Baby Scratch My Back-- I Got Love if You Want It (Michael Steele and The Politics of "The New Tolerant Intolerance"--Part Two)
In Last Week’s Episode, I told the tale of Republican Party which faced a leadership battle including two relics of Jim Crow (Katon Dawson and Chip Saltsman) and two African Americans (Michael Steele and J. Kenneth Blackwell) and its strange and eerie parallels with the Crowley, Louisiana based recording studio of producer J.D Miller, who recorded not only the two Slim Harpo R&B classics alluded to in the title of this piece, but also the white supremacist toe-tappers released on Miller’s Reb Rebel records--repulsive titles which, since already quoted in Part One, will never again darken (perhaps the wrong choice of words) these pages.
As I noted, the R&B hits and the racist garbage often featured the same racially integrated group of musicians, and anyone who thinks that Miller did not have an instinctual feel for black music has never heard his blues recordings, which pretty much define a genre of considerable artistic merit. In fact, the artistic intersection of the black swamp blues of Slim Harpo and the white swamp pop of Warren Storm is almost a road map for Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell‘s vision of the Republican revival, also embraced by Mike Huckabee.
I call it ”The New Tolerant Intolerance,” and it’s been there all along waiting to be discovered. It is the acknowledgement that the miscegenation that made Al Sharpton and J. Strom Thurmond blood relatives is American as apple pie. In politics, it, like so many things Republican, was foreshadowed by a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who used his Southern Baptist affinity with African Americans to win the black vote in primaries all across the country against several far more liberal candidates.
Musically, miscegenation proved irresistible as well. And despite the credible claims to liberalism of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and The Boy from Tupelo (in his younger, pre-Nixon, days), it was, as often as not, reactionaries who made it happen. As a child, Jerry Lee Lewis used to sneak off to watch black musicians with his cousin, Jimmie Lee Swaggart.
Western Swing, an effort to perform a common law (the only kind then permitted) marriage between Country/Western music and Jazz/Blues, was pioneered, by among others, W. Lee "Pappy" O’Daniel’s Light Crust Doughboys, playing tunes like “Gin Mill Blues,” “Weary Blues,“ “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy,” and “Dirty Hangover Blues.” The band, consisting of good ole boys (originally including the genre's titans, Bob Wills and Milton Brown) who liked to jam with black musicians after hours, was fronted by O’Daniel, a huckster who peddled flour, who eventually went onto to become a fabulously reactionary Texas Governor with his own traveling band (his repertoire, now consisting mostly of spirituals and songs about mom and Texas) before managing the death-defying feat of stealing an election for US Senate from LBJ, which is sort of like beating a man named Doc at poker.
In Louisiana, the embodiment of the crossroads between black rhythms and reactionary politics was one Jimmie Davis, the second country musician (after Jimmie Rodgers) to record with black accompaniment. As a young man, Davis made a career recording earthy, single entendre blues-inspired tunes like “Bed Bug Blues.” By the time he entered politics, he’d switched to writing stuff like “You Are My Sunshine,” and putting a happy-face on segregationist politics. Davis' political opponents like the far more forward-thinking Earl Long (who once, in a drunken stupor, told the shocked State Legislature that “Niggers are People too”---and it was the sentiment, not the N-word, which shocked them) tried in vain to make an issue of Davis’ past, but it’s hard to appear as the embodiment of puritan virtue when one is carrying on a affair with stripper Blaze Starr. Davis went on to give patronage jobs to other segregationist musical miscegenationists, including Hillbilly Boogie piano man Moon Mullican (the inspiration to Jerry Lee) and J.D. Miller himself.
In more recent times, the bastard son of O’Daniel, Davis, Mullican and Miller was RNC Chair and recording artist Lee “Boogie Man” Atwater, a blues loving, rock and rolling, scumbag who recorded Slim Harpo's "Te Ni Nee Ni Nu" (on his album, "Red Hot and Blue"), and became great friends with such African-American Republican musical icons as B.B. King, James Brown, and Ray Charles (all unified by the common element of being rich). It was Atwater, credited by “The All Music Guide” with coining the term “welfare_queen,” who pioneered the more genteel, stealth model of blackenizing (a word coined by Brown in a tune he produced for Hank Ballard) one’s opponent, as he successfully turned rapist-murderer Willie Horton into Mike Dukakis’ running mate, and, who, as I will describe, served as the role model for a tactic in the new RNC Chair, Michael Steele‘s, 2006 US Senate Campaign.
The press has been nearly unanimous, in portraying the fiercely right wing (as I documented last week) Steele, not only as a moderate, but also as a racial healer, while naysayers like myself stood aghast. I’ll concede that Steele offers a new model for Republicans, but its healing elements are a decidedly mixed bag.
In 2006, Steele was running for the US Senate in Maryland. The Democrats faced a primary between Congressman Ben Cardin, a Jewish moderate-liberal, and former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, an African-American who‘d also headed the NAACP. Steele’s hope was that Mfume, whose record on several issues, and somewhat controversial biography, had the potential to alienate many white Democrats, would be the nominee, and that Steele could then peel off some of those white Democrats by running as the more reasonable alternative.
Instead Cardin won, and Steele attempted to put together a winning coalition of conservative whites, along with African-American voters alienated by Mfume’s defeat. In the black community, Steele ran as “the black candidate;” Cardin responded with an effort to strip Steele of his black skin privilege by showing that Steele’s positions on the issues were actually those of a conservative Republican. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy then branded Cardin’s effort to make the campaign about issues, rather than about race, as the moral equivalent of a high tech lynching.
The Cardin effort had some success, as Steele ended up narrowcasting his net in the black community to focus upon those voters who were either the most racially nationalistic, or the most culturally conservative (as I’ve often pointed out, these are quite frequently the same people).
Steele's efforts were sometimes not pretty. An “independent” effort sprung up distributing flyers at churches and other sites in black neighborhoods. "Ben Cardin Promises to attack Jesus Christ, Pastors, Churches and Christians and to Take Away Blacks' Freedom If He Is Elected." The piece featured a comparison chart on social issues, including abortion and LGBT matters; Steel was portrayed as being "for what Jesus says;" and Cardin "against what Jesus says." It was literally a matter of "Cardin vs. Christ," which was not the race the Congressman had signed up for, since this was one Rabbi he’d never asked for an endorsement (although he did get the support of the Carpenter‘s Union).
The “independent” effort was the work of Emma Jean Thompson, a pastor at “Integrity Church International” (you can’t make such things up) in Landover, Maryland, who was present at Steele's pre-election press conference. Steele refused to denounce this effort until two weeks after his very impressive showing in the election (largely a function of the unusually high percentage of black votes he’d received as a Republican).
There were antecedents to such tactics. In 1978, Lee Atwater was consulting for the South Carolina Congressional campaign of Carroll Campbell, who later became that state’s Governor. Campbell was running against a friend of my father’s, Max Heller, an Austrian Jewish holocaust refugee who’d become a successful businessman, beloved philanthropist and Mayor of Greenville.
Alan Baron, a Washington-based Democratic analyst, revealed in 1983 that Mr. Campbell's pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, told him he did a survey to ''determine the impact on voters of information that Heller was (1) a Jew; (2) a foreign-born Jew; and (3 a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior.'' They learned in it was not electorally advantageous in South Carolina to be “a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior.''
Another consultant has been quoted to the effect that Mr. Atwater told him it would be great if a third candidate could bring this matter up. By a strange coincidence, an “independent” candidate, Don Sprouse, did run, and publicly argued that that Heller should not be elected because he was not a Christian and did not ''believe Jesus Christ has come yet.'' Marvin Chernoff, a Democratic consultant, has claimed that Atwater specifically told him of passing Finkelstein's secret poll to Sprouse. Campbell's campaign manager has since admitted to a late-night meeting with Sprouse representatives in a Greenville parking lot before the election, and admitted to the existence of and details revealed about the Finkelstein poll.
There were two common threads running through the “independent” Heller, Horton and Cardin attacks. The first was the element of having such sleaze purveyed in a manner affording deniability just plausible enough to hold water. The second was that all of them were based upon the idea of using bigotry to drive a stake between culturally traditional voters and the forces of modernity, by defining the opposition of “the other.”
Once these fights were fought within the Democratic Party. The old party of Jefferson Davis, which Michael Steele asks black Americans to eschew for that reason, fought that war for decades. Modernity lost to ignorant traditionalism in the 1950 Senate races between George Smathers and Claude Pepper in Florida ( "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy,") and between Willis Smith and Frank Graham in North Carolina. In the Carolina race, reporter Jesse Helms doctored up a photo of Graham’s wife, so that she appeared to be dancing with a black man. A grateful Smith took Helms with him to Washington as his administrative assistant.
But the LBJ passed Civil Rights law and the Nixonian Southern Strategy (climaxing with Ronald Reagan beginning his Presidential campaign near the Philadelphia, Mississippi site of the Schwerner/Goodman/Chaney lynching) eventually realigned the parties, so that Jefferson Davis/John Wilkes Booth wing of the Democratic Party embodied by the likes pf Thurmond, Helms and Trent Lott, all became Republicans.
To the extent such culture-war primaries now take place within the Democratic Party, they do so mostly in black districts, the one place where cultural conservatives have not left the Democratic Party en masse.
In 2006, Ben Smith reported that NYS Assemblyman Nick Perry, then a Congressional candidate in Brooklyn’s black majority 11th CD, went into the field with a poll with a couple of twists. One was that some of the positive messages tested were in rhyme. More interesting to Ben was the fact that Nick was testing how his opposition to gay marriage would play in a largely Carribean and black district. Although Perry was likely without such specific intent, a race posited on such a strategy would clearly be setting up a test of the right-wing conventional wisdom that same-sex marriage could be used to pry black voters away from the Democrats. Cultural liberals should have been alarmed. At least one was, the cultural liberal who’d been polled and dropped the dime on Ben.
That would be me.
The poll set up a series of questions establishing Perry as the candidate of what were called “communtarian values”. Some were not objectionable in and of themselves, but combined they were verging upon ugly. There was not one, but two, count ‘em, two, questions about gay marriage; one a generic pro-marriage candidate versus generic anti-marriage candidate, head to head (Was this poll the work of Finkelstein, selling out his fellow gays, lthe way he had once sold out his fellow Jews in the Heller race?).
A candidate who had earlier promised not to let his conservative social positions influence his votes was now planning to run an entire race based upon a vote-getting strategy of setting up gay families as a pinata. Perry had seemingly decided to follow the Karl Rove--J. Kenneth Blackwell strategy (which probably carried Ohio for George W. Bush in 2004) of making gay marriage the straw man of the month.
Thankfully, opposing gay marriage turned out not to be the wedge issue Perry had hoped for to break himself out of the field. One week he did the poll; the next week he dropped out! Republican strategists were clearly on notice; gay marriage may possibly have been be a tie breaker among African-Americans, but that would only count when they’d batted in as many runs as their opposition.
But, the questioned remained; what if they could bat in those runs?
In another 2006 race, in an open black majority Congressional District, involving several black candidates, and one white candidate, a Jewish State Senator named Steven Cohen (who was probably the most culturally liberal candidate in the field), one of the black candidates was caught doing push-polling to remind voters that Cohen did not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. Given the nature of that race, this effort was largely aimed at white Evangelical Christians, probably in the hopes that they’d stay home rather than vote for Cohen on the basis of his color.
After all, while Sunday at noon may be the most segregated hour in America, Jews didn’t even factor into that equation. The folk prejudices of Southern Whites, like much of Southern folk culture, does not differ as much as it might think from the Southern folk prejudices of Southern Blacks.
In the Jim Crow South, a white man was almost never convicted of a capital crime solely on the testimony of a black man, but a notable exception was Leo Frank, the embodiment of “the other“--a rich New York Jew . The locally born black man, a janitor, was probably the guilty party, but in the Frank case, it was the Jew who ended up dying the black man’s death of being lynched by a mob of bigots.
This rare, but telling, instance of southern whites overcoming their old prejudices by embracing a different one had echoes elsewhere, including the music business, where black and white southern musicians often found more in common with each other than with Jewish label owners like King Records' liberal paternalist Syd Nathan, who’d forced them to work together. In Steve Cohen’s hometown of Memphis, white southerner Steve Cropper (whose "Knock on Wood", co-written with black singer Eddie Floyd, was covered by Atwater), part of an integrated crew of studio musicians (including Isaac Hayes) who recieved points on the profits of all the records released by white southern owned Stax Records, thusly described that label’s unpleasant dealings over an expired distribution deal, with Atlantic Records’ co-owner Jerry Wexler, the embodiment of the urbane Jewish hipster, “we kept them alive and they offered us so little...they just looked at us with their little Jewish eyes…”
In 2008, Cohen, now an incumbent, was in a head to head race with a black candidate named Nikki Tinker, and was the target of the same sort of attacks which had been leveled against Cardin in 2006 (minus most of the substantive stuff about issues). Thankfully, whether because of the advantages of incumbency, his record of serving the black community or an outbreak of enlightenment, a majority of the district's black voters rejected the attack, and Cohen was re-nominated.
But, in both the Cardin and Cohen races, such attacks had some constituency which found them attractive, and pointed to a new strategy for the 21st Century which I call “The New Tolerant Intolerance.” Tolerant Intolerance is based upon the idea that dividing voters by race is a dying tactic, but dividing voters by intolerance of “the other” is not. The New Tolerant Intolerance is about voters overcoming their old prejudices by embracing different ones--finding our common ignorance with others who appear different than us, by transcending color and other discredited prejudices in favor of newer and more fashionable ones.
I don‘t believe that Jews qua Jews are the real target of “The New Tolerant Intolerance.” In the case of the Steele/Cardin and Cohen/Tinker races, “Jew” served as the shorthand for the strange, the modern and “the other,” much as they did in the Leo Frank case. But this shorthand applies predominately to liberal secular Jews. In fact, Steele ran for Senate hoping to attract Orthodox and other traditionally conservative Jews in a race against Mfume. In its ideal application, The New Tolerant Intolerance will also embrace those Jews willing to embrace the new prejudices.
And it goes without saying that Hispanic social conservatives like the Reverend Ruben Diaz, a Democratic New York State Senator already quite open to alliances with Republicans, will be offered a seat at the table as well. The New Tolerant Intolerance is a big tent.
The road map for the model is obvious. A portion of the black electorate is willing to abandon the Democratic Party on social issues if the campaign is properly directed. As I’ve pointed out, here and elsewhere, a 2004 anti-gay marriage referendum in Ohio was used in a campaign directed by J. Kenneth Blackwell, targeted at culturally conservative black voters, to attract enough black votes to George W. Bush to win him Ohio and thus, a second term in the White House. In 2008, black voters voted against gay marriage in California by a large margin, possibly large enough to make the difference. Add to this abortion, school prayer,vouchers, charter schools (embraced even by white liberal favorites like Cory Booker), faith-based social programs, evolution, sex education, crime, drugs and free needles. Stir and ask, “which party shares your values“?Where is it written that these differences of opinion within the black community must be fought out within the Democratic Party, rather than between the parties?
Yet, black voters stay with the Democratic Party in astronomically large numbers. Are culturally conservative black voters really that much more sophisticated than the culturally conservative white voters described in Thomas Frank’s “What about Kansas,” who vote against their economic interests on the basis of their cultural concerns? Are they really more sophisticated than the rich white liberal who do the same? Or are Republicans still suffering from the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s Philadelphia, Mississippi cream cheese, when it’s outlived its usefulness as the spread of choice? Perhaps the time has come to butter up black voters and others alienated by this ugly legacy.
Can it work?As Michael Steele is only too happy to remind us, it was not so long ago that black voters thought of the Democrats as the Party of Slavery. It took a Great Depression to re-open the conversation, and a Civil Rights Revolution (and concomitant reaction) to seal the deal. However, with real effort, the Republicans can probably alter their image as well. What if, as a matter of course, Republican could count on, among black voters, at least the same 22% level of support that John McCain managed among Jews, and then, build from that base, on a race by race basis. In many elections, this might bring an earthshaking change in the election results.
In the very short term, Steele’s election will not accomplish this; a black RNC Chair cannot trump a black President, and as I’ve said, the culturally reactionary elements within the black community are often the most nationalistic (Republican James Brown was saying loud he was “Black and Proud“, and Screwy Lew Farrakhan strongly opposes same sex marriage), but in the long term, The New Tolerant Intolerance might just work.
For it is not only at the black end of the cultural conservative spectrum where such glimmers of Republican hope have from time to time appeared; there is at least some evidence of a sea change on the white end of cultural conservatism as well.As I’ve noted before, Mike Huckabee, who ran for President as the friendly, likeable embodiment of The New Tolerance Intolerance, said the following about the Reverend Jerimiah Wright,: "As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say 'That's a terrible statement!' ... I grew up in a very segregated South. And I think that you have to cut some slack — and I'm gonna be probably the only conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you — we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names..."
As I’ve said before, I think Huckabee is sincere; in his work he’s had the opportunity to befriend a lot black people of faith, and he’s also probably not unsympathetic to loose-tongued ministers, regardless of their race. His vision of the social contract, unlike that of some of his followers, like Chip Saltsman, is large enough to encompass blacks.
If Steele is the black face of the New Tolerant Intolerance, then Huckabee is its friendly white face, a face so committed to realigning the nation’s racial/social/political arrangements, that he’s been utterly unafraid to challenge Republican economic orthodoxy to achieve his goal. And to that end, Wright, a friend of social conservative Lewis Farrakhan, is probably squarely within the four corners of Huckabee’s target group. Wright, whose church’s charitable outreach work is legendary, is surely a sucker for government-funded Faith Based Initiatives and is no big fan of Jewish liberals.
But even “Club of Growth” favorites like Sarah Palin are waking up and smelling the coffee. While her state may be as white as a polar bear, it should be noted that the really scary preacher Palin participated with, in a ceremony to drive out the witches, was a black man.Steele is perhaps the best possible spokesman for the New Tolerant Intolerance. Although a fanatical Right to Lifer, the rabidness of the opposition he faced for RNC Chair contributed to Steele’s image as a moderate (and the color of his skin didn’t hurt there either), but it is more than that. Whatever his beliefs, Steele has an almost Atwaterian ability to use any weapon at hand and to wrap it in a velvet glove. He also knows when to shut up and go stealth. Steele went from planning to run in the Jewish community against Mfume as the reincarnation of Sammy Davis Jr., to running against Ben Cardin as the stealth blackface version of Leo Frank’s tormentor, Tom Watson, while also painting himself among black voters as a virtual reality Democrat, even as he embraced the most radical Republican economic dogma. And it nearly worked. And now Steele embarks upon this latest skirmish in our culture wars after having been the default favorite of the Log Cabin Republicans.
So, how does one deal with the new Republican paradigm?
In the long run, The New Tolerant Intolerance is self defeating. The foundations of the cultural conservatism embraced by the New Tolerant Intolerance are crumbling as we speak. My five year old son already believe that gay couples can get married, because he’s seen two mommy and two daddy families in his religious-based nursery school, as well as at the public school he now attends. In Brownstone Brooklyn, children have even seen same-sex parent families in the Orthodox Jewish nursery schools. As a leading Evangelical, Richard Cizik, recently noted, about four in ten Evangelical Christians have an LGTB friend or family member. Another generation and what so many fear so much will amount to oh so little.
Of course, the same could have been said of race in 1965, and yet the Democrats lost five of the next six Presidential Elections, in large part on that basis. So, since the short term issue could potentially plague my party for the rest of my years on earth, let me suggest a short term solution as well.
I call it “The New Tolerant Tolerance.”
The New Tolerant Tolerance, evokes not Slim Harpo, telling black and white social conservatives to Get Love and Scratch each other’s backs. Instead, it evokes, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. To cultural conservatives who might otherwise be disposed to our message, we offer R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Although, I would have chosen a different front man than Rick Warren, who compared homosexuality to pederasty and incest (why not Cizik or Jim Wallis instead?), the idea of inviting a Christian conservative, with a genuine record of concern for the impoverished and our environment, to speak at the inauguration was a pretty good start (even if the result was the appearance that our President thought the three great religions were, Pentacostal, Baptist and Episcopalian). Like the Republicans Party prospecting among blacks, we are not necessarily looking for a majority of these votes, but rather our fair share--in our case, based upon the exercise of rational self interest. In the alternative, it would be nice to leave ’em feeling confused and unmotivated to turn out against us in large numbers.
Barack Obama gets this. Perhaps it is because of his experience as a Community Organizer for an Inter-Church coalition. Obama’s campaign appearance walking like Daniel into Rick Warren’s lion’s den and showing them that he was neither a scary black man, nor a scary secular humanist, served him well. Obama’s willingness to struggle to reconcile funding faith based social programs (which oft times have quite effective track records) with the demands of our Constitution’s Separation of Church and State is not merely smart politics, it may also be smart compassion.As to abortion, I am reminded of Rodney Dangerfield’s line about steak and sex--he gets them both very rare. The Clintonian commitment to making abortions Safe, Legal and_Rare, is not mere triangulation (OK, it is not JUST mere triangulation), but an acknowledgement that there is a better way. Perhaps that portion of the anti-abortion constituency more concerned about preventing abortions than preventing sex will appreciate that funding family planning is not a waste of tax dollars, but rather a way to prevent abortions (and save money). Perhaps they will then join in cause with those pro-choice advocates who understand that a woman left without the resources to raise a child does not have a real choice, and together they will work to enable such women to have real choices.
One can only hope.
My hope is that, over the course of time, some evangelicals will understand that there is no choice more culturally conservative than for folks to chose to solemnize their relationships in a legal manner so as to afford themselves the ability to form families by accessing the full panoply of rights and responsibilities we afford to married couples. Some like Cizik, and even Warren, now appear ready to support the implementation of the legal concept of civil unions in more and more states. Such normalization will inevitably lead, over time, to the last barrier falling as well.
Meanwhile R-E-S-P-E-C-T means not automatically using the word “bigot” to describe those who have sincere difference of opinion based upon faith, unless and until they have behaved like swine. It means embracing them for the common humanity we share and searching for some common ground.
Right now, Democrats and liberals have the advantage of taking the votes of most black cultural conservatives for granted. If Michael Steele and Michael Huckabee are successful, we will have to fight for those votes. And a voter who thinks you are looking down at him, whether because of his race or his religioisity, is generally a voter for the other side. Seemingly, the Republicans have finally learned this lesson; hopefully, we will assimilate it as well.
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