So it turns out that I can still be shocked by public discourse. Yes, South Carolina is famous for primaries with dirty tricks and low blows; one almost looks forward to it, wondering what they'll do this time around. But my jaw dropped when Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the "food-stamp president." Wait—is that a dog whistle I hear? I'm not always fond of Chris Matthews, but he sure did nail it: Everyone can hear the whistle now, not just the Southern racists of yore. We know the connections being made about race, laziness, welfare queens, and all the rest. And it's shocking to hear it out loud.
Over the weekend, Lee Siegel published an essay in The New York Times positing that Romney is, essentially, running as white—whiter than white, really, as white as you can get, free of Catholicism, cosmopolitanism, zealotry, adultery, or any other pollutant:
Of course, I’m not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I’m referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America’s first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America....
Contrast that with Mr. Romney’s meticulously cultivated whiteness. He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like “oh gosh” with Stepford bonhomie. He has mastered Benjamin Franklin’s honesty as the “best policy”: a practiced insincerity, an instant sunniness that, though evidently inauthentic, provides a bland bass note that keeps everyone calm. This is the bygone world of Babbitt, of small-town Rotarians.
I'm not sure I agree with Siegel that that's culturally coded as "white"; it strikes me as retro rather than racial, although of course in that retro world, "the races" knew their separate places. But hers is an interesting thesis.
There's really no escaping race in this country, as I've discussed here several times before. I've long been interested in how Obama has presented himself as both black and not-black, culturally fluent in Kansas neighborliness but with an African American wife. Knowing that he couldn't escape race, he used it to signal change. That confused many progressives during the 2008 election, leading many to overlook his moderate campaign positions and to imagine that he offered something further left than he was saying out loud. The progressive dream of inspiration and change was a mirror image of how his blackness outraged many on the far right, who imagined him as more culturally foreign than he actually was, insisting that he was literally foreign-born and (sin of sins) Muslim.
What gives me hope is the overwhelming revulsion that Gingrich's comment has garnered. We all heard what he was saying. And it's not going to be enough to let him win.