Fear of a Black President


The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

Part of that conservatism about race has been reflected in his reticence: for most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency. But then, last February, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old insurance underwriter, shot and killed a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, armed with a 9 mm handgun, believed himself to be tracking the movements of a possible intruder. The possible intruder turned out to be a boy in a hoodie, bearing nothing but candy and iced tea. The local authorities at first declined to make an arrest, citing Zim­mer­man’s claim of self-defense. Protests exploded nationally. Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea assumed totemic power. Celebrities—the actor Jamie Foxx, the former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, members of the Miami Heat—were photographed wearing hoodies. When Rep­resentative Bobby Rush of Chicago took to the House floor to denounce racial profiling, he was removed from the chamber after donning a hoodie mid-speech.

The reaction to the tragedy was, at first, trans-partisan. Conservatives either said nothing or offered tepid support for a full investigation—and in fact it was the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who appointed the special prosecutor who ultimately charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. As civil-rights activists descended on Florida, National Review, a magazine that once opposed integration, ran a column proclaiming “Al Sharpton Is Right.” The belief that a young man should be able to go to the store for Skittles and an iced tea and not be killed by a neighborhood-­watch patroller seemed un­controversial.

By the time reporters began asking the White House for comment, the president likely had already given the matter considerable thought. Obama is not simply America’s first black president—he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class. He is fully versed in the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. Obama’s two autobiographies are deeply concerned with race, and in front of black audiences he is apt to cite important but obscure political figures such as George Henry White, who served from 1897 to 1901 and was the last African American congressman to be elected from the South until 1970. But with just a few notable exceptions, the president had, for the first three years of his presidency, strenuously avoided talk of race. And yet, when Trayvon Martin died, talk Obama did:

 When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened …

But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled. Rush Limbaugh denounced Obama’s claim of empathy. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, broadcast all of Martin’s tweets, the most loutish of which revealed him to have committed the un­pardonable sin of speaking like a 17-year-old boy. A white-­supremacist site called Stormfront produced a photo of Martin with pants sagging, flipping the bird. Business Insider posted the photograph and took it down without apology when it was revealed to be a fake.

Newt Ging­rich pounced on Obama’s comments: “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him?” Reverting to form, National Review decided the real problem was that we were interested in the deaths of black youths only when nonblacks pulled the trigger. John Derbyshire, writing for Taki’s Magazine, an iconoclastic libertarian publication, composed a racist advice column for his children inspired by the Martin affair. (Among Derbyshire’s tips: never help black people in any kind of distress; avoid large gatherings of black people; cultivate black friends to shield yourself from charges of racism.)

The notion that Zimmerman might be the real victim began seeping out into the country, aided by PR efforts by his family and legal team, as well as by various acts of stupidity—­Spike Lee tweeting Zimmerman’s address (an act made all the more repugnant by the fact that he had the wrong Zimmer­man), NBC misleadingly editing a tape of Zimmerman’s phone conversation with a police dispatcher to make Zimmer­man seem to be racially profiling Martin. In April, when Zimmerman set up a Web site to collect donations for his defense, he raised more than $200,000 in two weeks, before his lawyer asked that he close the site and launched a new, independently managed legal-defense fund. Although the trial date has yet to be set, as of July the fund was still raking in up to $1,000 in donations daily.

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

By virtue of his background—the son of a black man and a white woman, someone who grew up in multiethnic communities around the world—Obama has enjoyed a distinctive vantage point on race relations in America. Beyond that, he has displayed enviable dexterity at navigating between black and white America, and at finding a language that speaks to a critical mass in both communities. He emerged into national view at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, with a speech heralding a nation uncolored by old prejudices and shameful history. There was no talk of the effects of racism. Instead Obama stressed the power of parenting, and condemned those who would say that a black child carrying a book was “acting white.” He cast himself as the child of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas and asserted, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” When, as a senator, he was asked if the response to Hurricane Katrina evidenced racism, Obama responded by calling the “ineptitude” of the response “color-blind.”

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy. The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes.

Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House, and a record number of filibuster threats in the Senate. It would be nice if this were merely a reaction to Obama’s politics or his policies—if this resistance truly were, as it is generally described, merely one more sign of our growing “polarization” as a nation. But the greatest abiding challenge to Obama’s national political standing has always rested on the existential fact that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin. As a candidate, Barack Obama understood this.

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

Belcher’s formulation grants the power of anti-black racism, and proposes to defeat it by not acknowledging it. His is the perfect statement of the Obama era, a time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it. Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.

Before Barack Obama, the “black president” lived in the African American imagination as a kind of cosmic joke, a phantom of all that could never be. White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president. They could not tolerate Emmett’s boyish gaze. Dr. King turned the other cheek, and they blew it off. White folks shot Lincoln over “nigger equality,” ran Ida Wells out of Memphis, beat Freedom Riders over bus seats, slaughtered Medgar in his driveway like a dog. The comedian Dave Chappelle joked that the first black president would need a “Vice President Santiago”—because the only thing that would ensure his life in the White House was a Hispanic president-­in-waiting. A black president signing a bill into law might as well sign his own death certificate.

The moment Obama spoke, the Trayvon case passed out of its mourning phase and into something dark and familiar—racialized political fodder.

And even if white folks could moderate their own penchant for violence, we could not moderate our own. A long-suffering life on the wrong side of the color line had denuded black people of the delicacy necessary to lead the free world. In a skit on his 1977 TV comedy show, Richard Pryor, as a black president, conceded that he was “courting an awful lot of white women” and held a press conference that erupted into a riot after a reporter requested that the president’s momma clean his house. More recently, the comedian Cedric the Entertainer joked that a black president would never have made it through Monicagate without turning a press conference into a battle royal. When Chappelle tried to imagine how a black George W. Bush would have justified the war against Saddam Hussein, his character (“Black Bush”) simply yelled, “The nigger tried to kill my father!”

Thus, in hard jest, the paradoxes and problems of a theoretical black presidency were given voice. Racism would not allow a black president. Nor would a blackness, forged by America’s democratic double-talk, that was too ghetto and raw for the refinement of the Oval Office. Just beneath the humor lurked a resonant pain, the scars of history, an aching doubt rooted in the belief that “they” would never accept us. And so in our Harlems and Paradise Valleys, we invoked a black presidency the way a legion of 5-foot point guards might invoke the dunk—as evidence of some great cosmic injustice, weighty in its import, out of reach.

And yet Spud Webb lives.

When presidential candidate Barack Obama presented himself to the black community, he was not to be believed. It strained credulity to think that a man sporting the same rigorously managed haircut as Jay-Z, a man who was a hard-core pickup basketball player, and who was married to a dark-skinned black woman from the South Side, could coax large numbers of white voters into the booth. Obama’s blackness quotient is often a subject of debate. (He himself once joked, while speaking to the National Association of Black Journalists in 2007, “I want to apologize for being a little bit late, but you guys keep on asking whether I’m black enough.”) But despite Obama’s post-election reluctance to talk about race, he has always displayed both an obvious affinity for black culture and a distinct ability to defy black America’s worst self-conceptions.

The crude communal myth about black men is that we are in some manner unavailable to black women—either jailed, dead, gay, or married to white women. A corollary myth posits a direct and negative relationship between success and black culture. Before we actually had one, we could not imagine a black president who loved being black. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes his first kiss with the woman who would become his wife as tasting “of chocolate.” The line sounds ripped from Essencemagazine. That’s the point.

These cultural cues became important during Obama’s presidential run and beyond. Obama doesn’t merely evince blackness; he uses his blackness to signal and court African Americans, semaphoring in a cultural dialect of our creation—crooning Al Green at the Apollo, name-checking Young Jeezy, regularly appearing on the cover of black magazines, weighing the merits of Jay-Z versus Kanye West, being photo­graphed in the White House with a little black boy touching his hair. There is often something mawkish about this signaling—like a Virginia politico thickening his southern accent when talking to certain audiences. If you’ve often been the butt of political signaling (Sister Souljah, Willie Horton), and rarely the recipient, these displays of cultural affinity are powerful. And they are all the more powerful because Obama has been successful. Whole sections of America that we had assumed to be negro­phobic turned out in support of him in 2008. Whatever Obama’s other triumphs, arguably his greatest has been an expansion of the black imagination to encompass this: the idea that a man can be culturally black and many other things also—biracial, Ivy League, intellectual, cosmopolitan, temperamentally conservative, presidential.

It is often said that Obama’s presidency has given black parents the right to tell their kids with a straight face that they can do anything. This is a function not only of Obama’s election to the White House but of the way his presidency broadcasts an easy, almost mystic, blackness to the world. The Obama family represents our ideal imagining of ourselves—an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage.

What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.

In America, the rights to own property, to serve on a jury, to vote, to hold public office, to rise to the presidency have historically been seen as belonging only to those people who showed particular integrity. Citizenship was a social contract in which persons of moral standing were transformed into stakeholders who swore to defend the state against threats external and internal. Until a century and a half ago, slave rebellion ranked high in the fevered American imagination of threats necessitating such an internal defense.

In the early years of our republic, when democracy was still an unproven experiment, the Founders were not even clear that all white people should be entrusted with this fragile venture, much less the bestial African. Thus Congress, in 1790, declared the following:

 All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.

In such ways was the tie between citizenship and whiteness in America made plain from the very beginning. By the 19th century, there was, as Matthew Jacobson, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, has put it, “an un­questioned acceptance of whiteness as a prerequisite for natural­ized citizenship.” Debating Abraham Lincoln during the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858, Stephen Douglas asserted that “this government was made on the white basis” and that the Framers had made “no reference either to the Negro, the savage Indians, the Feejee, the Malay, or an other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men.”

After the Civil War, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor as president and a unionist, scoffed at awarding the Negro the franchise:

 The peculiar qualities which should characterize any people who are fit to decide upon the management of public affairs for a great state have seldom been combined. It is the glory of white men to know that they have had these qualities in sufficient measure to build upon this continent a great political fabric and to preserve its stability for more than ninety years, while in every other part of the world all similar experiments have failed. But if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.

The notion of blacks as particularly unfit for political equality persisted well into the 20th century. As the nation began considering integrating its military, a young West Virginian wrote to a senator in 1944:

 I am a typical American, a southerner, and 27 years of age … I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

The writer—who never joined the military, but did join the Ku Klux Klan—was Robert Byrd, who died in 2010 as the longest-serving U.S. senator in history. Byrd’s rejection of political equality was echoed in 1957 by William F. Buckley Jr., who addressed the moral disgrace of segregation by endorsing disenfranchisement strictly based on skin color:

 The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

Buckley, the founder of National Review, went on to assert, “The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote and would not know for what to vote if they could.”

The myth of “twice as good” that makes Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that blacks feel no anger toward their tormentors.

The idea that blacks should hold no place of consequence in the American political future has affected every sector of American society, transforming whiteness itself into a monopoly on American possibilities. White people like Byrd and Buckley were raised in a time when, by law, they were assured of never having to compete with black people for the best of anything. Blacks used in­ferior public pools and inferior washrooms, attended inferior schools. The nicest restaurants turned them away. In large swaths of the country, blacks paid taxes but could neither attend the best universities nor exercise the right to vote. The best jobs, the richest neighborhoods, were giant set-asides for whites—universal affirmative action, with no pretense of restitution.

Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation: these bonded white people into a broad aristocracy united by the salient fact of unblackness. What Byrd saw in an integrated military was the crumbling of the ideal of whiteness, and thus the crumbling of an entire society built around it. Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order.

Watching Obama rack up victories in states like Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, and North Carolina on Election Night in 2008, anyone could easily conclude that racism, as a national force, had been defeated. The thought should not be easily dismissed: Obama’s victory demonstrates the incredible distance this country has traveled. (Indeed, William F. Buckley Jr. later revised his early positions on race; Robert Byrd spent decades in Congress atoning for his.) That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation of citizenship would elect a black president is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured, and to ignore the quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet.

During the 2008 primary, The New Yorker’s George Packer journeyed to Kentucky and was shocked by the brazen declarations of white identity. “I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race,” one voter told Packer. “That’s my opinion.” That voter was hardly alone. In 2010, Michael Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University, and David Sears, a professor of psychology and political science at UCLA, were able to assess the impact of race in the 2008 primary by comparing data from two 2008 campaign and election studies with previous surveys of racial resentment and voter choice. As they wrote in Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America:

 No other factor, in fact, came close to dividing the Democratic primary electorate as powerfully as their feelings about African Americans. The impact of racial attitudes on individual vote decisions … was so strong that it appears to have even outstripped the substantive impact of racial attitudes on Jesse Jackson’s more racially charged campaign for the nomination in 1988.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, is studying how racial animus may have cost Obama votes in 2008. First, Stephens-­Davidowitz ranked areas of the country according to how often people there typed racist search terms into Google. (The areas with the highest rates of racially charged search terms were West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York, and southern Mississippi.) Then he compared Obama’s voting results in those areas with John Kerry’s four years earlier. So, for instance, in 2004 Kerry received 50 percent of the vote in the media markets of both Denver and Wheeling (which straddles the Ohio–West Virginia border). Based on the Democratic groundswell in 2008, Obama should have received about 57 percent of the popular vote in both regions. But that’s not what happened. In the Denver area, which had one of the nation’s lowest rates of racially charged Google searching, Obama received the predicted 57 percent. But in Wheeling, which had a high rate of racially charged Google searching, Obama’s share of the popular vote was only 48 percent. Of course, Obama also picked up some votes because he is black. But, aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote to racism.

After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified. At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like Obama Plans White Slavery. Steve King, an Iowa congressman and Tea Party favorite, complained that Obama “favors the black person.” In 2009, Rush Limbaugh, bard of white decline, called Obama’s presidency a time when “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ And of course everybody says the white kid deserved it—he was born a racist, he’s white.” On Fox & Friends,Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had exposed himself as a guy “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture … This guy is, I believe, a racist.” Beck later said he was wrong to call Obama a racist. That same week he also called the president’s health-care plan “reparations.”

One possible retort to this pattern of racial paranoia is to cite the Clinton years, when an ideological fever drove the right wing to derangement, inspiring militia movements and accusations that the president had conspired to murder his own lawyer, Vince Foster. The upshot, by this logic, is that Obama is experiencing run-of-the-mill political opposition in which race is but a minor factor among much larger ones, such as party affiliation. But the argument assumes that party affiliation itself is unconnected to race. It pretends that only Toni Morrison took note of Clinton’s particular appeal to black voters. It forgets that Clinton felt compelled to attack Sister Souljah. It forgets that whatever ignoble labels the right wing pinned on Clinton’s health-care plan, “reparations” did not rank among them.

Michael Tesler, following up on his research with David Sears on the role of race in the 2008 campaign, recently published a study assessing the impact of race on opposition to and support for health-care reform. The findings are bracing. Obama’s election effectively racialized white Americans’ views, even of health-care policy. As Tesler writes in a paper published in July in The American Journal of Political Science, “Racial attitudes had a significantly greater impact on health care opinions when framed as part of President Obama’s plan than they had when the exact same policies were attributed to President Clinton’s 1993 health care initiative.”

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

White resentment has not cooled as the Obama presidency has proceeded. Indeed, the GOP presidential-primary race featured candidates asserting that the black family was better off under slavery (Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum); claiming that Obama, as a black man, should oppose abortion (Santorum again); or denouncing Obama as a “food-stamp president” (Newt Ging­rich).

The resentment is not confined to Republicans. Earlier this year, West Virginia gave 41 percent of the popular vote during the Democratic primary to Keith Judd, a white incarcerated felon (Judd actually defeated Obama in 10 counties). Joe Manchin, one of West Virginia’s senators, and Earl Ray Tomblin, its governor, are declining to attend this year’s Democratic convention, and will not commit to voting for Obama.

It is often claimed that Obama’s unpopularity in coal-­dependent West Virginia stems from his environmental policies. But recall that no state ranked higher on Seth Stephens-­Davidowitz’s racism scale than West Virginia. Moreover, Obama was unpopular in West Virginia before he became president: even at the tail end of the Democratic primaries in 2008, Hillary Clinton walloped Obama by 41 points. A fifth of West Virginia Democrats openly professed that race played a role in their vote.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

The strategy can work. Booker T.’s Tuskegee University still stands. Wilder became the first black governor in America since Reconstruction. Jackson’s campaign moved the Democratic nominating process toward proportional allocation of delegates, a shift that Obama exploited in the 2008 Democratic primaries by staying competitive enough in big states to rack up delegates even where he was losing, and rolling up huge vote margins (and delegate-count victories) in smaller ones.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

Another political tradition in black America, running counter to the one publicly embraced by Obama and Booker T. Washington, casts its skepticism not simply upon black culture but upon the entire American project. This tradition stretches back to Frederick Douglass, who, in 1852, said of his native country, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.” It extends through Martin Delany, through Booker T.’s nemesis W. E. B. Du Bois, and through Malcolm X. It includes Martin Luther King Jr., who at the height of the Vietnam War called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And it includes Obama’s former pastor, he of the famous “God Damn America” sermon, Jeremiah Wright.

The Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, in his 2011 book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, examines this tradition by looking at his own father and Reverend Wright in the context of black America’s sense of patriotism. Like Wright, the elder Kennedy was a veteran of the U.S. military, a man seared and radicalized by American racism, forever remade as a vociferous critic of his native country: in virtually any American conflict, Kennedy’s father rooted for the foreign country.

The deep skepticism about the American proj­ect that Kennedy’s father and Reverend Wright evince is an old tradition in black America. Before Frederick Douglass worked, during the Civil War, for the preservation of the Union, he called for his country’s destruction. “I have no love for America,” he declaimed in a lecture to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. “I have no patriotism … I desire to see [the government] overthrown as speedily as possible and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.”

Kennedy notes that Douglass’s denunciations were the words of a man who not only had endured slavery but was living in a country where whites often selected the Fourth of July as a special day to prosecute a campaign of racial terror:

 On July 4, 1805, whites in Philadelphia drove blacks out of the square facing Independence Hall. For years thereafter, blacks attended Fourth of July festivities in that city at their peril. On July 4, 1834, a white mob in New York City burned down the Broadway Tabernacle because of the antislavery and anti­racist views of the church’s leaders. Firefighters in sympathy with the arsonists refused to douse the conflagration. On July 4, 1835, a white mob in Canaan, New Hampshire, destroyed a school open to blacks that was run by an abolitionist. The ante­bellum years were liberally dotted with such episodes.

Jeremiah Wright was born into an America of segregation—overt in the South and covert in the North, but wounding wherever. He joined the Marines, vowing service to his country, at a time when he wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in some states. He built his ministry in a community reeling from decades of job and housing discrimination, and heaving under the weight of drugs, gun violence, and broken families. Wright’s world is emblematic of the African Americans he ministered to, people reared on the anti-black-citizenship tradition—poll taxes, states pushing stringent voter-­ID laws—of Stephen Douglas and Andrew Johnson and William F. Buckley Jr. The message is “You are not American.” The countermessage—God damn America—­is an old one, and is surprising only to people unfamiliar with the politics of black life in this country. Un­fortunately, that is an apt description of large swaths of America.

Whatever the context for Wright’s speech, the surfacing of his remarks in 2008 was utterly inconvenient not just for the Obama campaign but for much of black America. One truism holds that black people are always anxious to talk about race, eager to lecture white people at every juncture about how wrong they are and about the price they must pay for past and ongoing sins. But one reason Obama rose so quickly was that African Americans are war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that was tired of the old Baby Boomer debates. Blacks, too, were sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing. There was a broad sense that integration had failed us, and a growing disenchantment with our appointed spokespeople. Obama’s primary triumphs in predominantly white states gave rise to rumors of a new peace, one many blacks were anxious to achieve.

And even those black Americans who embrace the tradition of God Damn America do so not with glee but with deep pain and anguish. Both Kennedy’s father and Wright were military men. My own father went to Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne, but came back quoting Malcolm X. The poet Lucille Clifton once put it succinctly:

 They act like they don’t love their country
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them.

In 2008, as Obama’s election became imaginable, it seemed possible that our country had indeed, at long last, come to love us. We did not need our Jeremiah Wrights, our Jesse Jacksons, our products of the polarized ’60s getting in the way. Indeed, after distancing himself from Wright, Obama lost almost no black support.

Obama offered black America a convenient narrative that could be meshed with the larger American story. It was a narrative premised on Crispus Attucks, not the black slaves who escaped plantations and fought for the British; on the 54th Massachusetts, not Nat Turner; on stoic and saintly Rosa Parks, not young and pregnant Claudette Colvin; on a Christlike Martin Luther King Jr., not an avenging Malcolm X. Jeremiah Wright’s presence threatened to rupture that comfortable narrative by symbolizing that which makes integration impossible—black rage.

From the “inadequate black male” diatribe of the Hillary Clinton supporter Harriet Christian in 2008, to Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC against subsidizing “losers’ mortgages,” to Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s September 2009 address to Congress, to John Boehner’s screaming “Hell no!” on the House floor about Obamacare in 2010, politicized rage has marked the opposition to Obama. But the rules of our racial politics require that Obama never respond in like fashion. So frightening is the prospect of black rage given voice and power that when Obama was a freshman senator, he was asked, on national television, to denounce the rage of Harry Belafonte. This fear continued with demands that he keep his distance from Louis Farrakhan and culminated with Reverend Wright and a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

Whatever the political intelligence of this calculus, it has broad and deep consequences. The most obvious result is that it prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war. There have been calls for Obama to take a softer line on state-level legalization of marijuana or even to stand for legalization himself. Indeed, there is no small amount of in­consistency in our black president’s either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men—laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class and arrested for the marijuana use he openly discusses. But the intellectual argument doubles as the counterargument. If the fact of a black president is enough to racialize the wonkish world of health-care reform, what havoc would the Obama touch wreak upon the already racialized world of drug policy?

What we are witnessing is not some new racism—it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that rendered the best pickings the province of unblackness.

The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country. No one knows this better than Obama himself, who once described patriotism as more than pageantry and the scarfing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism,” Obama said in Independence, Missouri, in June 2008. Love of country, like all other forms of love, requires that you tell those you care about not simply what they want to hear but what they need to hear.

But in the age of the Obama presidency, expressing that kind of patriotism is presumably best done quietly, politely, and with great deference.

This spring I flew down to Albany, Georgia, and spent the day with Shirley Sherrod, a longtime civil-rights activist who embodies exactly the kind of patriotism that Obama esteems. Albany is in Dougherty County, where the poverty rate hangs around 30 percent—double that of the rest of the state. On the drive in from the airport, the selection of vendors—­payday loans, title loans, and car dealers promising no credit check—evidenced the statistic.

When I met Sherrod at her office, she was working to get a birthday card out to Roger Spooner, whose farm she’d once fought to save. In July 2010, the conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart posted video clips on his Web site of a speech Sherrod had delivered to the NAACP the previous March. The video was edited so that Sherrod, then an official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, appeared to be bragging about discriminating against a white farmer and thus enacting a fantasy of racial revenge. The point was to tie Obama to the kind of black rage his fevered enemies often impute to him. Fearing exactly that, Sherrod’s supervisors at the USDA called her in the middle of a long drive and had her submit her resignation via BlackBerry, telling her, “You’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.”

Glenn Beck did eventually do a segment on Sherrod—one in which he attacked the administration for forcing her out. As it turned out, the full context showed that Sherrod was actually documenting her own turn away from racial anger. The farmer who was the subject of the story came forward, along with his wife, and explained that Sherrod had worked tirelessly to help the family. The farmer was Roger Spooner.

Sherrod’s career as an activist, first in civil rights and then later in the world of small farmers like Roger Spooner, was not chosen so much as thrust upon her. Her cousin had been lynched in 1943. Her father was shot and killed by a white relative in a dispute over some cows. There were three witnesses, but the grand jury in her native Baker County did not indict the suspect. Sherrod became an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, registering voters near her hometown. Her husband, Charles Sherrod, was instrumental in leading the Albany Movement, which attracted Martin Luther King Jr. to town. But when Stokely Carmichael rose to lead SNCC and took it in a black-nationalist direction, the Sherrods, committed to non­violence and integration, faced a weighty choice. Car­michael himself had been committed to nonviolence, until the killings and beatings he encountered as a civil-rights activist took their toll. Sherrod, with a past haunted by racist violence, would have seemed ripe for recruitment to the nationalist line. But she, along with her husband, declined, leaving SNCC in order to continue in the tradition of King and nonviolence.

Her achievements from then on are significant. She helped pioneer the farm-­collective movement in America, and co-founded New Communities—a sprawling 6,000-acre collective that did everything from growing crops to canning sugar cane and sorghum. New Communities folded in 1985, largely because Ronald Reagan’s USDA refused to sign off on a loan, even as it was signing off on money for smaller-scale white farmers. Sherrod went on to work with Farm Aid. She befriended Willie Nelson, held a fellowship with the Kellogg Foundation, and was shortlisted for a job in President Clinton’s Agriculture Department. Still, she remained relatively unknown except to students of the civil-rights movement and activists who promoted the rights of small farmers. And unknown she would have remained, had she not been very publicly forced out of her position by the administration of the country’s first black president.

Through most of her career as an agriculture activist, Sherrod had found the USDA to be a barrier to the success of black farmers. What hurt black farms the most were the discriminatory practices of local officials in granting loans. Sherrod spent years protesting these practices. But then, after the election of Barack Obama, she was hired by the USDA, where she would be supervising the very people she’d once fought. Now she would have a chance to ensure fair and nondiscriminatory lending practices. Her appoint­ment represented the kind of unnoticed but significant changes Obama’s election brought.

But then the administration, intimidated by a resurgent right wing specializing in whipping up racial resentment, compelled Sherrod to resign on the basis of the misleading clips. When the full tape emerged, the administration was left looking ridiculous.

And cowardly. An e-mail chain later surfaced in which the White House congratulated Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s staff for getting ahead of the news cycle. None of them had yet seen the full tape. That the Obama administration would fold so easily gives some sense of how frightened it was of a protracted fight with any kind of racial subtext, particularly one that had a subtext of black rage. Its enemies under­stood this, and when no black rage could be found, they concocted some. And the administration, in a panic, knuckled under.

Violence at the hands of whites robbed Shirley Sherrod of a cousin and a father. White rage outlined the substantive rules of her life: Don’t quarrel with white people. Don’t look them in the eye. Avoid Route 91 after dark. White racism destroyed New Communities, a fact validated by the nearly $13 million the organization received in the class-action suit it joined alleging racial discrimination by the local USDA officials granting loan applications. (Which means that her being forced out by Vilsack was the second time the USDA had wronged her directly.) And yet through it all, Sherrod has hewed to the rule of “twice as good.” She has preached nonviolence and integration. The very video that led to her dismissal was of a speech aimed at black people, warning them against the dangers of succumbing to rage.

Acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. The community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality and seethes.

Driving down a sparse country road, Sherrod and I pulled over to a grassy footpath and stepped out at the spot where her father had been shot and killed in 1965. We then drove a few miles into Newton, and stopped at a large brick building that used to be the courthouse where Sherrod had tried to register to vote a few months after her father’s death but had been violently turned back by the sheriff; where a year later Sherrod’s mother pursued a civil case against her husband’s killer. (She lost.) For this, Sherrod’s mother enjoyed routine visits from white terror­ists, which abated only after she, pregnant with her dead husband’s son, appeared in the doorway with a gun and began calling out names of men in the mob.

When we got back into the car, I asked Sherrod why she hadn’t given in to rage against her father’s killers and sided with Stokely Car­michael. “It was simple for me,” she said. “I really wanted to work. I wanted to win.”

I asked Sherrod if she thought the president had a grasp of the specific history of the region and of the fights waged and the sacrifices made in order to make his political journey possible. “I don’t think he does,” Sherrod said. “When he called me [shortly after the incident], he kept saying he understood our struggle and all we’d fought for. He said, ‘Read my book and you’ll see.’ But I had read his book.”

In 2009, Sergeant James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., the eminent professor of African American studies at Harvard, at his front door in Cambridge, for, essentially, sassing him. When President Obama publicly asserted the stupidity of Crowley’s action, he was so besieged that the controversy threatened to derail what he hoped would be his signature achievement—health-care reform. Obama, an African American male who had risen through the ranks of the American elite, was no doubt sensitive to untoward treatment at the hands of the police. But his expounding upon it so provoked right-wing rage that he was forced away from doing the kind of truth-telling he’d once lauded. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Obama said at the time, “but nobody’s been paying much attention to health care.”

Shirley Sherrod has worked all her life to make a world where the rise of a black president born of a biracial marriage is both conceivable and legal. She has endured the killing of relatives, the ruination of enterprises, and the defaming of her reputation. Crowley, for his actions, was feted in the halls of American power, honored by being invited to a “beer summit” with the man he had arrested and the leader of the free world. Shirley Sherrod, unjustly fired and defamed, was treated to a brief phone call from a man whose career, in some profound way, she had made possible. Sherrod herself is not immune to this point. She talked to me about crying with her husband while watching Obama’s Election Night speech. In her new memoir, The Courage to Hope, she writes about a different kind of tears: when she discussed her firing with her family, her mother, who’d spent her life facing down racism at its most lethal, simply wept. “What will my babies say?,” Sherrod cried to her husband, referring to their four small granddaughters. “How can I explain to my children that I got fired by the first black president?”

In 2000, an undercover police officer followed a young man named Prince Jones from suburban Maryland through Washington, D.C., into Northern Virginia and shot him dead, near the home of his girlfriend and 11-month-old daughter. Jones was a student at Howard University. His mother was a radiologist. He was also my friend. The officer tracking Prince thought he was on the trail of a drug dealer. But the dealer he was after was short and wore dreadlocks—Prince was tall and wore his hair cropped close. The officer was black. He wore dreadlocks and a T-shirt, in an attempt to look like a drug dealer. The ruse likely worked. He claimed that after Prince got out of his car and confronted him, he drew his gun and said “Police”; Prince returned to his car and repeatedly rammed the officer’s unmarked car with his own vehicle. The story sounded wildly at odds with the young man I knew. But even if it was accurate, I could easily see myself frightened by a strange car following me for miles, and then reacting wildly when a man in civilian clothes pulled out a gun and claimed to be a cop. (The officer never showed a badge.)

No criminal charges were ever brought against Carlton Jones, the officer who killed my friend and rendered a little girl fatherless. It was as if society barely blinked. A few months later, I moved to New York. When 9/11 happened, I wanted nothing to do with any kind of patriotism, with the broad national ceremony of mourning. I had no sympathy for the fire­fighters, and something bordering on hatred for the police officers who had died. I lived in a country where my friend—twice as good—could be shot down mere footsteps from his family by agents of the state. God damn America, indeed.

I grew. I became a New Yorker. I came to understand the limits of anger. Watching Barack Obama crisscross the country to roaring white crowds, and then get elected president, I became convinced that the country really had changed—that time and events had altered the nation, and that progress had come in places I’d never imagined it could. When Osama bin Laden was killed, I cheered like everyone else. God damn al‑Qaeda.

When trans-partisan mourning erupted around Trayvon Martin, it reinforced my conviction that the world had changed since the death of Prince Jones. Like Prince, Trayvon was suspected of being a criminal chiefly because of the color of his skin. Like Prince’s, Trayvon’s killer claimed self-defense. Again, with little effort, I could see myself in the shoes of the dead man. But this time, society’s response seemed so very different, so much more heartening.

Then the first black president spoke, and the Internet bloomed. Young people began “Trayvoning”—mocking the death of a black boy by photographing themselves in hoodies, with Skittles and iced tea, in a death pose.

In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

And yet this is the uncertain foundation of Obama’s historic victory—a victory that I, and my community, hold in the highest esteem. Who would truly deny the possibility of a black presidency in all its power and symbolism? Who would rob that little black boy of the right to feel himself affirmed by touching the kinky black hair of his president?

I think back to the first time I wrote Shirley Sherrod, requesting an interview. Here was a black woman with every reason in the world to bear considerable animosity toward Barack Obama. But she agreed to meet me only with great trepidation. She said she didn’t “want to do anything to hurt” the president.


By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

Rejecting Fat Acceptance

I am a shallow jerk. I wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning, because I know how this is going to go. I’m writing about the obesity epidemic in America, and this means that, no matter what I say or how much sense it makes, it’s going to be dismissed on the grounds that I’m only saying it because I don’t find fat people attractive. Even when I discuss this issue with my friends, who are very intelligent folks, more often than not they will cut me off with “Oh, you just hate fat people!” It’s not that they dispute what I’m saying (none of them believes that obesity is completely genetic, or that exercise and a reasonable diet won’t keep you from getting fat) —it’s that they don’t like why I’m saying it.

So, okay, I will be honest and concede this. It’s true that I don’t find overweight people attractive, and it’s true that I am more annoyed than most people are by being around fat people. I will be the bigger person here (metaphorically speaking, of course) and admit that I would be a nicer person if these things weren’t true and that I should work on them… But that doesn’t mean the things I’m saying are false. If something is true, it’s true, even if the person who happens to be telling you so is the biggest jerk of all time. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to admit to his face that he’s right, because you don’t want to give him the satisfaction, but what you admit to him and how you live your life when he’s not around are two different issues.

When writing about obesity, there’s just no way to win. That’s what happens to a debate when it gets bogged down in identity politics and ad hominem arguments. Think of the identity-politics tipping point as the event horizon of argumentation: once you cross the line where the majority of people participating in a discourse care less about what’s true than they do about who’s “allowed” to say what, it becomes impossible for any conversation about that subject to be productive. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an unproductive discourse (and fat people, naturally).

And this isn’t just a tangent about the niceties of argumentation here —it’s a good chunk of the root of the problem. This “Fat Acceptance” nonsense was only made possible by P.C. identity politics and the fact that an entire generation of Liberals never learned how to argue in any way besides making ad hominem accusations of prejudice. Against abortion? You’re a sexist. Against affirmative action? You’re a racist. Against gay marriage? You’re a homophobe. Now, just to make sure Liberals don’t stop reading at this point, I’ll hurry up and clarify that I am personally pro-choice, in favor of affirmative action (with some qualifications), and support gay marriage. But my arguments on these issues don’t simply rest on mudslinging about who my opponent “hates.” Why not? Because, as fun as it is to compare the other guy to Hitler, the fact is that prejudice is irrelevant. If the other person’s position is really wrong, then there must be a flaw in the argument itself, not just in the arguer’s emotions —and if there isn’t a flaw in the argument, then… well, then there isn’t a flaw in the argument. If your dog bites my kid, then whether I’m a dog lover or a dog hater isn’t the issue —I’m pissed either way, and I have every right to be pissed either way.

Long story short: it’s possible to think that something is a bad idea for a reason other than “hating” the people you’re talking about. Of course, Conservatives, you’re not blameless here either. The reason Liberals have been able to get by so effectively on ad hominem attacks about who everyone “hates” is precisely because so many Conservatives do in fact hate gays, blacks, or whoever —so even though it’s a flawed strategy, the knee-jerk Liberal accusation of prejudice ends up being right a pretty good percentage of the time.

Anyway, to try and get around this, I’ve opened by admitting that I’m a terrible person. Consequently, your responses can’t simply be to tell me that I’m a terrible person, because I’ve already conceded this. In fact, your responses can’t be about me personally at all. Just pretend a person with a specific identity didn’t write this —pretend it was written by an arguing computer or something, so you have to either address the substance of the argument, or nothing. This isn’t about whether I personally am male or female, gay or straight, black or white. This isn’t about who I personally do or don’t find attractive. This isn’t about whether I personally can afford to join a gym or have a schedule that permits me time to go. This isn’t about what foods I personally like, or what foods are popular in my culture. It’s about whether the things I say from this point onwards are true, and that’s it. If something I say isn’t accurate, then by all means correct me —the only indulgence I ask is that you don’t dismiss accurate things I say based on something to do with the fact that I happen to be the one saying them. Deal? Then let’s proceed.

* * *

Now, while I’ll admit that there probably isn’t a good reason to oppose gay marriage if you truly don’t have any problem with gay people, the obesity epidemic isn’t the same thing. It’s scientifically true that obesity is bad for you (and a miserable way to live even aside from the health concerns), and it’s scientifically false that fat people were doomed at birth to become fat people. “Born This Way” is a great slogan about homosexuality or left-handedness, but it isn’t a great slogan for everything under the sun. Should we tell a kid who gets bad grades in school he was “born that way” instead of trying to teach him better study habits? Should we tell a smoker she was “born that way” instead of encouraging her to quit? Maybe in the first case, a good point can be made that everyone learns differently and that education shouldn’t revolve around test scores and grades —but in the second case, erring too much in the direction of respecting the smoker’s right to smoke would only help to cover up the fact that tobacco companies are getting rich off of pushing a product they know is killing people. Chalking everything up to live-and-let-live would mean letting them get away with it —and so it’s presumably exactly what they want you to do.

I should hurry up and clarify, though, that this isn’t an argument about who I or anyone else is “allowed to not like.” Arguments like that are inherently silly and only ways of avoiding the real issue. And that brings me to my first problem with the Fat Acceptance movement —I don’t like the name. Why? Because it’s dishonest in its attempt to deliberately conflate two things. Think about it: what does the phrase “Fat Acceptance” mean? Does it mean that non-fat people should accept fat people, or that fat people should accept being fat? Presumably both, and that’s a dirty trick. I don’t object to the first meaning —if “acceptance” just means that non-fat people shouldn’t be mean to fat people, then I agree, on the general principle that nobody should be mean to anyone. It’s the second meaning I object to —the idea that fat people themselves should just accept being fat, presumably because there’s probably nothing they can do about it. I reject this on the simple grounds that it is not true (once upon a time, that was reason enough to reject an idea, if you can believe it).

The very name of the “Fat Acceptance” movement is exemplary of what’s wrong with identity-politics rhetoric: it muddles dispassionate conceptual arguments with overtones of personal, emotional stuff. In other words, if you say “I don’t support the Fat Acceptance movement,” and what you mean is “I believe obesity is not genetic and it’s possible for fat people to lose weight,” it’s going to be heard as “I think it’s okay to be mean to fat people.” And this is by design: the aim of the movement’s rhetoric is to render scientific arguments culturally unstable, so that they instantly degenerate into arguments about personal prejudice. As a general rule, you should stay away from movements that make a habit of this sort of thing.

Look at it this way: suppose there’s a town where some stereotypically evil corporation is dumping toxic waste in the drinking water, and suddenly people are developing cancer right and left. A few people notice that cancer rates shouldn’t naturally be this high, figure out the connection to the drinking water, and start encouraging everyone to boycott the corporation and drink bottled water instead. But then, instead of listening, the rest of the townspeople accuse them of hating people with cancer, call them elitists because not everyone can afford to drink bottled water, and start a “cancer acceptance” movement based on the idea that everyone is supposed to get cancer and that everyone who doesn’t has a “drinking disorder.” The bottom line is not only that lots of people get cancer who didn’t have to, but also that the evil corporation gets away with dumping toxic waste. This is A) self-evidently ridiculous, and B) absolutely no different from what we are currently saying about obesity.

Are some people naturally fat? Sure, just like some people naturally get cancer. But if tons of people are suddenly getting cancer —or fat —then something is wrong. (Conservatives, DO NOT jump on this analogy and try to use it about homosexuality —there were just as many gay people before, but they weren’t in a position to come out as openly gay, so that’s different, and you know it.)

And before everyone bombards me with links: yes, I know that people can still be in good shape even though they don’t look like models, so there’s no need to tell me about your friend who runs marathons but still has kind of a big butt. Yes, I know that there are some genetic determinants of who gets fatter than who, because gene-pool isolation and normal genetic variance have resulted in some people’s metabolisms allocating a slightly higher portion of caloric intake towards long-term storage. But none of this comes anywhere close to explaining why a majority of Americans have suddenly gotten really fat in the last couple of decades or why people shouldn’t be concerned about this.

What more proof do you need that obesity isn’t wholly —or even predominantly —genetic than the fact that it’s happening in America? America is, as you doubtless learned in elementary school, a “melting pot.” People have been coming here from all over the world for as long as we’ve existed. There’s no such thing as being genetically “American” —so how the hell could something genetic be happening in America and nowhere else? And don’t tell me people in other countries are all malnourished. I’m not comparing us to North Korea and sub-Saharan Africa here —I’m comparing us to Europe, where most Americans’ genes sailed over from within very recent history, and freaking Canada,which is right next door. Why would people in Minnesota be genetically fat and people half an hour across the border not be? If two-thirds of Americans of, say, Irish or French ancestry are “genetically” fat, then roughly the same proportions of people in Ireland or France should also be fat, but they’re not. The only way wildly disproportionate obesity rates could be both genetic and uniquely American would be if aliens are altering our DNA by bombarding us with gamma rays or something —in which case, I should really not be writing this article, because I wouldn’t like two-thirds of Americans when they’re angry.

* * *

The whole “fat people can’t help it” meme is a scientific travesty. Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone so fat they have to ride around on one of those little fat-person scooters. How can it possibly be genetic that a significant portion of the population is fat enough to be immobile under their own power? That’s not just “looking different” —it’s a crippling handicap that would doom someone in a state of nature, like blindness. But whereas blindness has always existed, people have only suddenly and recently become this fat in such large numbers. Something bad is causing this, we need to do something about it, and pretending it’s genetic is preventing us from doing whatever that thing is. I understand sympathy, but this essay isn’t arguing that is should be okay to make jokes about these people or whatever —it’s arguing that we need to proactively address the problem. The short-term impulse to “be nice at all costs” is actually anything but “nice” in the long term. Suppose there was something in our food that was suddenly making lots of people go blind. By pretending that all these people were genetically predestined to go blind, all you’d be doing is sentencing countless individuals in the future to go blind who didn’t have to. Would it make any sense to rebuke the people trying to fix that problem by telling them that they just “hate blind people?”

If obesity is genetic, then why are poor people disproportionately fat? Being poor isn’t a race; it’s a social condition. Before you jump in with correlations of race and poverty, remember that this is only true in the big diverse cities. Go to the middle of the country, and you’ll find poor white people who are just as fat as the poor minorities in the cities. It has become a commonplace to say “it’s different for black people” regarding obesity, as if black people metabolize food in some alternate way —but they don’t. The black community is disproportionately fat because a legacy of institutionalized racism has rendered them disproportionately poor, and —once again —pretending the difference is genetic is preventing us from addressing the real problem, which is that poor people have no choice but to buy terrible food containing substances that should probably be illegal. (By the way, the people who say “it’s different for black people” regarding obesity tend to be the same people who say “race is a social construction,” and it bears pointing out that both of those things can’t be true at the same time.)

This brings us to the “junk food is cheaper, so you are being classist” argument. I have a degree of sympathy for this one, because it is partly true —but not entirely true. Yes, it’s cheaper to buy the normal beef instead of the organic beef or the lean beef. It’s cheaper to get McDonald’s for lunch than it is to get sushi. But in a lot of other situations, the healthier option is the cheaper one. You know what’s cheaper than McDonald’s? Making a freaking sandwich at home and bringing it to work. You know what’s cheaper than drinking soda with every meal? Drinking water. You know what’s cheaper than eating ice cream after dinner? Eating nothing after dinner, because you just had dinner.

Another massive obstacle to our resolving the obesity problem is the fact that every online comment war about it ends up degenerating into celebrity snark: “celebrities look like that because they have personal trainers and dietitians, so it’s impossible for regular people to look like that.” This is what’s known among argument fanboys as the Nirvana Fallacy —i.e., arguing that no action should be taken because a perfect solution is impossible (like saying “it’s pointless to have seat-belt and speed-limit laws because some people will still die in car accidents no matter what”). On the one hand, you are right that it’s impossible for everyone to have the body of a celebrity. But on the other hand, nobody is saying you have to. Way fewer people should be really fat doesn’t mean everybody has to look like one of the hottest people on the planet or they’re worthless —it means way fewer people should be really fat.

Yes, it is true that you need personal trainers and dietitians to look like Gwyneth Paltrow or the dude who plays Thor. But you don’t need a personal trainer or a dietitian to look like a reasonably attractive regular person. It’s not like there’s no middle ground between “celebrity” and “big fat pig.” In fact, I’ll map out that middle ground right now.

10: A-List celebrity who is one of the most attractive people on the planet
9: Incredibly hot person whom most people would still give their right arm to date
8: Damn good-looking person who has no trouble getting dates or attention
7: Totally cute person anyone would marry assuming they are compatible in other ways
6: Marginally attractive person
5: Marginally unattractive person
4: Fat
3: So fat your coworkers make faces when they hear you eating
2: So fat you need one of those fat-person canes with the three prongs at the bottom
1: So fat there’s a reality show about how fat you are

The “impossible without unlimited wealth, free time, and assistance” excuse only applies to looking like a 10, and nobody expects you to look like that. What’s ridiculous here, and why I’m bothering to write this, is that it’s starting to become normal in America for people to use this excuse about why they don’t look like a 6 or 7. And that’s insane. It’s like saying you need NBA-level basketball skills to sink a free throw, or special-forces sniper skills to hit the side of a barn from twenty feet away, or that you have to be Shakespeare to remember which “its” has the apostrophe in it, or Michael Phelps to avoid drowning in a kiddie pool. I could come up with a million of these analogies, and each would be more hilarious than the last, but you get the idea —people are confusing “requires a modicum of effort regularly” with “needs to utterly consume your life.”

I’m not saying it isn’t understandable that you want to sit on the couch and eat ice cream (or drink an entire six-pack) after work. Of course it’s understandable. All I’m saying is, if that’s what you choose to do, then be an adult and admit that it’s what you’re choosing to do. You have decided that it is more important to you to unwind with ice cream than it is to be considered attractive. It is your life, and you have every right to make that decision —but understand that you are the one making that decision, not “celebrities” or “society.” Being fat is not the inevitable result of not being wealthy; it is the result of a hundred small decisions you choose to make every day. If you need a personal trainer to tell you that it’s better for you to take the stairs than the escalator, or to walk to the store that’s four blocks away instead of driving, then a five-year old could be your personal trainer, because a five-year old knows those things.

That being said, this issue doesn’t come down to a lecture about personal responsibility. Obesity in America is —and here’s the part Liberals will like —also largely the government’s fault. Yes, part of the reason we’re fatter than Europeans is that Europeans ride bikes and cook meals at home and all of the other charming “elitist” stuff that it’s harder to manage doing in America. But the other part of the reason is that American food contains additives that should probably be illegal, and indeed are illegal —or at least nowhere near as widely used —in other countries. French people aren’t just thin because they ride bikes and cook at home —it’s also the case that the French version of the FDA is much stricter and more wary when it comes to approving wacky chemical ingredients. So the “blame” question is a tough one here. In my earlier cancer analogy, who should you blame, the company who dumped the waste in the water to begin with, or the people who stupidly drank it anyway even after the research indicated it was bad news? Well, both, I guess. But luckily, the question of blame is immaterial here, since ultimately we’re not trying to figure out who to get mad at, only how to not get fat.

The question of what stuff is in American food that shouldn’t be there is a huge one, worthy of an entire book all on its own, and this essay is already way too long to get popular on the internet. But just for one example, let’s look at high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. Links between HFCS and obesity have been suggested based on the fact that it almost totally replaced “real” sugar in American foods and drinks (most significantly soda) in the early 1980s and isn’t widely used anywhere besides America, due to the fact that America produces tons of corn, so it’s cheaper for American companies to use than “real” sugar, which is grown in other countries, some of which we don’t like —Cuba, for example. (I’m not going to use the word “cornspiracy,” because puns are lazy writing, but you can have it if you want.) HFCS apologists have responded with studies (many of which, to be fair, were funded by the corn industry) showing no significant difference between HFCS and cane sugar and pointed out that overall fructose consumption (fructose has been shown to increase adiposity, since the body only metabolizes it into liver glycogen, whereas glucose can be metabolized into both liver and muscle glycogen, so if two people consume equal amounts of fructose and glucose, more will end up as fat in the person who consumed the fructose) hasn’t actually increased since the introduction of HFCS, since the disaccharide sucrose (found in “real” cane sugar) splits into the monosaccharides glucose and fructose during digestion, and HFCS contains roughly equal proportions of fructose and glucose. The riposte to that involves pointing out HFCS contains glucose and fructose as separate monosaccharides rather than bonded sucrose and that we don’t yet fully understand how this affects the body differently, and that at the end of the day, the fact that this weird new substance was widely introduced in America right at the time everyone started getting fat and isn’t used anywhere else is certainly cause for extreme suspicion even if it doesn’t constitute proof. Sorry about the science lesson, but remember, actually solving the obesity epidemic will require whole books of this stuff.

Defenders of HFCS allege that “sugar is sugar”—and that’s true, if all we’re talking about is caloric intake. But in the age of weird-ass chemical additives, there’s more to being thin than counting calories. There’s some evidence, for example, that those sodas with zero calories will actually make you fattest of all, because the chemicals they contain screw with your organs so bad that your body starts instructing itself to make extra fat to protect your organs.

There’s also the matter of how effective a food or drink is at making you feel full, or making you want to move around versus sit still. Normal sugar —like all stimulants —is an appetite suppressant, but some experiments have indicated that HFCS actually makes you hungrier. Plus,normal sugar amps you up more, whereas HFCS doesn’t seem to. You can go test this one yourself right now: go get some microbrew sodas that contain real sugar from Whole Foods or someplace. Now drink one, and you will find the following things: you are less hungry than a normal soda would have made you, you feel like moving around, and —most importantly —you were totally satisfied by the first soda and have no desire to drink a second one right away.

So yes, “sugar is sugar” in terms of calories. But between a sugar that decreases your appetite and makes you want to move around and a sugar that increases your appetite and doesn’t make you want to move around, the second kind will make you fatter than the first kind —not because it contains more calories in and of itself, but because it causes you to take in more additional calories in the form of other food and burn off fewer calories through exercise.

As a point of honor, I have to admit that nothing about HFCS causing obesity has been proven yet —but then, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is only relevant if we’re deciding whether to send weird mashed-up corn juice to prison, and we’re not. We’re deciding whether or not to eat it, and for my part, I don’t. If I go to a friend’s party and he has normal soda, I don’t get up on a soapbox about it, but on my own time I read labels and avoid HFCS, as well as any other weird-ass chemical ingredients. And contrary to popular whining, this is not all that hard to do. Even if they don’t have hippie grocery stores where you live (many of which, also contrary to popular whining, are not more expensive than normal grocery stores, as long as you resist the urge to buy the fancy stuff in them and just buy their versions of the same staples you would have bought at a normal grocery store), all you have to do is read the ingredients and not buy anything with an ingredient that isn’t the plain-English name of a normal foodstuff.

Just the other day, for example, I was buying peanut butter. They had normal peanut butter and low-fat peanut butter. The normal peanut butter said “peanuts, sugar, vegetable oils, salt” on the side. The low-fat peanut butter said “peanuts” and a bunch of weird-ass chemicals. I bought the normal peanut butter, despite its being nominally higher in calories, on the grounds that chimpanzees do not eat weird-ass chemicals and I have yet to see a fat-ass chimpanzee dragging its sorry chimp ass around on a scooter. (The regular peanut butter also had more protein, and since I exercise, something with a fair amount of unsaturated fat but a lot of protein is a good idea for me in a way that it wouldn’t be for someone who is trying to be thin without exercising. P.S., trying to be thin without exercising is stupid.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Don’t eat weird-ass chemicals, and especially don’t eat stuff where the normal ingredients have been replaced with some bizarre substance tortured out of corn. And in case there are any holdout Liberals who aren’t on my side yet, I’ll go ahead and mention that the “pay farmers to grow nothing but corn and then put corn in everything” stuff was Nixon’s idea, so if you choose to ignore me here, you’re not just letting the government make you fat —you’re letting Richard Nixon himself make you fat from beyond the grave. I refuse to speculate on whether he did this deliberately because he hated attractive people, but I wouldn’t rule it out. He would have done anything if it meant getting at just one of the Kennedys.

* * *

Unfortunately, I do have to include some depressing stuff before I wrap up here. I’ve been talking as if not being fat is easy, but like the name of the Fat Acceptance movement itself, “not being fat” can mean two things: if we’re talking about not getting fat to begin with, then yes, that actually is easy as long as you have all the facts about diet and exercise (and aren’t a kid who’s at the mercy of what your parents feed you). But if we’re talking about getting thin once you’re already fat, then that is another story. Obviously, it’s a lot harder —it’s like the difference between quitting smoking and never smoking in the first place. But the smoking analogy doesn’t explain why it’s harder. Unlike with tobacco, the reason it’s hard to lose weight isn’t because you’re actually addicted to Twinkies or American soda. Lots of fat people have successfully cut all the bad stuff out of their diets and still not gotten thin. The bad news here is that eating the bad stuff and getting fat, especially early in life, might actually train your body to keep being fat even after you change your diet —and there may be such a thing as a point of no return.

You’ve probably already seen an article or two about this. Whenever there’s something in the news about obesity being biological in origin, it spreads like wildfire, causing the Fat Acceptance types to pump their fists in victory and thumb their noses at people like me who say obesity isn’t genetic. And yes, there absolutely have been recent studies indicating that cells in different people’s bodies allocate calories differently —that it really is the case that Person A and Person B can adopt identical diet and exercise regimens, and one will still end up fatter than the other. But now we need another science lesson, because something being cellular isn’t the same as something being genetic.

Properly speaking, “genetic” means that the thing we’re talking about is in your DNA. And nobody has found anything like an explanation for obesity in DNA (or chromosomes, which are made of DNA and proteins, or genes, which are contained in chromosomes). All those recent articles are about cellular explanations of obesity, so the people who’ve waved them about trumpeting proof that obesity is genetic were mistaken —simply because it’s possible for your cells to receive different instructions from environmental factors after your birth without your genes being changed (which can only happen due to radiation exposure). Here the analogy to tobacco becomes useful again: a smoker who develops lung cancer has indeed experienced massive cellular change, perhaps irreparably, but that’s not the same as saying that their lung cancer is genetic —if the smoker’s genes had been altered, then their subsequent children would be born with lung cancer, and we all know that’s not what happens.

This explanation was necessary because people on both sides of the obesity epidemic often speak fallaciously, using scientific terms in inaccurate and counterproductive ways —i.e., we use “genetic” simply as a synonym for “unchangeable.” But this is uninformed, as a change can be permanent without being genetic: if you lose your leg in a car crash, it is not going to grow back, but your children will still be born with two legs, because your DNA has not changed. If a bit of humility on my part will help matters, I admit that I have been guilty of this fallacy myself —in the past, I have been in the habit of using “obesity is not genetic” (which is true) to mean “all fat people could become thin if they tried” (which may not be true, and doesn’t mean the same thing as the first thing).

The study of epigenetics is still in its infancy, but the explanation for obesity may ultimately be an epigenetic one. Very briefly, epigenetics —romantically referred to as “the ghost in your DNA” —is the notion that genes may have settings, like a lamp with alternate levels of brightness, and that environmental factors, or even hereditary ones, may change the “settings” of certain genes without technically changing the gene (i.e., the DNA sequence) itself. A compelling case has already been made that predisposition to diabetes may be epigenetically linked to whether your grandparents were malnourished during puberty.

So, given all this, the worst-case scenario is that many people who are already fat may indeed be permanently screwed. If there is an epigenetic scenario analogous to the diabetes example at play, it may also be the case that the immediate descendants of fat people may be born with some degree of disadvantage in that respect. But none of this, remember, means that obesity is “genetic.” It would still be the case that if everyone ate healthily, the problem would work itself out in a couple of generations at most —whereas with a proper genetic issue, this would not be the case.

In short, if your friends came to you waving the recent studies, shouting that obesity is quote-unquote “genetic” in the sense of “possibly unchangeable, and expressed in an identifiable way at the cellular level,” and you in turn were shouting to the heavens something along the lines of “But obesity can’t be genetic! Why would it be happening recently, and only in America?” —then congratulations, you were both right, with the not-inconsiderable correction that your friends were misusing the term genetic.

* * *

It is customary to end an essay with a conclusion, and I don’t feel as if I’ve concluded very much —I confess I am better at explaining how other people are wrong than I am at making positive assertions myself —but to the extent that I have, here it is. Stop consuming foods and drinks that contain HFCS and other wacky chemicals immediately. Go to the gym when you can, and while there, do weights first and then cardio (doing weights before cardio depletes glycogen reserves, so that the cardio can get straight to burning stored fat; weight training is a good idea even if you are trying to just lose fat and not get “ripped,” because muscle is “metabolically expensive,” meaning that future calories will be allocated towards muscle upkeep rather than fat storage, and you don’t need to get especially “ripped” to achieve a significant effect from this; if you are a woman, don’t worry that weight training will make you too “bulky” —it can’t, because you don’t have enough testosterone for this to happen, another helpful weight-loss fact that people don’t point out enough because, as it deals with a biological difference between men and women, it is considered impolitic, at least in America). If you are not fat yet, all of this will definitely keep you from getting fat. If you are already fat, all of this will definitely make you less fat, although sadly I cannot absolutely guarantee that it will make you thin, for reasons already explained.

Most importantly, do not let your children get fat —even if you are a positive whale yourself and you secretly feel better the more fat people there are. I am sorry that this has happened to you for the mind-blowingly silly reason that corn happens to grow in swing states, but that is no excuse for child abuse. (If it helps, try to think like a smoker, as many parents who are hopelessly addicted to tobacco themselves would still raise hell upon catching their child with a cigarette; not wanting someone you love to make the same mistakes you made is absolutely not hypocrisy).

Finally, be you fat or thin, adult or child, I never want to hear the ridiculous term “Fat Acceptance” out of anyone’s mouth again. It is dangerous lunacy, not progressive politics. Yes, you should be nice to fat people. You should also be nice to heroin addicts, but that doesn’t mean you’d be obliged to not care if two-thirds of the populace became addicted to heroin and simply resign yourself to no longer saying that heroin is a bad idea. Although shocking, the drug analogy may be the most apt —not because of who we’re “allowed to not like,” which is childish, but simply because of what the people we’re talking about want. Discussing fatness as “the last acceptable prejudice,” as some do, is dishonest. It is different from the canonical forms of prejudice because —although black people are perfectly happy to be black, gay people are perfectly happy to be gay, and women are perfectly happy to be women —fat people themselves would rather not be fat, just as junkies would rather not be junkies. If they could wave a magic wand and be thin, they would do it —not solely because of the quote-unquote “prejudice,” but because being fat sucks in and of itself. “Fat Acceptance” revolves around certain self-appointed fat people lying to everyone else, and I do not think that they have the right to do this. If they want to stay fat, it’s their business, but flooding the media with dishonest rhetoric about “genetics” in an attempt to keep other fat people from even trying to lose weight is simply wrong.

I began this essay by declaring that no-one is allowed to call me shallow. Over the course of writing it, however, I have come to the conclusion that this is unavoidable. So instead, I’m going to close by defending shallowness. Not on the grounds that it is good, but more practically, on the grounds that it is never going to go away. Do not delude yourself into thinking that fat people will magically be considered attractive if everyone just preaches the right politics. Is it “shallow” to find fat people unattractive? I suppose, but lots of things are shallow. It’s shallow to find acne unattractive —but would you deliberately rub grease on your child’s face, just because other people shouldn’t be shallow? It’s shallow to ignore someone who has a stupid haircut, but would you deliberately give your child, or yourself, a bad haircut, just because other people shouldn’t be shallow? Would you bash in your own nose with a hammer, or slash up your own face with a razor blade? Presumably not. And would you avoid complaining and just take it if the government did these things to you? Definitely not.

Resist your urge to get mad at me, and instead remember who you’d be letting get away with something by accepting “Fat Acceptance.” I may be a shallow jerk, but I’m not Nixon.

* * * * *

read more awesome essays at the1585.com

The Fate of an Honest Intellectual

Here’s a story which is really tragic.

There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters—or at least, signed by Joan Peters—called From Time Immemorial. It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular—it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it. Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there’s no moral issue, because they’re just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country. And there was all kinds of demographic analysis in it, and a big professor of demography at the University of Chicago [Philip M. Hauser] authenticated it. That was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He’s a very careful student, and he started checking the references—and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, it was completely faked: probably it had been put together by some intelligence agency or something like that. Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: “Here’s what I’ve found in this book, do you think it’s worth pursuing?”

Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it’s an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you’re getting into. It’s an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it’s preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people’s lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.

Well, he didn’t believe me. We became very close friends after this, I didn’t know him before. He went ahead and wrote up an article, and he started submitting it to journals. Nothing: they didn’t even bother responding. I finally managed to place a piece of it in In These Times, a tiny left-wing journal published in Illinois, where some of you may have seen it. Otherwise nothing, no response. Meanwhile his professors—this is Princeton University, supposed to be a serious place—stopped talking to him: they wouldn’t make appointments with him, they wouldn’t read his papers, he basically had to quit the program.

By this time, he was getting kind of desperate, and he asked me what to do. I gave him what I thought was good advice, but what turned out to be bad advice: I suggested that he shift over to a different department, where I knew some people and figured he’d at least be treated decently. That turned out to be wrong. He switched over, and when he got to the point of writing his thesis he literally could not get the faculty to read it, he couldn’t get them to come to his thesis defense. Finally, out of embarrassment, they granted him a Ph.D.—he’s very smart, incidentally—but they will not even write a letter for him saying that he was a student at Princeton University. I mean, sometimes you have students for whom it’s hard to write good letters of recommendation, because you really didn’t think they were very good—but you can write something, there are ways of doing these things. This guy was good, but he literally cannot get a letter.

He’s now living in a little apartment somewhere in New York City, and he’s a part-time social worker working with teenage drop-outs. Very promising scholar—if he’d done what he was told, he would have gone on and right now he’d be a professor somewhere at some big university. Instead he’s working part-time with disturbed teenaged kids for a couple thousand dollars a year. That’s a lot better than a death squad, it’s true—it’s a whole lot better than a death squad. But those are the techniques of control that are around.

But let me just go on with the Joan Peters story. Finkelstein’s very persistent: he took a summer off and sat in the New York Public Library, where he went through every single reference in the book—and he found a record of fraud that you cannot believe. Well, the New York intellectual community is a pretty small place, and pretty soon everybody knew about this, everybody knew the book was a fraud and it was going to be exposed sooner or later. The one journal that was smart enough to react intelligently was the New York Review of Books—they knew that the thing was a sham, but the editor didn’t want to offend his friends, so he just didn’t run a review at all. That was the one journal that didn’t run a review.

Meanwhile, Finkelstein was being called in by big professors in the field who were telling him, “Look, call off your crusade; you drop this and we’ll take care of you, we’ll make sure you get a job,” all this kind of stuff. But he kept doing it—he kept on and on. Every time there was a favorable review, he’d write a letter to the editor which wouldn’t get printed; he was doing whatever he could do. We approached the publishers and asked them if they were going to respond to any of this, and they said no—and they were right. Why should they respond? They had the whole system buttoned up, there was never going to be a critical word about this in the United States. But then they made a technical error: they allowed the book to appear in England, where you can’t control the intellectual community quite as easily.

Well, as soon as I heard that the book was going to come out in England, I immediately sent copies of Finkelstein’s work to a number of British scholars and journalists who are interested in the Middle East—and they were ready. As soon as the book appeared, it was just demolished, it was blown out of the water. Every major journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review, the Observer, everybody had a review saying, this doesn’t even reach the level of nonsense, of idiocy. A lot of the criticism used Finkelstein’s work without any acknowledgment, I should say—but about the kindest word anybody said about the book was “ludicrous,” or “preposterous.”

Well, people here read British reviews—if you’re in the American intellectual community, you read the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review, so it began to get a little embarrassing. You started getting back-tracking: people started saying, “Well, look, I didn’t really say the book was good, I just said it’s an interesting topic,” things like that. At that point, the New York Review swung into action, and they did what they always do in these circumstances. See, there’s like a routine that you go through—if a book gets blown out of the water in England in places people here will see, or if a book gets praised in England, you have to react. And if it’s a book on Israel, there’s a standard way of doing it: you get an Israeli scholar to review it. That’s called covering your ass—because whatever an Israeli scholar says, you’re pretty safe: no one can accuse the journal of anti-Semitism, none of the usual stuff works.

So after the Peters book got blown out of the water in England, the New York Review assigned it to a good person actually, in fact Israel’s leading specialist on Palestinian nationalism [Yehoshua Porath], someone who knows a lot about the subject. And he wrote a review, which they then didn’t publish—it went on for almost a year without the thing being published; nobody knows exactly what was going on, but you can guess that there must have been a lot of pressure not to publish it. Eventually it was even written up in the New York Times that this review wasn’t getting published, so finally some version of it did appear. It was critical, it said the book is nonsense and so on, but it cut corners, the guy didn’t say what he knew.

Actually, the Israeli reviews in general were extremely critical: the reaction of the Israeli press was that they hoped the book would not be widely read, because ultimately it would be harmful to the Jews—sooner or later it would get exposed, and then it would just look like a fraud and a hoax, and it would reflect badly on Israel. They underestimated the American intellectual community, I should say.

Anyhow, by that point the American intellectual community realized that the Peters book was an embarrassment, and it sort of disappeared—nobody talks about it anymore. I mean, you still find it at newsstands in the airport and so on, but the best and the brightest know that they are not supposed to talk about it anymore: because it was exposed and they were exposed.

Well, the point is, what happened to Finkelstein is the kind of thing that can happen when you’re an honest critic—and we could go on and on with other cases like that. [Editors’ Note: Finkelstein has since published several books with independent presses.]

Still, in the universities or in any other institution, you can often find some dissidents hanging around in the woodwork—and they can survive in one fashion or another, particularly if they get community support. But if they become too disruptive or too obstreperous—or you know, too effective—they’re likely to be kicked out. The standard thing, though, is that they won’t make it within the institutions in the first place, particularly if they were that way when they were young—they’ll simply be weeded out somewhere along the line. So in most cases, the people who make it through the institutions and are able to remain in them have already internalized the right kinds of beliefs: it’s not a problem for them to be obedient, they already are obedient, that’s how they got there. And that’s pretty much how the ideological control system perpetuates itself in the schools—that’s the basic story of how it operates, I think.

by Noam Chomsky
Excerpted from Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, pp. 244-248

Why I Didn’t Go to Occupy Wall Street

The first thing I want to say is that this is not a rabidly pro-Occupy essay or a rabidly anti-police one, and that although I consider myself a Liberal, Conservatives may find a lot in here that they like or identify with.  I realize that opening this way breaks a good-writing rule about too nakedly courting an audience up front, but I did that because I want the right people to read this, and the fact is that most people, both liberal and conservative, tend to judge rather quickly whether they will probably like something and choose either to keep or stop reading accordingly.  And because writing this was pointless if Conservatives don’t read it, I’m going to begin by telling Conservatives that I know how you feel.

For the past few months, it has been pointed out that most of the protesters at Occupy events don’t know what they’re talking about. It has been observed that most of them are privileged white kids with iPhones.  It’s been said that the police are only doing their vital, thankless jobs. People have made jokes about pot and bongo drums.  And I get all that.  I don’t make the same jokes out loud myself, because all of my friends are Liberals, but I get where you’re coming from.  To a large extent, I feel the same way you do.  The difference between me and you, I think, is that I don’t particularly like feeling this way, and I regard the fact that I feel this way as largely irrelevant.  Feeling a certain way, after all, is not a position on an issue, and it doesn’t answer any questions.

Let me begin by providing a little demographic background, because demographics are what make this interesting.  I’m a college English professor, I live in New York City, and I believe the following things: that more government oversight of the financial sector is necessary both pragmatically and morally, that Republican policies constitute a war on the middle class waged to benefit the very wealthy, and that the current economic collapse was caused by reckless and predatory greed on the parts of a small number of shockingly selfish people, many of whom should probably be in prison (or at least deserve to be, even though in many cases they did not, technically speaking, break the law, because the laws were changed beforehand to accommodate them).  Given all this, I would be the first person that anybody would expect to have found holding up a sign in Zuccotti Park.  But I never did.  I didn’t go.  Not even for one day, and I never even planned to and barely thought about it.

This is because, my beliefs notwithstanding, I look at coverage of the Occupy events and react emotionally in the same way that I suspect most Conservatives do: I don’t like the people.  They look like people I would not get along with.  They look like people who would annoy me.  They look, in many cases, like people who would actively condescend to or mock me in a way that would absolutely enrage me.  When I hear the voices of the protesters chanting “shame on you” at the police who are pepper-spraying them, I have flashbacks, because they sound exactly like the voices of the entitled, oblivious “Trustafarians” who rolled their eyes at my band and my poetry in college even though my band and my poetry were better than their bands and their poetry because I actually practiced and they just partied all the time.  I can’t help seeing the Occupy protesters as the same people.  And maybe, in many cases, they are.  But that’s not the point, or at least it shouldn’t be.  Well-considered arguments about what is best for the people of this country are the point, not who I would or would not get along with at a cocktail party.  And besides, Occupy events are not a cocktail party.

Sort of.

Because of my experiences growing up, I have, and will probably always have, a level of anxiety about social events that causes me to evaluate them differently from how others do.  And a political protest, like any other gathering of people hanging out in the same place for X amount of time, is necessarily a social event.  This is not a cynical dig at protests—it is merely a fact about human psychology.  When I see pictures of an Occupy event, my initial reaction is not to see people uniting around a cause I believe in, but instead to see a party I am probably not cool enough to get into.  Remember, though, that my reaction at that initial deep level is not a political position, but merely a phobia or question of taste, like a fear of spiders or a preference for pickles or no pickles on a hamburger.  It is an emotion rather than a belief, and so cannot be proven or disproven, defended or attacked.

Of course, we let emotional phobias blossom into beliefs all the time.  The sentence “I am afraid of spiders” is merely a statement of fact about the self, but the sentence “All spiders are poisonous” is scientifically false and can be proven so.  But presenting the evidence that contradicts the second sentence to someone who fears spiders will not undo the first—someone who is afraid of spiders will simply find something else to say about them other than the assertion that they are all poisonous.  They will do this because, emotionally speaking, they need to.  Even if the person who fears spiders thinks that the fear came about as a result of the belief that they are poisonous, it probably didn’t.  Most likely, the fear came first, and the ostensible reason was thought up second.

For a lot of reasons, it’s more fun to have emotional arguments.  We necessarily care more about our emotions than we do about assertions concerning the external world, for one, and so we’re more invested in them.  Arguing emotion is also fun because it’s harder to lose—if you’re going to say “police brutality is common and typically goes unpunished,” you have to do research to defend it, but if all you say is “fuck the police,” then you don’t.  Similarly, it is easier for a Conservative to make jokes about how the protesters all smoke pot and smell bad than it is for them to mount a cogent defense of the policies to which the protesters object—the second thing means you have to look stuff up, and the first doesn’t.

I don’t think it should be too hard for both intelligent Liberals and intelligent Conservatives to agree that, on pretty much every issue under the sun, there are far too many people on both sides who aren’t looking enough stuff up.  And more importantly, that the weight of this fact tends to cause the level of national discourse about pretty much everything to become far stupider than it should be.  And that’s why we can’t allow the debate about the Occupy movement to turn into a referendum on “Cops vs. Hippies.”  I realize that there are a lot of people on one side who badly want to make jokes about cops, and a lot of people on the other side who badly want to make jokes about hippies, but that’s simply too bad.  Because even if you definitively prove that all cops eat donuts or all protesters play bongo drums, this still has nothing to do with the issues we were supposed to be debating in the first place.  You were looking stuff up about the wrong thing.

It’s appropriate that I’m writing this now, because the Occupy debate and my reactions to it cut straight to the heart of why I first launched 1585, exactly five years ago this month: I noticed that my philosophical beliefs and my social emotions were often on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  Maybe nothing that has happened in those five years demonstrates this disconnect better than Occupy.  My parents both worked in law enforcement, and they raised me.  The cool kids in my high school and college were fashionable hippies, and they were mean to me.  When I see video of an Occupy crackdown where police are beating peaceful protesters, my conscious mind knows it is wrong, but some part of my psyche is seeing my dad beating up a trust-fund baby who wouldn’t let me into a party because I wasn’t dressed right, and that dark corner of my immature mind is happy.  And I think a lot of the Conservatives who are cheering the violence in conservative chat rooms—maybe even most of them—are coming from the same place, emotionally speaking.  The difference between them and me is that I don’t let my emotions dictate my beliefs or distract me from the real issue.  Or at least, I try not to, though I am sure I fail a lot of the time, because I’m human.

In past essays, I have jokingly compared myself to Blade, the movie vampire who hates other vampires and fights to protect humans.  His conscious mind knows that vampirism is wrong, but biologically speaking he is still a vampire, and has to put himself through a ceaseless, painful process involving injections to keep this from taking him over.  That is what politics is like for me: I have the personality of a Conservative, but morally and logically I know that the Liberals are right most of the time.  To the Conservatives whooping it up about the beatdowns, believe me when I say that I know what it is like to deeply, deeply want to see hippies get punched in the face.  I am not saying that hippies are not annoying or that there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want to hang out with them, because neither do I.  They remind me of the cool kids from school, and I wasn’t cool, and some part of me will always want to see the cool kids get punched.  This is an unavoidable way to feel.  But it is a stupid way to make decisions.

Punk-rock aficionados know that this is how Johnny Ramone ended up a Republican: the popular girls in his junior high school liked JFK because he was cute, so Johnny started liking Nixon just to spite them.  I am the last person who will ever claim that it is not entirely defensible to want to spite the cool kids.  But the fact is, the things JFK wanted to do were better for this country than the things Nixon wanted to do.  The kids who supported JFK because of his looks and charm were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, the right thing for the wrong reasons is still the right thing.  Were many of the Occupy protesters attending just to try and get laid?  Almost certainly.  But this tells us exactly nothing about what the laws should or should not be.  Remember that if someone adopts a belief for purely social and immature reasons, and you correctly note this and then adopt the opposite belief, then you are also indirectly adopting your beliefs for social and immature reasons.

So that’s why I never went to Occupy Wall Street.  To the people who would like an apology for that—a group that includes virtually all of my close friends—I’m sorry.  I am the first to admit, or try to be, that because I am emotionally still stuck in high school, there are certain things that I just can’t do, or can’t do very easily.  But maybe that is for the best.  I think a lot of people are emotionally still stuck in high school, but don’t realize it.  And like a carrier of a disease who exhibits no symptoms, someone who goes out into the world unaware that he or she is making decisions this way is probably more dangerous.  I realize what’s wrong with me, and so I’ve quarantined myself.  Just like in high school, instead of going to the party, I sat in my room brooding, and eventually wrote something.  Only this time, instead of a poem about loneliness, it was this.  Maybe it will do something.

I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud,
but they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re gonna hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring;
forget your perfect offering.
There is a a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Jagged Little Pill

#49. Do you swallow?

You meet your soul mate. However, there is a catch: Every three years, someone will break both of your soul mate’s collarbones with a Crescent wrench, and there is only one way you can stop this from happening: You must swallow a pill that will make every song you hear–FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE–sound as if it’s being performed by the band Nirvana. When you hear U2 on the radio, it will sound (to your ears) like it’s being played by Nirvana. If you see Lady Gaga live, every one of her songs will sound like it’s being covered by Nirvana. When you hear a commercial on TV, the jingle will sound like Nirvana. If you sing to yourself in the shower, your voice will sound like deceased Nirvana vocalist Kurt Cobain performing a cappella. Nirvana, Nirvana, Nirvana. Everything will sound like Nirvana from now and on (but it will ONLY sound this way to YOU).

Would you swallow the pill?

Water, Water Everywhere

#50. The Kidnapper

You are kidnapped by a diabolical (but completely honest) madman. He locks you in an empty attic where the temperature is 100 degrees. Your feet and hands are tied together. There is nothing to drink or eat. After 24 excruciating hours, the madman opens the attic door and enters with three glasses of ice water on a serving tray. He takes an eyedropper and squirts a colorless, odorless liquid into one of the glasses. “This is poison,” he tells you. He  then blindfolds you. When he removes the blindfold 30 seconds later, there is a drinking straw in each of the water glasses (but you have no idea which glass contains the poison). “Feel free to have a refreshing sip of water,” he says. “Of course, if you select the glass that contains the poison, you will be dead within 90 minutes. And–just so you know–I promise to release you from the attic. . .in 48 hours.” He then laughs maniacally and exits the attic, locking the door behind him.

What do you do?
Do you gamble and drink, or do you try to wait out the madman?