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The New York Sun


Welcoming Obama To Reality

January 31, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Say it loud, "I'm black and I'm proud."

So why the sense of injury over the Clintons aiming slime at Barack Obama?

Mind you, it's been a moderate dollop. We've heard so much about how the Clinton machine would "get" him. So he worked with a slum lord? His record on Iraq is a "fairy tale?" His embrace by black voters in South Carolina won't take him any further than Jesse Jackson got?

Compared to the Swift-boating affair against John Kerry, this is water balloons. And yet wise folk are telling us that part of the reason Mr. Obama copped so much of the black vote in South Carolina is indignation at the Clintons' abuse. The white punditocracy is similarly harrumphing over Mr. Obama meeting sharp elbows.

But aren't we supposing that this grown man in his fifth decade of life is curiously delicate?

Haven't our elections been permeated with mud since, well, forever?

Summer 1884: Grover Cleveland is governor of New York, running for president on the Democratic ticket, his appeal based on not being a Washington insider—i.e., untainted, like a certain someone.

His Republican opponent, James Blaine, had dirty hands and everyone knew it: there were certain letters, on the back of one "Burn this letter" was written—but the letter remained distinctly unburned.

Blaine's guys fought dirty. They dug up that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child.

Cleveland's response to his "peeps": "Tell the truth." They did, and Cleveland became president. He wasn't surprised that what we would today call "The Blaine Machine" did everything they could to try to defeat him.

Yet there is an element of surprise, a tincture of dismay, in how many view the sliming of Mr. Obama. If Grover Cleveland or John Kerry got slimed, what do you expect? But if Mr. Obama gets slimed, well.

There is a tacit sense that decent people would make an exception for him. Otherwise, why would so many think of it as news that the Clintons or anyone else would get nasty in trying to push past him?

Let's face facts: People see this commonplace phenomenon as news because of a tacit idea that as a black man, Mr. Obama should be treated with kid gloves.

Lawrence Bobo, professor of sociology at Harvard, gives it away comparing the Clintons' attacks on Mr. Obama to, specifically, the Willie Horton ad and the 2000 vote count. That is, events traditionally classified as "racist"—as if Republicans have not sought to best Democrats in ways disconnected to race. Upon which the Swift-boat thing is germane. Mr. Bobo appends that to his list, too—but misses that the guiding theme is not racism but hardball.

Welcome to reality: being judged by the content of our character means that we black people will not be exempt from hardball. We should not be seduced by the fantasy that we must pretend to be fragile.

I have been reminded of this in Alex Ross' survey of 20th century classical music "The Rest is Noise," anointed by the Times as one of last year's 10 best books. Mr. Ross takes us from Mahler through to John Adams, including Elliott Carter, this week being celebrated at Julliard.

But even in a chronicle of music only a rarefied elite care about, Mr. Ross feels a duty to "acknowledge" black musicians who have nothing genuine to do with what the book is about.

So he must drag in Duke Ellington as a "classical composer," who would "follow Gershwin in uniting jazz and classical procedures," but "in his own way."

Yes—but in a "way" that was not classical music at all. Ellington was a jazz composer. He wrote short pieces united by titular themes. His works like "Black, Brown and Beige" and the "Far East Suite" do not take one or two musical themes and morph them meanderingly in various keys for 20 minutes in the way that is the definition of classical music.

The genius of Ellington was in the harmonic and improvisational richness within the short pieces. It was an art I love deeply: I have more Ellington in my CD collection than of any other jazz composer.

However, genuflectively saluting Ellington in a book about music like Milton Babbitt's is like Julia Child dutifully including a few Thai recipes in a book about French cuisine. The Thais will be just fine knowing that Pad Kee Mow is splendid—and maybe even better than chicken cordon bleu.

Just as Mr. Obama, an adult despite Maureen Dowd's terming him "Obambi," will be just fine getting heckled. If we pretend otherwise, we diminish him just as Ms. Dowd does. If he's strong, black, and proud, he can take being dissed—and the rest, to take a page from Mr. Ross, is noise.

Original Source:



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