A new perennial question in American politics is: How much of the rabid opposition to Obama is due to race, and how much is due to other factors? This question was taken up The Economist, in its Lexington column, concluding that race has little to do with it ( I think Lexington is mostly right, but underestimates the effects of synergy.

Obama combines a set of defects, from the point of view of his ideological opponents: He is an elitist member of the intelligentsia; he has a foreign (Muslim) sounding name and a cosmopolitan history; he seems to lean toward European-style social democracy (“Socialism!”); he represents a commitment to conscious and intentional progress over political idolatry. In short, he is “the threatening other” that populates the manufactured hysteria of right wing zealots. It is not that he is black, in and of itself, which motivates most of the antagonism toward him, but rather the reality and mythology of who is, which is only more dramatically underscored by the sound of his name and the color of his skin.

It’s completely true that Obama would have problems with the Right even if he were a white guy named Jack, but that doesn’t mean that the marginal symbolic accelerants he’s saddled with are irrelevant. By analogy, a fire that started in the kitchen and is raging through the house would have happened with or without the overly combustable material in the walls, but how hot it would have been, and how much damage it would have done, is hard to estimate. It’s hard to look at the widespread “birther” nonsense and insistence that Obama is a Muslim (both involving myths adhered to by a significant percentage of the American people) without recognizing that it isn’t just his liberalness, but also his “otherness,” that is in play.

The right-wing torch-bearing mob forming the mass of the opposition, ready to shoot “commies” and “wetbacks” at the drop of a hat, defining the world in terms of a pretty narrow “us” and an otherwise all encompassing “them,” is not unaffected by Obama’s “otherness.” It’s true, as the argument goes, that he was black in 2008, but one by a tidy margin even so, receiving a significant number of votes from those same white working-class folks who are lined up against him now. His color is not the only variable, or one which creates such an impenetrable racist barrier that he could never have been a viable candidate (obviously, he was). But it is one ingredient in a mix that, when triggered by other ingredients, contributes to a combustion that would have happened with or without his color, and with or without his Muslim sounding name, but which is made hotter by those accelerants.

Obama’s burden is that he combines being a smart, erudite, academic, rational Progressive with being Black and named Barack Hussein Obama, in a country populated by many very tentatively and precariously tolerant of the latter facts, but completely allergic to the former ones. But once that allergy is triggered, the resistence to the latter facts breaks down as well, and all of the ingredients combine to feed the fever and contribute to the reaction.

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