03.06.09

Running the Republicans

Michael Steele thought he’d scored a historic achievement when he got himself elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Now he has to run it.

A fundamental aspect of black barbershop disparagement—what you might call a suspicion of things as they seem to be—is that white people never give any power toys over to black Americans until they are through with them. Or unless they are so rusty that only a fool could not see how far beyond repair those toys actually are.

The people taking those positions are not defeatists, or do not think of themselves that way. Their sense of the world is not based in Frederick Douglass’ observation that power does not give the opposition anything without a fight. They merely think that color rules are hard, fast, and very different. Power is never given or trusted in the hands of those who are not white.

Steele seems to actually function like those black drops put in the buckets of Liberty Paint in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Mixed in, that black stuff made the paint more radiantly white.

For them, proof comes from the fact that one black mayor after another took over when cities were prime examples of urban blight, business evacuation, and a diminishing quality of public service that was the result of shrinking tax bases. Cities were thought to be, it was argued, much less important than the suburbs, which were where the better schools, better law enforcement, housing, and so on were easy to be found. In short, the opportunity to sit in the big chair becomes a funky and debilitating version of the blues.

This grim vision is put on Barack Obama by the most insipidly cynical. But it may well fit our man Michael Steele much better in what has become the intellectual blight of the Republican Party, where the base is found further and further beyond the outskirts of town. Steele was elected the head of the Republican National Committee almost as an example of dumb fumbling in an apparent attempt to make itself appealing to a nation of voters that has become darker over the last few decades. Yes but not quite yes.

Steele seems to actually function like one of the most memorable symbols in American literature: those black drops put in the buckets of Liberty Paint in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Mixed in, that black stuff made the paint more radiantly white. While Steele and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (whom his severest detractors refer to as “Gunga Din”) have attempted to appropriate Obama’s remaking of American patriotism, they do not seem to have succeeded. Sure, as Obama has proven, embracing both the darker sides of our history and the ongoing struggles against them provides plenty enough to be proud of, but no one appears to actually accept it from the mouths of Steele and Jindal.

Rush Limbaugh is one of those who doesn’t believe them and demands that Republican politicians and those in high positions of influence heel at the sound of his elephantine bark. After correctly calling Limbaugh an entertainer with an ugly message on CNN, Steele had to brown his nose and his tongue in the usual apologetic manner, claiming he had been misunderstood, the rhetorical flak vest worn by every coward and kiss-ass out here.

During an interview with Politico after Limbaugh served him a talk-radio caning for moving too far beyond the compound, Steele said of the host, “He brings a very important message to the American people to wake up and pay attention to what the administration is doing. No. 2, there are those out there who want to look at what he’s saying as incendiary and divisive and ugly. That’s what I was trying to say. It didn’t come out that way. … He does what he does best, which is provoke: He provokes thought, he provokes the left. And they’re clearly the ones who are most excited about him.”

Negro, please: Provokes thought? Where, when, and how? The central problem facing the Republicans is that they offer nothing resembling intellectual substance that is not offensively hostile. The tires have been worn bald on their vehicle and are now given to perpetual flats which are passed off as proof of how good the tires are, so smooth, so shiny, so lacking in bulky treads. The Republican role has been forgotten by people like Limbaugh, who is cheered on by Ann Coulter, that professional witch here to prove that blondes neither have more fun nor can provide any to people interested in substantial criticisms based in actual hope for the country. Coulter is the extremely slim bartender whose private stock contains one drink: bile.

The function of the Republicans is far more important to our democracy. It is to hold the Democrats back from selling out completely to unions, entitlements, and supposedly oppressed special-interest groups. The Democratic job made obvious in our present condition is to keep the Republicans from selling out to the toxic narcissism that has made writer Tom Wolfe’s observation of a " me generation" more palpable than ever. This is the result of the soulless buccaneer capitalism that has been on such disgusting public display, like hawkings of slime sliding down the inside of a slop jar.

It is something that the Republicans need to face as they come to the open slaughterhouse of our media, from which no one seems capable of hiding any longer. They should be ready to drain the swine hanging from the ceiling by their hind legs. If Michael Steele was the one carrying a long knife, he would actually seem to have become an individual rather than a toy himself, whose color might be different but whose ideas are as colorless as those of anyone else.

For now, Steele remains in the near-sighted elephant herd that keeps marching toward a cliff that it has mistaken for a diving board. The last dive killed off almost a quarter of the herd. Perhaps it is time for something actually new and unexpected: serious political thoughts.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.