Michael Tomasky on the Right’s Delusions About the Derrick Bell Video

Don’t bet on a two-decade-old videotape of Obama embracing a radical professor sinking the president.

Are they kidding? Barack Obama hugged Derrick Bell? Wow! This just proves everything, doesn’t it? It’s “the smoking gun,” according to some Breitbartian lickspittle, “showing that Barack Obama not only associated with radicals but believed deeply in their principles—and wanted the rest of us to believe in them, too.” It’s almost sad, watching them try to turn this unremarkable minute-and-a-half into a scandal. But the main point here is that the Bell video affair shows yet again that this “movement” that is constantly invoking the flag and patriotism and saying it represents America is far, far removed from mainstream American reality.

The video dates to 1990 and shows Harvard law student Obama speaking on behalf of Bell, the law professor who resigned his Harvard position to protest the fact that Harvard Law wasn’t hiring and granting tenure to more African-American professors. This was a celebrated and intense controversy at the time, involving denial of tenure to a professor named Regina Austin, and it received national and global attention. Obama undeniably pays homage to Bell, whose views on race and the law in America were undeniably radical.

So they’ve caught him red-handed, you see. But this is the crucial point, because this is where they always veer off into a private universe of their own bizarre and disconnected morality. To a right-winger, the fatal embrace “proves” various allegations to be true. These allegations line up in two categories. The first set is about Obama personally: that he embraces and supports every word Bell ever wrote or spoke, that he hates or at least has it in for white people, and so on. The second and probably more agonizing (if you’re one of them) set has to do with Obama’s secret agenda as president: that the three-plus years Obama has spent as president not doing things like making Louis Farrakhan his secretary of state or changing the national anthem to “Lift Every Voice And Sing” have been just a ruse, a trap, and as soon as he is reelected, with no fear of having to face the American electorate again, he’s going to turn into Jomo Kenyatta.

They are slightly different, these paranoias. But they have in common two things. The first of course is that they’re expressions of profound fear and anxiety in a country that is no longer the country that members of the right thought they were living in, which is a source of terror for them. And the second thing the paranoias have in common is that the vast majority of normal Americans don’t share them.

I might, for example, have written a column trying to downplay Bell’s radicalism, or explain it. But why should I? He was a radical. And Obama embraced him. (The fuller story, for those who care, is that Obama was not himself deeply into “critical race theory”; he did permit such views to be published in the Harvard Law Review, but several people from Harvard whom I interviewed back in late 2007 said he wasn’t an adherent.) But what the right doesn’t get is that most Americans don’t find it alarming. He was one law professor, 20-plus years ago. In the meantime, we have a thousand days and nights of watching Obama be president. And people—that is, the two-thirds who occupy the mainstream moral universe—have not seen a stealth Afrocentrist. They’ve seen a pretty reasonable and conciliatory guy whom they basically like.

Those same people forgave Obama for Jeremiah Wright. No, it was not, as the right still says, that the media downplayed it. Wright was an inescapable controversy for days. People had plenty of Wright-related information available to them as they made their voting decisions in 2008. They had plenty of Bill Ayers-related information, and they’d heard that Obama said small-town voters “cling” to guns and religion. And yet, in the face of all this, American voters made him their president.

The right-wing explanation for this is that the media kept making excuses for Obama, and that Acorn stole the election anyway. But the most plausible Planet Earth explanation is that most middle-of-the-road Americans simply didn’t find any of that stuff disqualifying. They found it troubling to one extent or another, no doubt. But they still put the man in the Oval Office.

Why? It’s not because most Americans are liberals. I’m not that stupid. But it is because most Americans are, at the end of the day, fair-minded people who give matters more or less the weight they deserve. The right wing and the high punditocracy wanted Bill Clinton tossed out of the White House because he had an affair and lied about it. Most people thought, well, that doesn’t make me proud of him, but it just isn’t disqualifying.

To put it another way, most Americans (thankfully) don’t share right-wing America’s intolerant and paranoid values system. Most Americans value the availability of contraception and think women having sex is pretty much their own business. Most Americans now think gay people should be able to marry (yes, most). Most Americans accept that a black man growing up and becoming political at the time Obama did may well have had a few radical associations.

The right wing is out of touch with middle America. Right-wingers are always donning tricorn hats and invoking old patriotic slogans and claiming that they speak for middle America, and they do it with conviction, so they manage to fool large chunks of the media into thinking that they represent America. But America wants little to do with them and their hectoring sermons, their ludicrous conspiracy theories, their ceaseless and turgid imprecations upon everybody they don’t like. I half-wish Obama would go on television and reassure the rest of America that Bell, while well to the left of the president’s own politics, was still an honorable man and a good American, but I suppose it’s better to let this lying dog sleep.