A Letter from the Provinces: On Hate Speech in the Presidential Campaign

by Patrick Baker                                                                 October 11, 2008

The news has reached us in the provinces that hate speech is creeping into the presidential campaign. The press and the pundits are salivating over recent incidents of stump-speech frenzied zealots screaming out “kill him” and “terrorist” when Sarah Palin asks them about Barack Obama; and they are oozing self-righteousness that neither of the Republican candidates has condemned these episodes. While it is nice to see people making an issue out of this, one wonders why it took death threats for hate speech to make prime time.

    I should be fair to the media though. After all, a big deal was made of Obama’s infelicitous observation that hard times make poor people cling to the irrational idols of religion and guns. And everyone was sure to report on the controversy over whether Obama had indeed classified Palin as a new kind of rosette-smeared swine, or had just used a figure of speech unfamiliar to cosmopolitan Americans. Yes, that was responsible journalism, and as enlightened as David Howard’s demise for correctly using the word “niggardly.”

    Then again, an orgy of unrepentant bigotry is coming out of the self-avowed liberal media, and self-righteousness itself seems to be getting in on the action. There is no other way to describe Bill Maher’s characterization of the G.O.P. ticket as “the Maverick and the MILF.” Let’s be clear that a MILF is a lusty, middle-aged mother with whom younger men hope to have a close encounter of the Mrs. Robinson kind. I’ll agree that Palin is ignorant and has no qualifications for any higher office, but that does not mean she is fit only for the set of a pornographic movie. Is our national discourse really this impoverished?

    Apparently so, since much more cynical and embedded forms of hate speech have abounded in the Republican campaign since their convention, and no one seems to have found them worthy of mention. We heard a lot from Minneapolis about “hockey moms,” “Joe Six-Packs,” and “small-town values.” All have a quaint ring to them, but let’s be clear about what they mean. Hockey is the only major sport in the nation which is not yet dominated by non-white athletes. Small towns, as opposed to cities and even the suburbs, have few if any minorities. It was no accident that Palin and her flatterers focused on cultural contexts in which white people need not fear for the supremacy they are on the verge of losing in America, a supremacy whose fate the election of a black man would seem to seal. Hockey and small towns are the country clubs – to revert to traditional Republican imagery for a moment – of white middle America: homogeneous contexts of belonging, unthreatened by otherness, and impervious to the presence of Jamaal-40, Joe Six-Pack’s substance-abusing relative who the whole white family wishes would never visit from his ghetto on the other side of the color line.

    The danger of this Republican rhetoric is its apparent inoffensiveness. Who could find fault with upright small towns, or with devoted mothers taking their children to sports practices, or with a factory worker blowing off the day’s steam with a sextet of Schlitz? The implication, however, is that this is the real America, and that those who do not fit into its frame are not real Americans. While it appears to praise what might be America’s roots, it actually demonizes the contemporary state of the nation: heterogeneous, urban and suburban, economically stratified, complicated, and in need of farsighted leadership. This is the same operation that is at work in the Republicans’ insistence that anyone who wants to change America doesn’t love it, and that anyone who criticizes it cannot be a patriot. It is camouflaged hate speech.

    The more overt and shameful forms of hate speech we have witnessed in the last week are not necessarily worse, although they are more disturbing for the actual – and historical – political violence they evoke. Should it really surprise anyone, though, that Sarah Palin didn’t bat an eye when a member of her audience screamed “kill him”? From my upbringing in Michigan, I recall that it was the hockey moms themselves who yelled just that before their sons were escorted to the penalty box. But what do I know? We don’t have hockey in the provinces.

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