As we approach the national political conventions, we all know this promises to be a mean season. Has America transcended its racist past? We’re about to find out. Or are we? The landscape is already so littered with political detritus that it’s hard to find a reliable vantage point from which to get a clear view of the world.
Let’s take that infamous New Yorker cover. The artist and editors, drunk on their own smugness and sophistication, said the cover was meant to “hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful and the absurd.” Maybe that works for the 40 square blocks of Manhattan that still thinks Woody Allen is a genius. But it’s myopic and absurd to think that you can satirize racism and prejudice by running a racist and prejudicial cartoon on your cover and expect that the hundreds of thousands who see the magazine on newsstands and in grocery stores will share in the understanding that The New Yorker is too cool to be actually racist.
The big offense here, however, is not The New Yorker’s myopia. It is the fact that, intentionally or unintentionally, it becomes one more source of political confusion. Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Is Michelle Obama another Angela Davis? No. But for some potential voters out there, the truth becomes a little cloudier.
At a recent book-signing in Austin, George Lakoff-who has spent the past 15 years trying to teach progressives how to frame issues-reminded his audience that our reason is, in part, guided by trip wires from our own experience and from the four decades of overt and covert campaigns designed to steer our political thinking. A big portion of our population has been trained to cringe at the term “liberal” and to equate private interest with the public good. Our rational decision-making is not entirely rational.
The Rove school succeeds by sowing confusion and fear among people who aren’t political junkies like most Observer readers, but who muster up the interest and courage to make a political decision every four years. The Democrats come up with a war hero in John Kerry, and the Rove machine brings in the Swift Boat campaign to question his heroism. Not to disprove it, but to make it so confusing that voters throw up their hands. The quadrennial voters say, I thought he was a hero, but maybe he’s a liar, even when Kerry is matched against a candidate who saw no combat and probably skipped out on his limited military obligation.
So Obama comes along with a message that it’s time for change, that he’s a different kind of candidate, and that change comes from the bottom up. The engines of confusion go to work: He’s no different from any other politician; he’s tied to a firebrand Christian minister, but he’s probably also a Muslim. Joan Vennochi wrote a column for the Boston Globe accusing Obama of being an egotist for planning to deliver his convention acceptance speech outside to the American people and not just to delegates, much like JFK did in 1960. (Name me a successful politician who’s not an egotist.) She cites McCain’s “humility,” while Rush Limbaugh screams that Obama thinks of himself as “The Messiah.” Why? So voters will not think Obama believes change comes from the bottom, that he doesn’t listen to them, that the emotional connection he makes with many people is just an act.
The hope of the Rove school is that voters will become dispirited, not trust their own eyes and ears and brains, and walk away. Molly Ivins once wrote that democracy “requires a certain relish for confusion,” but if voters in this election year cannot see clearly what they are voting for and voting against, then “confusion,” as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, will have “made his masterpiece.”