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Fighting like a Republican and losing like John Aravosis

He said anus. Uh-huhuhuhuhuhuhu.


Butt-head, after the hippy-dippy teacher said “we don’t need TV to entertain us.”

Innuendo? It’s a Klan slogan, he said it.


John Aravosis, after Mitt Romney said “We will keep America America”

Last week, AmericaBlog announced in a headline that “Romney adopts KKK slogan: ‘Keep America American’”. It’s a great story if you listen like Butt-head and if you’re out to get Mitt Romney any way you can. Otherwise it’s nonsense, which is why it’s already blown over. It wasn’t really about Romney, anyway. It was about giving the Republicans a taste of their own medicine, slinging bullshit and slander like Fox News. Maybe this says something about the level of frustration on the left. Or maybe it’s the same old same old and just happened to push my buttons.

The story was picked up right away by MSNBC and the Washington Post. Both outlets quickly backtracked. After MSNBC issued an apology or two, John Aravosis — the creator, editor, and principal writer of AmericaBlog — added an incredulous update to his story.

[I]t’s not entirely clear what they’re apologizing for. The story is true. Romney used the phrase at least twice, and it is an old Ku Klux Klan slogan. So what about the story is incorrect, or as Al Sharpton is now calling it (he works for MSNBC) “innuendo.” Innuendo? It’s a Klan slogan, he said it.

(These days the article starts with another update, because “the Romney people are now claiming that the phrase he’s been using is ‘Keep America America’ instead of ‘Keep America American.’” This shouldn’t have been news to Aravosis since it’s exactly what you hear on the video embedded in his article. It seems like a pretty meaningless distinction, but maybe not if your whole case rests on nothing but the literal repetition of three words.) *

Causing Al Sharpton to reach out to Romney as a fellow “victim of unproven innuendo and half-truths” seems like a real accomplishment, but Aravosis is unfazed. In a separate piece about MSNBC’s apology, he holds the line. The “story” is very simple, and the ball’s in Romney’s court. The Romney campaign official who tweeted that “MSNBC apologizes to @MittRomney for ‘appalling’ KKK comparison” got it wrong, though, because

nobody “compared” anybody to the KKK. The story was, is, that Mitt Romney has repeatedly used a slogan that just happens to be a former Ku Klux Klan slogan. And it is. So is the Romney campaign claiming the slogan isn’t a former Klan slogan? Are they saying that Romney will continue to use it? No chance in hell of that. (And that’s news.)

I don’t know about “nobody,” but it’s true that Aravosis didn’t do anything as forthright and labor-intensive as a comparison between Romney and the KKK. According to the Washington Post, Aravosis is a “political commenter” and a person who generates the “provocative stuff” that’s “part of the formula for cable news success.” What that means, I guess, is that it’s his job to come up with stuff and other people’s job to think about it and deal with it.

Aravosis isn’t a journalist, anyway, so he skips all of the tedious reporting and contextualizing and analyzing that journalist have to do. Instead, he has a suggestion. It seem to be an important one, too, because it gets more thought and attention than the news he’s breaking.

In an era in which it’s apparently okay for Republicans to accuse President Obama of being a socialist, I guess we now need to ask if Mitt Romney is a Ku Klux Klansman.

Note the reasoning: Don’t ask whether Romney is a klansman because it’s a good question, ask because that’s what the Republicans would do. In fact, it’s a stupid question, but I guess that’s ok — asking stupid questions is exactly what Republicans do, right? Aravosis doesn’t want us to worry about whether or not Romney’s use of a KKK slogan was inadvertent, because “no, the Republicans would say, if this were a Democrat, that clearly the candidate was a closet member of the KKK.”

So should we go totally Republican and instead of asking just announce that “Romney is ‘a closet member of the KKK’”? Aravosis leaves that up to us to decide. If he gave his opinion it would involve comparisons and conclusions that he’d probably have to defend. I’m sure he has better things to do, what with cable news needing its next fix of provocative stuff and all. This is, to my mind, a loathsome way of informing the public. I know it well from my dealings with the academic hack KC Johnson. Give no context but plenty of rhetorical subtext. Point readers in the direction you want them to go but take no responsibility for where they end up. When pressed, play word games and feign ignorance (who, me? compare??? I was just noting the facts!).

Aravosis does have a point about the bogus labels that the right-wing talking heads are constantly slapping on Obama — they dish it out and then get all sanctimonious when they have to take it. It bothers Eric Loomis, too. It was his post on Lawyers, Guns & Money that got me started on this “somewhat silly controversy.” One passage in particular stood out:

Republicans can say quite literally anything they want about the president without any consequences, but if Democrats note that Romney may have used the same phrase as the KKK about an issue on which Romney shares a lot of similarities with past hate groups, they are vilified as destroying the public discourse.

I relate to the frustration. It’s good to be clear about where the asymmetry is, though, because if you just look at the mass of “public discourse,” there’s a whole lot of vilifyin’ goin’ on, and it’s not a one-sided thing. Fox News’s doublespeak slogan — “Fair and Balanced” — shows the essential difference between left and right. It says that for Fox, the “liberal media’s” pious standards are good for one thing — screwing liberals. And it’s amazing how well it works sometimes. Something questionable happens at NPR, the right-wing opinion mill churns out its buckets of bile, and the reaction is, “Did we say something wrong?! Oh my god, we’re so so sorry! Who do we need to fire?” The Shirley Sherrod fiasco feels like the same reflex on steroids — a bunch of liberals jumping up to dance to the beat of a man who “want[s] it to be in the history books that [he] took down the institutional left.” When the opposition has its double standards proudly tattooed on its money-stuffed bicep, the only one worried about “civil discourse” is the punching bag.

But it’s the form of Loomis’s comparison that stood out, not the issue. It has a very familiar ring, one I associate with conservative sites (though I figure that’s mainly because it bothers me most when it’s coming from conservatives). When I got around to Aravosis’s version I realized that it’s the whine that really gets me.

And can you imagine what the networks would have done if the Obama campaign were using an old KKK slogan, even inadvertently? Oh the never ending prime-time debate it would create. But, as always, when a Republican is on the receiving end of the criticism, it’s no big deal, and in fact, you’re a bad person for even mentioning it.

No political persuasion has a monopoly on whining, but the right has a real flair for feeling persecuted. It must be all that seething Christianity. And you’re never too powerful to feel persecuted when feeling persecuted is in your ideological DNA. Roger Ailes, supposedly apologizing for calling NPR execs Nazis — not apologizing to NPR, of course, but instead to his buddy Abe Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League — whines about how FoxNews was beat up by a couple of rabbis. Rick Perry, on the other hand, whines for the masses about how “gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” But the most annoying whine of persecution is the kind the starts “imagine if.” Imagine if a Republican said that about blacks/gays/women/immigrants! They’d crucify him!

This is really what Aravosis’s Romney/KKK “brouhaha” is all about — doing unto the Republicans as they done unto us. Since he must’ve known from the beginning that it wasn’t going to amount to anything, it was mostly an excuse to whine. And not just about the Republicans. Before his story hit the web he was already primed for “the traditional media to poo-poo this and ignore it, or write it off as funny, while they freely quote the GOP candidates…” etc., etc. Because if there’s one thing that every living person with a political axe to grind has in common, it’s that the mainstream media has screwed them over before, is screwing them over now, and will screw them over again in about five minutes. (Hey, this whining thing is pretty fun!)

If you wanna play hardball, find a pitcher who can throw a strike. This one watches the ball sail out of the park and wishes he could hit it like that, too.

~   ~   ~

By far the best article I found about Mitt Romney’s “KKK slogan” was written by a historian, Yoni Appelbaum, for the Atlantic blog. He covers both the immediate history — the story emerging from the twitterverse in what “might serve as a case study on politics in the social media age” — and the century-and-a-half history of the phrase “keeping America American.” Generally it’s been used to send the kind of messages you’d expect, somewhere on the spectrum of paranoia and xenophobia, but not always.

The process was set in motion by a reporter who tweeted about a stump speech Romney gave in New Hampshire. Presumably it was about the same as Romney’s speech a few days earlier in Iowa.

[President Obama] means what he says when he says he wants to fundamentally transform America. There’s nothing wrong with America that needs transforming. I want to restore America. I want to turn around America. I want to keep America America.

The LA Times quotes a variation on the theme from another Iowa campaign event. Unlike the current president, “who wants to transform America into a European-style nation,” Romney said that he would “keep America American with the principals that made us the greatest nation on Earth.”

Applebaum traces the slogan back to “an 1887 appeal in The Congregationalist, promoting efforts to convert and assimilate Catholic immigrants from Canada.” Over the years, it was used by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. And, of course, the Klan. “More often than not,” Applebaum writes, “calls to ‘keep America American’ have played upon fears that our nation is beset by alien ideas, or even worse, alien peoples.”

But there’s another thread. Applebaum picks it up around the turn of the 20th century, in the writings of Universalist Minister John Coleman Adams, who “believed that embracing timeless ideals required continual progress toward the goal of crafting a more perfect union and a more inclusive nation.” When Romney spoke at CPAC back in Feb. 2010, according to Applebaum, he “placed himself squarely in that tradition, speaking directly to our hopes for a better future. As the campaign has worn on, though, [he] has edged closer toward emphasizing our fears instead.” (This video, which is included in Aravosis’s original article, is taken from near the end of the speech. It’s not actually a campaign ad, it just looks like one.)

Others have lost their liberty by trading it away for the false promises of big government. We choose to hold to our founding principles. We will stop these power seekers where they stand. We will keep America America by retaining its character as the land of opportunity. We’ll welcome the inventor, the entrepreneur, the innovator. We’ll insist on greatness from every one of our citizens. And rather than apologizing for who we are or for what we have accomplished we will celebrate our strength and goodness.

According to Eric Wemple, “[t]he unfortunate upshot of that moment is that Romney used a phrase deployed by the KKK eerily similar to one deployed by the KKK in proximity to a reference to immigration policy” (the overstrike is a correction to account for the fact that Romney actually said “keep America America”). Which is to say that there’s a Klannish way to read it, so it’s legitimate fodder for cable news. If you’re the type who can’t help noticing when someone says “anus,” cable news sounds like the place to be — Butt-head must love it.

Anyway, the essence of conservatism is keeping things the same. Add a little bumper-sticker patriotism and you have a perfect slogan: “Keep America America” (or “American”). How could this phrase not crop up again and again? It’s a great way to signal that you’re a true down-home conservative, and that’s a lot of what Romney is doing.

But in his recent speeches, he’s also offering a meaningful choice. It’s between his American America and Obama’s “European-style” America, which is a pretty mindless, knee-jerk way to put it, but that’s how we like our politics. As campaign rhetoric goes, it’s not bad. Compared to Aravosis’s juvenile scandal-mongering, it almost looks honorable.


* ^ Yoni Applebaum goes into the issue of America vs. American in a comment under his article.

And there’s one point that I particularly wish I’d emphasized and explained at greater length. America and American are, in this context, semantically equivalent. Romney’s favored - and perhaps only - formulation, “Keep America America,” is historically less common. If you’re trying to accuse him of echoing a particular group or speaker, I suppose which way he says it might actually matter. So the headlines claiming he was using a Klan slogan were, as far as that goes, doubly slanderous. And I certainly wish to quote him accurately; there’s value in accuracy, independent of whether it makes a semantic difference.

But in determining his meaning, as well as its historical resonance, I don’t think the distinction is particularly salient. Most of those who have called to Keep America America - or American - have been expressing their fear that our nation is beset by alien ideas or peoples, and needs to be defended. With disturbing frequency, those calls have crossed the line into outright bigotry. They have also been contested by other calls to Keep America America - or American - that stress our pride in being a land of opportunity. The former tend to emphasize how virtuous America has historically been, while the latter tend to stress our continuing struggle to live up to our stated values.

The use of the phrase itself tells us almost nothing. The key is context, and meaning. What does each speaker intend it to convey? That’s the question I intended to pose, and I think it remains important.

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