Clarence Page: Obama’s country vs. Palin’s nationPublished 10:00am Wednesday, September 23, 2009
It was double-plus un-good for the hip-hop star to snatch the microphone from sweet Taylor Swift’s hands as the 19-year-old country music star was accepting her first VMA award.
Then he announced that he thought the award should have gone to Beyonce Knowles, who cameras caught with a look of shock and awe as the audience erupted in boos and jeers for Kanye. Well deserved.
Bless Beyonce, who received another award, for later saving the evening. She called a grateful Swift back on stage to finish her rudely interrupted acceptance speech. What a relief. In a program that historically erupts with weird scene-stealers, there was at least one grown-up in the room.
It was ironic, then, that Obama could not have taken a more public stand. Even in this age of culture wars and polarized politics, Americans of good will can stand together in our contempt for West’s mirror-kissing narcissism.
The same can be said regarding tennis start Serena Williams’ profanity-laden eruption against a line judge’s call. Both West’s and Williams’ exercises in incivility happened to come a few days after South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outcry interrupted Obama’s health care speech to Congress. A door was opened wide for Obama to stand tall for better manners in these raucous times. But he passed. He even tried to persuade the nearby pool of White House reporters that the remark about West was “off the record,” according to reports that leaked out anyway.
Reporters should cut the president “some slack,” the president said, since “I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my plate.” Right. The last thing Obama wanted was to step on his own health care momentum, as he did in his last prime-time news conference with off-the-cuff allegations of racial profiling.
This time, even when talking about health care, Team Obama dodged persistent questions about how much racism might be playing a role in the raging anger, fears, suspicions and resentments expressed by some opponents of his policies across the nation.
The White House left it to the likes of former President Jimmy Carter, who continued his tradition of saying things that cause consternation to sitting presidents of both parties.
On Kanye, Carter said West’s behavior was “completely uncalled-for.” He then cleverly declared that West’s “punishment was to appear on the new Jay Leno show.” Good one, Jimmy.
On race, the great peace negotiator was not nearly as sanguine. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American,” Carter said, recalling the nation’s long, sad history of racial segregation, particularly in his native south.
I’m old enough to have experienced some of the discrimination that he was talking about. Yet I disagree that race is “an overwhelming portion” of Obama’s opposition. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to oppose Obama’s policies, whether I agree with them or not, without racism having much, if anything, to do with it.
After all, political and culture clashes between what I call “Obama Country” and “Sarah Palin’s Nation” have a long tradition in America. Palin thrills the Republican base by extolling the virtues of “small towns” in much the way past populists and progressives traditionally have railed on behalf of “ordinary people” against “fat cats” and educated “elites.” It is an odd sign of progress that a black man can rouse so much “anti-elitist” fervor.
Sometimes asking to be treated like every other president doesn’t really ask for as much as one might think it does. Even the more vulgar politically incorrect signs at Town Hall and Tea Party demonstrations hark back to days when Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as an ape. After moving aggressively to tackle problems ranging from economy to global warming to health care, Obama was bound to bring on a backlash even if he were a full-blooded Caucasian.
What matters as we navigate these age-old differences now is our sense of civility, that ultimately we are in this mess together. Whether we come from the worlds that produced the music of Kanye West or Taylor Swift, we share problems in common that beg for us to come together as Americans. Let Beyonce be our guide.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.