Race makes people crazy, but often not in the way you’d expect. A nation watched wide-eyed as Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC complained that the Star Wars franchise was racist because the major villain is “black.” Darth Vader is black in the sense that Johnny Cash or Ben Roethlisberger or certain figures from Arthurian legend are “black” — white guys in black outfits — so people kept waiting for Harris-Perry, “America’s foremost public intellectual,” to crack and let us know that she was joking. But she wasn’t joking.
One cannot imagine what she’d make of that Adolf Hitler/Darth Vader episode of “Epic Rap Battles of History,” in which the Nazi dismisses the Sith and his off-brand Stormtroopers: “You leading an army of white men? Disgraceful.” And, of course, in the latest installment, The Force Awakens, one of those white men turns out to have the black face of English actor John Boyega.
This isn’t the sort of thing that drives people nuts: If you’re breaking down the hidden racial significance of Darth Vader’s black armor, you’re already there.
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The American people, who are generally more tolerant, more sensible, and more wry than is appreciated, have learned to laugh at that sort of thing. A popular image among AR-15 enthusiasts shows the fearsome-looking rifle over the caption: “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” The same joke has been made about coal, certain cats that provoke a superstitious response, Anas rubripes, dark T-shirts, and one very mean-looking 1987 Buick Grand National.
Barack Obama doesn’t get the joke.
In a pre-vacation interview with NPR, the president argued that (as the New York Times decodes the message) “some of the scorn directed at him personally stems from the fact that he is the first African American to hold the White House.” I.e, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?”
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This is kind of clever, in a way. The president says that much of the unhappiness with his administration is “pretty specific to me, and who I am and my background,” which is slippery in that by saying it’s about him, he’s really saying it’s about his critics, and their bigotry and prejudice. “It’s not me, it’s you.”
This is, needless to say, intellectual dishonesty, which is Barack Obama’s specialty. Yes, there are racists in the world, and they are engaged in politics, mainly in the form of basement-dwelling losers with Dungeons & Dragons avatars oinking about on Twitter. They are a significant consideration if you are Donald Trump’s psephological engineers. They are not much of a real factor if you are Barack Obama wondering why you haven’t been celebrated like one of the men on Mount Rushmore.
(Not counting Teddy Roosevelt, of course: Who on Earth thinks: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and, uh . . . that guy who might be the guy who came up with the Maxwell House Coffee motto?)
The reason President Obama has not been hailed as the equal of President Washington, President Jefferson, or President Lincoln is . . . kind of obvious.
#share#The sage marketing wisdom is: “Under-promise and over-deliver.” That was hardly an option for Obama, who promised, quite literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!), a sea change. When you are billing yourself as the fulfillment of Hegelian capital-H history, as not only a redeemer of nations but a healer of planets, it gets a little awkward when you have to spend most of your administration explaining why the economy still kind of sucks and the secretary of state feels the need to lie about everything from the murder of diplomatic personnel to the fact that she’s storing state secrets in the crapper. If you had bought shares in Obama As Advertised and then had to sell them at the price of Obama In Fact, you’d know what it felt like to be running a mortgage-derivative fund back in 2008.
If you’re the Right, then you can enjoy the pessimist’s pleasure: Sure, things have gone terribly, terribly wrong – exactly as we expected! If you’re the Left, Obama’s not looking too great, either: The guy fought an illegal and counterproductive war in the Middle East (“to the shores of Tripoli!”), didn’t close Gitmo, didn’t end “Too Big to Fail,” and just reinvaded Iraq. Ask the victims of Boko Haram if this is the moment the planet started to heal.
“It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?”
No, Mr. President. It’s a couple of other things. The first of which is that here it is on the very verge of 2016, President Obama’s last full year in office, and he has not figured out that there is more to the job than giving speeches. The other thing is: To the extent that he does try to do the rest of the job, he isn’t very good at it. Building a better future? Team Obama can’t build a website. President Squarespace probably would have been an improvement in some respects.
#related#The really maddening thing, though, is that President Obama thinks the reason he isn’t perceived as being especially good at his job is that we yokels aren’t smart enough to understand how spectacularly spectacular he is. Barack Obama is a man almost entirely incapable of self-criticism, and in the NPR interview, he repeated one of his favorite claims: He has had trouble with public opinion because he didn’t explain his awesome ideas well enough. That’s a very politic way of saying: “These rubes don’t get it.”
Politicians find themselves crippled by sex scandals rather than by financial scandals because almost everybody understands sex but almost nobody understands futures trading. (Bill’s loss is Hillary’s capital gain.) Everybody understands racism, too, and all people of good will reject it, which is what makes “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” so powerful as rhetoric. But it isn’t all-powerful.
It’s too late to break up with Barack Obama. But if we did, we’d have to tell the truth: “It’s not us. It’s you.”