I wasn't going to write about the whole Jan Brewer/Barack Obama controversy. This has already been a long presidential election season and I need to pace my outrage lest I have a stroke. But last night, I caught Bill Maher discussing the issue with journalist Martin Bashir, detestable erstwhile MTV personality Kennedy (now doing something awful for Reason magazine) and the equally objectionable Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California). Watching Rohrabacher and Kennedy obfuscate around this issue was headache-inducing. Both of them, like other conservatives who have weighed in on the episode, were being willfully obtuse in an effort to mask Brewer's display of racial privilege.
Here's what happened, according to The Washington Post (video at the link):
PHOENIX — President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) appeared to exchange heated words in front of reporters and other public officials on Wednesday as Obama arrived in this Southwestern city for the second stop of his post-State of the Union tour. The unusual confrontation--which included Brewer pointing her finger at Obama, and Obama walking away--centered on Brewer’s newly published account of a meeting she and Obama had at the White House in June, 2010, officials said.
Obama descended the stairs of Air Force One and was greeted by Brewer, who was waiting for him along with other politicians in a traditional receiving line. Brewer offered Obama a letter, which she later said was an invitation to sit down with her to discuss Arizona’s economic “comeback” and to join her for a tour of the U.S.-Mexican border.
The encounter resulted in the photo above and, among black folks and allies, lots of angry discussion about the vagaries of white privilege and the uncommon level of disrespect received by our nation's first black president. (Very crunk dissection of the incident here.). Of course, the response from the right was incredulity accompanied by whining and the usual charge that the left manufactures charges of racism to rally the dirty hippies and constantly-aggrieved coloreds.
Jonah Goldberg at the LA Times wrote:
And nothing excites the base of the Democratic Party — or gets more free media — than wildly implausible hysterics over racism, even when there's so little evidence to support the claim.
On Real Time with Bill Maher (full conversation worth watching), Rep. Rohrabacher said:
"Let me just suggest that we are talking about the President of the United States. Not the king or royalty. What did she say that was so abusive to the President? You have a picture of her like this (gestures)
Unlike in monarchies, it's expected you can aggressively argue your position. And there is nothing wrong with someone expressing...[gobbledygook about illegal immigration]"
Kennedy chimed in to say that the real problem is sexism:
"If she were not a woman, I don't think she would have gotten the treatment that she's getting. I do think there is an element of sexism attacking Jan Brewer."
Leave it to conservatives to claim that they are the real anti-racists and feminists. And to try to convince us not to trust reality.
I don't know what America Dana Rohrabacher lives in, but in the United States I have inhabited for 42 years, sticking a waving finger in someone's face is universally seen as an aggressive gesture and an attempted show of control and superiority. Hell, generations of siblings have battled for primacy with the old "I'm not touching you" while waggling a digit an inch from a little brother or sister's nose bit.
Adults do not behave this way with each other (unless they happen to be Real Housewives cast members). Adults certainly do not behave this way when dealing with people of authority or people they respect as equals. Chances are, you would never approach your boss in this way nor even colleagues without being reprimanded at best. (Yes, Rep. Rohrabacher, even in the land of the free and home of the brave.) Outside of the workplace, few in healthy, functional relationships indulge in these sorts of physical displays.
This whole business made me recall a post I wrote last year about the hair touching that black natural-haired women experience:
This is not a cultural issue. This is an issue of respect for boundaries. ALL people generally want others to observe personal space and to recognize their ownership of their own bodies. You probably don't want that weird dude from the dog park to come over and start rubbing your back. Black women are no different. I'm not keen on STRANGERS petting or pulling my hair.
It's not always about race, but sometimes it is. Every incident has context. It's not about race every time a black woman gets her hair touched., but it often is. I explained it like this to a thoughtful dad of four adopted black children, who emailed me in response to the CNN article. He shared an experience that made him challenge whether the hair touching he saw his children experience was primarily about race. Here is my response:
One thing I think sets your children's experience apart from those of us who were interviewed for the CNN piece, is that they are children. Right or wrong, adults feel more emboldened to touch children because kids are not viewed as equals. Know what I mean? Adults pinch babies' cheeks, muss little boys' hair...It's no better to invade a child's personal space, but it is deemed acceptable in our society. Adults don't often pinch the cheeks and muss the hair of other adults. We work to preserve boundaries of personal space and acknowledge other adults' ownership of their own bodies.
What I think, from my experience, is that we are more likely to ignore these things (personal space, ownership of body) when we are dealing with a person from a marginalized group or, rather, a group that doesn't have (perceived) equal power. So, women receive more unwanted touching than men (Ask a pregnant lady!). And black women--we have the hair thing. (I wonder if/how your sons' experiences will change as they age into young, black men.) I've heard people with disabilities talk about people pushing and pulling at them. (For instance, grabbing a wheelchair that serves as somebody's "legs" and moving the person about without permission.)
I think it's about power and privilege.
Goldberg and Rohrabacher and Kennedy are being disingenuous. I doubt a one of them would brook a finger to the face from an opponent. They know such behavior is a sign of disrespect and implied superiority. And they are willfully avoiding analysis of why, within the term of Barack Obama, the office of the US President has attracted unprecedented levels of disrespect from the American-loving right--from Rep. Joe Wilson yelling "You lie!" during a presidential speech to Brewer letting her fingers do the walking all up in the president's face.
What makes a governor--one who supports eliminating ethnic studies programs and compares Mexican immigration to terrorism--feel confident in pushing up on the President of the United States and jabbing her finger at him as if he were a naughty child? If not feelings of racial superiority, then what?