|Jonathan Chait treats an Obama critic to a free screening of 12 Years a Slave|
By Jonathan Chait
This last weekend, I finally saw 12 Years a Slave. It was the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen in my life, an event so gripping and terrifying that, when I went to bed ten hours later — it was a morning matinee — I lay awake for five hours turning it over in my mind before I could fall asleep. I understand it not merely as the greatest film about slavery ever made, as it has been widely hailed, but a film more broadly about race. Its sublimated themes, as I understand them, identify the core social and political fissures that define the American racial divide to this day. To identify 12 Years a Slave as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era.
... The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.
That context was fresh in my mind when I read this column in National Review by Quin Hillyer, a conservative pundit, think-tank fellow, and former candidate for the GOP nomination in Alabama’s first Congressional district. In the midst of an otherwise unremarkable rant against the perfidious big-government liberalism of President Obama, Hillyer unleashes this:
Every time decent people think the scandals and embarrassments circling Barack Obama will sink this presidency, we look up and see Obama still there — chin jutting out, countenance haughty, voice dripping with disdain for conservatives — utterly unembarrassed, utterly undeterred from any assertion of power he thinks he can get away with, tradition and propriety and the Constitution be damned. The man has no shame, no self-doubt, not a shred of humility, no sense that anybody else has legitimate reason to question him or hold any other point of view.
It is bizarre to ascribe haughtiness and a lack of a capacity for embarrassment to a president whose most recent notable public appearance was a profusely and even flamboyantly contrite press conference spent repeatedly confessing to “fumbles” and “mistakes.” Why would Hillyer believe such a factually bizarre thing?
One answer is that, by the evidence of this column, Hillyer believes all sorts of factually bizarre things. But most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read Hillyer’s rant as the cultural heir to Northup’s overseer: a southern white reactionary enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself.
Before plunging further into a poisonously defensive racial debate, I should note that I feel certain Hillyer opposes slavery and legal segregation, and highly confident he abhors racial discrimination, and believes in his heart full economic and social equality for African-Americans would be a blessing. (More than two decades ago, Hillyer worked against the candidacy of David Duke.) His feeling of offense at Obama’s putative haughtiness (“chin jutting out”) might be a long-ago-imbibed white southern upbringing bubbling to the surface, but more likely a flailing partisan rage that could just as easily have been directed at a white Democrat.
You can accept the most benign account of his thought process – and I do – while still being struck by the simple fact that Hillyer finds nothing uncomfortable at all about wrapping himself in a racist trope. He is either unaware of the freighted connotation of calling a black man uppity, or he doesn’t care. In the absence of a racial slur or an explicitly bigoted attack, no racial alarm bells sound in his brain.
Conservatives need to impose total crimestop upon their thoughts. Therefore, the operant conditioning will continue until morale improves.