Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Orlando Patterson Goes Too Far (JM)

The Red Phone in Black and White


Cambridge, Mass.

ON first watching Hillary Clinton’s recent “It’s 3 a.m.” advertisement, I was left with an uneasy feeling that something was not quite right — something that went beyond my disappointment that she had decided to go negative. Repeated watching of the ad on YouTube increased my unease. I realized that I had only too often in my study of America’s racial history seen images much like these, and the sentiments to which they allude.

Huh, this is a standard ad throughout the history of political campaigns. The infamous “Daisy” advert had a little girl in a field picking flowers and then a mushroom cloud. After that you are just no longer allowed to complain about crazy, red phone ads.

I am not referring to the fact that the ad is unoriginal; as several others have noted, it mimics a similar ad made for Walter Mondale in his 1984 campaign for the Democratic nomination. What bothers me is the difference between this and the Mondale ad. The Mondale ad directly and unequivocally played on the issue of experience. The danger was that the red telephone might be answered by someone who was “unsure, unsteady, untested.” Why do I believe this? Because the phone and Mr. Mondale are the only images in the ad. Fair game in the normal politics of fear.

Not so this Clinton ad. To be sure, it states that something is “happening in the world” — although it never says what this is — and that Mrs. Clinton is better able to handle such danger because of her experience with foreign leaders. But every ad-maker, like every social linguist, knows that words are often the least important aspect of a message and are easily muted by powerful images.

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The hell? Seriously, seriously, I know this is a really touchy issue, but how in the world is this a possible conclusion one can draw from this ad? Again, let me remind you, little girl, flower picking, mushroom cloud… this is the Platonic ideal of fear ads. Yet, somehow, this ad reminds Orlando Patterson of Birth of a Nation? Look, he is free to make whatever connections he sees from any piece of media, however, I just cannot possibly make that connection in my head. The only extent to which this is true is if any attack against Obama’s competence is challenging the competence of black men everywhere.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Are you kidding me?!! This is totally out of hand. How loud would people be screaming racism at the Clinton campaign if they depicted Hillary protecting little black children from disaster? And Latino, how dare she? Honestly, I was taking this seriously for a while, but this is just racial politics at its absolute worst. This is an imposition of racial tension where there was none in the beginning, it’s an attempt to make any attack on Obama to appear as racially motivated.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

You need to justify this claim. I know you’re a sociologist of renown, but god damn I have watched and rewatched this ad and have seen absolutely no “insidious language of symbolism” that refers to Obama as “the outsider within”. I wish actual examples of this were cited, but they just weren’t, this is a pretty devastating charge to levy with little to no evidence. Is this ad critical of Obama? Yes, because of his perceived experience and knowledge gap, not his race.

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs. Clinton.

True fact, there was also NAFTAGate and the stated purpose of this ad, national security fears. The fact that people changed their mind doesn’t prove racism, not even a little bit.

For more than a century, American politicians have played on racial fears to divide the electorate and mobilize xenophobic parties. Blacks have been the “domestic enemy,” the eternal outsider within, who could always inspire unity among “we whites.” Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was built on this premise, using coded language — “law and order,” “silent majority” — to destroy the alliance between blacks and white labor that had been the foundation of the Democratic Party, and to bring about the Republican ascendancy of the past several decades. The Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a crude manifestation of this strategy — as was the racist attack used against John McCain’s daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh, in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000.

The first example you cited, Nixon, was absolutely true. Your second example, Willie Horton, is marginally true at best. That was truly also a law and order issue. Reagan’s speech in Philadelphia, MS would have been a far stronger example. Finally, the McCain thing wasn’t an ad, but push-polling, but your point is taken, racism has played a role in politics. None of this proves that this was the intended purpose or the unintended consequence of the “3 A.M.” advert.

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too, that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been a Muslim.

She chose to use this ad in Texas because Texans are often crazy, gun-toting, security lovers. This ad matters there, security matters a lot. Ohio is in major economic turmoil so they focused on the economy and NAFTA there. As for the vacillating on Obama’s religion thing, I am pretty certain that was not pernicious so much as just her usual political-self answering a question on a touchy subject. She said pretty clearly that she doesn’t believe he is a Muslim (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Alright, this op-ed piece is downright offensive. Basically if I look at the subtext and symbolism within its text it implies that any attack on Obama is racist. Now I know that the Obama campaign is post-racial and would never condone an attack like this, but of course they can’t control their surrogates. This crosses a very real line that, if it becomes part of the cultural meme, will make this election even nastier and more divisive.


Anonymous said...


Jonathan said...

I don't think this is a reflection of the Obama candidacy. I think Obama is probably ready to be president, however he does have a tricky situation of avoiding this kind of rhetoric.

I am not really sure about your holocaust analogy, but I think the complication is actually fairly straightforward. Both candidates come from discrete subgroups who have absolutely been the victims of oppression. In fact, both candidates have overcome a great deal in achieving their success. I am fine with this being politically relevant, because it is, it matters that both Democratic candidates understand what it is like to grow up under such conditions. However, what should not happen is using identity politics as either a shield or a cudgel. To me this is pretty clearly what's going on in this situation.