Friday, April 22, 2011


Choreographed by the media over several days is the slowly pirouetting story about an elected official in the Republican Party's Orange County Central Committee who has given the game away. She sent out an e-mail showing a family of three - mother, father, baby - with chimpanzee faces superimposed over the mother and father, and Obama's face superimposed over the baby. The tagline to the image is "Now you know why no birth certificate." A beautifully-written editorial in the L.A. Times nails her for her weak-kneed apology and, without being heavy-handed but without pulling any punches, makes an unimpeachable case for the racism of that particular "joke", and impugns the entire "Birther" movement for its racism.

The original Associated Press article about the event is much more weasley. They lead off with Republican condemnation of the joke, as though the integrity and anti-Racism of the Republican Party is the backbone of the story. Two sentences involve the NAACP, in which the NAACP "demanded" and is making "demands", petulantly and boorishly. And they address the Birther claim as though it is based on a conflict over the facts:

Some voters have maintained since the latest presidential election that Obama is ineligible to hold the nation's highest elected office because, they say, he was actually born in Kenya, his father's homeland. Obama's mother was an American citizen.

Hawaii officials have repeatedly confirmed Obama's citizenship, and his Hawaiian birth certificate has been made public. Courts have rebuffed lawsuits challenging Obama's eligibility.

Yes, the Birther claims are presented as subjective and in a carefully vague manner ("some voters", "maintained", "they say") and the article throws in some opposing facts ("have repeatedly confirmed", "has been made public"), but this all only serves to sustain the lie: that the birth certificate, Obama's citizenship, and his legitimacy is an issue of constitutionality and interpretation of the facts. It's about racism.

Of course, because this involves a joke, the offending party apologises for the joke and denies anything underlying it:

"I feel that it was inappropriate and I offended people," Davenport said outside her suburban ranch-style home. "I think it's only racist when the intent in my heart is to make it that way, and that was not the intent in my heart."

(Isn't it odd that "suburban ranch-style home" sounds so specific, and yet it conjures up no image in my mind of what the home looks like? Or is that just me? But isn't there something paradoxical about "surburban" and "ranch-style"? I don't know, whatever.)

What I love about Davenport's disavowal of racism is where she locates it "in my heart". This is code, dog-whistling, and frank pandering to the Christians: Jesus is the philosopher of the heart; the heart is where one finds peace. And, at the same time, in the same way, it is a rejection of Freud and modernity. If that sounds a little drastic . . . well, it should. She's describing her prelapsarian self, where intent is located in the heart, hearkening back to a time prior to Eve plucking the apple from the tree of knowledge, when intent shifted from the heart to the brain. It's an image of innocence and sincerity, childish and earnest.

Playing on the same tropes of innocence and sincerity, Scott Moxley knuckles down and faces her in her own living room, where he discovers "One on one, there is nothing frightening about Davenport." Such a sweet, grandmotherly figure with her tchotchkes and her piano. The moral of his interview is that even though he is sure Davenport really doesn't understand the issue, she has apologised, which is a massive step forward for the jackbooted corporatist racists of the Orange County Republicans. Of course, when you read her apology (see, here, at the bottom), you see a sinister, twisted sense of victimhood and innocence masking venomous little snaps and spits, and, as Moxley notes, a complete failure to understand or take responsibility for her racism. She lies, of course, when she says

I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth.

as if anything about the joke can be understood "simply" (ah, that homely simplicity of the good-hearted straight-shooter), especially insofar as the image says anything about the "character" of Obama or his "origin of birth". But how much more racist can she be? How can she possibly stumble deeper into the codes of racism? Didn't Martin Luther King say something about not judging people by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character: and here, in this photo of chimps, she sees Obama's, ahem, character? And what about that contrived phrase, "his origin of birth"? How convoluted is that? It's not an accident though: it is a loud echo, of course, of the On the Origin of Species. Because the entire premise of her joke is a longstanding eugenicist, racist trope about evolution: we don't believe in evolution, except as it pertains to black people and simians. (I'm not feeling lonely as I make this assertion: Scott Moxley winks at this in his reporting, and his most recent piece is titled Marilyn Davenport: The Evolution of a Scandal; evolution and debates about evolution are popping up in the comments sections of articles about this story).

It's Good Friday today, and somebody's dying, yet again, for our sins.

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