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John Derbyshire On The Voter Demographic That Dare Not Speak Its Name
I can’t say I’m a very keen fan of the Parade mini-magazine that comes with my Sunday New York Post. My wife pulls it out to read over her breakfast while I go directly to op-ed articles in the main newspaper—thumb-sucking pieces about the collapse of Detroit or the prospects for Syria.
Not that I mind Parade at all. On balance I’ll allow it’s a Good Thing. For those like Mrs. Derbyshire who take it at face value, it offers generally sound advice on matters like health, parenting, and household finances, in among harmless celebrity gossip, nostalgia pieces for the older readers, and uplifting stories about citizens who have triumphed over adversity.
For those of us with a more coldly sociological eye, Parade is a window into the interests and concerns of those sensible tens of millions of Americans who, like the great Warren G. Harding (according to historian Paul Johnson), do not believe that politics are “very important or that people should get excited about them or allow them to penetrate too far into their everyday lives.”
So no, I don’t mind Parade; it’s just that its content doesn’t usually interest me much.
But last week’s issue was an exception. The cover showed super-celebrity Oprah Winfrey and movie actor Forest Whitaker, with a short caption telling me that these two are starring in a film about a White House butler during the Civil Rights era.
This was interesting to me because, during my 1980s campaign to Americanize myself, one of the books I read and enjoyed was Forty-Two Years in the White House, the 1934 memoir by White House usher Ike Hoover.
Hoover had served under all the Presidents from Benjamin Harrison (“Very seldom did he work after lunch”) to FDR, about whom Hoover was diplomatically silent. He is an invaluable source on such things as the smoking habits of the Presidents and First Ladies: McKinley the most intense smoker (cigars only), Mrs. Coolidge the only First Lady who smoked (“and she never did so in public”).
Thus primed, I was mildly curious about the Winfrey-Whitaker movie, which is scheduled for release August 16th. So I read the Parade piece, in which the magazine interviews Winfrey, Whitaker, and director Lee Daniels. [Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker Talk Lee Daniels' The Butler, Racism, and the N-word, By Katherine Heintzelman, July 31, 2013]
Titled The Butler, the movie is a fictionalized account of the career of another White House servant, Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from 1952 to 1986.
Whitaker is the Allen character (under a different name). Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria. “We took a lot of liberties with Gloria,” Winfrey tells Parade. Uh-oh. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower; Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan. Uh-oh.
To judge from the Parade interview, The Butler is not an assemblage of amusing or instructive anecdotes about The Presidents in Ike Hoover style. Instead, it is black grievance porn.
So is the Parade interview itself.
Parade: Do you think that young people today know enough about the civil rights movement?
Winfrey: They don’t know diddly-squat. Diddly-squat!
Whitaker: The movie deals with the valuation of life, too. Like, whose life is valuable?...In terms of today, Fruitvale Station is playing, about the shooting of Oscar Grant in the Oakland BART station . . .
Winfrey: And the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Soon no doubt to be a major motion picture, perhaps directed by Lee Daniels. Or perhaps Mr. Daniels is planning a movie about one of the innumerable whites and Asians murdered by blacks? Ha ha ha ha ha!
The Deplorable Word? We get a whole column and a half on it.
Winfrey: It’s hard to be loose-lipped with that word. I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.
Millions! As Kathy Shaidle has pointed out, the actual number of persons lynched, 1882-1968, was tallied by the Tuskegee Institute at 4,743, of whom 1,297—that’s 27 percent—were white. Lynching-wise, Ms. Winfrey doesn’t know diddly-squat.
Her blithe lack of self-awareness adds some touches of unintentional hilarity to the interview, though.
Winfrey: Lee was relentless. I remember being on my mountain in Maui, where I go to try to restore myself. And he called saying: “You need to get ready, because you are Gloria.”
Of course, having your own Hawaiian mountain can’t erase the memory of earlier indignities:
Winfrey: You know, my mother was a maid . . .
So what? Millions of white people could say the same thing. Has Ms. Winfrey never seen an episode of Downton Abbey? My own mother’s first employment was as a domestic servant. Who the hell does Oprah Winfrey think she is?
Nevertheless, for all its narcissism, ignorance, moon-booted guilt-mongering, and picking at ancient scabs, the Parade Winfrey-Whitaker-Daniels interview illustrated an important point about race in the U.S.A.: the fact that black Americans have an epic.
The forebears who were domestic servants; the segregated drinking fountains; the lynchings and humiliations; Jim Crow and slavery; the Middle Passage; the original African paradise; the names of the victims and martyrs; it all forms an epic, a historical drama. Much of it is inaccurate, of course, and some of it is empty nonsense, but that’s always the way with epics.
Any people that nurses a common identity has an epic. The British had one when I was a kid, organized around the monarchs, whose names we memorized:
Henry the Fourth for himself took the crown;
Henry the Fifth pulled the French king down;
Henry the Sixth lost his father’s gains;
Edward of York laid hold of the reins . . .
Like the black American epic, the British one was deformed somewhat to give it a moral shape. I don’t recall hearing about the Potato Famine or the Amritsar Massacre in school history lessons. Again, though, that’s the way with epics.
The Chinese, who have been nursing their identity longer than anyone, have a multilayered epic that does not always agree with itself. Living there thirty years ago I had to try not to smile when some colleague steeped in the Maoist ethos spoke of the darkness and oppression of the Old Society and then, five minutes later, extolled the glories of China’s ancient civilization.
Do white Americans have an epic? We used to have one, in fact more than one. George Orwell glimpsed them from his childhood reading:
One other imaginary country that I acquired early in life was called America. If I pause on the word “America,” and, deliberately putting aside the existing reality, call up my childhood vision of it, I see two pictures—composite pictures, of course, from which I am omitting a good deal of the detail.
One is of a boy sitting in a whitewashed stone schoolroom. He wears braces [JD: =suspenders] and has patches on his shirt, and if it is summer he is barefooted. In the corner of the school room there is a bucket of drinking water with a dipper. The boy lives in a farm-house, also of stone and also whitewashed, which has a mortgage on it. He aspires to be President, and is expected to keep the woodpile full. Somewhere in the background of the picture, but completely dominating it, is a huge black Bible.
The other picture is of a tall, angular man, with a shapeless hat pulled down over his eyes, leaning against a wooden paling and whittling at a stick. His lower jaw moves slowly but ceaselessly. At very long intervals he emits some piece of wisdom such as “A woman is the orneriest critter there is, ’ceptin’ a mule,” or “When you don't know a thing to do, don't do a thing”; but more often it is a jet of tobacco juice that issues from the gap in his front teeth.
Between them those two pictures summed up my earliest impression of America. And of the two, the first—which, I suppose, represented New England, the other representing the South—had the stronger hold upon me.
—Riding Down from Bangor, 1946.
To me, that second picture of Orwell’s sounds more like the West than the South.
It was the West that, in the middle decades of the 20th century, looked like providing the most compelling element of the American epic: the Wild West. Even across the Pond in 1950s England, the cowboy, the saloon, the six-shooter, the tepee, the covered wagon, were as familiar to us as our own humdrum surroundings. Now that was an epic!
Nowadays, following the peculiar inversion our civilization has undergone in the past forty years, white Americans have an anti-epic. The great dramatic events are all there, adjusted to fit in a moral framework; but we are the villains of the story. The West was won not by doughty pioneers braving the unknown, but by homicidal gangs, by land-grab wars against Mexico, by the massacre of Indians, and by the conscription of Chinese coolie labor. When was the last non-ironic Western movie made?
(It’s the same in Britain. No longer brushed under the national carpet, the Potato Famine and the Amritsar Massacre are now major elements of the school history syllabus. Probably Amritsar is better known to British schoolchildren than Waterloo.)
That is the background to current discussions about the white vote: Its size, its direction, the morality and practicality of Republican candidates making direct appeals to it. Whiteness is shameful. The proper posture of white Americans and white politicians is guilty abnegation.
Hence the shocked responses in the comment thread to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent ruminations on the white vote. [Republicans, White Voters, and Racial Polarization, New York Times, August 6th, 2013] To write about whites as a collectivity, in any context other than that of historical crimes, is illegitimate.
Hence also the inadequacy of Douthat’s analysis. He writes:
Energizing “ascendant” constituencies while pushing working-class whites toward the Republicans has represented a form of “positive polarization” for the Democrats, since it’s left them with a presidential-level majority that they did not enjoy before.
But working class whites have not been so much pushed towards the Republicans as pushed out of politics altogether. That’s why so many of them went missing last November. They may have been pushed towards the Republicans, but the GOP gave no indication it wanted them.
If, after an hour of play, nobody has passed you the ball, you may as well quit the game—walk off the pitch, go home, watch some reality TV. And that’s what the white working-class vote has done. No politician passes the ball to them because no politician wants it thought that he’s singling them out for positive attention. That would be…oh, you know.
No, not even Senator Jeff Sessions, hero of the recent Senate “debate” on the Eight Gangsters’ Amnesty/ Immigration Surge bill. His recent powerful statement “How The GOP Can Do The Right Thing On Immigration—And Win” faltered at exactly this point:
The GOP lost the election—as exit polls clearly show—because it hemorrhaged support from middle- and low-income Americans of all backgrounds.
[Sessions to Republicans: GOP Elite View on Immigration Is ‘Nonsense’, Weekly Standard, July 29th.]
Support for the GOP from “middle- and low-income Americans” of backgrounds other than non-Hispanic white is so inconsequential—small-minority percentages of minority percentages—it is absurd to speak of it “hemorrhaging.”
Senator Sessions is speaking diplomatically, of course, as he must, and I do not mean to belittle his magnificent efforts and stirring rhetoric against the Schumer-Rubio bill. But that’s the point: he must speak of “all backgrounds,” although he surely knows that the hemorrhaging was of whites—the demographic that dare not speak its shameful name.
It is an extraordinary situation; ethnomasochism is an extraordinary state of mind; the marginalizing of non-elite whites—a substantial majority of the population!—by the Cultural Marxists is an extraordinary achievement.
Ultimately, the basic prescription for the GOP is a healthy dose of economic populism. This includes a lot of changes Democrats would presumably enjoy, such as jettisoning the pro-big-business, Wall Street-style conservatism that characterized the Romney campaign for something authentically geared more toward downscale voters.
[Demographics and the GOP, Part IV, Real Clear Politics, July 2nd 2013.]
Douthat thinks there might even be trans-racial appeal:
If Republicans interpret Trende’s analysis correctly and set out to increase their margins with working class whites by developing a more inclusive and populist vision on economic policy, then they will probably ultimately win more Hispanic and even African-American votes as well.
However, a focused economic-populist approach could yield some electoral dividends among disaffected whites. Patriotic immigration reform is likely the easiest policy to advance, enjoying as it does widespread support among both whites and blacks—and, according to Trende, not alienating Hispanics as much as GOP consultants fear.
This one issue might stir the non-elite white electorate into wakefulness.
The trick is to find a viable GOP presidential candidate who is not perfectly clueless about it.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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