“In Defense Of ‘Uppity-ism'”: Michelle Obama, “Rise Above The Noise”; All Black Americans Should Take Her Advice
It became clear during the 2008 presidential campaign that America was going to have some real trouble handling the prospect of a black president of the United States and a black first lady. Despite hip-hop having defined much of pop culture since the 1980s, a fist bump was all of a sudden unfamiliar: Is it a salute or a “terrorist fist jab?” Cue the disingenuous shrugs.
Coded and blatant racial insults were everywhere during that election season and haven’t abated in the seven years since. Michelle Malkin, herself a woman of color, called Michelle Obama one of her husband Barack’s “cronies of color” in her 2009 book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies. A Fox News Channel graphic colloquially insulted the married mother of two daughters, calling her “Obama’s baby mama.” Another slur came from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in 2011, when in the course of lying about the public paying for presidential vacations, he charged the first lady and family with “a little bit of uppity-ism.” There are, of course, many more vitriolic examples.
“Uppity,” translated from thinly-veiled racial code, is meant to describe a black person who doesn’t know her or his place. It is as paternalistic as it is racist, meant to convey that a black person is somehow lower, in need of guidance back to the subjugated existence that makes the dominant caste more comfortable. Heaven forbid one even consider her or himself an equal. Or superior!
It’s a word I’ve been called once to my face, a few times online, and likely more behind my back. Unlike “nigger,” I’ve always felt oddly affirmed by it. It’s a term of hatred, no doubt, but someone who thinks me “uppity” considers my very existence a threat. That’s a good thing. We are threats to them and their detestable worldview, and Michelle Obama’s life, perhaps even more so than Barack’s, is a testament to this.
The first lady reminded us of these insults and slights in a commencement speech on Saturday, all in the context of facing “pressure to live up to the legacy of those who came before you; pressure to meet the expectations of others”—a fitting message for the new graduates of the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, where the Tuskegee Airmen, famed black military pilots of World War II, were educated while they trained at nearby Moton Field.
“As potentially the first African American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” she said during her speech. “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
These sorts of questions are regularly hurled at women in America, of which the first lady is an avatar of sorts. They have a special appeal to sexists seeking to challenge the manhood of the president, a job that required the kind of fortitude and strength our culture has misguidedly sought to find in a pair of testicles. But given the entirety of Michelle Obama’s experience, we have to consider these narrowing notions in the context of race.
In an essay for The Root last September about the New York Times Arts review, historian Blair L.M. Kelley reminded how deeply rooted the stereotype of the angry, emasculating black woman is:
Beginning in the early 1830s, the first ‘black women’ American audiences saw on the American stage were minstrel ‘Negro wenches.’ Using burned cork and greasepaint to blacken their skin, white men in their performances as black men and women became wildly popular in the mid-19th century. White men used crude drag along with the burned cork to mark black women as grotesque, loudmouthed, masculine and undeserving of the protections afforded to white ‘ladies’ in American society.
Michelle Obama told the graduates how out here in the world that this sort of framing may seem small in the face of those denied a house or a job because of their race, and she’s right. But I’m glad she brought them up. (Frankly, I’m always happy to see a black person in the public sphere reflect black reality, as opposed to the white stories we’ve been forced to tell and celebrate for so long.) Microaggressions like this feed the systemic, more obvious incarnations of racial discrimination. And in that light, “uppity-ism,” as Limbaugh termed it, is worth claiming for our own and defending.
“Eventually,” she told the graduates, “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself—and the rest would work itself out. So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth.” The First Lady closed by urging the graduates to “rise above the noise,” a fitting metaphor for the Tuskegee crowd.
Being deemed “uppity” signifies a specific kind of arrogance to a predominantly white power structure. For that, I embrace the term. Not as how oppressors seek to define it, but for what it literally represents: a desire to prove yourself superior to an inherently racist society and above the category they would otherwise assign you.
I’m hardly the first to do so; former National League president and baseball player Bill White used the word as a title for his frank memoir four years ago. “It’s a person, especially someone of a different color, who says, ‘Hell no’ and stands his ground,” he told the Times. It’s a crude declaration of the power of black ambition and steadfastness. Those are things I’ll never look down upon.
By: Jamil Smith, The New Republic, May 11, 2015
If you look at poll results saying that most Republicans think Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim enacting a secret plan to destroy America and think, “What the hell is wrong with these people?”, you have to understand that it gets reinforced day after day after day by media sources they believe to be lonely islands of truth amid a sea of lies. Yes, they hear it from politicians like Rudy Giuliani, who seems to be on some kind of mission to prove himself to be America’s most despicable cretin. But that only reinforces the river of political sewage that flows into their ears each and every day.
To wit, here’s Republican uber-pundit Erick Erickson, filling in for Rush Limbaugh and telling his millions of listeners what they want to hear:
“Barack Obama believes that for the world to be more safe the United States must be less safe. For the world to be more stable the United States must be less stable. Barack Obama believes the United States of America is a destabilizing, arrogant force in the world, we need our comeuppance and we need to be humbled. And so everything Barack Obama does domestically and in foreign policy is designed to humble the arrogant crackers who have always run the United States.”
Yes, that’s right, “arrogant crackers.” How on earth anyone could get the idea that the attacks on Obama by people like Erickson are meant to stoke their audience’s racial resentments, I have no idea.
As a general rule, whenever you hear a conservative pundit start a sentence with “Barack Obama believes…” you’re about to hear something that not only bears no plausible relationship to reality but is also meant to play on the worst instincts of his or her audience. And it is simply impossible to overstate the ubiquity of this particular theme in conservative media: Barack Obama hates not just America but white people in general, and all of his policies are meant to exact racial vengeance upon them. This is the rancid stew of fantasy, hatred, and yes, racism in which millions upon millions of conservatives have spent the last six years marinating.
To my conservative friends: I know that you are obsessed with the idea that conservatives are constantly being unfairly accused of racism. And there are certainly times when some liberals are too quick to see racist intent in a comment that may be innocuous or at worst unintentionally provocative. But you make heroes out of people like Giuliani, Limbaugh, and Erickson. You applaud them, honor them, extol them, and when other people occasionally notice the caustic hairballs of bile they spit onto waiting microphones, the most you can say is, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far.” So you have nothing to complain about.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, March 13, 2015
The Media Already Bungled Hillary’s ‘Emailgate’: This Is Why The Former Secretary Of State Can’t Stand The Press
Hillary Clinton found herself in a familiar place on Tuesday: amid a gaggle of excited reporters eagerly shouting questions at her about a matter they thought was of the highest importance and she thought was absurdly trivial. If this is the first Clinton controversy of the 2016 campaign, it has a meta quality about it: since no one knows if there’s anything problematic (let alone incriminating) of substance in her emails themselves, we’re left talking about how we talk about it.
At this early stage, that can be an important conversation to have. I’ve written some very critical things about Clinton, both in the past and with regard to this issue; most particularly, on Monday I wrote this piece arguing that she owes her liberal supporters a campaign worthy of all she and her husband asked of them over the years. And since the presidential race is just beginning, this is a good opportunity for the reporters who will be covering her to do some reflection as well, about where they and their colleagues went wrong in the past and how they can serve their audiences better in the next year and a half.
You can’t understand Hillary Clinton’s perspective without understanding what happened in the 1990s, and the media transformation that was going on while Bill Clinton was president. From the first moments of that presidency, Clinton’s opponents were convinced he was corrupt to the core. They assumed that if they mounted enough investigations and tossed around enough charges, something would stick and Clinton would be brought down. If you think the endless Benghazi investigations are ridiculous, you should have been around then; if Bill Clinton wore the same tie two days in a row, Republicans would hold a week’s worth of hearings to investigate what he was covering up.
The media atmosphere in which this all occurred was profoundly different than it had been just a few years before. Conservative talk radio came into its own in the 1990s, providing Republicans both an outlet for their most outrageous charges and a goad to produce more of them. (When they won control of Congress in 1994, Republicans literally made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of their freshman class). Fox News debuted in 1996, in time for the impeachment crisis of 1998. The previously leisurely news cycle accelerated rapidly, and nothing fed it like scandal.
While the Clintons bear responsibility for getting many of those scandals going with questionable decision-making or behavior, it’s also true that the mainstream media made huge mistakes during that period by treating every Republican charge, no matter how ludicrous, as though it was worthy of a full-scale investigation splashed across the front page. Again and again, they reacted to the most thinly justified accusations as though the next Watergate or Iran-Contra was at hand, and when it turned out that there was no corruption or illegality to be found, they simply moved on to the next faux-scandal, presented no less breathlessly.
That past — and journalists’ failures to reckon with it — are still affecting coverage today. When this email story broke, how many journalists said it was important because it “plays into a narrative” of Hillary Clinton as scandal-tainted? I must have heard it a dozen times just in the past week.
Here’s a tip for my fellow scribes and opinionators: If you find yourself justifying blanket coverage of an issue because it “plays into a narrative,” stop right there. That’s a way of saying that you can’t come up with an actual, substantive reason this is important or newsworthy, just that it bears some superficial but probably meaningless similarity to something that happened at some point in the past. It’s the updated version of “out there” — during the Clinton years, reporters would say they had no choice but to devote attention to some scurrilous charge, whether there was evidence for it or not, because someone had made the charge and therefore it was “out there.”
“Narratives,” furthermore, aren’t delivered from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. They’re created and maintained by journalists making decisions about what’s important and how different issues should be understood. If you’re going to tell us that a new issue “plays into a narrative,” you ought to be able to say why there’s something essentially true or significant about that narrative.
To be clear, I’m not saying reporters shouldn’t aggressively investigate Hillary Clinton, when it comes to her tenure at the State Department, her time in the Senate, her activities as a private citizen, or anything else. They absolutely should, just as they should look into all candidates — that’s their job. She wants to be president, and the public needs to know as much as possible about who she is and what she would do if she gets to sit in the Oval Office.
But as they do that, they should exercise their considered news judgment, just as they do every day on every other topic. They should apply similar standards to all the candidates; if it’s important that Clinton used a private email account while at State, then it must be equally important that other candidates have used private emails for work, and they should be subject to as much scrutiny as she is. When a new revelation or accusation emerges, the questions reporters should ask themselves include: Is there evidence for this? What’s the context in which it took place? How does it bear on the presidency? How can I present it to my audience in a way that makes them smarter and better informed?
Any reporter could come up with a dozen others. But “Does this play into a narrative?” ought to be the last question they ask. As I wrote about Hillary Clinton, there are ways in which she owes her supporters better than what they’ve gotten from her in the past. But that’s only half the story. The news media owes their readers, listeners, and viewers better than what they got, too.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; The Week, March 11, 2015
“Tough-Guy, Manly-Man Magical Thinking”: There’s Only One Thing That Could Actually Get Bill O’Reilly In Trouble, And It’s Not Lying
Why is it that when Brian Williams makes up war stories he loses his reputation and six months of his career, but when Bill O’Reilly spouts the same sort of chest-pounding bull, he ends up even tighter with his audience and his network?
It’s not as if O’Reilly’s fabrications were less outrageous than Williams’s. O’Reilly has claimed he was a heroic network correspondent in the “war zone” (meaning Buenos Aires) at the end of the Falklands war while his CBS colleagues were “ hiding” in a hotel. More Zelig-y than Williams, O’Reilly has repeatedly placed himself at the Florida front door of a shady figure in the investigation of JFK’s assassination just in time to hear the self-inflicted gunshot that ended the man’s life (when there’s a cascade of evidence that Bill was in Dallas at the time).
When Media Matters debunked O’Reilly’s claims to have seen four nuns “get shot in the back of the head” in El Salvador in 1981, he slickly skated away, saying he meant he had seen images of that slaughter and that “no one could possibly” misunderstand his sterling intentions. The latest of O’Reilly’s fairytales to fracture is that protesters bombarded him with rocks and bricks during the 1992 LA riots; not so, say colleagues who were there.
Not in spite of, but because of all this, O’Reilly’s TV ratings this week have surged, as fans rally to him and the curious tune in to see if the cable news giant will admit to even one substantial fib. Of course, he won’t. After countering the Falklands charges on Sunday with a misleading clip, he’s been brushing off the other charges as baseless political assaults from “liars,” “far-left zealots,” and “guttersnipes.”
Unlike NBC and the other networks, which at least aspire to fact-based reporting, it’s in Fox’s DNA to re-invent reality by massaging facts and destroying context, because, as Jon Stewart said, all that “matters to the right is discrediting anything that they believe harms their side.” One of the central tenets of Fox News is that conservative white men are under constant attack from the liberal media, and the O’Reilly flap, which was initially kicked off by Greg Grandin in The Nation and then David Corn in Mother Jones, fits that narrative all too well. (As Grandin and others point out, O’Reilly’s personal pufferies are the least of his reportorial sins.)
No matter how accurate the hits on O’Reilly’s false machismo are, they only make him seem more righteous to his audience. Liberal attacks on right-wing manliness—like pointing out the chicken-hawk status of Cheney & company—have no standing with Fox viewers. “O’Reilly has been given an opportunity to wage war against a phalanx of liberal media aggressors,” Gabriel Sherman writes in New York magazine. “This is what his audience expects.”
Is there nothing that could turn their audience away from them? Doesn’t Fox, like the rest of us, have an Achilles Heel?
Actually, they do, and it’s related to that tough-guy, manly-man act. Conservatives can bluster and bully like steroidal hysterics on any topic, but when they turn their scorn on an individual, usually younger, woman, they risk the ire of Christians, Republican women, and anyone with a working creep detector. As Sherman writes:
One indication that O’Reilly is waging a calculated media campaign is to compare his ferocious response to a true scandal with career-ending implications: the 2004 lawsuit by a Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris, who accused O’Reilly of having lurid phone sex. In my biography of Ailes, I reported how Ailes and Rupert Murdoch were furious at O’Reilly for creating the humiliating mess. Ailes instructed O’Reilly that if he spoke out in public, he was in danger of losing his show. Aside from a handful of muted comments, O’Reilly remained silent about the allegations. His ratings held, and O’Reilly hung on to his job.
Likewise, Rush Limbaugh was seen as pretty much invincible until he, too, attacked a younger woman. In 2012, he called the then–Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ”slut” for supporting mandated contraceptive insurance coverage. “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex,” he said. In return, he added, he wanted Fluke to post videos of her having sex “online so we can all watch.” Advertisers began to flee the show, to the point where, according to Media Matters’s Angelo Carusone, “the commercial viability of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program has collapsed and remains that way.”
From O’Reilly and Limbaugh to Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin and James O’Keefe (the GOP prankster whose plans to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat, and seduce her, in 2010, signaled his serious fade-out), sex and gender snafus appear to be one of the few reliable forms of white male kryptonite. You catch a right-winger making his sexual appetites overly vivid or venting them on an identifiable woman instead of an abstract policy, and boom!
That’s the burden of being “the Daddy Party,” and if it faces a “Mommy Party” headed by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it will be a particularly heavy one. If they launch a sexually aggressive campaign that backfires, they’ll surely feel victimized all over again.
Until then, Bill O’Reilly is safe (contrary, I think, to Maddow’s take). He and his viewers are in this together. They need just a drop of plausible deniability (Bill couldn’t have lied—he showed us a tape!) to go on accepting his nightly rants. Part of Fox’s contract with conservative Americans is the right to think magically and to (as Karl Rove told Ron Suskind) “create our own reality.”
Bill can hear a magic gunshot. He can experience war in an upscale downtown neighborhood. He can get hit by make-believe bricks.
And, for now, he can Houdini himself out of all the traps he’s set for himself.
By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, February 27, 2015
“A Handy Way To Shift The Discussion”: How Republicans Will Use Scott Walker’s Lack Of A College Degree To Stir Class Resentment
Since we’re now all fascinated by Scott Walker, there’s been some discussion in the past few days of the fact that Walker would be the first president in many decades who didn’t have a college degree. He left Marquette after four years, and though he apparently was quite a few credits short of graduating, most people would regard it as an unwise career move when you’ve come that far. Nevertheless, Walker did fine for himself, and some conservatives are now holding up his example as a triumphant rebuke to liberal elitism. Anticipating the scorn Walker will receive from those elitists, they rattle off lists of the high-achievers who didn’t get a degree, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
From what I can tell, the only liberal who has actually said that Walker’s lack of a degree is problematic was Howard Dean, in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. But Dean’s one comment keeps getting cited (see Glenn Reynolds or Deroy Murdock or Charles C.W. Cooke or Chris Cillizza) as evidence that “liberals” are looking down their snooty noses at Walker, and by extension, at the majority of Americans who don’t have a college degree.
Which leads me to believe that this is a vein Republicans may be tapping into repeatedly, particularly if Walker becomes the GOP nominee. It wouldn’t be anything new, though if he himself indulged in it, Walker could come by resentment of pointy-headed intellectuals a little more honestly than, say, George H.W. Bush, graduate of Phillips Andover and Yale, who sneered in 1988 that Michael Dukakis represented the “Harvard boutique.” Walker also recently started battling the University of Wisconsin (beloved within the state, but about which voters in Iowa have no similar feelings, I’m guessing), which should help him portray himself as a crusader against the tenured enemies of real Americans.
Anti-intellectualism has often been an effective way for Republicans to stir up class resentment while distracting from economic issues. It says to voters: Don’t think about who has economic power and which party is advocating for their interests. Don’t aim your disgruntlement at Wall Street, or corporations that don’t pay taxes, or the people who want to keep wages low and make unions a memory. Point it in a different direction, at college professors and intellectuals (and Hollywood, while you’re at it). They’re the ones keeping you down. You got laid off while the CEO took home $20 million last year? Forget about that: The real person to be angry at is a professor of anthropology somewhere who said something mean about Scott Walker because he doesn’t have a degree.
There are going to be more than a few Republicans who see in that argument a handy way to shift the discussion away from economic inequality while still sending the message that they’re on the side of ordinary folks. Here, for instance, is Rush Limbaugh yesterday:
The stories are legion of all the great Americans, successful, who have not graduated from college. And of course the two names that come to people’s mind right off the bat are me and Steve Jobs. And then some people throw Gates in there. So there are three people who have reached the pinnacle, who have not gone to college, and those two or three names get bandied about all the time in this discussion.
But it doesn’t matter. To the elites, that doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean that they are qualified to be in the elite group. And the elite group in Washington is what we call the ruling class or the D.C. establishment, both parties, or what have you. And it’s especially bad in the Drive-By Media. That is one of the most exclusive and I should say exclusionary groups of people that you can imagine.
If you look at it as a club and look at the admittance requirements, it is one of the most exclusives things to get into. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, doesn’t matter how much money you make, whether you’re more successful than they are, whether you earn more than they do, whether you have a bigger audience than they, doesn’t matter, you are not getting in that club.
Something tells me that somewhere at the RNC there’s an intern who just got an assignment to monitor every bit of mainstream and social media she can for any moment where a liberal says something condescending about Walker. Then Republicans can wave it about like the bloody shirt of liberal elitism. It’s a lot easier than coming up with an economic plan that doesn’t involve upper-income tax cuts.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, February 17, 2015