Last week, after Stephen Colbert’s big promotion was announced, one of far-right conservatism’s rising luminaries, Ben Shapiro, lashed out at Colbert for practicing what he called “political blackface.” This came, aptly enough, just after Jon Chait published his piece on the right and left’s maniacal divide over race in which Republicans, compromised by race, are nonetheless legitimately paranoid that they’re constantly being falsely accused of racism and liberals, on the right side of the race issue, nonetheless won’t let conservatives say anything edgy without forcing it through the prism of racial offense.
Chait’s piece was harrowing and wonderful, mainly because he has such a chokehold on the nation’s political zeitgeist and frenzies and his prose is peerless. You should read it. Fundamentally, though, it was unconvincing because he tried to take a legitimate observation and muscle it into a false equivalence that simply isn’t there. And even his herculean abilities cannot quite make it happen. But it’s Shapiro’s effort, the hundredth or the thousandth time perhaps, to try to grapple with modern-day conservatism’s pained, compromised and in a sense helpless hobblement over race by finding a way to actually become the victim of oppression. In other words, conservative is the new black.
Here’s Shapiro from his new site “Truth Revolt” …
This routine, in which Colbert plays at conservatism in order to portray it as unendingly ugly, should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface. When Colbert plays “Colbert,” it’s not mere mockery or satire or spoof. It’s something far nastier.
Blackface, which has an ugly history dating back to at least the fifteenth century according to historian John Strausbaugh, was used to portray demeaning and horrifying stereotypes of blacks. Such stereotypical imitation has not been limited to blacks, of course; actors tasked with playing stereotypical Jew Shylock often donned a fake nose and red wig, as did actors who were supposed to play Barabas in The Jew of Malta. Such stereotypical potrayals create a false sense of blacks, or Jews, or whomever becomes the target of such nastiness.
And this is precisely what Colbert does with regard to politics: he engages in Conservativeface.
This is a particularly parodic example of the genre but it’s essentially of a piece with the constant claims that Obamacare is “the new Jim Crow.”
We can talk about whether the racial resentment that is often an animating force of conservative politics is essential to it or simply an outrider to a race neutral ideology. It’s both and neither – too complicated to be settled in a declarative sentence. But there’s something going on here far more deep-seated, anguished, conflicted and comical. Bad faith is too elegant and straightforward a concept to describe it.
We have two parties in the country today. The degree to which they are increasingly organized around race is painfully clear. At this point the Democrats are essentially a multi-racial party. Whites constitute at best a bare majority of its voters along with the overwhelming number of African-Americans, big majorities of Hispanics and increasingly Asians, who used to be largely Republican in partisan affiliation.
On the other hand, you have the Republican party which is not exclusively white but overwhelmingly white and increasingly so. While the GOP is not racist itself it does draw a great deal of its propulsive energy from portions of the electorate most threatened by the country’s changing demographics.
Put those factors together and you’re bound have friction under the best of circumstances. But we don’t have the best circumstances. There is an entirely separate (and better to say REAL) discussion to be had outside the alternative universe of conservatives toiling on the Obamacare plantation: about the growing political power of a rising multiracial electorate, the persistent resistance to it and how this plays out in efforts to restrict minority voting, oppose programs that help minority communities and so on.
But before you even get to that, you’ve got this separate issue, the Alice in Wonderland world of conservative whites as the new victims of racial oppression, vilification and general soul hurt. In a sense it’s a tempest in a teapot and arguing over it is no more sensible than arguing with the poll unskewers back in late 2012 or engaging on whether or not there are death panels in Obamacare. But it’s there. And it’s real. And like most cases where the powerful – or those who are still pretty powerful – nonetheless imagine themselves as victims, little good can come of it.