Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Thin Man

I've not posted very much on the US election so far. That might change as things get closer to The Big Day and after my longed-for absentee ballot arrives. But it might not change either. There are other people who have the energy and interest to follow the somewhat tiresome daily back-and-forth on the campaign trail and who, more importantly, seem to know a lot more than I do about the contemporary political scene in the Homeland.

You will find a few of them on the column to your right.

It's probably not a shock that I'm going to be voting -- with some degree of enthusiasm though without any messianic expectations -- for Barack Obama. But I don't necessarily feel all that compelled to write about it.

But I ran across something yesterday on the campaign which I found odd, from Timothy Noah, at Slate.

Now, along with Noah and others, I have no doubt there is a lot of what has become known as dog-whistle campaigning, particularly by the Republicans, this year. This essentially refers to campaign messages that, while appearing on the surface to be more-or-less innocuous to the uninitiated, contain coded messages of a more unpleasant or extreme nature that are intended for party true-believers to hear.

I've seen this work, being related by blood to at least a couple of people whose hearing is well attuned to these frequencies.

However, in his Slate article, Noah tries to claim that an article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chozick ('Too Fit to Be President') was subtly racist in that it focused on how thin he is.

Such comment, Noah says, draws attention to a distinctive 'physical characteristic' of Obama's, and therefore -- apparently automatically -- brings attention to other traits, such as his skin colour.

Chozick wasn't asking (and, I feel sure, would never ask) whether Americans might think Obama's hair was too kinky or his nose too broad. But it doesn't matter. The sad fact is that any discussion of Obama's physical appearance is going to remind white people of the physical characteristic that's most on their minds. [Emphasis in original.]

I like a lot of what Noah writes normally, but I just find this to be...bizarre. I don't think it is the case that 'any' discussion of Obama's physical appearance -- his height, his weight, his twinkling eyes -- can be seen as a code for his race, let alone for racism.

Thinking back through decades of negative commentary about black people that has been made within my hearing -- and I have heard a lot of it, some of it subtle, some of it less so -- I never once heard anything even remotely like 'You know the problem with them black people: they're just so darn svelte.'

(I mean, yes, the very thin Jimmie Walker was one of the first black TV stars I ever encountered as a child -- and I watched a lot of Good Times, believe me. But that was one TV show that the white adults around me took absolutely no notice of. Which meant they never understood the real subversiveness of my friends and I adding Walker's catchphrase 'Dy-no-MITE!' to our argot.)

In my experience, to take off from Noah's title, 'skinny' has never meant 'black'.

Noah's wrong about this one, and unfortunately he plays a little to easily into the hands of a right-wing who wish to portray all liberals as prissy and hypersensitive.

Not that there is no relevance to references to Obama's weight; however, it has more to do with class than race. Not that this makes it any less stupid an issue.

Image is important to politics wherever you go, but it has taken on a weird playground-level significance in the US, where what you eat at the local Denny's is taken as a measurement of your ability to 'connect' with 'real' people. (Is it elitist to go for a 'French Toast Slam' over an 'All-American Slam'? I tended to order a 'Moons over My Hammy' and a coffee (with milk and sugar...not sure if this revels a latent effeminacy or not these days), though I'm at a loss about where this puts me on the political spectrum, PR-wise.)

I find it almost physically painful to think that these kind of issues have any political relevance whatsoever. Perhaps they don't really: it may be that in many cases this obsession with presidential eating habits or the issue of 'which guy would you rather have a beer with' is a media obsession that really doesn't matter all that much.

On the other hand, it is at least perceived to be important, as Chozick notes:

Sen. Obama drew cringes on a campaign stop in Adel, Iowa, in July 2007, when he asked a crowd of farmers: "Anybody gone into a Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?" The upscale supermarket specializing in organic food doesn't have a single store in Iowa.

Lately, Sen. Obama is more careful. On a campaign stop in Lebanon, Mo., on Wednesday, Sen. Obama visited with voters at Bell's Diner and promptly announced "Well, I've had lunch today but I'm thinking maybe there is some pie."

He settled on fried chicken and told the crowd he's become a junk-food lover. "The healthy people, we'll give them the breasts," he told the waitress. "I'll eat the wings."

Struggles with weight-loss, on the other hand, can make a candidate seem more human. Some aides winced when footage of a sweat-drenched Mr. Clinton jogging into a McDonald's in Little Rock, Ark., aired ahead of the 1992 campaign. But the footage is widely believed to have helped the then-governor of Arkansas connect to voters in conservative-leaning states like Georgia and Tennessee, which eluded Democrats in 2000 and 2004. These states have a statistically higher number of overweight people than Democratic strongholds.

Is this a purely American phenomenon? You do see German politicians (maybe especially in the south, where I have tended to live, and certainly in Bavaria) gobbling up their share of sausage and knocking back a beer or two, true.

But I have a hard time imagining the fact that a candidate is a vegetarian or buys organic food -- which is available at the local Aldi in any case...who needs Whole Foods? -- becoming a campaign issue.

(In any case, neither of the heads of the two largest parties could be said to particularly streamlined, so perhaps the issue just hasn't come up. For a while, watching the Incredibly Expanding and Shrinking and Re-Expanding Joschka Fischer was an interesting pastime in Germany. But it was never, as I recall, something political.)

OK. It's lunch time. All that Denny's talk has made me hungry.

No comments: