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Tolerance Is Only OK When It Serves You

December 28th, 2008

A news story you may or may not have heard about recently is that Chip Saltsman, former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee, is getting roundly criticized–by those in his own party, in fact–for distributing a CD with the infamous song popularized by Rush Limbaugh titled, “Barack the Magic Negro.” Saltsman, like Limbaugh, defends the song as satire.

A common right-wing argument is that critics do not actually pay attention to the actual song itself, they just react to the word “Negro.” Well, let’s look at the song, which is sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator:

Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
‘Cause he’s not authentic like me.

Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper
Said he makes guilty whites feel good
They’ll vote for him, and not for me
‘Cause he’s not from the hood.

See, real black men, like Snoop Dog,
Or me, or Farrakhan
Have talked the talk, and walked the walk.
Not come in late and won!

Oh, Barack the Magic Negro, lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
‘Cause he’s black, but not authentically.

(repeat Refrain)

Some say Barack’s “articulate”
And bright and new and “clean”
The media sure loves this guy,
A white interloper’s dream!

But, when you vote for president,
Watch out, and don’t be fooled!
Don’t vote the Magic Negro in
‘Cause… — ’cause I won’t have nothing after all these years of sacrifice And I won’t get justice. This is about justice. This isn’t about me, it’s about justice. It’s about buffet. I don’t have no buffet and there won’t be any church contributions, and there’ll be no cash in the collection plate. There ain’t gonna be no cash money, no walkin’ around money, no phoning money. Now, Barack going to come in here and —

(background vocalists repeat refrain & finish song)

Sure. Nothing wrong here, right?

There is the impression that anything goes with satire, that the simple fact that something is satire legitimizes or at least excuses any excess. But this is not exactly true; it all depends upon what is clearly intended as satire and what is perceived as the true intent. For example, if the leader of a Nazi skinhead group published a “satire” of Jews which, say, accused them of controlling the economy, and then suggested they be exterminated, I don’t think that anyone would really appreciate such as “satire.” An extreme example, but it clearly demonstrates that satire has its bounds. These bounds are broken when it is clear that the intent of the satire is to express something as fact which is not acceptable. Larry Flynt’s satire of Jerry Falwell having an incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse was offensive (to some), yes, but nobody believed that even Flynt felt that it was true. Had Flynt been waging a serious campaign that Falwell was a pedophile and ran a “satire” describing his “first time” with an altar boy, that would likely not have prevailed as satire in court.

Satire, as the dictionary definition goes, is supposed to criticize people’s stupidity or vices using humor, irony, or exaggeration. One can see how right-wingers might classify Rush’s song as “satire,” in that it uses humor to express what they see as a truth about liberals’ stupidity. The thing is, that view–the intent of the satire–is in itself racist, and is expressed in a racist way. In short, it falls under the category of using satire as a cover for expressing an otherwise offensive view.

The Limbaugh song steps over several lines for a variety of reasons. First of all, the caricature of Al Sharpton goes too far in the wrong directions, coming across as an audio version of a racist stereotype. Additionally, the song–identical to Limbaugh’s own views–attempts to trap blacks into one of two characterizations: either as radicals or fakes. It suggests that in order to be “authentically” black, you have to be a rapper, a reverse-racist, illiterate, etc.–or a combination of such qualities. And then there’s the fact that the song, through satire or otherwise, suggests that liberals are incapable of voting for a black candidate unless it is due to racial guilt. Were these to be aired by, say, Chris Rock, one would know they were satire. Coming from Rush Limbaugh, one knows they are heartfelt and assumed to be true.

Another indication that the song uses satire as cover comes from the repeated citation of the L.A. Times article that got Limbaugh going in the first place. The article suggested that Obama is or at least resembles a fictional archetype, a black character in a story who exists only to give credence to a white character. And indeed, this phenomenon exists, though more often as something the character does rather than the whole reason for the character themselves, and not just for black people, but for any racial divide. I have seen several such examples arise in Japan-Western fiction, with either a westerner giving respect to a Japanese character in a Japanese drama, or the other way around.

The problem, of course, is that Obama doesn’t fit this profile. The film archetype gave credence to the main character, not to the audience directly. The characterization is stretched by suggesting that the voters themselves are the main character being given credence by the black man. And so we come back to the idea that most, or at least a large number of white voters are attracted to Obama for this reason–to feel good about themselves, to prove they’re not racist.

When it comes to this, one might ask, how can you prove that’s not the real explanation for Obama’s popularity? How do you know that whites really aren’t enamored of Obama for exactly that reason? Well, aside from the limited scope of personal introspection, and aside from the long list of reasons to like Obama which have nothing to do with race, one is faced with being asked to prove a negative, which is usually very hard if not impossible to do. But in this case, there is a strong argument even for proving the negative. Were Obama some lackluster candidate, just a well-dressed guy with no clear reason to like him, and everyone went wild, then the assuaging-white-guilt explanation might fly. But when you have a candidate who has strong charisma, powerful oratory skills, a solid platform of pragmatic and sensible policies, an inclusive agenda, an above-board high-road style, a keen intelligence, strong strategic and tactical abilities, and so forth and so on–when a candidate has so many reasons to like him, it’s kind of hard to believe that white guilt is really the strongest thing driving his popularity. The fact is, there simply is no such feeling of assuaging white guilt that exists out there.

And, of course, the question of evidence is what kills the whole “Magic Negro” claim in the first place: there is no evidence, zero, zip, to suggest that this phenomenon does exist at all, even in the smallest way. It is simply assumed, with nothing to back it up.

Which brings us back to Limbaugh and the L.A. Times article. Limbaugh really had no evidence to back up his claims–until the L.A. Times article came out. Never mind that the L.A. Times article itself had no evidence to back it up–Rush now had a newspaper article to lean on. Which is why the article is repeatedly referred to rather than just the concept itself: it’s Rush’s thin veil of legitimacy. In a sense, the article was Rush’s very own “Magic Racism,” existing only to lend Rush himself some sort of credence to make him feel like he’s not a racist, despite clearly acting like one.

One also gets the very strong feeling that, for Limbaugh, it was more than just the idea of liberal white guilt being the sole cause for Obama’s popularity; it was the excuse to use the word “Negro” incessantly on the air. As if to say, “hey, it’s not me who used the word ‘Negro,’ it was that L.A. Times journalist who used it! Negro Negro Negro!!!”

It’s this breaking of racial taboos that tickles the hard-right’s sensibilities, the forbidden fruit of speaking their intolerance aloud in the age of political correctness and getting away with it. Which is probably why Saltsman included it on that CD, which was filled with such racist crap.

The funny thing here is that Saltsman is getting reamed for this not because he’s crossing a line, but because of Republican political infighting. Saltsman is in a heated race for the leadership of the Republican Party with Mike Duncan, the Current RNC Chairman–who is the one who is taking Saltsman to task for his insensitivity. One can rest assured that if Saltsman were not challenging anyone and just released the song on a CD for fun, neither Duncan nor anyone else in the GOP would have so much as blinked. If you think not, then reflect on the fact that neither Duncan nor the GOP so roundly criticized Limbaugh for releasing and repeatedly promoting the song and using the offending term.

Apparently, political correctness works just fine for Republicans when it serves them politically–but only then.

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  1. Tim Kane
    December 29th, 2008 at 00:48 | #1

    I could be mistaken, these days I don’t fill tuned in – a backlash from the election I suppose, but all this stuff can only lead to a greater and greater backlash against what’s left of the Republican party.

    This is 19th century Southern politics. The rest of the world is moving on. It has to. The problem for Republicans is that people who struggling economically can’t afford the luxury of racism and are likely to look upon that mentality as being instrumental to their becoming impoverished in the first place.

    The post-Nixon/Ford Republican party has been flirting with self destructiveness and that instinct hit is synthesis in 2000. The policies they pursued were layered in self destructiveness – destructive to the world, the country and the party. No reasonable person is going to invest themselves in that party. Ultimately, they are left with the Palin’s and Joe Sixpacks of the world.

    Do they really think that they can ride the tails of “Barack the magic negro” to electoral mid-term election gains? Personally, I hope they keep on this track – we aren’t going to get universal health care with a strong vigorous GOP. We need them to be week and stupid.

  2. Tim Kane
    December 29th, 2008 at 00:49 | #2

    thats “feel” not fill. When typing fast, and while tired, I have problems with homonyms.

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