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Sam Smith: Pickups For Dean Cont'd, & So Forth

Pickups For Dean Cont'd, & So Forth

By Progressive Review Editor Sam Smith

THE CONTINUED controversy over confederate flags on pickup trucks is a reminder that one of the functions of political campaigns is to take our minds off our problems. It is especially fun when we can argue about symbolism rather than reality because that way no one can actually keep score.

It does get confusing, though. After introducing a new idea about whom the Democratic Party should approach, Howard Dean was excoriated by Al Sharpton who, while entertaining and often right, falls somewhat short as a mentor of morality. Sharpton was joined by some white southerners who, in attacking Dean's stereotype, implicitly projected their own - that of a south in which all the bad stuff has passed. Funny that Trent Lott never got the word.

Then, in an act of iatrogenic politics, Dr. Dean wounded himself further by describing as 'loathsome' the symbol of his proposed new constituency. That's not the best way to reach out and touch someone.

Besides, it also raises the question of whether the Democrats' Jefferson Day dinners should be cancelled since their namesake also had some pretty loathsome view on ethnicity.

The stereotype business can be tricky. Not only did some southern pickup drivers complain, but Claude Henry Sinclair Jr., commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp in Lancaster, SC, told the Washington Post that he saw yet another kind of stereotype: "I don't have a pickup truck."

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To be sure, Dean might have done better if he had used (as one of our readers suggested) the term 'NASCAR dads,' but in fact, politics uses stereotypes all the time. And a campaign meeting at which someone asks, "How do we get to the Jews?" has quite a different import than the same question asked at a KKK meeting.

From the day in the 1960s when Marion Barry walked into my apartment explicitly looking for a white press aide, I have felt more at home dealing with such matters openly rather than having them whitewashed with liberal euphemisms.

The irony is that despite crude terminology, politics is one of the few places where you actually see people working voluntarily across ethnic and class lines for a common goal. When you hear people like Edwards and Sharpton slamming Dean for using political slang in public, you are seeing bad acting and not much else.

It is also interesting to note, as William Saletan does in Slate, that Dean received quite a different reception before he was the frontrunner. Here's what he told the Democratic National Committee last February:

"I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too."

Writes Saletan: "I have that speech on videotape. I'm looking at it right now. As Dean delivers the line about Confederate flags, the whole front section of the audience stands and applauds. It's a pretty white crowd, but in slow-motion playback, I can make out three black people in the crowd and two more on the dais, including DNC Vice Chair Lottie Shackelford. Every one of them is standing and applauding. As Dean finishes his speech, a dozen more black spectators rise to join in an ovation. They show no doubt or unease about what Dean meant."

The Dean controversy is driven by several factors. One is the growing liberal preference for proper language and symbolism over proper policy. Thus confederate flags soar above such other possible issues as the drug war with its disastrous effect on young black males, discrimination in housing and public transportation, and the lack of blacks in the U.S. Senate. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

Another factor has far deeper roots: our fear of public discussion of class issues. Although this has repeatedly been noted by both black and white observers, it has little effect on our politics or the media, both of which project the myth that ethnic conflict occurs independent of economic divisions.

One who understood otherwise was the black writer, Jean Toomer - who once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."

Dean's real sin was that he got too close to that topic

Nov 4, 2003
From the Progressive Review
Edited by Sam Smith
Since 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
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