It seems not long ago I imagined a post-race, post-gendered Kumbaya moment in which the two Democratic candidates would be gamboling in slow motion across a pasture filled with buttercups and hope. Yet here I sit, pondering the dilemma of Hillary Clinton trying to convince the world that she’s more willing than John McCain to “totally obliterate” Iran, while the “racially transcendent” Barack Obama’s great dignity and intelligence are tirelessly berated in round-the-clock coverage of jibber-jabber from the crazy ex-minister of his church. “His electability is at stake,” gloat the brainless, breathless commentators on Fox. Of course, if it weren’t Reverend Wright, someone would find Obama’s barber and record him saying something stupid and sensational. Or his plumber, or his grocer, or his dentist’s grandmother. What’s more, if people think this frenzy makes Hillary Clinton more “electable,” then they haven’t paused to consider that her turn is surely coming: I’m picturing earnest interviews with Bill Clinton’s tobacconist and Monica Lewinsky’s dry cleaner, chock-full of Shocking Details No One Ever Dreamed Of.
Apparently Obama’s barber, plumber and grocer weren’t at home. So they’ve had to let his waffles do the talking. In case you missed it, when Obama was campaigning in Pennsylvania, he went to a diner and had waffles for breakfast. Another patron scooped up his plate of uneaten remains and offered them for sale on eBay. The patron even specified that a DNA sample might be obtainable, since Obama’s unwashed knife and fork were part of the deal. Bidding shot up to more than $20,000 before eBay removed the posting. Since then, the blogosphere has been abuzz with the epistemology of breakfast food. Are waffles truly the choice of champions? It was an effetely Belgian waffle, no less–as foreign and unpatriotic as a French fry!
This “post-civil rights” moment is not what I’d expected. In fact, it feels all too familiar. In New York City, Judge Arthur Cooperman found three undercover detectives not guilty of all charges in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed man leaving a club after a stag party early on the morning of his wedding day. The police shot fifty rounds at Bell’s car, with some of the bullets going wild and lodging in buildings as far as a football field away. Yet even regarding misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment because of these stray bullets, Judge Cooperman ruled that “questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums.” While Bell’s death was “tragic” and “unfortunate,” he found that the prosecution had failed to prove that the detectives weren’t justified, based on their perceptions at the time. I don’t think much of the judge’s statement, but I am more distressed by discussion taking the verdict as a blanket presumption in favor of whatever startled inner demons an officer “perceives.” On the radio and chat shows one hears clichés to the effect that “no one can understand what it’s like to be in their position” or “it’s a dangerous job–you can’t second-guess them.”
We do ask police to do a dangerous job, but we ostensibly provide them with a set of ethical guidelines and a course of training culminating in an oath to “serve and protect.” Our trust is based on those protocols as tools and those ethics as expectations. If we can’t tell the difference between random bullets fired by a drive-by gang and those fired by a poorly trained, panicked policeman, then we are neither served nor protected. The lives of innocent citizens are endangered, and the legitimacy of the police as civic guardians is corroded. Moreover, when such unremediated and literal overkill occurs repeatedly and almost exclusively in poor black areas, it feeds a sense of abandonment and despair. It is a division that eats at the heart of our political unity.
How do we overcome the sad hypocrisy of our public discourse? We love to hate “emotionalism” and “inarticulateness” in black figures like Al Sharpton, yet we celebrate it as honest working-class populism in white figures like Bush and McCain’s wild-eyed endorser, the Rev. John Hagee. We decry black middle schoolers who make fun of ambitious classmates for “talking white,” yet the media heap sneering derision upon Obama for sounding too well educated for his own good.
We are at a crossroads that implicates us all. With our imploding housing market, rising unemployment, falling dollar and dismally noncompetitive educational achievement, we are all in the ghetto now. While some of us retire to the prison of gated communities, far too many are condemned to the disenfranchisement of real prisons. There are 2.3 million prisoners in the United States today, almost one and a half times the number in China, whose population is four times greater. Our incarceration rate is six times the median of all nations, and we imprison people for a much wider range of offenses and for longer sentences. Of our prisoners, the vast majority are black and Latino. Yet the degree to which these grave disparities are in some measure the product of our “perceptions” seems to have little traction. As I write, the latest version of Grand Theft Auto has been rolled out. The lines outside stores have been long enough to inspire a spike in consumer confidence. Hailed as a technological triumph, the game allows players to shoot up, blow up and otherwise incinerate a cyberworld that is the spit and image of New York, yet rather cynically named Liberty City. “It has its own morality,” says a stockbroker friend who’s a big fan. And that would be? “Uhmmm, well… It’s war. Shoot first, ask questions later.”
As I sift through exegeses about whether Obama is the anthropomorphized waffle in question, I wonder whether he, or any decent candidate, can survive this insane fetishization. I wonder how we, the people, are diminished by it. I wonder about the folly and fear that seduce us into seeing ourselves as at war with one another rather than as a unified polity. Mostly, I wonder whether we are trading in the dignity, egalitarianism and potential of our political birthright for a mess of half-eaten pottage–albeit with a cold link of sausage and some unwashed silverware on the side.