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Town Hells and the New Welfare Queen

Bennett Baumer Sep 14, 2009

Race has always been central to American politics. At Jamestown, the first sustained European settlement in the North America, there were African slaves. After Jamestown, white settlers massacred Native Americans over the centuries for their land and resources and even those lofty founding founders writing the Constitution – that document of freedom – enshrined chattel slavery into the beginnings of the country.

But the election of the country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama supposedly ushered in a post-racial era. An era where white racism ceased to exist or at least ceased to do harm, and black parents just had to stop giving excuses (read: citing institutional bigotry) for their children to succeed.

Then came this summer’s rancorous rhetoric surrounding health care reform. A mostly graying white male crowd showed up to their congresspersons’ town hall (also known as “town hells”) meetings fueled by the insurance industry and a keen sense of grievance and anger at President Obama. These mostly white malcontents shouted down public debate over health care in fear of Obama’s creeping “socialism” and without a hint irony, because Obama is a Nazi fascist. It should be clear that the simultaneous anger over Obama’s perceived socialism and Nazi fascism is not what it appears.

Socialism is coded language for wealth redistribution. As the social safety net aided those left behind in the economy, the public option assures millions of government funded health insurance on the taxpayer’s dime. Socialism is the new though less loquacious stand in for “Cadillac driving welfare queen.” That said, the dumbed down rhetoric is less about economics and more about race – the race of those receiving welfare and now, the race of the president.

In an excellent article for Counterpunch, Tom Wise writes:

“It is not, and please make note of it, about socialism. Or capitalism. Or economics at all, per se. After all, President Bush was among the most profligate government spenders in recent memory, yet few ever referred to him in terms as derisive as those being hurled at Obama. Even when President Clinton proposed health care reform, those who opposed his efforts, though vociferous in their critique, rarely trotted out the dreaded s-word as part of their arsenal. They prattled on about “big government,” yes, but not socialism as such. Likewise, when Ronald Reagan helped craft the huge FICA tax hike in 1983, in a bipartisan attempt to save Social Security, few stalwart conservatives thought to call America’s cowboy-in-chief a closet communist.”

To add to the hilarity, at one of Representative Barney Frank’s August town hall meetings, a white woman in the crowd wondered how Frank could get behind Obama’s Nazi health care plan. For the white American right, as John Stewart put, a mixed race guy and a gay Jew are Nazis.

Obama is neither a socialist and I laugh as I write this, a Nazi. He is a cautious slightly left of center Democrat of many political currents – leftist community organizer, college professor, neo-liberal economist and hope peddling politician – that evidently give the man too much complexity for the average white right-winger to grasp. So Republican operatives use simple, but loaded language to curse him as time honored racist slurs are still publicly taboo (though not privately taboo).

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