Thursday, August 12, 2010

Robert Gibbs Pokes the Angry Bear in the Eye Again: The Failure of Messaging in the Obama Administration

For many of us who are gay, and who misguidedly believed that Barack Obama would be a fierce advocate for human rights once he was elected, the fact that the White House’s latest message of contempt for its progressive base comes from Robert Gibbs counts.  It counts tremendously.  From day one of this administration, Gibbs has handled valid, thoughtful questions from the press corps about gay concerns, gay issues, gay lives, with complete contempt.

His shtick, when questioned about these matters, has become proverbial among gay political commentators: “I don’t know the answer to that.  I’ll have to get back to you.  Haven’t heard the president address it.”  

Thumbs his nose, pretending to be perplexed by a question he was asked the day before, the day before that, the day before that, and so on.  Scribbles down a note.

It’s an act.  It’s an act designed to show contempt.  It’s an act designed to show contempt similar to the shtick of those high-school lowlifes of 1950s movie and television shows—the ones too cool for words, who demonstrate to the parent or teacher just how little adults count by answering a question with deliberate defiance, with a flat-out, unparsed statement of refusal to cooperate or be serious.

What mystifies me about this act—and it’s an act that not only Gibbs, but other members of the president’s team, including Rahm Emanuel, excel at performing—is that, at the core of the political calculation from which it emanates, there seems to be no recognition of the price to be paid for demonstrating open contempt of a community of human beings struggling for the same human rights everyone else enjoys.  For the rights they themselves enjoy as heterosexual men.

I know.  I know that the calculating game being played is this: the message is that progressives can go f—k (their word, not mine; I don’t use it; I hate it) themselves, because they’re a pain in the rear.  And they have no real political options, anyway.  They’re impotent, caught between the pragmatist politics of the possible of the Obama administration, and the frothing-at-the-mouth lunacy that has become the Republican party.  

This is a baiting game, an exceptionally ugly baiting game, one scored for political points.  It’s one that flows right out of that hyper-masculine world of the Obama White House I keep posting about: the world that reads only books written by men, the world in which men talk only to men about the issues that really count, the world in which cheap symbols of masculinity like strutting around naked in the locker room throwing out the f-word demonstrate one’s superiority to the weak (read: feminized) professional left, with its perpetual whining and its inability to get anything done.

It’s a game that is on full, ugly display when the president himself taunts protesters asking him to fulfill his promise to end DADT—the only protesters he ever taunts in this way, the cheapest target he can find to play to the center-right and prop up the hyper-masculine ethos he and his advisers consider all-important to their governing style and to their success with independents.

This is a game of poking sticks in the angry bear’s eye, because the bear is, after all, chained to a post and can’t fight back.  It’s a game designed to act out the power of a macho governing elite over an impotent constituency—to act out the power of a macho governing elite that deems it significant to demonstrate its machismo at the expense of feminized Others.  It’s a game designed to play to those who care about such macho games—to the center-right independent base the new administration intends to keep on its side even when it ditches and kicks and insults its progressive base.  Which is to say, the base that worked around the clock to elect the administration that wants to score political points by poking sticks in its eyes.

But again, here’s what I don’t get about the astonishing political miscalculation of this behavior: when it comes to the matter of the human rights of gay folks, there seems to be no awareness—not a scintilla of recognition—that the message conveyed by the contempt of folks like Gibbs is not just a message of contempt for impotent progressives.  It’s a message of contempt for a group of citizens who have had a boot across their neck for decades now, and want that boot removed.

It’s a message of contempt we’ve been shocked to receive from the first African-American president of the nation, who ought to understand what having a boot placed across your neck by political and religious thugs feels like.  Who ought to understand the ravenous hunger and thirst for human rights those repeatedly denied such rights develop.

Who ought to understand the damage that keeping rights at arm’s length does to the humanity of those denied rights.  Who ought to understand that it’s about humanity, about the desire of people treated as less than human to be regarded, for a change, as human beings.

And Gibbs should understand that hunger and thirst for justice, too.  He’s Catholic, after all.  Since he talks frequently about listening to his parish priest, I assume he hears the Beatitudes read every now and again.  And perhaps he has encountered the long tradition of Catholic social teaching about human rights at some point in his church-going life.

The tone-deafness of this administration when it comes to messaging about human rights is beyond belief.  Though it has been deliberately cultivated as part of a cynical political calculation to bolster the administration’s appeal to independents, it has backfired dismally—as many of us who began calling on the administration to drop the arrogance shtick early on warned the administration it would. 

We now face the fall elections with the choice of casting votes for cynical pragmatists willing to play dismissive games with the humanity of their fellow human beings, or for frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics who represent the end of democracy.  Not much of a choice, is it?

God help us.