— Matthew 5:44
My first thought was that I wanted to find the person responsible and, in the immortal words of Blind Willie McTell, beat them as ragged as a cedar tree. It was a wrath born of powerlessness, the kind one feels upon discovering one’s home has been burgled, or whenever one is confronted suddenly and unexpectedly with the baleful bent of human nature.
I had just finished a meeting downtown and, approaching my car in the parking lot, happened to glance at the white “Obama ‘08” sticker on the back window of my wagon. I actually had been pondering for a few weeks whether it might be time to remove it, but had decided to leave it on as show of support for the president, at least until health care reform passes.
(Before proceeding, it seems fitting to take a moment to address the risible fiction of journalistic objectivity. There are journalists who studiously avoid expressing support for any political candidate or cause; there are even, God help us, journalists who do not vote, apparently having so fragile a grasp on their ability to make personal views subservient to the simple reportage of fact that they choose not to exercise the most precious gift of democracy. While I believe that objectivity is an admirable aspiration, I also believe that it is as far beyond the human ken as outrunning a speeding bullet or leaping tall buildings in a single bound; to pretend otherwise is a self-serving exercise in deception. In my view, readers are better served when I confess my biases and trust them to judge for themselves whether my reporting is fair and accurate.)
Here I was, then, momentarily consumed by rage at whatever ignorant, hateful, cowardly being had used a sky-blue marker to scrawl “KILLING OUR NATION” across the top margin of my Obama sticker. I looked around, hoping to find the person still there, not thinking at that moment that the defacement could have happened anytime over the preceding several days — and made angrier still by the thought that I might have been, to this person’s glee, driving around town with this new slogan displayed. Projecting from the vandal’s stated political leanings, I reflected that he likely would have felt perfectly justified in shooting me dead on the spot had he caught me with my hands on his vehicle. Beginning to calm down, I managed a rueful chuckle at the fact that all the words were spelled correctly.
That’s when I resolved to write the column you now are reading, though the words on this page are quite different from what I originally outlined in my mind. My first thought was to give full voice to a line of thought which has come to be shared by growing numbers of progressive-minded individuals, up to and including one of Obama’s predecessors in the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter: That the heedlessly specious and blindly accusatory opposition to our new president boils down to the fact that the far right cannot wrap their minds around the fact that a black man has managed to win, fairly and squarely, election to the office of President of the United States.
Certainly there is a case to be made here. The use of thinly veiled racist language has been a staple of American politics from the time of our nation’s founding, perfected in recent history by expert practitioners ranging from Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Karl Rove. And, after all, in a climate where Rush Limbaugh feels perfectly comfortable advocating to his millions of radio listeners a return to segregated buses, and where Glenn Beck — who in a time prior to the advent of talk radio or Fox News would have been perfectly content as the president of his local White Citizens Council, or editing the newsletter of the John Birch Society — is allowed to demonstrate the sanctity of the First Amendment with all manner of unhinged and inflammatory pronouncements, it is apparent that news of Lee’s surrender to Grant has yet to reach some precincts.
Such was to have been the crux of this column, had the president himself not intervened. As has been widely reported, the question of whether racism is at the root of opposition to him and his policies was posed to Obama over last weekend in several news forums. In a word, the president’s response was “No.” It was in his elaborations of that response, however, that Obama demonstrated why he is the leader we need in these troubled times — and, in the process, provided in mirror in which I saw my own shortcomings reflected with humbling clarity.
“Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there are,” Obama acknowledged in an interview aired on CNN. “But that’s not the overriding issue here. There’s been a longstanding debate in this country that is usually much more fierce during times of transition, or when presidents are trying to bring about big changes.” In that and other interviews, Obama suggested that the “vitriol” he is encountering has less to do with race than with “honest disagreements” over the role of government in American life.
To be sure, Obama’s assessment was, to some degree, calculated. It was an effort to marginalize race-driven rhetoric on all sides, and thereby defuse what has become an explosive point of contention, whipped to frenzy in some quarters by those who would rather see the country in ruins than see his presidency succeed.
In the face of such division, the president is gently reminding us that, warts and all, America remains a free country — and that we all will do well to tone down our rhetoric, seek common ground with those with whom we disagree, and remember that when we demean others, we degrade ourselves. If that’s killing our nation, then I’m Rush Limbaugh.
Mark Kelly is a Birmingham-based writer and the contributing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.