Late Nite FDL: Breaking The Code
(Tonight’s guest poster is Digby)
It’s always interesting to see how the right wing deals with its inherent racism. They used to wear it proudly and openly, but since we have managed to make some progress in the last 40 years or so, they have had to become much more creative in the way they convey their solidarity with the racist among us. The patron saint of Republican operatives (and Karl Rove’s Godfather) Lee Atwater discussed the GOP’s dilemma way back in 1980:
”You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
”And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.”’
He was wistful about it. Racism was getting harder to sell; the message had to be abstract. Shucks. But abstract or not, it still resonated. Even tax cuts — the raison d’etre of modern Republicanism, was actually a coded racist issue — "blacks are gonna get hurt by ’em." (This was actually a very old story in America and may even be the reason why we’ve never had the kind of social services and safety net that other first world economies have — a fair number of people refuse to pay for anything that might benefit minorities.)
Atwater was a master of the southern strategy and this admission signaled a new generation of racist code that the Republicans had to adopt to keep the south in the GOP column. Too many southerners and others around the country had had their consciousness’ raised about the issue and racism was forced to go underground.
But it still rears its ugly face in all its glory from time to time as when RedState commenters write things like this:
Actually, I can’t wait for the unsealing of the secret FBI King files in 2027 to reveal the truth about MLK and his less than honorable life and legacy (thanks to a liberal judge and the King family they have bought time preventing their release under FOIA… hmm, you think they have something to hide?). In the mean time, the country remains held hostage to the unbalanced and intellectually dishonest legacy of this man and his family. Pardon me if I choose not to worship at their phony altar.
Also, I can see clearly why blacks just love the Democratic party for all its done for them in perpetuating their continued pride in their own sense of victimhood. Bravo!
Notice how polite the racism has become? No "nigger, nigger, nigger" anywhere. And yet I think we can all agree that the racial hostility is quite evident, although I’m sure the writer would tell you that he was only talking about MLK or certain "Afro-Americans" (one of their favorite codes) and that they just love black people; it’s the Democratic "race hustling victim pimps" they are against:
Those who follow leaders like Dr. Lowry deserve to be marginalized.
Funny, but I recall that African-Americans are losing political clout in America, as the Hispanic population increases in size.
So, explain to me again why the NAACP and other "mainstream" African-American organizations should be accorded respect, if they refuse to be respectful– or even polite themselves?
As I’ve written before, it’s always something:
1955 – They are an inferior race
1965 – They aren’t good workers
1975 – They make old white customers uncomfortable
1985 – Affirmative action means their diplomas are bogus
1995 – They are a litigation risk for discrimination
2006 – They don’t know how to behave in public.
During Katrina we saw a different face of coded racism: the "fear of the black mob," the history of which goes all the way back to the early years of American history and the slave revolts. This is the racism that led Peggy Noonan, Jonah Goldberg and others on the right to lead the shrill cries to shoot first and ask questions later, based on the unconfirmed stories of marauding gangs of African American criminals. The hysteria to which they and the mainstream media succumbed was a significant factor in the sluggish relief and evacuation effort. It wasn’t that Bush didn’t "care about black people." (although I doubt he cares much.) It’s that whites were afraid of black people. That’s just another side of the same bigoted coin.
This particular coded racist code has bee quite useful. It flies surreptitiously under the rightwing battle flag of "law ‘n order" (George Wallace’s latter day code for "nigger, nigger, nigger") that was adopted wholesale by the GOP after 1968. It served the Republicans very, very well for more than 30 years and has probably only been temporarily shelved for their current obsession with "islamofascism." It is being half-heartedly revived for the immigration debate today although they haven’t been able to integrate it very smoothly with their economic and national security arguments quite yet.
They are making some progress with this new blanket designation of "illegals," whom Jack Cafferty on CNN today suggested be dealt with by having the INS bring buses to the protests and shipping out anyone who can’t produce a green card. (I don’t have one myself, so I suppose I could be shipped out right along with all the other Americans who don’t carry "papers.")
Perhaps the most obscure form of racist code speech is rampant neo-confederate homophobia. I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. Anti-gay language, crude or not so crude, can be found in many neo-confederate tracts and articles. They often use the traditional language of anti-semitism. (All that "disease" talk. )I was confused by this for a while, wondering if the antebellum south had had an underground gay sub-culture that had been scorned as a southern tradition. But it is actually just another code for traditional bigotry which they base on this:
When I served on the State Textbook Committee, I asked each publisher, "what is your definition of family?" Almost without exception, the publishers, out of deference to the homosexual, lesbian, and feminist movements, define family as two or more people living together who care for one another. By their definition, any two people living together – men, women, married, unmarried – are now defined as a family.
The antebellum South was a society founded on the traditional family of husband, wife, and children. Even today, more than the rest of the US, the South is still more family oriented. Southerners still do not move as often as other people do. More than 75% of the people living in Alabama today were born in Alabama.
Because the South was, and is more family oriented, and because our definition of family is increasingly unacceptable to many Americans, all things Southern, including our concept of family, are attacked.
This convenient conflation of "traditional" southern culture and family, of course, ignores the fact that slave families were ruthlessly broken up. And anyway the slaves had a mental defect that made them want to run away. But, no matter. You can see how easily the neoconfederates have incorporated this "family values" rhetoric and substituted their overt racism with overt homophobia.
The neoconfederates are a marginal group. Even most conservative southerners aren’t members of such organizations as League of the South. But, as David Niewert explained last week, this language makes its way into the mainstream through the right wing noise machine until it becomes mainstream. The codes are still understood by those at whom they are aimed and the rhetoric itself becomes a normal part of the discourse. While not everyone who hates gays is also racist, you can probably feel fairly comfortable in assuming that if somebody is talking about their Christian, southern antebellum heritage and they hate gays — it’s code. For gays, sure. But also for blacks, for Mexicans, the whole kaleidoscope of colors and cultures they hate.
It is no surprise then that loaded terms such as "the homosexual agenda" have emanated from the usual racist rightwing suspects. As Jack Balkin explained:
There has been considerable discussion about Justice Scalia’s accusation that the Lawrence majority had signed on to "the so-called homosexual agenda." I believe what has irked some people is that the expression "the homosexual agenda" has a history. It is a form of code often used by Jesse Helms and other social conservative politicians to whip up resentment against moderates and liberals who support gay rights. The use of the term "homosexual agenda" has been a shrewd way of intimating without overtly stating that people who supported gay rights were somehow disloyal to the country (like the hidden communist agenda) because they were assisting in the destruction of America by destroying its moral fibre, or extremist, because they supported a deeper, hidden agenda whose real goals cannot be openly announced and are instead disguised in the plausible sounding garb of equal rights.
Here’s a representative quote from Sen. Helms in support of a bill he introduced to roll back President Clinton’s executive order prohibiting discrimination against gays in federal employment:
" Mr. President, for many years the homosexual community has engaged in a well-organized, concerted campaign to force Americans to accept, and even legitimize, an immoral lifestyle. This bill is designed to prevent President Clinton from advancing the homosexual agenda at the expense of both the proper legislative role and the free speech rights of Federal workers."
And, of course, it’s a matter of states’ rights, don’t you know.
The Mighty Rightwing Wurlitzer and its little volume pedal, the bigotsphere, are continuing the long tradition of American intolerance. The good news is that they are largely forced to find ways other than overt racist language to convey their hatred and intolerance. The bad news is that they manage to do it so very well. In case anyone has missed their latest brilliant rhetorical twist, here it is: if you call them on their racism, you are a racist. It’s one of the more successful applications of the GOP epistemic relativism of the "I know you are but what am I" variety. It’s quite frustrating, just as the Orwellian "losing means winning" rhetoric is. But don’t mistake it for anything but what it is. It’s not just a lame riposte. It’s not a defense. It’s code to others who think as they do. Racists.
Previous posts in the series:
Educating Wolfie by Pam Spaulding
Right Wing Racism: Steve Sailer by Armando
Let’s Go Real Far Right… by Matt Stoller
Tramsmitting Extremism by David Neiwert
The Fork in the Road — The Right and Race Online by Steve Gilliard
Late Night FDL: A Thin Candy-Coat of Legitimacy by TBogg
What Lies Beneath by Matt O.
Matt O. has also been compiling racist quotes from right-wing websites over at The Great Society.