Time's John Cloud is apparently not content to make the obvious case against Obama's embrace of Rick Warren and his abhorrent beliefs about gays, women, and violence. No, that's not enough: Obama it seems, might as well be mild-mannered white supremacist Richard Russell, Jr.
Obama reminds me a little bit of Richard Russell Jr., the longtime senator from Georgia who — as historian Robert Caro has noted — cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful, tolerant politician even as he defended inequality and segregation for decades. Obama gave a wonderfully Russellian defense of Warren Thursday at a press conference. Americans, he said, need to "come together" even when they disagree on social issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about," he said. Russell would often use the same tactic to deflect criticism of his civil rights record. It was a distraction, Russell said, from the important business of the day uniting all Americans. Obama also said today that he is a "fierce advocate for equality" for gays, which is — given his opposition to equal marriage rights — simply a lie. It recalls the time Russell said, "I'm as interested in the Negro people of my state as anyone in the Senate. I love them."
By all means, gay-rights advocates can continue to compare marriage equality to the system of segregation, and to compare those who support civil unions but not marriage equality to hard-core segregationists. But they shouldn't expect anyone who knows anything about segregation, or anyone with family members who actually remember segregation, to listen to them. In fact, they can expect to alienate them fully. Cloud has said that to overturn Prop 8 activists will need to "reach out" to African-American voters. But I would counsel that comparing the first black president of the United States to a segregationist is not the best way to do that. There have always been people who, in seeking to make their cases against various forms of bigotry, have used the stories of other historically oppressed groups as props and little else. It is one of the most infuriating manifestations of racist paternalism in our political discourse. Gay couples being denied their right to marry doesn't have to be exactly like segregation to be wrong.
Russell had a record of blocking civil rights reforms whenever possible. Obama has supported non-discrimination laws, civil unions, and health care coverage for same sex couples. He scored a 94 on the Human Rights Campaign's legislative scorecard this year. He is not a "good natured" bigot in the form of Russell, whose false genteel exterior belied a career based on outright hatred, he is a political opportunist whose legislative record on gay rights remains encouraging in the face of outrageous cultural and political triangulation.
The point of the comparison, of course, is that Obama is black and Cloud, like others, thinks there's something uniquely evil about black people with prejudices. Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that this is about seeing a "nobility" in victimhood, but my knee-jerk reaction is that quite obviously only some people are entitled to be wrong. The response of some people in the aftermath of Prop 8 suggested there was something particularly galling about the idea that black people could ever look down their noses at anyone else, and this underlying notion drives Cloud's argument. Paternalism becomes an even more likely motivation when you consider that Cloud once defended vocal gay rights opponent and sometime f-bomb-dropper Ann Coulter on the grounds that she, you know, has gay friends.
-- A. Serwer
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