Newton, Race and Karl Rove

July 31, 2008 6:30 p.m.

As I wrote below, it seems we’re now in for another round of that biennial bit of sad-sackery, Republican ad makers who are just trying to create a good old fashioned smear ad but just can’t help stumbling into racialized imagery and code-words. Now, I note that the McCain/Britney/Paris ad seems to be getting panned pretty widely, quite apart from any suggestion that it’s pushing any offensive race-laced messages about Obama. And we’ve gotten a few emails from regular readers who write in and say, in so many words, ‘Yes, that’s a trashy ad. But the Britney and Paris stuff isn’t about race. They’re just trying to say Obama is frivolous and insubstantial like so much else in our celebrity culture.’

Meanwhile, Robert George says that in addition to the racial angle, he believes the ad is even more clearly “designed to politically emasculate Obama.” And I think, albeit implicitly, Robert gets at the fallacy inherent in how many people think about the way race is used in political messaging — which is to see it in operating in some hyper-linear, almost Newtonian fashion. Is the ad designed to say Obama is a frivolous part of the celebrity culture? Or is it meant to associate him with white women half his age, most of whose public notoriety is tied to their sexuality? If it’s one … well, it obviously can’t be the other.

And in this case, if all McCain’s ad guy is trying to do is make the apparently unobjectionable argument that Obama really isn’t a politician but more like a flashy showbiz act then it’s not his fault if he also happens to hit Obama with a handful of themes and bits of imagery that have been used about black men for a century or two. Because that’s not what the ad is about … it’s about saying he’s a frivolous dandy. And if it’s one, it can’t be the other any more than 2 + 2 equals 4 and not 5.

But the truth is that when you’re trying to understand how race is injected into a political campaign, if you’re looking for a physics analogue, it’s not Newtonian mechanics but quantum theory. It’s not one or the other. Effective messages hit multiple themes, different messages in different people’s minds and even read differently on the first or the third reading. So is the Britney ad about emasculating Obama, as Robert George says? Yes. Is it also about simply pairing Obama up with Britney and Paris? Absolutely. It’s both. And a lot more. In many cases, this game is simply a matter of taking charged images out into the public consciousness. They don’t necessarily ‘mean’ one thing or another. You just push them out and they take on a life of their own.

In this case, if the point is to say that Obama’s a celebrity, how exactly do you get from there to Britney Spears? Paris Hilton? Mull on that for a second. Are those the most logical analogues to Obama? Play it any way you want but somehow at the end of the day we end up with a campaign message based on promoting Obama as a song and dance man and paired with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. How’d we get here? It’s the GOP race and sex equivalent of all roads lead to Rome.

To understand the dynamics of this campaign you have to understand the role of Karl Rove and his proteges who’ve taken over McCain’s campaign. Rove himself previewed the key messages of the campaign early in the year in two vignettes about Obama — first, Obama as the “trash-talking” basketball player who’s both cocky and “lazy”, and second, Obama as the cocky black guy at the country club with a hot chick on his arm who’s looking down at you.

These are the themes that are going to be returned to again and again in this campaign. They’re what McCain is running on. Obama as a flashy entertainer, the guy reaching above his station, the guy who ends up in video montages with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The Rove-McCain line is that none of this stuff is beyond the pale. How are they supposed to help it if they’re running against a guy who’s more suited to be an entertainer than a leader and uppity and lazy to boot?

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