Well is there anything more inflammatory in America than the issue of racism? Before I give you my take on that let's look at what former president Jimmy Carter had to say yesterday about the outrageous, spontaneous interjection by South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson during President Obama's big pitch for health care reform last week.
Carter called the shout of "You lie!" by Wilson racially motivated. Wilson apparently exhibited racism in such a remark. That's the most likely conclusion to be drawn.
Or is it?
I think Jimmy Carter is an exceptional person. He was, however, the least effective president of my lifetime. I once explained to some academic friends that Carter's presidency simply prepared him for the activity of the rest of this life. He has been a far more potent force since being president. Perhaps, in contrast to his time in office, our most effective post-president.
This is not to say Carter doesn't understand racism and bigotry. He does. And he is right to point toward the fact that millions of Americans probably don't like the fact that President Obama is a black man.
But, I think he is wrong about Wilson, or at least mostly wrong. Is Wilson a racist? I don't know. I do know that South Carolina is still a racist part of our country. Is it more racist than, say, Pennsylvania or Montana or even Illinois? I don't know. Racism is still very much an issue all across America (as Carter himself pointed out).
Making racism THE issue in Wilson's short, sharp outburst might be over-reaching, however. There are other issues that many Americans feel strongly about, including myself. We don't like massive, new government programs without definable cost controls.
This is called "socialism" by most countries. We have a certain measure of socialism in our own democracy. Indeed, "free" entitlements (along with the dumbing down of society) are a hallmark of what I would call "late-democracy." Generally speaking, the older the democracy the more massive and pervasive socialist government programs become. It is a natural gravitation. Debt, debt, and more debt.
I think the level of frustration exhibited by the ridiculous neo-conservative theatrics in the so-called town hall meetings on health care reform in August reflected an anger among a segment of the population that feels more government intervention, especially now in the midst of (or hopefully near the end of) the Great Recession, is not good for our future. Many people seem to be pretty pissed off with the whole idea of a new government agency running the health care of the country. We are, after all, choking more and more on Medicaid and Medicare with each passing year as it is.
But Carter didn't seem to think this well-exhibited anger at a proposed government policy was worth mentioning as a possible motivation for Wilson's ill-advised outburst. And this seems to me to be a rather shallow approach to things.
It seems more likely to me Wilson was simply expressing the neocon angst of August. The whole program stinks in his opinion. Indeed, most Americans have reservations about more government in the public sphere - bailing out Wall Street, bailing out people who never should have been approved for homes that couldn't afford to begin with, bailing out the big auto companies, trivializing risk in the financial sector as if when things are not bad enough you stand to lose as an investor, but if things are big and bad enough Uncle Sam will bail your ass out. Lesson learned: if you are going to approach risk, do it massively so you can qualify for government assistance.
There is an underlying anger here. While race might be part of it, it seems to me that it is a comparatively small part. There is a clear, underlying frustration across the fabric of America. That seems to me to be a better context for this event. Wilson is pissed at the president because what he is proposing, as it is presently proposed, is bad for the country. You have to have cost controls. Obama has none really. I already posted my discontent with the situation (see August 17).
So, playing the race card among apologists for a potentially harmful, long-term public program seems to me to be an oversimplification. Which brings me to perhaps a more profound point.
Though it would not be a fashionable sociological academic study to undertake, my personal opinion is that there seems to be a near-universal phenomenon among open and free societies that once a segment of society has been victimized, it is difficult for the victims themselves not to identify themselves as victims. This means that the "group-as-victim" concept to some degree contributes to the perpetuation of racism itself.
Bad things happen to everyone, but for a victimized group it is always because they are victims. This is nonsense. Racism cannot be overcome without the active participation of the victims to cease to automatically perceive of themselves as such. The victims perpetuate a myth of victimization that no amount of progress can overcome.
As I have mentioned in an earlier post, why is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, not racist? Is the NAACP going away? Of course not. It is a group that, by definition, must interpret events in such a way as to perpetuate racism in order to continue to exist. It is a reflection of a deeper problem of race that involves not just the true bigots (and there are plenty of them in America) but it means that the perception of victimization itself is not a passive affliction.
It is difficult to even advance such an opinion as I just expressed. It tampers with too many underpinnings for too much of the way politics works. It is virtually impossible to talk about legitimate issues of race in the context that the so-called "victims" at some point in time are just as responsible for their perceptions of victimization as are the genuine forces they strive to overcome.
The song "We Shall Overcome" is wonderful. But you can never overcome anything as long as the very act of singing means that whatever is to be overcome will, by definition, remain forever in the future tense. There will not be a celebration song "We Have Overcome." That's just not the way victims ever define themselves. And former president Carter is no help in that regard.