Tim Rutten December 31, 2008
Chip Saltsman, the former Tennessee state Republican chairman who ran Mike Huckabee's underfunded but shrewd bid for the GOP's presidential nomination now wants to be Republican national chairman, and, apparently as part of his campaign, he sent his associates a Christmas gift consisting of songs by the satirist Paul Shanklin. The title track, sung in a voice meant to impersonate Al Sharpton, is "Barack the Magic Negro."
It parodies the president-elect as a black man acceptable to whites. Another song, "Star Spanglish Banner," disparages Latinos. Shanklin, who first performed his parody on Rush Limbaugh's radio show (and they say ideologues don't have a sense of humor) said he was inspired by an Op-Ed article by David Ehrenstein that appeared in The Times this year.
Saltsman, who as you can imagine has come in for a bit of criticism for his gift, now characterizes the column as "irresponsible." (We'll leave it to him to explain why he distributed irresponsible ideas.) Ehrenstein, one of whose grandparents was African American, is a sophisticated cultural critic with the reflexes of a street fighter; he can take care of himself in this one. It's worth pointing out, though, that as a longtime scholar of film and politics, his essay borrowed a term of art that long has been used to describe a certain kind nonthreatening black man as portrayed in literature and cinema. Ehrenstein cited a litany of such portrayals on screen and linked Obama's political popularity to the characters' appeal.
The point is, when it comes to discussions of race in America -- and particularly racial or ethnic humor -- context is everything. In fact, racial and ethnic humor are probably the most contextually sensitive of all forms of satire. They work only when everyone is clear that the person making the joke regards the differences and foibles of another group affectionately and as something that makes everybody's life more interesting. Lots of traditional Jewish and Irish humor falls into that category, though even there, it depends on who is telling the joke, and to whom. The right contextual conditions, however, never exist in politics, which is why ethnic or racial references in that venue nearly always offend -- or, at best, fall flat.
It's also perplexing that anyone with a feel for public life would satirize the race of the first African American president. You might be able to do that with the third or fourth black chief executive, but not the first. It isn't funny because there's too much painful history being exorcised here, and there's nothing "politically correct" about saying that. It's simply an acknowledgment of reality. That's not a liberal or Democratic point of view. It's an American one. That's why former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Shanklin's song was "so inappropriate that it should disqualify any Republican National Committee candidate who would use it."
What Republican leaders choose to make of Saltsman's sense of the antic is an intramural matter. The defense he has mustered isn't. Saltsman is huffing (throwing a tantrum) that "liberal Democrats and their allies in the media didn't utter a word about David Ehrenstein's irresponsible column in the Los Angeles Times last March. But now, of course, they're shocked and appalled by its parody on 'The Rush Limbaugh Show.' ... I know that our party leaders should stand up against the media's double standards and refuse to pander to their desire for scandal."
Oh, what would we do without our shibboleths? The liberal media? Double standards? This being a nostalgic season, whatever happened to the Eastern Establishment? Oh, that's right, the Bushes are card-carrying members. Oh, well. Does Saltsman really believe that Gingrich, current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and the heads of GOP state committees in places as different as Florida and North Dakota -- all of whom have pronounced themselves appalled by his bad judgment -- are dupes of the liberal media's double standards?
Actually, if he can sell people that one, maybe the Republicans should elect him chairman.