Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Perhaps due to naïve Americanism, I’ve long resisted ethnic group think.
Judging by this year’s Democratic presidential contest, I’m in the
minority. But will quarrelsome Democrats throw away the general
election? As of today, I’d say the odds favor “President McCain.” A
brief explanation: As a child, I was taught to be Irish before I was
taught to be American, although my father saw no contradiction. “You’re
no better than anybody else,” he’d growl. “And nobody’s better than
you.” The snarl was a residue of “Irish need not apply” signs that
greeted my ancestors off the boat from County Cork. “Coffin ships,” they
called them, because so many famine-starved victims of British tyranny
died on the journey. Visiting Ireland, I once asked a bookseller who’d
spent time in New York why the native Irish seemed so unlike my American
relatives—friendly, talkative, curious, warm. Where were the clenched
jaws, knotted fists, bloody-minded determination and narrow-minded
tribalism I’d grown up on? “Well, we had our revolution, didn’t we?” she
said. “‘Twas a hundred years ago. And we won, didn’t we? So now we’ve
My parents inadvertently made it easy to give up Irish Catholic
chauvinism by sending me to public school in the multicultural
environment of Elizabeth, N. J., which they later regretted. At our
wedding, my mother glared at my wife’s Louisiana French mother.
“What nationality are you people, anyway?” she demanded.
Too late. I’d already left the tribe.
Years later, we wondered about exposing our sons to my fiercer kin.
They’d come home asking if it was true that Jews were too cowardly to
resist Adolf Hitler, as an aunt besotted with Father Coughlin, the Irish
American radio bigot, taught them. We told them she was nuts. They
already suspected that as she’d vented similarly grotesque opinions
about black people. As Little Rock public school students, they had
African American friends.
Absent the snarl, my father was right: Revere your own tradition,
respect everybody else’s. True, some ethnic identities are trickier than
others. One can’t simply resign from being black.
To get back to politics, it should be possible to support Barack Obama
without hating Hillary Clinton. Alas, too many use history’s
unappeasable grievances to assert their moral superiority to others. The
result is a Democratic campaign resembling Philip Roth’s novel, “The
Human Stain,” in which a professor’s life is shattered after he uses the
word “spooks” (i.e., ghosts ) to describe two students who’d never
showed up in class. Unknown to him, the students were black.
I couldn’t help but think of that bleak comedy when Harvard Professor
Orlando Patterson wrote a New York Times op-ed explaining that he
“couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s ‘ Birth of a Nation,’ the
racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan,” when he saw that
Clinton 3 a.m. crisis call commercial. Failing to notice the African
American child in the ad, the professor imagined a racist subtext of
Obama lurking in the shrubbery.
Sometimes I see naked women in the clouds, but I know they’re not really
Similarly delusional, in almost the psychiatric sense, was the charge
vended by a brace of pundits led by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, that
Clinton cunningly hinted that Obama might be a secret Muslim on “60
Minutes.” Eric Boehlert at mediamatters.org documented her denying the
allegation eight separate times. Here’s the highlighted transcript:
Clinton: “Of course not. I mean, that’s—you know, there is not basis for
that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know,
there isn’t any reason to doubt that.”
Steve Kroft: “And you said you’d take Sen. Obama at his word that he’s
not a Muslim.”
Clinton: “Right. Right.”
Kroft: “You don’t believe that he’s a Muslim... or implying, right?”
Clinton: “No. No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on, as
far as I know.”
Kroft: “It’s just scurrilous—.”
Clinton: “Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I
have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared
with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.” Geraldine Ferraro has
always been a fool who never knows when to shut up. On the flip side,
we’re also told that it’s “racist” to object to the inflammatory
rhetoric of Obama’s longtime spiritual adviser, Rev. Jeremiah Wright,
who blames the U.S. government for inventing AIDS, chants, “God damn
America,” and comports himself like a left-wing Father Coughlin. Or like
Pastor John Hagee, the anti-Catholic preacher who has endorsed Sen. John
McCain. Obama, a 20-year communicant in Wright’s congregation, says he
“categorically denounce [s ]... any statement that disparages our great
country,” adding that “Words that degrade individuals have no place in
our public dialogue.” Good for him. Obama also claims that he was
unaware of Wright’s political gospel until last week. That,
unfortunately, I cannot believe.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.