Time flies. It was a little over 20 years ago that the New York Times published a briefly famous op-ed on Tim Burton’s just-released Batman movie in which Danny DeVito played the villainous “Penguin.” Written by two Columbia College seniors (and would-be culture critics), Rebecca Roiphe and Daniel Cooper, it accused Batman Returns of being a thoroughgoing anti-Semitic allegory. The evidence for this, they argued, was scattered throughout the film, including its music, which “makes indisputable the influence of Richard Wagner”; the “Gothic” sets; allusions not only to Wagnerian themes but also to German-expressionist vampire movies; and some plot twists that have parallels in the Old Testament (the Penguin’s abandonment in the sewers adrift in a canoe like Moses, his revenge plan to murder Gotham’s aristocratic firstborn, as in Exodus). But the most explicitly anti-Semitic element was the character of DeVito’s Penguin, who is “not just a deformed man, half human, half-Arctic-beast. He is a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face, and lust for herring.”
Were Ms. Roiphe and Mr. Cooper being serious? It is hard to know. Judged critically today, the op-ed could be either an undergraduate joke or a severe case of undergraduates’ taking a bright idea too far and themselves too seriously. The symptoms are more or less identical. But the authors and their thesis were taken seriously at the time. Much was made of the German-expressionist overtones of the movie’s “look.” (In retrospect we know that all Tim Burton’s movies look expressionist, even Alice in Wonderland.) Several newspapers, perhaps assuming that the Times was setting the national agenda again (Expressionism or Eliminationism? — the Dark Underside of Burton’s Dark Underside, etc., etc.), ran reports and reviews on this supposed new threat. The London Times weighed in loftily. And for a while there was that rare thing: a lively correspondence in the New York Times itself. Mostly it was skeptical to dismissive. One of the movie’s writers, himself Jewish, wrote to concede that some of the plot came from the Bible but also to deny that the Penguin was an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote in to regret that the article (“a bizarre and ludicrous pseudo-analysis of the allegedly anti-Semitic implications of the blockbuster movie”) might distract attention from genuine anti-Semitism. Its publication, he concluded, was “an embarrassment” to the Times.
Twenty years later, the controversy has vanished. So has the article, from the Times’ website. I eventually tracked it down via the Gainesville Times. As for the authors, I have not been able to track down Mr. Cooper via the Internet, but Ms. Roiphe is now an associate professor of law and co-director of the Center for Professional Values and Practice at New York Law School. Her most recent publication is an article titled “The Ethics of Willful Ignorance.” But the Wikipedia entry on Batman Returns, which is extensive and covers critical judgments, makes no mention of this controversy. It is discussed on the Internet either by Batman-movie buffs who see it as a baffling curiosity or, interestingly, by open anti-Semites who treat it as an inadvertent admission by elite Jews that the Penguin represents what they’re really about. To which the best reply, as well as the best epitaph on the controversy, comes from a moderate Zionist blogger, Judeosphere, who, after thinking carefully about the matter, has a revelation: “The villain has a hooked nose and eats herring because . . . he’s a f*****g penguin.”
Amen to that, so to speak.
But you can’t keep a bad idea down. The logic of the “Penguin is Jewish” argument is currently being replicated in Democratic rhetoric about the covert racism of conservative or Republican arguments. In the hands of a Democratic or loosely progressive analyst, the method is as follows: Take a conservative speech, lift a word (e.g., “Chicago”) or an argument (e.g., welfare without work requirements pauperizes) from it, link that word or argument to some aspect of race, and then insinuate that the conservative speaker consciously intended his audience to make the same link. If the link made by the analyst is fanciful — i.e., no normal person would ever imagine such a thing — he has to describe the conservative’s alleged rhetorical tactic as “subtle” or the invented link as “roundabout” or the supposed strategy as “dog-whistling” (i.e., sending out messages so high-pitched that they can be heard only by those bats with liberals in the belfry). In effect the analyst is planting the link in the mind of his reader and then blaming the speaker for putting it there. The advantage of this method is that a skilled analyst can convict his victim of any offense (“racist” or otherwise) because it is he who forges the link between the speech and the crime. Its disadvantages . . . well, we shall encounter them too.
#page#Here are two recent examples of the technique. The first comes from MSNBC (as does the second): Chris Matthews, interrogating Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on the party’s criticism of Obama’s welfare policy, declared as follows: “When you start talking about work requirements, you know what game you’re playing, and everybody knows what game you’re playing: It’s a race card.” To pick up the dog whistle that Matthews is emitting here even as he accuses Priebus of it, people have to believe beforehand that black Americans (or Hispanic Americans, or other minority Americans) are the main consumers of welfare and that they are a naturally shiftless lot who don’t deserve any help and who will work only if they are compelled to do so. If they don’t believe that or something like it, they won’t pick up on the dog whistle; if they do, they are both racist and ill informed, so there is no telling how they will vote.
The two things on which such voters are ill informed are the demography of welfare and the Republican rationale for welfare reform. Some minorities are disproportionately reliant on welfare to get by, but as the largest single racial group in America is whites, they are the largest consumers of welfare. (And if you include entitlement programs under the heading of “welfare,” they are massively its largest consumers. But that is an incendiary digression. Incendiary? Am I sending out a dog whistle here all unknowing?) The Republican rationale for welfare reform is that without work requirements it tends to corrupt and pauperize the recipients. They settle into a culture of dependency, and even if their basic needs are provided by the welfare bureaucracy, they fail to develop their human potential and gradually succumb to social pathologies that leave them without hope or self-respect. Welfare enslaves; welfare reform (slowly) liberates. That argument is open to a number of objections, but that it is racist is not remotely one of them.
Conservative reformers have been making this and similar arguments for 30 years at a pitch normal human beings can hear without straining. There is an extensive literature on them. Has Matthews never heard them? If he has, does he not see that they are the opposite of his claim that work requirements are a coded form of racism and hostility to welfare recipients? And if he now grasps them, perhaps he might explain to everyone — to Priebus above all — how someone might advocate a beneficial welfare reform such as workfare without being misunderstood by both ignorant racists and liberal commentators, while everyone else, including Bill Clinton before the Obama campaign leaned on him, gets the point. Indeed, when Clinton boasted of introducing work requirements, did Matthews accuse him of playing the race card? And if not, why not? (Well, you know why not.)
The second example comes from the culture critic Touré, who rebuked Mitt Romney for calling on the president to take his “campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.” Romney also said, “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like.” Now, Romney’s words are campaign rhetoric, slightly rougher than usual because he was responding to harsh accusations about his business record, but not beyond the limits of decency. But Touré intuited with all the subtle inventiveness of Derrida a racist subtext of even greater subtlety in Romney: “You notice he said ‘anger’ twice. He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. This is part of the playbook against Obama, the ‘otherization’ — he’s not like us. I know it’s a heavy thing — I don’t say it lightly — but this is ‘niggerization.’ ‘You are not one of us; you are like the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.’”
#page#Touré subsequently apologized for using the word “niggerization,” but not for his overall analysis. If “angry” is a racially coded word about blacks, however, how are we to interpret the fact that progressive commentators have been denouncing (or, in that liberal way, worrying about) “angry white males” ever since the 1994 Republican landslide? At one point a decade ago there seemed to be a distinction developing between white-male “anger” and black “rage.” Anger was scorned as a tantrum (explicitly so by Peter Jennings in 1994, when he compared the voters to an angry child); rage was implicitly treated as a partly justified response to social injustice. In fact neither emotion, insofar as they can be distinguished, seems likely to encourage either sensible policymaking or political compromise. But Touré is doing more than simply mixing up anger and rage. He is trying to push the rage/anger argument one step farther, as follows: Black rage has seemingly made white voters angry or, when we look closer, more fearful. Romney wants to attach that fear to Obama personally by using words like “angry” about him. They remind white voters that Obama is in fact black. Wow, is that racist or what?
What it is in reality is an artifact of Touré’s melodramatic imagination. Obama is not seen as particularly black, and certainly not as an angry black male, by any large group of Americans. In personal terms he is seen as affable, easygoing, and even charming; in social terms he appears what he is, namely an Ivy League graduate and a law professor with the progressive-liberal views of that caste. Obama is essentially a soother — he explains in his first autobiography how he mastered the technique as an adolescent — and it remains his modus operandi. No Republican campaign, however brilliant, could frighten the voters about him — and there is no attempt to do so. Romney criticizes him as a decent failure — which is about as tame an attack as you can find in America’s rumbustious history of political mudslinging.
In both these examples, there is some kind of attempt to justify linking the Republican argument to a popular racial mythology. The mythology is a liberal one, as it happens, born of a marriage between cultural anthropology and French philosophy: the multiculturalist idea that human beings exist in hermetically sealed cultures, so that when people different from us arrive nearby, we react to these Others with fear and rejection. The history of America — of successful assimilation and “Americanization” — is a refutation of this mythology. So is Obama’s career. But Democratic America and liberal opinion have adopted this theory as their new orthodoxy, and it is the framework into which they fit both Obama (“the Other” even when he isn’t) and the GOP (fearful suburbanites reacting against the Other and/or ruthless machine politicians manipulating the suburbanites). This template allows almost anything to be “linked” to race even when it is practically and conceptually distinct. But even some matters that can’t be fitted into this template are cited as signs of covert racism.
Responding to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Charlie Rangel, the New York congressman, accused the GOP of racism in the following creative way: “It’s not ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’” Rangel (who spoke with some impartiality insofar as he has since been revealed as a tax cheat) was presumably rooting this claim in the argument that, since black Americans disproportionately gain from government programs financed from taxation, they have an interest in keeping revenue as high as possible. On that argument, of course, opposition to any cut in any tax or any government program is racist. Only a total government that expropriates all incomes and pays its subjects in government programs is free of the racist taint. Or, in other words, opposition to the program of progressive Democrats and liberals at any time is an opposition logically rooted in racism even when its advocates are consciously free of any racial motive.
Democrats would doubtless not agree to that statement of principle as baldly expressed here; but practical politicians are very rarely asked to assent to principles, and even more rarely do they agree to do so if there is any risk in it. What matters is that on any particular occasion modern Democrats react as if the statement were true. They reach for the word “racist” with minimal justification and embarrassment. The joke definition, coined by Peter Brimelow about 30 years ago, that a racist is someone winning an argument with a liberal is more and more a political truism — except that nowadays you need not be winning the argument. Being there with a red rosette is quite enough.
#page#One reason for this expanded definition of racism is that the Right is no longer racist as the word has been traditionally understood. Republicans don’t believe in the superiority of the white (or any other) race, in a racial hierarchy, in the separation of the races, in separate but equal, in states’ rights (as they impinge on civil rights or racial justice), or in any of the other expressions of white supremacy as they have obtained in U.S. history. When they did believe in those things, moreover, they believed in them less fervently and less practically than did the Democrats. Today, only a relative handful of white Americans are racist in the way that millions once were — and they are a dying breed. Most Americans under the age of about 55 have internalized the idea of an easygoing racial and social equality. So if the Democrats are to accuse their opponents of racism, they have to define the word in an extravagant way — or not define it at all — so as to have it available to scapegoat anything that stands in their way politically.
As it happens, the Democrats and liberals increasingly find charges of racism essential to their electoral campaigns. They are today the minority/majority party — that is, their coalition consists of the minority of the (white) majority plus majorities of the minorities. (The GOP in turn is the party uniting the majority of the majority with minorities of the minorities.) Hispanic Americans, black Americans, and recent immigrants have apparent economic interests that align them naturally with progressive Democrats proposing the extension of government programs. But these shared interests are not always sufficient to get poor people and new citizens to the voting booth even in good times. When Democratic administrations fail to deliver the social and economic improvements they have promised, moreover, their supporters lose enthusiasm. Black Americans, for instance, face severe social disadvantages, starting with very poor public schools; but what stands in the way of their improvement is not white racism but the teachers’ unions, which happen to be allied with the Democrats. That example could be multiplied across the whole range of social and economic policy, from immigration to unemployment. So candidates and campaigns exploit accusations of racism to strengthen the ethnic loyalties that provide social cement for blocs of the Left and to fire up their supporters on Election Day. President Clinton, for instance, misinterpreted church bombings as racist attacks on black America and simultaneously exaggerated their extent for the purpose of getting out the maximum black vote. It was a seedy kind of success.
Progressive journalists and other intellectuals are a part of this coalition too — and a key one. They are the second-hand dealers in ideas who popularize the expanded definitions of racism that lend some weight and credibility to what otherwise might be an unconvincing and even fantastical charge. And there’s the problem: Voters, if not the media, are increasingly skeptical about extravagant accusations of racism. That skepticism is aggravated by the fact that accusations of anti-white racism seem to carry little or no weight. Generalized attacks on whites in public debate and the academy, which would end careers if directed at other ethnic groups, arouse little indignation and are quickly forgotten. Nor has this been noticed only by white Americans. A study published last year in Perspectives on Psychological Science showed that both black and white Americans believed that racism against whites was increasing as anti-black racism declined (though the latter was still the more severe bias). Anti-racism in these conditions looks increasingly like a political tool or partisan ideology rather than an appeal to justice.
American voters are therefore like the New York Times’ readership turning to “Batman Returns and the Jewish Question.” Do they say: “Of course, now that it has been pointed out to me, I see that the Republicans must be racist”? Or do they say: “How racist can a party really be if its last two secretaries of state have been black Americans?” And if the latter, do they then wonder if the racism of the GOP isn’t as false and as contrived as the Jewishness of the Penguin — and deriving also not from the nature of the beast, but from the bias of the critic?