American racism is starting to remind me of American alcoholism. At the founding of the republic, in the days when beer was thought of as “liquid bread” and a healthy nutritional breakfast, Americans drank about three to four times as much as they do now. Today the United States has a lower per capita rate of alcohol consumption than almost any other developed nation, but it has more alcoholism support groups than any other developed nation — around 164 groups per million people. France, which drinks about 50 percent more per capita than America, has one-twentieth the number of support groups. The French and Italians enjoy drinking, the English and Irish enjoy getting drunk, and Americans enjoy getting drunk on ever more absurd stigmatizatory excess. At Walmart they card you if you “appear to be under” — what is it up to now? 43? 57? And the citizenry take this as a compliment: Well-preserved grandmothers return from failed attempts to purchase a bottle of wine with gay cries of, “I was carded at Costco! They’ve made my weekend!”
And so it goes with American racism: The less there is, the more extravagantly the racism-awareness lobby patrols its beat. The Walmart carding clerks of the media are ever more alert to those who “appear to be” racist. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews declared this week that Republicans use “Chicago” as a racist code word. Not to be outdone, his colleague Lawrence O’Donnell pronounced “golf” a racist code word. When Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell observed that Obama was “working to earn a spot on the PGA tour,” O’Donnell brilliantly perceived that subliminally associating Obama with golf is racist, because the word “golf” is subliminally associated with “Tiger Woods,” and the word “Tiger” is not so subliminally associated with cocktail waitress Jamie Grubbs, nightclub hostess Rachel Uchitel, lingerie model Jamie Jungers, former porn star Holly Sampson, etc., etc. So by using the word “golf” you’re sending a racist dog-whistle that Obama is a sex addict who reverses over fire hydrants.
While we’re on the subject of GOP white supremacists, former secretary of state Condi Rice spoke movingly of her rise to the top from a childhood in segregated Birmingham, Ala. But everyone knows that’s just more Republican racist dog-whistling for “when’s Bull Connor gonna whistle up those dogs and get me off stage?” Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, Geoffrey Dunn, author of The Lies of Sarah Palin (St. Martin’s Press, 2011, in case you missed it), was scoffing at Clint Eastwood’s star turn at the convention — “better known as the Gathering of Pasty White People,” added Mr. Dunn, demonstrating the stylistic panache that set a-flutter the hearts of so many St. Martin’s Press commissioning editors. Warming to his theme, Mr. Dunn noted that Clint had been mayor of “the upscale and frighteningly white community” of Carmel, Calif..
To judge from his byline photo, Geoffrey Dunn is not only white but “pasty white.” So too is Lawrence O’Donnell. If I recall correctly from the last time I saw his show (1978 — the remote had jammed), Chris Matthews is not just “pasty white” but “frighteningly white.” I happen to be overseas right now, so perhaps that’s the reason that all these “upscale and frighteningly white” American liberals seem even crazier than usual in their more-anti-racist-than-thou obsessions. To me, the word “Clint” is racist dog-whistling for “Play ‘Misty’ for Me,” which is racist dog-whistling for “Erroll Garner,” which is racist dog-whistling for “black pianist way better than Liberace.” Clint took The Bridges of the Frighteningly White Madison County and gave it a cool Johnny Hartman soundtrack. Clint introduced the world to Roberta Flack’s killer song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
But, as Geoffrey Dunn can explain, that’s racial code for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face I Was Pleasantly Reassured by How Pasty White It Was.” Also, Clint starred in The Eiger Sanction, a mountaineering thriller set on an Alp that was “upscale and frighteningly white.”
On the matter of those racist dog-whistles all these middle-aged white liberals keep hearing, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto put it very well: “The thing we adore about these dog-whistle kerfuffles is that the people who react to the whistle always assume it’s intended for somebody else,” he wrote. “The whole point of the metaphor is that if you can hear the whistle, you’re the dog.” And a very rare breed at that. What frequency does a Mitch McConnell speech have to be ringing inside your head for even the most racially obsessed Caucasian MSNBC anchorman to hear the words “PGA tour” as “deep-rooted white insecurities about black male sexuality”? That’s way beyond dog-whistling, and somewhere between barking mad and frothing rabid.
Still, now that “golf” and “Chicago” — along with “Clint,” “Medicare,” “debt,” “jobs,” “foreign policy,” and “quantitative easing” — are all racist code words, are there any words left that aren’t racist? Yes, here’s one:
Not familiar with it? New York Assembly candidate Ben Akselrod used it the other day in a campaign mailout to Brooklyn electors, arguing that his opponent “has allowed crime to go up over 50 percent in our negrohood so far this year.”
Like Messrs. Dunn, Matthews, and O’Donnell, Ben Akselrod is frighteningly pasty white, and a Democrat, and so presumably has highly refined racial antennae. Had a campaign staffer suggested that Mr. Akselrod’s opponent was wont to wear “plus-fours” and had a “niblick,” obviously such naked racism would have been deleted in the first draft. But the more subtly allusive “negrohood” apparently just slipped through.
Mr. Akselrod now says it was a “typo.” Could happen to anyone. You’re typing “neighborhood,” and you leave out the “i,” and the “h” and “b,” and the “o” and “r” get mysteriously inverted. Either that, or your desktop came with Al Sharpton’s spellcheck. And then nobody at the campaign office reading through the mailer spotted it. Odd.
It’s only the beginning of September. So we’ve got two more months of this. I don’t know how it will play in the negrohoods of Chicago — whoops, sorry, I apologize for saying “Chicago” — but let me make a modest observation from having spent much of the last few months traveling round foreign parts. When you don’t have frighteningly white upscale liberals obsessing about the racist subtext of golf, it’s amazing how much time it frees up to talk about other stuff. For example, as dysfunctional as Greece undoubtedly is, if you criticize the government’s plans for public-pensions provision, there are no Chris Matthews types with such a highly evolved state of racial consciousness that they reflexively hear “watermelon” instead of the word “pensions.” So instead everyone discusses the actual text rather than the imaginary subtext. Which may be why political discourse in the euro zone is marginally less unreal than ours right now: At least they’re talking about “austerity”; over here we’re still spending, and more than ever.
Time’s Mark Halperin wrote this week that “Obama can’t win if he can’t swing the conversation away from the economy.” That’s a pretty amazing admission. The economy is the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters, and, beyond that, the central reality of Obama’s America. But to win the president has to steer clear. That doesn’t leave a lot else. Hence, the racism of golf, the war on women, the carcinogenic properties of Mitt Romney. Democrat strategy 1992: It’s the economy, stupid. Democrat strategy 2012: It’s the stupidity, economists.