The Curious Case of Herman Cain
Workers for the undoing of racism find ourselves in an uncomfortable position. We are trying to mobilize a nation to combat pervasive, veiled institutional racism at a time when both of America’s major political parties are led by black men. How does one convince a body politic intent on ignoring race that a country whose political leadership appears to be black is actually beset by generational problems infecting virtually every facet of life, skewed against black empowerment? This is an unfamiliar historical space, to be sure, but one way to begin would be a look at those two men.
On the one hand, there is Barack Obama, who epitomizes the type of dignified blackness that has always terrified white people; on the other, there is Michael Steele, who epitomizes the type of black buffoonery that has always delighted white people. President Obama’s oratorical prowess brings to mind Frederick Douglass; his wide-ranging and sophisticated breadth of knowledge, W.E.B. DuBois; his control over his demeanor, Malcolm X. By way of contrast, Michael Steele’s tenure at the RNC has been worthy of Yakety Sax and sped-up film, for how magisterial it has been. He began his term with a promise to apply conservative values to “urban/suburban hip-hop settings,” since which he has launched the party into a “pattern of self-inflicted wounds and missteps” that led a “deeply troubled” Sam Fox, one of the Republicans’ most successful fundraisers, to resign from his RNC post (those missteps including spending $2,000 of RNC donor money at a bondage-themed sex-show club in West Hollywood). Steele attributes this criticism to his style – a little too “street-wise” for the reigning Republican ethos. No DuBois here: try Tracy Morgan, Shock G and J.J. Evans instead.
Into this scenario, enter Atlanta-based radio host Herman Cain, a curious case and one worth monitoring diligently. His speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference this month was met with little media coverage, overshadowed perhaps by the news out of Poland and out of the Supreme Court, but video of the speech has been posted breathlessly on a staggering number of conservative blogs (and now on this one, as well).
Unless you are the type, as I am, to watch that whole thing, you may have missed the very end, in which the raucously well received Cain coyly hinted to the conference, “There are a lot of people that might be interested in seeking the Republican nomination, but I want you to remember one thing: there might also be a dark-horse candidate you don’t know about.” And with that, he exited (stage right, fittingly) to the types of cheers that right-wingers normally afford only the likes of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. Cue the buzz on the conservative blogs: Was That An Announcement Of His Candidacy? (The phrase “dark horse” must surely have encouraged such thunderstruck speculation, mustn’t it? That’s part of what was funny when President Obama called Dick Cheney the “black sheep” of the family, right?) And, just like that, the Grand Old Party had its Great Black Hope.
Cain began his speech by quoting from memory the radical right’s favorite president, Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men – and women,” he added for good measure, “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… When any government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter and abolish it.” (One wonders whether Cain, who calls his ethos, “hard work and faith,” knows that Jefferson did some altering and abolishing of his own, cutting every reference to Christ’s divinity from his copy of the Bible, which takes care of the “faith” part, while Sally Hemmings did the “hard work.”) The opening strains of the Declaration of Independence drew their customary applause, as did Cain’s self-congratulation that he had recited them without the aid of a teleprompter.
Exactly how the Obama administration has been destructive to the ends of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (in any way that, for instance, the Bush administration wasn’t), Cain left for another time – perhaps on air – preferring instead to use the occasion to inflame the audience: “We’ve got some altering and abolishing to do!” Lest anyone take, as many do, such a charge to mean violence, Cain saw fit to impress the paramount importance of winning back both houses of Congress in November. That was the primary goal in “defending the American dream,” three “suggestions” for which constituted the bulk of Cain’s speech.
“Stay connected,” he urged the crowd, meaning that the right must overcome the left’s attempts to divide it (notwithstanding the facts that the Tea Partiers have themselves split from the Republicans and that the leaks of Chairman Steele’s more embarrassing slip-ups have come from GOP insiders – and of course the fact that the right never listens to the left at all) by putting up a unified front. But Cain would not say what they ought to mobilize around, apart from opposition to the Obama administration, which had somehow earned Jefferson’s admonition of the British Crown (perhaps by considerably lowering taxes for almost everyone or by doing an enviable job combatting terrorism).
“Stay informed” about the issues, he continued, making the puzzling decision not to inform anyone about an issue, but rather to reveal his personal medical history. Diagnosed in 2007 with stage four cancer affecting his colon and liver, Cain attributes his continued life to two factors. Firstly, God didn’t let him die on the grounds that Cain had more work to do (God presumably finds that the millions of children who suffer and die of cancer have pretty much accomplished what they meant to, to say nothing of Cain’s fellow adults) and, secondly, the fact that ObamaCare wasn’t around then, and it – though by what means remains a mystery – would surely have killed him (ObamaCare is evidently a mountain so mightily evil that God Himself isn’t able to surmount it). The audience’s raucous applause revealed not just their slightly bizarre and silly shared theology, but also that they were the very Kool-Aid drinkers Cain repeatedly warned them against becoming.
What “informing” he did was about the character of liberal America (not an “issue,” note). Citing Janeane Garofalo, whom leftists have unanimously selected as the proper person to represent us, Cain warned, “When you’re fighting with liberals, they love to shift the subject, ignore the facts and name call.” He also characterized the liberal “strategy” as “to take advantage of the misinformed, the under-informed and those who have received bad information and people who don’t have a clue, who cannot connect the dots.” The audience nodded and clapped, apparently without a hint of irony.
“Stay inspired” was the last of Cain’s “suggestions.” By way of inspiring people, he told not of heroic, Godly Soviet democrats who risked everything and more, protesting and ultimately destroying the Godless, malicious evils of communist tyranny, but of the bumble- bee, whose proportions seem to conspire against the prospect of flight, but who flies nevertheless “because the bumble-bee believes it can fly.” Counterintuitive as the flight of the bumble-bee is (phenomenon, not Rimsky-Korsakov piece), it positively does violence to philosophy to posit that the bumble-bee can believe anything at all. After all, humans cannot fly, however hard we believe (looking at you, R. Kelly.) and bumble-bees are capable of exerting considerably less brain-power than we are. He made this point while demeaning scientists who devote time to studying how the bumble-bees flies, even though it patently does fly – how silly for scientists to wonder things and then look into them, when they might as well just accept stuff and have faith (this to make a point about being inspired).
Yes, Mr. Cain might have hated on scientists, but he also made sure to tout his accolades as a mathematics and physics graduate of Morehouse College, apparently unafraid of the charge of being a member of the educated East Coast elite (he must have known that even the tea partiers are wealthier and more highly educated than the average American). And he might have said of the bumble-bee “the sucka can’t fly,” but he also patted his back for having committed sections of 225 year old texts to memory. He might attribute a quotation from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, but he also admonishes Washington Democrats to read those documents because “they just might learn something.” He might shill for the types of policies that generate endemic poverty and ill-health, but he also advertises his biography full of economic and medical hardship. It’s just the type of bizarre logic that might have lasting appeal among the right-wing.
He is no Michael Steele. He is no Barack Obama. And he is no John Lewis or Alan Keyes or Jesse Jackson or Colin Powell. He is a big challenge for those of us who write and think about race and especially about the situation for black people in America to wrap our minds around. I’ve been scouring the tweets and blog of Dave Weigel for subsequent expressions of enthusiasm for the idea of a Herman Cain presidency (Cainiacs?) – no dice. Remember these words, though: in two years, we’ll all know the name Herman Cain.