Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama's Mulligan problem

Since Sen. Barack Obama clinched the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, the punditburo has thrown up various poll-driven projections of how badly Obama may lose the votes of some key voter demographics, notably white men.

Any number of Chicken Little scenarios have emerged lamenting his inability to reach white male voters on their turf. One recent incident, though, suggests that some aspects of Obama’s alleged White Male Problem may be beyond him for reasons that have less to do with intellect and capability, and everything to do with history.

On May 15 in Marietta, Ga., patrons of Mulligan’s Bar & Grill were offered the opportunity to buy Obama T-shirts created by Mike Norman, the bar’s owner and a man with a reputation for provocative entrepreneurship. The shirts weren’t just a benign attempt to cash in on the building wave of populist support for Obama; the shirts’ design was, let’s say, a singular departure from Obamamania.

The T-shirts featured the words “OBAMA IN ’08” below the image of … the cartoon monkey Curious George, star of the series of children’s books … peeling a banana.

Critics and protests weren’t far behind. Black residents of Marietta staged an impromptu protest outside Mulligan’s, a protest that dissipated with nothing more volatile than cross words and backs turned.

Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “Norman's daughter Brandi Nabors stopped in to check on him, worried that his opinions might spark more than criticism.” ...

"I don't like people picking on my daddy, cause he's my daddy," she said. "He might come across as a dumb redneck to a lot of people, but the man is brilliant."

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For others in Marietta, however, Norman’s T-shirt antics were at least a few footcandles short of “brilliant.”

“This is a black eye,” Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway told the AJ-C. “I abhor the sale of these T-shirts. I am proud of this city, I am proud of the race relations that the city has had.”

Mike Norman came to his own defense. “There is a contingent of folks — red, yellow, white and black — that walk around wanting a reason to be mad, to get their feelings hurt,” he told WXIA-TV, by way of a non-apology apology.

Understandably, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publishing giant that owns the rights to the Curious George character, is “weighing … options with respect to legal action,” according to a spokesman. Not much has been heard from Mike Norman’s T-shirt emporium lately.

Taking up where Norman left off are David and Elizabeth Lawson of St. George, Utah, a couple that created the Sockobama, a monkey sock puppet wearing a suit and a campaign button. MSNBC reported this week that the Lawsons had withdrawn the product and apologized for their slight of Obama — another oblique reference to Obama as a monkey — but then later retracted the apology, claiming that commercial considerations had … changed the situation. MSNBC said the Sockobama was set to go back into production, but at this writing the Sockobama Web site isn’t active.

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The problem Obama faces, according to the pollsters, is his inability to reach these voters. The real, Mulligan problem is his inability to reach voters whose objection to Obama may be couched in differences of policy, but is just as likely to be based on race. Many of these people have said as much, wearing their bigoted frankness as some new twisted badge of courage.

Others, like Norman and the Lawsons, have resorted to base, insensitive,passive-aggressive associations, riding the swift boat of symbology common to the American racial dilemma.

One of Obama’s deepest challenges is fighting the tide of history. The Scots-Irish, who emigrated to America and Georgia after massive drought in 1717, fought in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War, often on the Confederate side (Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Nathan Bedford Foorest and Jefferson Davis are some of the Confederate leadership with Scots-Irish roots).

Georgia is one of the states with a large Scots-Irish population, a voting bloc that’s increasingly important to aspirants for the presidency. A cohort of ethnicity common to many residents of Cobb County, Ga., home of Mulligan’s Bar & Grill. A signifier for the 5.3 million residents throughout the southeastern United States and elsewhere who claim that heritage (including Obama himself, who’s Scots-Irish on his mother’s side, and Obama’s challenger for the presidency, Sen. John McCain).

Maybe Virginia Sen. James Webb can help.

In his 2004 book “Born Fighting,” a history of the Scots-Irish people in America, Webb writes of a possible future for the Scots-Irish in politics: " … the final question in this age of diversity and political correctness is whether they can learn to play the modern game of group politics. For if they do, they hold the future direction of America in their collective hands.”

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We can hope. Or maybe there’s just nothing to be done.

Maybe Obama’s inability to reach some of these Americans and others, and to demonstrate a common cause, is less a reflection of some operational deficit in his campaign and more a retrenching of historical obstinance, a shortcoming of the American spirit.

It’s an inability or unwillingness to see how flying or brandishing the Stars & Bars is as wounding to black Americans as the Nazi flag is to European survivors of World War II.

It’s a willful blindness to the ways comparing one of the nation’s most collectively inspiring political figures to a cartoon chimpanzee is freighted with agony that’s not quite historical. Not yet.

It’s an absence of vision distilled in a campaign button sold at the Republican state convention in Texas last weekend.

You can't reach people who don't want to be reached. Maybe — actually — Obama’s Mulligan problem belongs to all of us.
Image credits: Sockobama: Book cover:

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