Michael Chabon proved that a brilliant literary mind doesn’t necessarily lend itself to politics, mostly because politics deals poorly with all but the most simple abstractions. The same can be said of Orlando Patterson’s critique of the 3 A.M. ad, which most political observers saw as Patterson accusing the Clintons of being explicitly racist towards Obama. Here’s what Patterson said:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

Steve Benen was unconvinced:

Patterson is an accomplished scholar who’s forgotten more about racial symbolism than most of us will ever learn, but this criticism strikes me as wildly off-base. The ad is premised on exploiting fear, but not racial fears. “Birth of a Nation”? Seriously?

In the past, Lefty bloggers have criticized the Giuliani campaign for explicitly playing on American racial fears of Arabs and Muslims. The fact of the matter is almost all political arguments relating to domestic and national security in America on some level, rest on the underlying narrative of protecting white people from the savage brown hordes, be they black drug dealers or Arab terrorists.

The Clintons don’t explicitly refer to a racial other in that ad. But they don’t have to, the association is so old and ingrained in American culture that even without placing the image on screen, it casts a shadow in the back of our minds.

I’m not criticizing the Clintons for trying to race-bait Obama as they have in the past, I don’t even believe their exploitation of this phenomenon is deliberate. But in America, these kinds of arguments, employing fear as an argument for security, always rest on the implicit suggestion of a threatening ethnic other. It’s one of the reasons this kind of fear-based approach is so grating.

You don’t have to show a scary Arab to implicitly exploit that fear. The climactic scene of Birth of A Nation, in which a righteous army arrives to save a pure white family (the women in particular) from being defiled by savage blackface hordes, is the implicit narrative of every action movie in American history. The effect of cinema on politics is obvious, from the “ticking time bomb” rationale for torture to “the red phone”.

As far as the movies go, since 1915, the good guys, the bad guys, and the victims still look pretty much the same. So it’s no surprise that Americans would rather John McCain answer the phone than Obama or Hillary.

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