Blogs > Cliopatria > 3am and D.W. Griffith?

Mar 11, 2008 5:07 pm

3am and D.W. Griffith?

As Ryan Lizza observed in this week's New Yorker,"It is tempting to say that the Clinton campaign’s plan is to burn the village in order to save it—that Hillary Clinton believes that Democrats, hypnotized by Obama, are making a historic mistake from which only she can rescue them. And it is tempting to add that this means the political destruction of the man who is still most likely to be the Democratic nominee."

There are lots of reasons for criticizing the Clintons' campaign tactics. There's the Orwellian spin (the latest: Maggie Williams' statement that the campaign was"thrilled" with losing Wyoming by 23 points, or Ed Rendell's claim that it was tougher for Clinton to have run against"uncommitted" in the Michigan primary than against Obama or Edwards)—an approach that only serves to suggest that politicians will say anything, thereby devaluing political rhetoric. There's the Clintons' willingness to assert that the other party's nominee is more qualified to be President than their rival, thereby effectively functioning as a stalkinghorses for John Mcain. There's the repeated call for the party to change rules midstream and seat the Florida and Michigan delegations. There's the bizarre (though undoubtedly poll-tested) calls for a"dream ticket" headed by the candidate currently running in second place.

Then there's an op-ed in this morning's New York Times from Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson. Patterson critiques the 3am ad—and, as with Clinton's campaign as a whole, there's much to critique. The ad was based on a false premise—that Clinton is somehow much more experienced in national security affairs than Obama, even though neither have served in the military or a civilian post related to national security, and neither have extensive service in the Senate. And the ad's approach was almost Rovian—take Obama's strength (his consistent opposition to the war, even as Clinton voted for the war despite not reading all of the intelligence data available to her) and use it against him.

Patterson, however, takes a different line:"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."

Patterson claims that the ad tells people that"an Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within."

We now know something of the images that triggered in Patterson's mind"Birth of a Nation." They were stock photos, filmed almost ten years ago for a regular advertisement (which perhaps explains why much of the ad feels more like a commercial for a nighttime cold medicine than for a political candidate). The first little girl shown is now 17, and an Obama supporter. The Clinton campaign purchased the footage from Getty Images.

Patterson did note that the ad could have"removed its racist sub-message . . . by stating that the danger was external terrorism." Yet the narrative does include a line that that the 3am call (answered by Hillary Clinton in a business suit) dealt with an unstated problem"somewhere in the world."

During this campaign, the Clintons have been all too willing to play the race card. Yet articles such as Patterson's only discredit the critique against the Clintons' campaign, while serving as yet another reminder of how extreme is the race/class/gender discourse that dominates the contemporary academy. [Update: The Clinton campaign responded to the op-ed by claiming that the ad did include an African-American child. In this case, conveniently, an African-American who doesn't look black.]

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2008

"... to the Left of Teddy Kennedy ..." Shocking. Bloody shocking.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/15/2008

I don't really care who wins this year's presidential election. However, I have the impression that if Obama loses, some people will never believe it was because his voting record was to the Left of Teddy Kennedy's, or because of his close associations with unrepentant extremists, or because they disagree with his positions on the issues. No, they'll say it was because there were "too many people like RR" whose minds are "filled with swill from the cesspits of wingnut bigotry" and who didn't fill up their ample leisure time reading Obama's books. It's an interesting mindset and one that makes me wonder if Shelby Steele is part of that "cesspit of wingnut bigotry". Mr. Steele doesn't come to mind because I've read much of his writings, but I've read a few and some of them address this mindset.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2008

If you'd ever bothered yourself to -- you know -- read any of Obama's books or speeches, you'd have already known that he doesn't share Farrakhan's or, even, Wright's dubious viewpoints. But you haven't and you won't, because you've made up your mind, fill it with swill from the cesspits of wingnut bigotry, and run back over here to throw it up on the rest of us.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/15/2008

Bill Clinton said, “I’ve told you before and I’ll say it again: I did NOT have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” That sounded like a pretty straightforward repudiation of the charges, didn’t it? Or it did until some intrepid reporter looked in the dictionary for the definition of “sexual relations”. I’m sure some here will say it’s “racist” to ask what Obama meant in his statement by “racism”. They will probably say is “ultra-racist” to ask more that that. Ironically, those people who want to protect Obama won’t be helping him at all. Questions about his carefully-worded statement about Farrakhan are already all over the internet. I googled “Farrakhan anti-white” and the first four or five sites were ones loaded with complaints that Obama (whose name wasn’t even in the search) had not gone far enough in denouncing Farrakhanism.

Speaking of word-games, I’ve been wondering until recently what “race-baiting” means. It turns out that there’s no sign of it in my heavy desk dictionary. I did find a (unsourced) definition on Wikipedia. It begins, “Race baiting is the term for an act of using racially derisive language, actions or other forms of communication, to anger, intimidate or incite a person or groups of people.... The term ‘race baiting’ is often a critique of anti-racist actions and communications implying that those who criticize apparent racism are themselves guilty of either a form of racism or of simple manipulation.” Though I still can’t say I fully understand the definition, from what I can gather, it applies more to my critics than to me. After all, I’m one who is against double-standards based on race; isn't that the definition of an anti-racist -- or, at least, didn't it USE to be?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/13/2008

Barack Obama's statement is as straightforward a repudiation of racism and anti-Semitism as could be expected of *anyone*. It needs no parsing by you or anyone else. You are correct in understanding that your race baiting commentary is unwelcome here. It will be deleted when you engage in it. You are entitled to set up your own blog and post whatever demagoguery you favor on it. Here, you will be civilized.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/12/2008

It's ironical that I noticed the Patterson article before I saw this response to it, and I excerpted parts of it in a comment to your blog at DiW. It's clear that Patterson trying to make a link here: Hillary's ad = "Birth of a Nation" ... Hillary = a racist.

Meanwhile, Obama is allowed to make what can only be called a Clintonesqe "repudiation" of Louis Farrakhan which looks a lot like an embrace of much of Farrakhanism.(1)

(1) During his presidency, it was said of Bill Clinton that he speaks beautifully but you need a team of lawyers to tell you what he REALLY said.

According to the Washinton Post, Obama said, "I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan," Obama said in the statement.

Notice that this was a PREPARED statement. Every word and phrase was carefully chosen. And just as with President Clinton, this statement has to be parsed by minds highly skilled in linguistic evasions (aka "lawyers") to figure out "what he REALLY said".

I would volunteer for the assignment, but I have ample reason for believing that criticism I made of Obama would be deemed, as Prof. Patterson did to Hillary, by at least one powerful figure here at Cliopatria as "race-baiting". And unlike Hillary on TV, I don't have independent means of expression here.

Kevin C. Murphy - 3/12/2008

Patterson has responded to Wilentz.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/11/2008

Thanks for balancing your own partisanship with a careful consideration of arguments on all sides. As you note, not all academics have done so.

Kevin C. Murphy - 3/11/2008

I don't think Patterson's all that far off the mark here, to be honest. As the TNR gang noted, this isn't just your standard Cold War red phone ad -- it's been spliced with a Home Invasion ad, and the subtext is clearly Obama, a stranger outside, is personally going to harm these darling children. That may not have been willfully racist on the campaign's part, but it does play with racist tropes that have been extant more recently than Birth of a Nation.

In any case, the Patterson episode has prompted Sean Wilentz to unload some more bile. Basically, it's more unsightly screeching about the race card. (I presume he composed the addendum just on the off chance that anybody out there still took him seriously anymore.)

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/11/2008

I'm tempted to say that Lizza got it wrong, and that perhaps the quip should be, "It takes a burning village to raise a campaign..."