Saturday, August 2, 2008

Race Cards

I would love to play a race card, if I knew how to play one. Is a race card as black as the ace of spades? This is connected to my theory on where the term come from. In card games like whist and bridge, that have a trump suit, spades are the highest suit, which would make the ace of spades, with its commanding dark luster of blackness dominating the card, the race card par excellence. The OED doesn’t help. All it has for race cards are programs for horse races, with its earliest use dating back to 1834.But there is no definition for the other sense, when it went from being a day at the races to, as it were, a day with the racists.

I guess it was in 1988, with Lee Atwater and the Willie Horton ad, at the beginning of the begrimed Bush era of American politics, that “race cards,” so-called, were first played. Race cards, as the recent film “The Dark Knight” reminds us, as jokers, profoundly disingenuous from the get-go, a way for whites to race monger while piously claiming that, of course, they are not racists, or a way of attacking anything a black person says that gives some indication that not all Americans share the same phenotypical skin pigmentation, and the best way to play it is to accuse someone else of playing it, at once attracting white racists to your cause while giving your opponents the task of disengaging from the accusation, and as we have seen this week, with McCain’s accusations of Obama’s race card playing, notwithstanding the utter flimsiness of the accusation, it becomes, to use term that race card playing has forced to the margins of acceptable vocabulary, a tar baby, that once touched, adheres tightly to the sticky fingers.

I don’t really think Obama is in trouble, but I guess like many Democrats, I am just sort of paranoid after the swift boat attacks of ’04. Why is that risible attacks only seem to stick to Democrats? Where is the Obama ad with some of McCain’s former fellow POWs that makes up unflattering lies about his time in North Vietnamese captivity? The problem is that Democratic attacks ads that impugn the patriotism of Republican opponents really do not work, because Democrats aren’t patriotic enough to care, and for Republicans the only real meaning of patriotism is that only real patriots get to define the term and get to decide who belongs to or is excluded from the club. The genius with the Republicans is that they have learned that any candidates’ strength is really their weakness. Anyway they seek to define themselves can be defined negatively, and all you need to do is convince a relatively small sector of voters in a relatively small handful of states. They are Hegelian masters of the dialectic; with enough study, everything becomes its opposite. Obama’s weakness is that he is immensely popular and charismatic, a brilliant orator, and a person without very evident character flaws. This is proof of his vapidity and superficiality, and if this seems like a silly argument, Mencken’s immortal dictum about the impossibility of underestimating the intelligence of the American people comes to mind again and again.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if Obama spends too much time trying to define himself, he becomes vulnerable to alternative definitions. Obama needs to attack Bush, again and again, run against Bush, wave the bloody shirt, go for the solar plexus or the jugular. And Obama has to know that race, now that the race card has been played, will remain trump. And it will not take much for Americans to misplace their newly found racial tolerance. We have become big enough to forgive Obama for the interracial marriage of his parents, but does anyone think that if Obama had a white wife, he would be a presidential candidate?

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