Thursday, October 18, 2012

Making Racism Part of the Presidential Debate

It seems like a lot more than usual is riding on the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  Before the first debate, we were told that the debates historically did not affect the outcome of the election.  But after the first debate, where Obama had a weak performance, the polls showed that the lead in the popular vote had changed hands.  It went from an almost insurmountable lead by Barack Obama, to a small lead by Mitt Romney. So for the second debate, Obama needed to perform better or possibly lose the election.

When the pundits and experts analyze the debates, it seems to me that they pay a lot of attention to the style, and very little to the substance.  This does not make much sense to me.  As a teacher, when marking essay questions, for example, I would first of all look for facts that show the student knows what they are talking about.  I would pay much less attention to style - e.g. handwriting neatness, spelling, grammar (Unless it was a course in handwriting spelling or grammar of course.)  And I would try to not be influenced by racism or prejudice against certain a students. (Yes some students are way more likeable than others, in case you were wondering).  And most of all, I would be looking for B.S.  Here is an example.  "For ten marks, write a one page essay about how you would improve the US economy."  One students writes "I understand the US economy, so obviously I would know many ways to fix it". And then proceeds to fill the rest of the page with the same thought stated over and over.  That would fetch him or her a zero regardless of neat penmanship.  If another student goes ahead and lists ten different points, that all seem perfectly valid possible actions to take that might improve the economy, and correspond what was discussed in class, even though I may not agree with them personally, I would probably give a 10/10.

Apparently in Presidential debates, style matters more than substance, especially this time.  I wonder why?  One answer I can think of, is that people are looking for someone they can trust to lead the country into prosperity.  Since nobody really knows how to fix the economy, the substance is unimportant.  The important thing is: Do you trust this person to make the right decisions, do you think his entire world view is basically right, is he a deluded stooge who people will not respect?  Is he or she a real leader who can get things done?

Unfortunately, if we are going to start valuing style over substance, it also means that prejudice takes hold, and in a country like the USA, which has a history of racism right up to present day, that means Barack Obama has a  handicap in the election.  But this handicap is reinforced by pundits who take up a lot of space arguing about who has better style, instead of doing some much needed fact checking.  Also the Republicans insist they are "Not going to be dictated to by fact checkers".  If style is valued over substance, another casualty is the truth.

This is what I see in the first debate, if style is the only standard.  Debate one: Stereotypical wealthy white man yelling at black man about what a bad job he did.  Black man avoiding eye contact and saying "yes massa". Nobody questions the truth of what the massa says, or his right to say it. Apparently this style resonated very strongly with some parts of America, and immediately after the debate, the polls indicated Romney (the white guy) had wiped out Obama's lead in the popular polls.

Now what do I see in the second debate?  The black guy is not going to take any more crap, and basically says "You are lying."  To which the white guy stares him in the face and says "You dare to question me, boy?  For this you will be punished."  Then the moderator jumps in and says "Well basically he is right." And then all the white supremacists go crazy.  That is my summary of the style of the second debate.

If you would like to watch it again, in this light and see if it makes sense, here is the debate video - fast forward to one hour and 13 minutes, for the 2 minute part part where Romney tells Barack Obama how bad he was for not calling the attack terrorism right away. Obama says, but I did call it terrorism right away, and Romney flashes his eyes about being challenged on a fact, then the moderator jumps in "But Obama is right".   (The second debate)

Then read about the attitude displayed by Mitt Romney's son, about this "President" essentially calling his father a liar.

In the old south, if a white gentleman made a statement like "On September 12th in the Rose Garden, I said it was terrorism", and another white gentleman said "No you did not", the rest of the conversation would go like this: "Sir, are you calling me a LIAH?"  second southern gentleman. "That I am, sir."  first gentleman "Bring your duelling pistols and your attendant tomorrow at dawn.  Good day.".

Picture: Romney's best "You dare to speak back to me, boy?" face.  Style over substance.


  1. Although racism does remain a persistent issue in the U.S. (with study after study continuing to confirm this), it's almost impossible to know how much weight to assign it in the context of the current presidential race.

    However, 'style over substance' is undoubtedly a genuine issue. There seems to be no shortage of political commentators willing to credit much of that shift to Romney after the first debate to the 'performance' of the candidates - performance in the theatrical, rather than the athletic sense ;-)

    But, in practice, Romney's prejudices appear to be towards those less advantaged than himself, to the '47-percenters' (to follow the Occupy movement's taxonomy). In that respect, Romney may in fact be colour-blind.

    1. If Romney is colour blind, his church is not. The Mormon Church has a history of discriminating against black people (not poor people), backed up by scriptures that say black people descended from Cain. And when it comes to another colour group, native Americans, more scriptures about how they are a lost tribe of Israel who came to America, where they fought with, and ultimately wiped out a good tribe.

      Romney may or may not believe these racist stories himself, but they are in the scriptures, and he did act as a missionary for two years trying to convert the French to a racist version of Mormonism, ten years before the Mormons decided to allow coloured priests. Today he has plenty of motivation to keep his true feelings (whatever they might be) under wraps.

      I'm sure there are a number of latent or overt racists in America, mostly in southern states, and all of them are hoping Mitt Romney beats Barack Obama. I think Romney's surprising big bump in the polls could be due to the body language from that first debate, that struck a chord with latent racism.

      Mormons and Indians

      Mormon discrimination against blacks

      Mitt's missionary years

  2. Even in a 'closed' session, as the one in which Romney was recorded as saying, '... there are 47 percent who ... believe that they are victims, .. the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,' even Romney would not have *dared* to make direct racist comments (about Americans, that is - Palestinians, of course, are a different matter). Romney has certainly been frequently accused of making 'coded' racist remarks - and the Republicans' 'welfare' ad campaign smacks of racism (although, again, indirectly, but, 'We all know whom we're talking about.')

    However, the point I was endeavouring to make was that, even though there is unquestionably a (and likely quite large) racial factor in how Americans vote, it is virtually impossible to quantify it.

    Interesting enough, some attempts at poll proxies have been made, including at least one using Google searches. But, unlike most other polling foci, racism is a difficult one to formulate polls for.

    A report on that Google poll proxy ...

    1. Interesting that they can attempt to quantify racism through Google searches.

      The racism may have been surgically expunged from the verbal debate, but I think it is still abundantly clear in the non-verbal body language. In my opinion, if pundits don't want to talk about racism in the debates, then they should stop talking about body language.