A reader has sent me a link to this story from The Guardian about the latest antics of Rush Limbaugh, a US conservative shock jock. Apparently, Limbaugh has been playing a song on his show called “Barack the Magic Negro“, referring to Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Obama hopes to become the first African-American president of the US.
I can’t help being shocked and horrified by the title of the song. The term “Magical Negro” was coined by Spike Lee to describe a stock Hollywood movie character who appears out of nowhere to help the white protagonist. African-American commentator David Ehrenstein first used the term in conjunction with Barack Obama in an article in the Los Angeles Times. Ehrenstein explains the “Magical Negro” as follows:
He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
Ehrenstein’s argument was that Obama is a “Magical Negro” – he is a benign and polite figure who presents no danger to white American sensibilities. Sounds like a modern take on the “Noble Savage“. If I read it correctly, Ehrenstein’s argument is that it is too good to be true, and of course, being an ordinary human being, Obama has flaws and shortcomings just like the rest of us. By idealising Obama in this fashion rather than treating him as a real person, once he behaves like an ordinary person and falls from grace, the public cannot help but be disappointed. Secondly, Ehrenstein seems to suggest that Obama is sidestepping a whole heap of issues which affect African-American people because he is concentrating on being “safe”. In this way, white voters feel that their guilt is assuaged and that everything is hunky-dory in terms of race relations.
Ehrenstein’s column is at least intelligent. The same can’t be said for Rush Limbaugh’s song. Apparently the singer is parodying black activist and politician Al Sharpton. (For a bit of context: relations between Sharpton and Obama have been rumoured to be tense, although Sharpton has categorically denied this.) I’m not exactly sure what the point is. Humour is culturally relative, so perhaps I’m missed the humour of the song because I’m Australian, but it just seems stupid, racist and offensive to me. I thought about listening to it again to try and work out whether I’d missed a funny bit somewhere. But then I decided not to bother. First, the though of listening to the song again made me feel dejected. Secondly, I suspected that I hadn’t missed any funny bits. So I didn’t waste my time.
Things like this raises difficult questions of freedom of speech and tolerance. How far does one have to tolerate offensive and intolerant points of view? Should people be allowed to parody and criticise politicians on the basis of their personal characteristics? How is parodying Obama for being African-American different from suggesting John Howard shares a marked similarity with Penfold the Hamster from DangerMouse? In both cases, each politician is being singled out because personal characteristics. But when a parody is racially based, it is not just about a physical characteristic. It is potentially a slur against a whole group of people. It is particularly vexed because of the history of slavery, oppression and segregation of African-Americans, and the way in which racial characteristics were used to perpetrate and justify that unfairness. Limbaugh has attempted to justify his use of the term by saying “Well, Ehrington said it first” – but I think Ehrington’s use of the term was quite different to Limbaugh’s use. The song is patronising towards Obama and Sharpton, inviting the audience to laugh these “uppity” men who think that they can play a white man’s political game.
But does suppressing comment such as this help? Clearly, shock-jocks such as Limbaugh and Imus are tapping into a certain pre-existing feeling within the community, and getting rid of them is not going to stop that feeling. However, my concern with radio demagogues is that they have immense influence, and can ratchet people’s feelings up to a dangerous level (see previous post on Alan Jones, Sydney shock jock). On the other hand, preventing someone like Limbaugh from playing his song might cause him to garner more sympathy.
I can’t help hoping that Limbaugh will get in trouble in the same way Imus did, but I can’t see it happening unless, as in Imus’ case, radio sponsors pull the pin. Evidently, Obama and his team have played the whole thing very coolly, refusing to get upset, but gently suggesting the song was dumb anyway. Perhaps that’s the best way to play it.
I can’t help thinking that in the end, the song says far more about Rush Limbaugh than it does about Barack Obama. Limbaugh is a pathetic idiot if that’s what he finds funny.