Monday, October 13, 2008

What A Lynch Mob Looks Like

While reading a deeply disturbing piece about the historical use of lynching photographs by Dora Apel entitled Lynching Photographs and the Politics of Public Shaming, I couldn't help but be constantly reminded of the displays of race-driven anger and fear at McCain/Palin rallies over the last week. I know this has been pointed out before, but the structures of the two situations truly do mirror one another – not only in the symbolism of words and actions, and in the mediums (photographs and video) used to describe them, but in the reactions of those not involved.

As Apel describes it, the psychology behind lynching was driven by the perception of a shifting or unstable power relationship between whites and blacks. This is also the case now, as we are poised to cross arguably the largest symbolic barrier to black power in the United States, in the face of a decently-sized racist reaction. While the sexual dimension is not as explicit as it was a hundred years ago, the overtones of fear about white women's purity in the face of supposed aggression from black men (sexual or just-not-quite physical) are undeniable. Apel describes a typical fantasy on the bottom of page 57: "In the scenario of a white woman terrified at the sight of a young black man at her door asking for food, the hysteria of the white woman is the implicit counterpart to the danger of the hypersexed black male. Both are "excessively saturated with sexuality," to borrow a phrase from the film theorist Linda Williams. The very condition of the black male's proximity to the white woman became an assault, not on her person but on her senses, causing irresistible feelings of panic, frenzy and fear, which she presumably would not have felt had he been a white male stranger. Thus the position of the white male as protector and defender of the helpless white woman is legitimized."

It is therefore telling that Sarah Palin, not John McCain, first introduced Obama's "dangerous" ties to Bill Ayers, and that the most egregiously racist moment – the verbal and physical attacks on black members of the press and stage crew – took place during a speech of hers. As noted, the situation is not as sexually charged as the scenario Apel describes, but given that it's 21st century national politics, it's not far off. Both Palin and Obama are as close to sex symbols as politicians who aren't Kennedy get, after all.

Even the slogan "Who is Barack Obama?", written so as to allow the listener's worst imaginings to fill in the answer, taps into the archetypal unknown and "dangerous" black man, as in the scene that Apel describes, quoted above. And again, it's worth pointing out that the narrator's voice in the ad is female and worried, and is followed by a shot of McCain's stern countenance and assurance that he approved the message.

After reading about the apparent strength of the lynching ritual in not-as-distant-as-we-would-like American history, it's clear that this sort of thing, and the fact that it works on a certain demographic, should come as no surprise even to people of my (younger) generation. But the points Apel makes about the power of shame caused by lynching photographs are equally well taken, and help to explain why race-driven attacks and displays of frenzied communal anger have thus far only solidified Obama's lead. As the public is exposed to a number of videos of open bigotry and proud misinformation, the shame about that piece of national heritage, based on cultural memories of lynching and personal memories of lynching photographs and descriptions, is explicitly on most peoples' minds. And as Apel notes, the photographs didn't capture the frenzy of the mob's moment. But the video does. In a way, this is one of the first times that the country as a whole has been exposed to the sound and movement, the emotions, of a lynch mob.

And it's really fucking scary.


  1. Probably the best written post we've had on this blog. Well fucking done.

    Oh yeah, and it is that scary. It's not going to win McCain the election, but it will make our country a worse place, and a much more dangerous place for Barack Obama.

  2. i have to echo J's sentiments, extremely well written and you brought up points i hadn't considered before as far as some of the psychological dynamics of the election.

  3. Thanks, guys. I'm truly honored.

    Wish it could have been a happier post. And I wish I had faith that McCain will pull his shit together.

  4. Hey Nick :-). I'ma troll a bit.

    I've gotta say, I do buy that the whole mob atmosphere of these rallies has been overplayed by the media. The cries of "terrorist," "kill him," and "sit down, boy," have only been reported as isolated incidents at a single rally.

    Is there a very considerable minority (maybe 35%) who believe on the grounds of his name and race that Obama is a dangerous, untrustworthy man? Yeah, sure. But that's nothing new, and I think blaming Palin for this problem is patently absurd; in fact, as you observe, she may be helping to fight racism and ignorance by shedding light on it.

    As for your main argument, that these sorts of reports of outright racism at Palin rallies in fact turn sentiment further against McCain, yeah, that sounds about right.

    Also, thanks for urging me repeatedly to read this blog. It's really awesome.

  5. Welcome, Noah! Thought you'd enjoy the conversations here. Thanks for the criticism. Here's my (overlong, my apologies) response:

    To clarify: I'm not blaming Palin or McCain for causing the irrational hatred expressed at their rallies. That the racism already existed, as you point out, is precisely the point. I'm saying that their rhetoric is framed with the same words, symbols and emotions that drove the lynching parties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    At the very least, it's hard to deny that they're centrally wrapped up in this thing, and playing along with an old and incredibly ugly storyline. I mean, the scripts for those ads read like they were lifted right out of the Apel piece – an "unknown," "dangerous," "risky" black man taking power in "America." It's not exactly subtle, after hearing a little bit of the history.

    I can't see a way to read those ads such that McCain and Palin aren't endorsing, furthering, reviving, a brand of race relations that has no place in the 21st century. The question is, are they conscious of it, or are they merely unwitting participants in a reenactment of the actions of their ideological ancestors? Are they this sort of person, or do they merely play it on TV?

    Honestly, I’m not sure. If they had pulled the ads and backed off from the racist reaction in a more than cursory way, I would be inclined to think that they didn't understand the forces that they were dealing with, but genuinely want to make amends. As it is, we've seen the occasional pledge from McCain about running a “respectful” campaign, but he continues to follow the historical racial narrative outlined by Apel in a nonpolitical piece published long before these events. So, we’re back to the same question, but further down the line.

    A sharper way of putting it might be, What did they expect the openly racist portion of their base to do in response to campaign rhetoric like that? The stakes are not small here, and they’re playing with fire. As someone pointed out last week, I think on OpenLeft, MLK's assassination was preceded by precisely these sorts of rhetorical overtures.

    As for being overplayed, who's to say? Even if that fanaticism only happened once, should we just let it slide? You don’t need the sort of reaction we've seen to be shocked at the campaign they’re running, given that it’s using the framework of racist, ritualized violence that’s still in living memory for a fair portion of the country. Further, the four videos linked at the end of my piece are all from different rallies, none of which is the infamous Palin one, and there are dozens more examples of proud racism on youtube. Granted, that's not quite the same as actually being at one of these things, but it is closer than we've ever been before. I don’t think this is something we should take lightly. We want as much shame as possible, here.

    In any case, I don't want to give Palin any credit for unearthing these beasts unless/until she sheds one word of remorse at the effect that her words had. In fact, as things stand, she's been straight-up legitimizing racism (even more than McCain). Insofar as credit is deserved at all, and I'm not sure it is, it belongs to the media for publicly shaming these people.

    But a related point that's been on my mind since I wrote this, is that I dramatically overstated the case in my last paragraph by literally comparing these events to lynchings. I didn't really mean that. The possibility of violence is nowhere near that level. But it is strongly reminiscent, given the context in which it occured. I was being honest when I said they scared me, and Apel brought the whole thing into focus from an entirely different direction.

    And so the real point is, I'm unbelievably glad that the McCain campaign’s attacks don't seem to be working. Obama's election won't make all this go away, but the failure of this sort of framing during the campaign is a sign that most people don't want to deal with this bullshit anymore.

  6. Thanks for the response :-).

    I also thought you overstated the case with the 'dangerous' attack ad. Yes, the ad is completely out of line in presidential politics. But the narrator's voice reminded me more of M from James Bond (albeit American) than of someone's helpless niece. She was stern, confident, and reprimanding.