“What’s the Washington Post leading with today?” I asked, doing my morning news graze.
Think about that: the top story on the web site of the daily newspaper in the capital city of the most powerful nation on earth is about the attempts of a fading Republican presidential candidate to deal with a story about the use of the word “nigger” in the name of a hunting camp Perry and his father leased years ago. To be sure, it is offensive, and I am no how, no way a supporter of Rick Perry. I would not be sad to see his campaign peter out.
But it’s more than a little mind-boggling to contemplate that this kind of penny-ante stupidity and racial insensitivity is deemed newsworthy enough by the Post to put on the front page. A couple of days ago, Perry called for the U.S. military to invade, in effect, Mexico to take on drug cartels. Hello! That’s huge. Perry could have been hunting for years at a deer camp called Rod Dreher Was Stalin’s Cabana Boy, and it would be trivial, given the magnitude of the challenges facing the country’s next president, and their proposals to address them. It is far, far more significant that a man who still has a decent chance at being the GOP nominee thinks it would be a good idea to send American troops into Mexico to conduct crimefighting operations than that this man used to hunt at a deer camp with a racially insensitive name (a middle-aged white Republican from small-town West Texas as lacking the racial sensitivities of the Washington Post newsroom — wow, who could have imagined that?).
You might say that the Right made a huge to-do over Barack Obama’s association with the race-baiting pastor Jeremiah Wright, so this is a kind of payback. The two are hard to compare. For one thing, Wright was Obama’s pastor and spiritual mentor, which is a bigger deal than something as silly as the racist name of a hunting camp. I think it was probably true that Obama didn’t share Wright’s racist views, but the rap against him was that he at least didn’t find them intolerable, which supposedly indicated an insensitivity toward whites. I still think that was all true, but in retrospect, I also think it was not as big a deal as I thought at the time, given the fact that the economy was flying off the cliff in a ball of flames.
My view is that in matters like this, it’s better to err on the side of giving candidates grace and room to live with the embarrassing and at times difficult to tolerate hangover from our racial history. I mean, if we have evidence to believe that the racism they tolerate socially leads them to support racist policies, that would obviously be a concern. But if not, I’m prepared to live with it. Within the black community, you can’t really expect younger blacks like Obama to repudiate as firmly as white people would like the racist opinions of their elders. For one thing, however immoral those views may be, those elders, like Jeremiah Wright, suffered real discrimination. It would be wonderful, indeed a holy thing, if they held no hate in their hearts. But it would also be unusual. This will fade with time.
On the Perry side, I know very many white Southerners of my generation who concluded a long time ago that there is no changing the minds of older white Southerners on the issue of race, so the best thing to do in some contexts is to let it ride, because it’s fading in time. Make sure they know that the word is offensive, and that you don’t appreciate that kind of talk, but otherwise, don’t make a big deal out of it. People are complicated, and they are complicated by history. It may be the case that Rick Perry found the hunting camp name, Niggerhead, offensive, but reasoned that it would be more trouble than it was worth to press his father and the older men he was hunting with to do something about the name. He might have just inwardly rolled his eyes and kept hunting. This is more or less what white people of my generation do when confronted with the racism of older whites in a social context, e.g., the hunting camp, that we judge to be relatively harmless. It’s a delicate thing to try to negotiate, trying to figure out how to do the right thing in such cases (for an example of how not to handle it, see my own personal history when I was 18). Or maybe Perry is more directly culpable, in a moral sense, for choosing to live with the casual racism of the hunting camp name when he could have challenged it and ought to have done. I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t much care in the current economic and military context.
The world teeters on the brink of a global depression. Millions of Americans are out of work, or don’t have enough work, and there are no prospects of things getting better in the short run. The American military is mired in an unwinnable Asian land war. We don’t have the luxury to worry about whether or not the men or women who aspire to lead the country were sufficiently sensitive about the name of a sporting venue in their past. As far as I’m concerned, if President Obama can fix the economy and bring the troops home, he can play golf at Honkyhead with my blessing.
UPDATE: Here’s what I’m talking about. Umair Haque:
It’s time to get not just serious, but maybe even a little bit radical. This isn’t a drill, but a nine-alarm fire. But where are the fire engines? Washington’s bogged down in games of brinksmanship instead of practicing the art of leadership. Hell-bent on running each other into the ground — instead of running the nation — America’s so-called leaders are sending us into what wonks are calling a “policy-induced recession.”Listen to what Robert Gates has to say about it:
I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system — and it is no longer a joking matter…we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance.It’s bonkers, right? We’re confronted by the most ferocious, tenacious crisis in decades — and that’s when the Big Kahunas decide to squabble over whose got the biggest biceps?
And the biggest of our Big Media Kahunas choose to make a big deal over Rick Perry’s failure to take seriously enough the racist name of a West Texas hunting camp. Washington Post, you are a big part of what’s wrong with this country right now.
UPDATE.2: I doubt Ta-Nehisi Coates really agrees with me on this matter, but he makes an important point about practical politics in his post discussing this incident:
We can talk about Skip Gates wrongful arrest. Or we can pass health-care. We cannot do both.
Note well that TNC is not saying it should be this way. He’s saying it just is this way. His point is that race is such a sensitive and emotional subject that if you start mixing it up in our politics, pretty soon you can’t talk about anything else — even if you desperately need to be talking about something else. Like the economy. This brings to mind a James Howard Kunstler rant from a few years ago, about Democrats and gay marriage. Kunstler is a man of the secular left, and doesn’t have any objections to same-sex marriage. What upset him was that fellow liberals were pushing the issue so hard and antagonizing conservatives that they were making it more likely that Republicans were going to get elected. Kunstler is famously focused on how vulnerable the country is to energy shortage, and believed that the more liberals pushed culture-war issues that got Republicans elected, the more difficult it would be to elect Democrats who could get something significant done to keep the country from falling apart economically. Of course he probably was accused of being indifferent to the pain of same-sex couples and the urgency of the equal rights struggle. What he was actually doing was trying to make a case that the left was undermining its own best economic interests by getting wrapped up in culture-war politics.
I urge you to read the TNC post, because he’s surely correct when he says that this controversy says less about Rick Perry than it does about the country Perry seeks to govern. Says TNC:
But what we see on display in the quotes is the insidiousness of racism, the way it gets in the blood, and literally alters the senses. A black woman in the county claims she was constantly addressed as “Nigger.” A white man, in the very same county, claims that “Blacks were perfectly satisfied.”Several people in the story have no notion of why the name “Niggerhead” would be offensive. It’s just what it is. I’m sure the people quoted recognize racism, on some level — like say an outright lynching — but if calling a hunting-ground “Niggerhead” isn’t offensive to them, I think it’s safe to say that white racism doesn’t really exist as an actual force in their minds.