The Common Hysteria And What It Means

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 13, 2011

The Common Hysteria And What It Means

If you haven't familiarized yourself with the Fox News-created brouhaha over rapper Common appearing at the White House, the Daily Show's treatment is the master text:

John McWhorter also has some smart thoughts:

I presume Rove and Palin roll their eyes at those who see racism in Southerners celebrating their Civil War military heroes. We are to be “mature,” stop being so hasty and reductionist, and understand that one can cheer for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee without being a racist. Okay—but then, we will not, either, condemn black people with a passing fellow-traveller feeling for the Panthers as advocates of murder.

Or, it turns out Common said “burn a Bush” in one lyric. Again, who’s being immature and hasty here? Not so long ago, we were to stop bashing Palin for the likes of “Don’t retreat, reload.” I agreed—to link this kind of language to the Tucson disaster meant being studiously deaf to how metaphor pervades all human expression; no one would have batted an eye if Barbara Jordan had said the exact same thing. Well, now a rapper says “burn a Bush” and he shouldn’t be allowed on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Please: This suggests a numbness to the basic abstractness of human expression, or at least a rather pathetic inattention.

Both the Daily Show and McWhorter handle the question as an issue of hypocrisy. And it certainly is: had a Republican president invited Common to the White House, Fox News wouldn't care. At the same time, there is more than partisan hackery at work here. Jon Stewart invokes, among other details, George W. Bush's praise for Johnny Cash, who has written and performed songs from the standpoint of murderers. If Obama had invited Johnny Cash, would Fox News be in an uproar as well? No, it wouldn't.

And the reason it wouldn't is that the Common hysteria reflects racial fearmongering as well as partisan hackery. The older white conservatives who form Fox news's audience are, generally speaking, unduly terrified of black violence. Common is their way to link Obama to rap music, and thus to black violence, and thereby to unleash a lot of sublimated cultural and racial fears.

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posted in: jonathan chait, tucson, barbara jordan, jefferson davis, robert e. lee, white house

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