UnderCurrents: Waking Up People Who Are Not Actually Asleep

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 12:05:00 PM

Some years ago, in my South Carolina days, I was part of a delegation that met with an old-line civil rights leader in an attempt to get him to join us in a more militant campaign. The leader—a Baptist minister—seemed somewhat befuddled by the initial presentation, and so, midway through the meeting, I weighed in with what I believed were my formidable talents for bringing clarity to an issue. The more I clarified, however, the more confused the old man got, until, finally, the meeting dissolved in frustration, without his having committed either to support or to oppose what we proposed. 

On our way out to the cars, I was venting my frustration to a friend of mine—a native Southerner—and he turned to me with a small smile and said, “You know, you can’t wake up someone who ain’t asleep.” 

It was one of those pithy, insightful sayings that make the South such a delightful region to live in. The point of it, of course, was that, when faced with someone deliberately feigning misunderstanding, no amount of clarity will clarify. 

Thus our conservative Republican friends and President Barack Obama. 

What caught my eye this week was a David Neiwert posting on the Crooks and Liars website debunking an assertion by our old Fox News friend, Glenn Beck. In a video posted with the story, taken from a late August show, in which a line of African-American teenage men in black T-shirts and army fatigue pants step up in turn and chant “because of Obama, I aspire to be the next lawyer” or “because of Obama, I aspire to be the next doctor.” Mr. Beck described the youth as “a very militant-looking group.” The clip was played immediately after one with black-bereted and black-leather-jacketed members of the Black Panther Party (presumably the new version). 

Anyone with 15 minutes of insight into African-American culture had to be hooting when they saw the clip of the fatigue-clad youth and heard Mr. Beck’s assertion, of course, knowing what these young men were representing. But for those to whom African-Americans are still somewhat of an exoticism, Mr. Neiwert explained in Tuesday’s posting: the youth in the original YouTube video from which the Beck clip was taken are members of the Urban Community Leadership Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, who are emulating not the gun-waving of militant Panthers but, rather, the step-dancing of typical African-American college fraternities. 

“The young kids … are emulating a historically black fraternity that is found on college campuses throughout the nation,” Mr. Neiwert quotes the original YouTube video text as explaining. “Young men in this fraternity DO go on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers.”  

(Niewert, by the way, credits Huffington Post’s Matt Osborne for doing the legwork that uncovered the original leadership academy video.)  

The Neiwert posting and the Osborne reporting and column shows the proper way to respond to these types of attacks. Good research, patient explaining to those who might have some confusion, an answering of the charges, and then moving on. Debunking false assertions, it might be called. There is no attempt to convince the attackers. 

The futility of such attempts at convincing is made manifest by reviewing one of the comments to the original posting of the entire Urban Community Leadership Academy video. The video starts with the young men marching into the room chanting “Alpha, Omega.” One would naturally surmise that, ummmm, this refers to the Hellenic names common to college fraternities and sororities, both black and white (for the uninitiated in black culture, or fraternity-sorority culture, Psi Phi Omega and Alpha Phi Alpha are two of the oldest, largest, and most famous of the African-American college fraternities). In any event the one commenter, self-named “islamsucksallah,” had other ideas. “ ‘Alpha Omega’? Say what?” the commentator writes. “Only Christ is Alpha and Omega. Who does this Obama cunt think he is? And what’s with the ‘O’ yell at the end when these little turds jump back in line? They must have got rammed up the ass by Hussein Obama’s islamic cock.” 

There is really nothing appropriate to directly answer such assertions other than, what the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco might say, that is, “child, please!” (There’s another, richer version of that saying that I can’t repeat in a mixed-race or, more appropriately, non-black newspaper forum.) Anyways, too many of our friends on the left make the attempt at rebuttal that leads to attempts to convince and win over those who are being rebutted. 

That seemed to be the case when some of our conservative friends appeared practicing what appears to be deliberate dumbness this week in the case of Mr. Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren. 

In the case of the schoolchildren speech, conservatives leveled their criticism that Mr. Obama’s national address intended to be broadcast directly to students in American classrooms was an attempt to “indoctrinate” the nation’s youth into what they were calling the president’s “socialist agenda.” The clamor over it got so loud that some parents began opting their children out of the exercise, in some cases keeping their children home on the day of the president’s address so that they would not have to be “subjected” to it. 

Progressives, liberals, and other presidential supporters on the left responded—in some cases—by pointing out that a presidential address to the nation’s schoolchildren was hardly a new event. The same was done by Presidents Ronald Reagan and at least one of the Bushes. 

In a Sept. 8 posting to called “Reagan’s Speech to School Kids,” journalist Ed Brayton pointed out the hypocrisy in conservative attacks on the Obama speech. Posting the text of a 1986 Regan speech to American schoolchildren, Mr. Brayton wrote that “I suggest putting your irony meters away before you read this. Unlike the bland pep talk Obama is giving, Reagan actually did exactly what the fantasists of the lunatic right have been claiming Obama was going to do, pushing specific policies and lauding how great his administration had been for the country. ... I want to see just one of these lunatics throwing a fit about Obama’s speech admit that their hero Reagan did exactly what they’ve falsely accused Obama of doing. But I’m not holding my breath until it happens. They are as immune to intellectual honesty as it is possible to be.” 

My problem with Mr. Brayton’s argument is the point where he says that he wants to “see just one of these lunatics throwing a fit about Obama’s speech admit that their hero Reagan did exactly what they’ve falsely accused Obama of doing.” While one might simply excuse that as rhetoric—and I don’t know Mr. Brayton or his writing well enough to know if that’s the case—this sort of formation turns up again and again in political discussions in the post-Clinton years. First is the need to, over and over again, point out hypocrisy and the practice of your-side, my-side situational ethics on the right. At some point, just like we did on the earth circling the sun and other general theorems, we ought to accept this as a truism, and move on. The second is an almost plaintive need not just to point out the hypocrisy of our conservative cousins, but to have them admit it. And when one or two do, there is a round of chortling and hand-slapping on the left, as if somehow firmament and fact were only made manifest by a conservative word confirming it. 

This type of argument puts the center of the moral compass of the country squarely on the right-hand side of the equation. Implicitly, it justifies actions on the left by stating that the same actions were once done by the right as if somehow that alone makes such actions, um, right. 

This is the type of argument that little children make. It’s OK to do because Daddy once did it. 

Ultimately, attempting to justify actions to those who are not seeking justice simply do not work. Faced with cogent argument that their reasoning is wrong, they either shift the terms of the debate or blithely move on to another subject without acknowledging error. If the point is to make them admit wrongdoing, it almost never happens. 

When Mr. Obama’s office released—in advance—a transcript of his speech to the children showing no sign of indoctrination in left-wing ideology, at least one critic alleged that the “original speech” had been trashed in the face of conservative criticism. 

“Clearly last week there was a plan with the Department of Education,” Florida Republican Chairperson Jim Greer told CNN a day before the president’s speech. “When you ask students to write a letter to the president on how we can help you with your new ideas, Mr. President, that is leading the students in an effort to push the president’s agenda. Now that the White House got their hand in the cookie jar caught, they changed everything, they redid the lesson plans, they released the text, and tomorrow he’s gonna give a speech that every president should have an opportunity to give.” 

The point of this barrage of attacks on Mr. Obama is not to foster debate or even to advance an ideological position. It is simply to batter the president as Katrina once battered the Louisiana-Mississippi coast, mindlessly, relentlessly, pushing at every perceived weak point, until the levees fail and the water surges in and washes all away. This is Great Flood politics by those who sincerely believe themselves the sons and daughters of Noah, and who think that somehow America will be cleansed and blessed by the deluge they release. There is a biblical passage that seems to fit such thinking: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”—and if I were a Sunday School scholar I could point to the book and chapter (Hosea 8:7), but I’m not, so I won’t. 

Instead, I’ll recall another of my favorite Southern sayings that seems more appropriate: “You can’t win at mud-wrestling with a pig. You’ll only get dirty, and, regardless of the outcome, the pig always loves it.” 

And a final note to our homeboy, Van Jones, coming back battered and wounded from the Washington wars. Perhaps, upon reflection, Mr. Jones might want to amend the apology that did nothing to save his job with the Obama administration. “On further review,” his statement to the press might read, “I believe I was correct in the beginning, and some Republicans are assholes.” 

I guarantee, that would wake up some of our good friends on the right.