I am black and British. This is not a lifestyle choice. My parents were part of the great migration from the global South when the empire, demographically speaking, struck back. It’s the historical hand I was dealt. And it’s not a bad hand. These are not the most interesting things about me. But at certain moments in the eight years I’ve lived in the United States, they have been the most confusing to others.
Shortly before I first came here some fifteen years ago, I asked a local how people would react to a black man with a British accent. "When they hear your voice, they’ll add twenty points to your IQ," he said. "But when they see your face, they won’t."
With some white conservatives, I’ve noticed, the gulf between what they see and what they hear can widen into an unbridgeable chasm. The affect of Englishness—hauteur, refined behavior and aristocracy (none of which I possess)—is something they aspire to, or at least appreciate. Blackness, on the other hand, is not.
And so when I introduce myself as a journalist from England I occasionally prompt a moment of synaptic dysfunction. The overwhelming majority get over it. But every now and then they say, "Really? I don’t hear an accent."
"If you beat your head against the wall," the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote, "it is your head that breaks, not the wall."
To avoid an almighty headache I try to shut the conversation down: "Well, I can’t explain that. But let’s get on with the interview."
But they won’t let it go. "Where in England?" "Were you born there?" "How long have you been here?"
The sad truth is that even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, some people still prefer the reality they want over the one they actually live in. Herein lies one of the central problems of engaging with those on the American right. Cocooned in their own mediated ecosystem, many of them are almost unreachable through debate; the air is so fetid, reasonable discussion cannot breathe. You can’t win an argument without facts, and we live in a moment when whether you’re talking about climate change or WMD, facts seem to matter less and less.
I’m not referring to false consciousness here (insisting that people don’t know what’s best for them, which doesn’t seek to understand but to infantilize them) but instead the persistent, stubborn, willful refusal to acknowledge basic, known, verifiable facts and the desire to make misinformation the cornerstone of an agenda.
The examples are legion. Most of those who believe that Obama is a Muslim (roughly one in three Republicans) also loathe his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But Muslims don’t have pastors. They also claim that Obama’s 1981 trip to Pakistan as a student is evidence of his Islamic militancy and his dubious beginnings: he must have used a foreign passport, since the country was on a "no-travel list" at the time. It wasn’t. In fact, in August that year the US consul general in Lahore encouraged Americans to visit, and before that, on June 14, the New York Times Travel section had run a 3,400-word piece explaining that Americans could get thirty-day visas at airports and border crossings.
That these falsehoods are proxies for racism is true but beside the point. After all, the right Swiftboated John Kerry and Whitewatered the Clintons before him. Obama’s race and ethnicity merely provide an easier target, and the growing strength of Fox, the web and talk-radio mean that these slings and arrows travel faster and farther. But if Obama can’t convince the right of these basic facts, what hope does he have of persuading them to support his economic and foreign policies?
The principle of compromise is fine and, given the recent election, inevitable. But you can negotiate only with those who engage in good faith. In the absence of that, Obama should expend less effort trying to win the right over and more trying to win us back.
For these fabrications gain currency only when real change proves elusive. The number who believe Obama is a Muslim has leapt 50 percent since before his election, during which time the economy has lagged. Meanwhile, whatever the inadequacies of the healthcare reform, once it passed all talk of "death panels" ceased.
Faced with the option of believing something that’s not true or gaining tangible benefits like a job or healthcare, most people will take the latter. However petulant, ignorant or gullible people might be, most would prefer to hold on to their jobs, homes and health than their illusions. The problem is that Obama’s failure to deliver gives little incentive to exchange fiction for fact.
Now more than ever the only way for Obama to bring about progressive change is by mobilizing his base. If the right can surge when Democrats have the presidency and both houses of Congress, there is no reason the left can’t just because the GOP has the House. Indeed, now that Republicans have some power, they’re easier to expose. That’s what makes Obama’s "compromise" on tax cuts such a strategic blunder. There will rarely be a better opportunity to lay bare the GOP’s class priorities (let alone the sketchiness of its deficit-busting credentials).
"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue," wrote George Orwell in his essay "In Front of Your Nose." "And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."
Obama needs to get out there and fight.