap in our party and resent it. I also fear it greatly.

His message, decoded, is that Hillary was lying about her feelings and put them on display jus' like a woman to manipulate the voters (read "male" voters). Translated, she's just one mo' manipulative bitch who's too frigid to care about, let alone weep for, desperate, drowning African Americans and poor kids being blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thanks, hear?

This privileged son of Civil Rights legend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., hasn't earned the chops to attack Clinton about anything. Unfortunately, by voluntarily putting out a string of sexist stereotypes, he didn't just piss off a lot of women. He enacted live and on national TV the equally divisive, ugly stereotype that African American men despise women. And in the service of what? In order to inject an uncommonly nasty dose of sexist race-baiting into a contest for the presidency? Brilliant, dude.

The likely achievement here is a bunch of infuriated women and a bunch of infuriated African Americans, all jumped up for no good reason--merely on the basis of Jackson's petty little war of choice. (I would expect this kind of thing from Huckabee, but not from someone who knows the Clintons' civil rights record, and not from a fellow Democrat.)

So yeah, Jr. hit a nerve. He and any other Obama handlers who think this is an effective way to fight Clinton need to sit down, shut up, and let the grownups handle this--people with extreme sensitivity to the potential for mutally assured destruction--or they will stir up a whirlwind that the party, the nation, the candidates can't afford to deal with.

God forbid that someone comes out now to retaliate with a comparable slur that pits gender sensitivities against race sensitivities. Unfortunately, that's just the kind of thing a push-caller planted by the GOP would do. We know that this happens. Thsi isn't speculative. Remember the phone campaign in SC that implied that McCain had fathered a Black child? Here's the race-baiting counterpart for Obama: "Would it affect your decision if you knew that Obama is a wife-beater?" Again: that's a hypothetical, utterly untrue. I use it only as an example of a plausible smear campaign that could create a rupture among Democrats along race and gender lines.

I don't need to tell you how that would go down. If such a whisper campaign were laid at Clinton's door, we would inherit a storm of rage that could last a generation whether it came from Clinton's campaign or not. And obviously, there are similar possibilities when the table is turned. If Jackson or anyone else continues in this nasty divide-and-conquer vein, I think we could be in trouble as a party, and potentially lose the election even as we claw each others' eyes out for no reason at all.

I really want you to let me know if you think I'm over the top on this. I want to hear from you, and if you see the potential I see, I'd love to know how you think we can sidestep this kind of mutually assured destruction. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get us.