Entry from August 6, 2009

You’ve got to wonder if the lesson of the “teachable moment” in the Henry Louis Gates affair wasn’t, in some minds anyway, that black people should be immune from criticism on account of their race. Faced with a simple and entirely reasonable inquiry by the police into suspicious behavior, Professor Gates acted like a jerk, but no one was supposed to notice this because of the history of black victimization by the police. See? We’re not living in a post-racial society after all, crowed the professor’s apologists, thereby proving their own point. Once again I think of the words of Danny Williams, who predicted that the election of Barack Obama would make no difference to racial politics in America. Black people would not cease to play “the race card,” said Danny, who is black: “It’s too good a card to give up.”

Look at it the other way. When the liberal-minded were thrown into an uproar over the Willie Horton controversy in 1988 — and the spectre of the black criminal was first raised as a political issue by that liberal saint, Al Gore — they were really saying that the question of whether or not Michael Dukakis had been guilty of an error of judgement that might cast doubt on his whole approach to law and order was irrelevant. All that mattered was that a violent criminal he furloughed and who immediately proceeded to commit more violent crimes was black. That meant that the whole issue of fashionable penology as it related to Governor Dukakis and Mr Horton was rendered illegitimate and no fit subject for political discussion. That’s what the metaphor of “the race card” means: it is a trump card that can defeat any argument in another suit by changing the subject to itself.

The latest to play it is Philip Kennicott in today’s Washington Post, who calls the anonymous rendering, over the legend: “Socialism,”of the president as Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight “Racial Fear’s Ugly Face.”

Forget socialism, this poster is another attempt to accomplish an association between Obama and the unpredictable, seeming danger of urban life. It is another effort to establish what failed to jell in the debate about Obama’s association with Chicago radical William Ayers and the controversy over the racially charged sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama, like the Joker and like the racial stereotype of the black man, carries within him an unknowable, volatile and dangerous marker of urban violence, which could erupt at any time. The charge of socialism is secondary to the basic message that Obama can’t be trusted, not because he is a politician, but because he’s black.

But what if the poster’s author, or those who display it, really are concerned that a government takeover of the health-care industry is tantamount to socialism? Are they supposed not to be making their point as forcefully as they can because long-headed social critics and readers of the pop cultural tea leaves like Mr Kennicott can find a way to construe their criticism as a form or racism?

What, after all, cannot be so construed with sufficient ingenuity? It’s true that Heath Ledger was white. It’s also true that his clown make-up was white, not black. I think you wouldn’t stray far from the truth, either, if you said that his character was utterly ridiculous and essentially comical rather than a sinister one. Lots of people in the line of work Mr Kennicott and I follow professed to find all kinds of significances in this character when the movie came out last year, but I doubt that there were many of them, or many ordinary movie-goers either, who were actually frightened by the late Mr Ledger’s comic grotesquerie. In the anonymous poster, President Obama is being portrayed not as a real evil figure like Hitler — or Willie Horton for that matter — but like a cartoon fantasy. Maybe the subtext here for the ingenious critic to tease out is not that he is evil but that he is fake.

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