David Thompson
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August 05, 2008

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Matt M

"When white people are invited to think about Obama’s physical appearance, the principal attribute they’re likely to dwell on is his dark skin."

This obsessive focus on Obama's skin colour strikes me as a little bit... racist.

David

Ah, but the way to get past the colour of a person’s skin is for everyone to be neurotically preoccupied by the colour of a person’s skin. It’s obvious, really.

Jason Bontrager

So in addition to his middle name we're now not allowed to mention any aspect of his physical appearance. Next is first and last names (obviously un-American, foreign, and even Islamic-sounding!) will be banned.

I wonder if he'll get a kewl symbol ala The Artist Formerly Known As Prince...

David

What struck me was Noah’s eagerness to dismiss Chozick as “clueless” and his insistence that the effect on the public mind is racist irrespective of intent - and that Chozick should somehow have known this, as all good-hearted people do.

So, if you say one thing, and say it quite clearly, you can still be accused of meaning something else entirely, consciously or otherwise, or be accused of being *taken* to mean something else entirely, and no amount of protestation will make much difference. That way, even if Chozick can’t be pinned down as *intentionally* racist, she’s still deemed sort-of-guilty because of her “clueless” ignorance of an allegedly common understanding that isn’t actually that common, or obvious, or coherent. And, presumably, if one disputes these alleged code-words and the reasoning behind them, the willingness to argue will also be treated as suspicious.

I’m guessing it’s never occurred to Timothy Noah that he and those like him are the ones we should be worried about.

Frank P

Speaking to a West Indian recently who is now domiciled in America, I asked him how it would change things in the US if black President were to be elected. His reply was illuminating, "Obama nart black, marn, 'im clee-ar."

Looks like he may fall between two stools.

David

“In the future, the press would be wise to avoid discussing how ordinary Americans will respond to the size of Obama’s ears, the thickness of Obama’s eyebrows, and so on. Is that prohibition too inhibiting? I doubt it, unless you happen to be a political cartoonist, and therefore have no choice but to navigate these perilous waters.”

It’s an extraordinary insight into the mind of someone fixated by race and troubled by proscriptive urges. Apparently, it’s okay to make unkind references to McCain’s teeth, for instance, but any observation regarding Obama’s appearance is taboo. It seems to me “these perilous waters” are only perilous if you’re someone like Noah, who twitches excitedly at the merest whiff of ambiguity - which of course he seeks out doggedly, or invents, in order to get excited. Though I suppose these waters do become a little hazardous if you’re unfortunate enough to be targeted by Noah, or someone like him, for no particular reason and then have to justify innocuous statements to someone who’s mentally unwell.

JuliaM

"So, if you say one thing, and say it quite clearly, you can still be accused of meaning something else entirely, consciously or otherwise, or be accused of being *taken* to mean something else entirely, and no amount of protestation will make much difference. "

The 'heads I win, tails you lose' strategy...

TDK

An example here in the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/08/06/do0602.xml&page=2

"if Obama fails to make the White House, it will have less to do with his physique than with his colour. That's what the racist underbelly of America, yet to emerge in all its ugliness, simply can't stomach."

And what is here evidence for this. None: the preceding text talks about the fact that Obama may be too thin to be elected, Americans apparently preferring plumper presidents, except Lincoln obviously.

Mary Jackson

Obama is too thin - thin on substance and policies.

Timothy Noah's piece is unintentionally hilarious. And of course, as others have pointed out, it shows that he is the one obsessed with the colour of Obama's skin.

Just taking this to its logical conclusion, if you are attacked by a white man and must give the police a description, you can say "Tall, medium build, dark hair, bushy eyebrows..." If you're attacked by a black man, all you can say is "Black".

Horace Dunn

Well as Martin Luther King (who I think Obama might have referred to from time to time on his campaign) said: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the size of their waists but by the content of their character".

Clearly that day has not yet come. Burgers all round.

Jerub-Baal

Hmmm... My whole family is skinny. I wonder what racial or cultural group Noah thinks we are.

David

Mary,

I’m guessing that if you’re attacked by a black man you should tell the police he was white. In the interests of fairness, of course, and to avoid all those terrible code-words.

“Timothy Noah’s piece is unintentionally hilarious.”

And unintentionally illuminating. The more feeble and unpersuasive Noah’s argument gets the more indignant and judgmental he sounds. You’ll see he doesn’t actually *make* the case to which he thinks all white folk should defer. He can’t find anything demonstrably objectionable in what was actually written, so instead he puts words into other people’s mouths and hopes no-one will notice the switch. Hence the laboured guff about “not that there’s anything wrong, mind you, with being a skinny person. But would you want your sister to marry one?” etc. (Let’s just hammer that “code” home, shall we, by repeating it throughout the article as if someone else had said it. Ah, see? Now it’s in your head too! I was right all along!)

Noah tells us that “a whole genre of humour turns on this reality” (i.e. using innocuous physical references to secretly imply some nasty racial caricature), but all he offers as evidence is one vague reference to a single episode of a period comedy, Happy Days, that was made in the early 70s. Again, there are no actual quotes from the episode in question and Noah is careful to insert his *own* words instead. More ventriloquism. But we’re nonetheless supposed to accept his interpretation as somehow obvious. Given he does this several times in the same article, is Noah someone whose opinions we should trust on this subject?

The Phantom

Phantom subtext indeed. ~:D

I don't like hidden meanings myself. Too PoMo for my taste. I like to come right out and slap 'er down on the table.

I dislike Obama. Not because he's black, but because he's an empty suit that other people have standing up reading speeches for them. Really dumb speeches too.

I'd vote for Paris Hilton ahead of Obama OR Hillary Clinton, because she'd be too busy living it up to do much damage to the country, and she's too rich to get much of a kick out of stealing stuff. I like half of her energy policy too, the half that allows off-shore drilling. The other half is just Greenie watermelon wheeze. Green on the outside, red on the inside.

Now, I don't much like McCain either, he's a little unstable emotionally and he's got Big Government Socialist written all over him. But at least with him I can see that he's the guy going to be running the show. With Obama, who the hell knows?

Clearly, this makes me a racist/bigot redneck according to Keith Olberman. So long as its the likes of him saying it, I'll be satisfied I'm pissing off the right people.

steveaz

Hi David,
That this latest proxy for racism is even being discussed suggests to me that Obama's tactical equivocation on national policy is working.

If his policies' attributes were more evident and concrete we'd be critiquing them. Instead, we're stuck playing rhetorical badminton with his physical attributes - and it's getting a little old.

Just my opinion.

David

Steveaz,

Well, yes, it is a bit like chasing ghosts.

Evidently, there are people who will pore over every single comment that’s ever been made regarding Obama, his appearance, his diet, his shoes, etc, frantically cross-referencing them with every single racist utterance in the history of racist utterance. Should anything match, however remotely or accidentally, and however much one has to squint, alarm bells will be rung and denunciations will ensue. And the world will be a better place thanks to this paranoid deconstruction.

See, for instance, the efforts of David K Shipler, whose thesaurus is positively heaving with antiquated racial innuendo:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/04/phantom-subtext.html

sdferr

Since Senator Obama insists on reminding me (us) that as he puts it "I don't come out of Central Casting when it comes to presidential races" I've taken to substituting "Not From Central Casting" for his forbidden middle name. It's a handy mnemonic device. Thus: Barack "Not From Central Casting" Obama. Works for me.

Jimmock

I can see how 'skinny' could be code for originating from the East, ie, the wrong side of Africa from the perspective of (West) African Americans who have been known to suggest that Obama is 'not Black enough'. Watch the Omlympics with an Atlas next to you if you're confused.

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