As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Krugman, Dubois, and the "psychic wage" of being white.

(cross-posted from my DailyKos piece from today.)

It has been said many times before, and I'm sure it'll be said many times again. But if you only read one thing today, make sure it's today's NYT column by Paul Krugman.

For in today's column, Krugman merely goes to a place where no other traditional media figure has gone: namely, the only thing that makes sense. While other media figures are comparing the violence provoked by the Astroturfed radical right to previous contentious policy debates--such as that over Hillarycare in 1993, or over Social Security in 2005--Krugman just lays out the simple facts:

That dog won't hunt, and it's time to hunt for the real cause: the color of our President's skin.

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind...

Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison.

Why isn't there any comparison? Krugman's argument in breathtakingly simple: there was no violence. No physical assaults on elected representatives. No swastikas. No devil caricatures. No lynchings in effigy. Rather, we had policy debates. Bush thought his political capital was strong enough to touch the third rail. And the ensuing discourse wasn't always polite--but you never had members of Congress fearing for their life.

It's obvious that there's something different going on here--that the right wing is ablaze with passion in a way we have not seen in a long time. So inflamed, as a matter of fact, that they are willing to resort to lunatic conspiracy theories to try to disprove Obama's eligibility to hold office. What's up with that?

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing...

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship....

And what is that driving force? The Southern Strategy, of course. Opposition to Obama based on the color of his skin.

But if you're like me, you end up wondering: how can the fact that our President is only half-white inspire so much blood-boiling hatred? So much that powerful moneyed interests can use that outrage to once again get regular people to seriously obey talking points about forced euthanasia? I mean, come on! How is that possible? Are these dead-enders really so racist that they believe a black Democrat will try to get euthanasia of the elderly written into law, but a white Democrat wouldn't?

No--because it's really not about that. I'd like you to go back and read TomP's recommended diary from yesterday about this subject. TomP's thesis was that the outrage that is being felt all across the country by this berserk minority represents the death throes of racism. I understand his general point, and it is one echoed in Paul Krugman's column--white racists are an increasingly small sliver of the electoral pie, which is what allowed Obama to get into office in the first place.

But I disagree mildly with TomP--it's not really the racism that's dying. As bloggers and as thinkers, we always, to use Newton's phrase, stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to writing our ideas--and here, the shoulders I'm standing on are those of my fellow Calitics blogger Robert Cruickshank, whom you know around these parts as eugene.

It started, as so much does, with a simple tweet:

@DavidOAtkins DuBois had it figured out 75 years ago: Poor/middle class whites draw a psychic wage from being white.

(DavidOAtkins, by the way, is my brother and the preeminent thereisnospoon).

In the span of less than 140 characters, Robert Cruickshank has spelled out the emotional raison d'etre of the birthbagger movement. Put quite simply: W.E.B. DuBois, author of some of the standard readings in American History class about reconstruction and race relations in the United States, wrote about the "psychic wage" that racist white people derive simply from being white: a feeling of supremacy and moral superiority. Put in a more modern context, this "psychic wage" is what allows white birthbaggers on Medicare to scream about government-run healthcare. It's what allows the citizens of Alaska to scream about inner-city welfare. The "psychic wage" of being white stipulates that because they are white, they are superior in station and there is no moral problem with them receiving services--a paradox brilliantly explored by my brother shortly after election day. (Incidentally, this same concept of the "psychic wage" is a large factor in why bigots claim that same-sex marriage will destroy straight marriage: it's all about the psychic wage of being superior because one's heterosexuality.)

One of the key pillars of the so-called psychic wage has been, simply put, that the highest office-holders in the land were white, and nobody but whites stood a shot in hell at winning it--especially when it came to the highest office in the land, the Presidency of the United States.

And now that the Presidency is not an exclusive club for those of purely European heritage, the key pillar of the racial psychic wage has crumbled to dust.

So I want you to imagine a scenario. Imagine you've gone through your entire life believing you're superior. You're better than everyone else. You belong to an exclusive club. It's the root of your self-identity--and despite whatever is going on around you, you know that whatever else happens, you're still a member of the club that gives you a status higher than anyone else but your fellow members. And then one day, that club is gone. Imagine the angst. The fear. The passion and energy. You'll do whatever it takes to try to reconstitute that club--no matter how crazy it is to any outsider, and you'll oppose the people who took your membership away, no matter what it is that they're doing, just because of what they did to you.

That's what this is about. And I'd like to close with some stern words of warning from the piece that started this: Paul Krugman's column.

But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.

So show up, dammit. This movement rests on us.

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