Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has for a very long time now existed as sort of an editorial cosmic dare. His latest is a masterwork of Cohenism, the hopelessly bland embrace of rotten tropes and repulsive ideologies presented with what the author seems to truly goddamn believe is thoughtful makes-you-think revelation on his part. Richard Cohen seems always to be struggling with battles a half century old, things like codified racism and sexism, and wants every last American to follow his mental wanderings as he tries to decipher whether these things are really all that bad or are just True Americans being True Americans. This is how we get written revelations of how a movie about slavery rocked Richard Cohen's world—and this is true—by making him think that perhaps slavery was more bad than he had previously been led to believe. This is how we get perfectly literate-sounding asininities like his latest:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.That would be the paragraph that had an uncountably large number of people reaching for an early morning drink, but it's not alone. No sir, it is hugged by an entire column of similar bits of wisdom. But let's kill this bird with one swift cut before chopping up the rest of it—no need to make the poor thing suffer.
If people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children, that would be racist. Tarting it up with the shit-laden phrase conventional views doesn't mean it's not racist, it just means you've chosen conventional views to be your preferred phrase for retchingly racist. Those aren't two different things. If cultural conservatives and conventional views and deeply troubled about mainstreaming all involve a gag reflex upon being confronted with a biracial family, or a biracial president, then all those things are goddamn fucking racist. This isn't a trick question, and it isn't a matter of semantics, and it takes a special kind of cement-headed literati to dismiss Harry Belafonte calling a group racist by roundaboutly explaining that it is not that they are racist, it is just that they want to gag at the sight of biracial people. Dear God, man.
But we can't let it go at this. Oh, no sir. Let's continue, below the fold.
This is what makes Richard Cohen tick. He has this wonderful way of sullenly orbiting around plain truths like a punditizing comet, sometimes threatening to come damn close to a possibly self-immolating realization but never, ever quite getting there. Other people might have come to grips with the notion that people with conventional views wanting to vomit when they see biracial children are in fact Very Obviously Racist many decades ago, but Richard Cohen is not quite there yet. Richard Cohen is determined to dance the dance of the self-imposed moderate no matter how ridiculous it makes him look. If racist bastards proclaim themselves to not be racist, then by God and the printed page Richard Cohen will not contradict them.
The baffling thing about the column is that it could, in any other hands, pass as performance art. If Cohen had simply driven a stake through the heart of the vampire rather than giving it a nice happy hug and letting it go on its way, he and we would both be free of the thing, but Cohenism is nothing if not dedicated to ornately dodging the point. The column is ostensibly about Chris Christie's difficulties in being perceived as moderate by a group of conservatives that even the centrist's centrist recognizes as a collection of utter loons:
From a Web site called the Iowa Republican, I learned that part of the problem with John McCain and Mitt Romney, seriatim losers to Barack Obama, “is they were deemed too moderate by many Iowa conservatives.”He approaches his target with uncharacteristic alacrity, leading you to believe he might actually fucking stab the thing this time:
Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it also suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old. Officially the States’ Rights Democratic Party, they were breakaway Democrats whose primary issue was racial segregation. In its cause, they ran their own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and almost cost Harry Truman the 1948 election. They didn’t care. Their objective was not to win — although that would have been nice — but to retain institutional, legal racism. They saw a way of life under attack and they feared its loss.Sweet Jesus, man, that was goddamn racism. You said it yourself. You made the connection between the bland vanilla-pudding name for the thing, way of life, and the transparently obvious meaning of way of life as meaning as goddamn racists, see Strom Thurmond. Connecting the cultural threads between the sins of old and Iowa circa now is a knot worth tying, don't eff it up.
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.Goddamn it. If you get from the Dixiecrats to segregation to Strom Thurmond to modern Iowa to whoosh to people with supposed conventional views suppressing their urge to vomit at the sight of biracial children, you are trying to be dense. You are trying damn hard, and winning.
As with the Dixiecrats, the fight is not over a particular program — although Obamacare comes close — but about a tectonic shift of attitudes. I thank Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, for leading me to a live performance on YouTube of Merle Haggard singing “Are the Good Times Really Over.” This chestnut, a lament for a lost America, has been viewed well more than 2 million times. It could be the tea party’s anthem.This "chestnu"' is, for those of you not well-versed in the various works of one Merle Haggard, primarily an extended rant against the perceived reliability of modern Ford and Chevy trucks, though it wedges in wispy longings for a time before Elvis and the Beatles, back when "a girl could still cook and still would." You know—before the troubles. I would let the tea partiers take the song as their anthem if Merle Haggard was agreeable to that, I really would. "As with the Dixiecrats," the fight is not over a program, although Obamacare is a painfully transparent proxy for bug-eyed opposition to one Barack Obama, but over a "a tectonic shift of attitudes." Which attitudes? The ones about whether or not is is reasonable to retch at the sight of a mixed marriage. (Or, "should I mention," "a lesbian," and brown people and atheists get their own mentions as well; Cohen truly wants to throttle you with cultural bigotries while he tells you there just aren't any such things these days.)
The Washington Post's publisher, for her part, praised this train wreck as brilliant, which should tell you something about just how very dense our people with conventional views must be, when the notion that racism is perhaps not racism but mere conventionality is considered a Deep Fucking Media Thought. Again, I can only presume that we are supposed to take this all as the truest expression of centrism; the notion that bigotries are not bigotries if you are part of the America that has a deep-seated wistfulness for the days of open bigotries. So we get the new words. Conventional views. Cultural Conservatives. Lost America. A Shift Of Attitudes.
If seeing biracial children makes you need to repress an urge to vomit, you are a racist. I really do not think you can wordsmith your way out of that one, and I think you should probably be punched if you try. Then again, when the killing of a black teenager can be mitigated by the teen wearing "a uniform we all can recognize," or when you side with New York jewelry shop owners who refuse entry to black men on the grounds that they might be criminals, the problem may not be overzealous wordsmithing in your attempts to cross the event horizon of absolute centrism. The problem may be that you do not know what racism is—that you are, in fact, blind to its influence on your own ragged-minded self—and are therefore abjectly unqualified to say any damn thing about it at all.