The “Barack Obama Effect”
Remarks by Clarence Page
Syndicated columnist, Chicago Tribune
To the Anti-Defamation League
National Leadership Conference
April 20, 2009, Washington, D.C.
Posted: April 21, 2009
Thank you. It’s a miserably rainy day outside, but I assure you that there is sunshine in my heart.
I am humbled by the honor of receiving the Hubert Humphrey Award from the ADL, both of whom I have admired a long time and to whom I feel grateful for your long fights against hatred and disrespect.
Sadly I am here to do what journalists so often are accused of doing, bringing you bad news. Reports of a post-racial America, as Mark Twain once said of reports of his death, have been greatly exaggerated.
In other words, your work is not done. Your fight is not over.
First, the good news. We had an outburst of hope and change in November.
Cynical observers like me waited eagerly to see whether we would have a Bradley Effect at the polls, like the one that stopped California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, a man whose lead in the polls evaporated on election day. It turned out that a lot of voters had lied to pollsters.
Instead, this time we saw a Barack Obama effect. America’s first black or, if you prefer, openly biracial president actually got a bigger turnout than the polls said he would. A bandwagon effect set in. A lot of voters on the right, left and wobbly middle apparently saw history being made, a hopeful history that transcended party interests, and they wanted to be part of it.
As a black father who can remember white and colored water fountains in my childhood, my own jaundiced journalist’s eyes got as misty as Rev. Jesse Jackson’s did. Having covered him for almost four decades, I wasn’t sure if Rev. Jackson was crying tears of joy or weeping that he was out of a job.
But sadly comes the dawn of a new day in which we must realize that the fight against hate is still with us.
Racism and anti-Semitism, as that great sage D. L. Hughely said, is like losing weight; the last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of.
Just two weekends ago, ADL researchers found that Richard Poplawski, the man charged with killing three Pittsburgh police officers during a standoff two weekends ago, held virulently anti-Semitic and racist beliefs that he openly shared with others on white supremacist online discussion forums.
This is hardly the first time we have seen the damage that deranged minds can do.
Ten years ago today (April 20, 1999) Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered their high school in Littleton, Colo., and shot and killed 12 students and one teacher –before killing themselves.
They, too, expressed racist views. Or at least Klebold did. Researchers now seem to think Harris was along for the ride while also providing the emotional support that Klebld needed to carry out their horrible deed.
Theirs was not the highest body count among school shootings in this country. Seung-Hui Cho holds that sad distinction with 32 victims at Virginia Tech—before he, too, killed himself.
This Sunday about 400 people gathered in a solemn ceremony to observe the 14th anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, an attack that killed 168 people, injured hundreds more and still ranks as the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Closer to my Chicago home base, ten years ago this July 4, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 22, targeted random nonwhites and non-Christians in a weekend shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana.
One fatality was former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.
The African American father was shot and killed in front of two of his three children while they were walking outside Byrdsong's home in Skokie, Illinois.
Smith also killed a 26-year-old Korean student on his way to church.
Among other victims Smith shot and wounded six Orthodox Jews in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago on that Friday evening a black minister in Decatur before killing himself in a high-speed police chase on a southern Illinois highway.
Smith was connected to a white supremacist group led by Illinois law school graduate Matthew hale, who considered him a soldier in the so-called “racial holy war” or “RAHOWA” movement.
On a somewhat brighter side, the Holocaust Museum and Education Center officially opened yesterday in Skokie, Illinois.
The $45 million complex is the largest in the Midwest may well be the last museum to be built in collaboration with living Holocaust survivors.
There’s about 7,000 holocaust survivors in the Chicago area. One of them, Aaron Elster, told CLTV “I look at the names on the wall. And I see my little sister. And I see my dad’s name. I see my mom’s name. It’s a place, I believe, where their souls have come to rest.”
Ironically the museum rose out of a national dispute 32 years ago when members of a ragtag Chicago-based neo-Nazi group sought a parade permit to march in Skokie, wearing swastika armbands.
As one lawyer involved in the dispute pointed out, the museum commemorates how the survivors and others "despite their desire to leave the past behind, they could no longer remain silent."
The controversy became a made-for-TV movie and triggered one of those rare moments when people throughout the nation vigorously debated the meaning of the United States Constitution.
The question: How far can the fight against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other hate go before it tramples on our right to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press?
What’s the diff between hate speech that forfeits First Amendment protection and legitimate political speech?
In a democracy, that issue never goes away.
Today in the age of economic hardship that historically fosters anger, fear, resentment, suspicions and scapegoating, we are faced again with the challenge of distinguishing dangerous racist hate from legitimate politics, protests and criticism, including vulgar lampoons.
Americans value robust free-flowing expression. We need to protect that.
But it is not always easy to distinguish expressions of hate from passionate and legitimate, if sometimes crude, expressions of legitimate political criticism or dissent.
And it is not always easy to tell when a discontented mass of Americans can turn into a mob.
The ADL understand the damage a mob can do. This organization was founded in the wake of the lynching of Leo Frank by an anti-Semitic mob in Marietta, George, in 1915.
Tuskegee Institute records more than 3,400 lynchings between 1880 and 1951, mostly of black Americans caught in the wrong place and time.
But the mob impulse finds its way into less violent politics, too, not motivated directly by hate as by anger, fear, suspicions, resentment and an unabiding sense of grinding helpless victimization.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” That’s how Richard Hofstadter began his historic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
That was in 1964 when, as Hofstadter said, the movement behind Barry Goldwater showed “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
But he went on to say, “…I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
“… In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
In that sense, the mob sometimes springs out of the dark side of populism.
Definitions of populism vary, but it mainly is an ideology or a rhetorical style that claims to represent “the people” against “the elites.”
Americans have a long tradition of looking up to find people to look down on.
Since the late 1800s, US populism has always been a protest by ordinary people who want the system to live up to its stated ideals—fair and honest treatment in the marketplace and a government tilted in favor of the unwealthy masses.
Today’s populism hits new heights of one-downsmanship.
Liberals have not been kind to former President Bush 43, but some of the criticism leveled at President Obama seems to go beyond traditional political barbs.
For example, in last week’s anti-tax “tea party” protests, the Huffington Post website gathered and posts photos of what they call the “10 Most Offensive Tea Party Signs.”
- “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery” Madison, Wis.
- “The American Taxpayers Are the Jews for Obama’s Ovens.” Chicago
- “Our Tax Dollar$ Given to Hamas to Kill Christians, Jews and Americans, Thanks Mr. O.” Sacramento.
Another has no words, just a full Color cartoon of Obama slitting the throat of Uncle Sam. Tampa, Florida.
And there’s one Chicago poster that you might have seen on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. It says, “Barack Hussein Obama The New Face of Hitler” on a big picture of Hitler bearing Obama’s face with a Hitler mustache.
Personally I don’t thnk Hitler should ever be used as a metaphor for anyone but … Hitler!
Flagrant uses of the Hitler metaphor is a demagogic tool, designed to push us beyond rational judgment, into war and other extremes.
But what’s really poignantly and perhaps dangerous about the tea party protests is how leaderless they seem to be – and agendaless.
As journalist Walter Shapiro notes in The New Republic, this form of "apolitical populism -- a spasmodic outpouring of ideologically incoherent rage" – actually may stall the unpleasant but necessary measures that we Americans need in order to get out of the severe recession.
That, of course, is debatable. But orderly debate is hard to conduct in the midst of shouting mobs.
I am willing to give people a lot of latitude when it comes to political criticism, as long as others are free to respond.
Americans appreciate a fair and balanced approach.
It is unfortunate that today’s media world favors narrowcasting—talk radio, the internet and cable TV channels—that favor one-side-fits-all reporting and political discourse.
I won’t mention any names, but a certain network that boasts fairness and balance “covered” the tax protests in the way that, say, Jerry Lewis “covers” a March of Dimes telethon.
Meanwhile, a newly released assessment by the Department of Homeland Security warns of a resurgence of right-wing hate and a serious threat of violence after Obama’s election.
Among the report’s key findings:
“DHS has no specific information that domestic right wing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears.
“… the economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.
“Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts.
“Nevertheless, the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn—including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit—could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.
“The current economic and political climate has some similarities to the 1990s when rightwing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers.
“… Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons banslikely would attract new members into the ranks of rightwing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government.
“The high volume of purchases and stockpiling of weapons and ammunition by rightwing extremists in anticipation of restrictions and bans in some parts of the country continue to be a primary concern to law enforcement.
“Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are
attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing
extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to
boost their violent capabilities.”
I think this report should be read like the PDB, the Presidents Daily Briefing that was headlined “Bin Ladin determined to attack inside the US.” It should be taken seriously, yet also cautiously.
The DHS includes as “Rightwing extremism” both outright hate groups and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or ejecting government authority entirely.
“It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
Considering past abuses by FBI, CIA and other government secrity agencies that we veterans of the 1960s and ‘70s remember, as well as more recent post-9/11 intrusions on civil liberties, we should be concerned about the alarm bells here and the agencies that are ringing them.
You don’t have to be a right-wing conservative to be concerned about government agencies making judgment of whose views are dangerous and whose aren’t. As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that somebody is not out to get you.
So what is to be done?
We cannot have, as Nat Hentoff says, “Free speech for me, but not for thee.”
However, we also must be watchful. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty. Speech can be an indicator of a potential for sinister acts.
We must remember history, good and bad, without letting ourselves be obsessed or too confined by it to clearly see our future possibilities.
And the best response to objectionable speech is more speech. We need to be aware of the fact that we have a problem.
We must speak out against emptyheaded propaganda that feeds hate, fear, suspicions.
We must fight ignorance with information.
We must fight propaganda, not with censorship but with true fairness and balance.
We also must help those who feel alienated from the powers of the big men and women of government and commerce that it is up to them to work in partnership with mainstream America, not in opposition.
Here we turn to our leaders nationally and locally to act with what Dr. King called “Divine dissatisfaction… as long as we have a wealth of creeds and a poverty of deeds.
Let us be dissatisfied he said until the outer city of wealth and hope is brought together with the inner city of poverty and despair.
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when there is no “white power,” no “black power,” but only God’s Power and Human power.