As a people, a nation or a community, it is appropriate to celebrate who are and inappropriate to condemn others for who they are. The unreasonable search for a non-American origin in the nation’s leader betrays an irrational inclination to condemn. While it is reasonable to condemn others for what they do and feel shame for our own misdeeds, it is inappropriate to celebrate who we are not or condemn others for not being our mirror image. When we hear cries at political rallies of “I want my country back.” The undefined, but menacing other, is matched by a restrictive and ethnocentric “me.” When shouted at the Obama administration, the idea of a stolen country is curious but the thought of taking it back is downright disturbing. Who was supposed to have owned it? For most African Americans there can no doubt about who did not. When the halls of Congress are interrupted by an unprecedented “you lie” shouted in defamation of the President, it is not the accusation of having lied or continuing to lie, but the inescapable declaration of a character flaw that is most disturbing. It is the implication that the lying of this president has no visible beginning or end. It is a permanent moral deformity. Perhaps, less impressive and, yet undeniable, is the fact that at that point the president was clearly telling the truth.
The truth is less impressive in these incidents because it does not seem to have mobilized the most intense political opposition to Obama’s healthcare initiative. Rather, the stereotypic and racially symbolic images of the extremists take up more space in the media reports. Vitriolic assertions like that of teabag protester that “the zoo has an African lion and we have a lying African” force the conclusion of racism to the surface. Still, the extremism, the opponents say, is peripheral to the street-level opposition. The opposition claims to have its roots in traditional raw capitalism, small government and hardcore individualism. The fact that American traditions have deprived African Americans of individualistic opportunity, subjected them and other minorities to harshest aspects of irresponsible capital systems, including sub-prime banking, and led to a greater need for government intervention, is supposed to excuse the racial digressions. They would perhaps be excusable if they were digressions but they are traditionally tied to opposition to the kind of progressive socially policies now in focus. From the racially tainted Southern politics of earlier decades, which President Carter invoked, to the last election racially imagery reinforces the sense of us versus them. It’s a time tested tactic that has worked as long as it has not been publicly exposed. Associating the uncertainty and the risky with people that are not like us will work as long as those people are seen as not like us in more ways than one. Old fashion name-calling racism only work to rally whites in the past when race was thought to be all inclusive. Having progressed beyond that, a little is needed to make the same point. Still, references to Africans in a zoo and Obama in deformed facial masks are hardly subtle.
Yet, crude appeals to group identity work when communities are separated almost as well as when they were segregated. Now and especially in times of insecurity, anyone can long to have his or her country back, particularly when a defeated political agenda is confused with the national interests and national boundaries stop short people who don’t share my view of tradition.