Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Clinton’s 3 a.m. ad and “Birth of a Nation”

Anyone familiar with American history should know that race has been used to divide voters. Peddling in xenophobic fears and portraying blacks as a domestic enemy is nothing new. Blatant racism gave way to code words and messages by the middle of the 20th century but the meaning was still clear.

Last week, the Clinton campaign unveiled the notorious “3 a.m.” ad just a few days before the Texas primary. The political commercial was a scare ad suggesting that if Barack Obama were President, children sleeping in their beds would somehow be in peril.

Orlando Patterson sees similarities in the ad and “Birth of a Nation” – the 1915 movie portraying a white society at risk from former Black slaves:
I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs. Clinton.

For more than a century, American politicians have played on racial fears to divide the electorate and mobilize xenophobic parties. Blacks have been the “domestic enemy,” the eternal outsider within, who could always inspire unity among “we whites.” Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was built on this premise, using coded language — “law and order,” “silent majority” — to destroy the alliance between blacks and white labor that had been the foundation of the Democratic Party, and to bring about the Republican ascendancy of the past several decades. The Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a crude manifestation of this strategy — as was the racist attack used against John McCain’s daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh, in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000.

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too, that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been a Muslim.

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.
Is Patterson’s analysis a stretch? Maybe, maybe not. When a candidate starts down the slippery slope of trying to scare the public it is naïve to assume voters will not read into this message their own fears and prejudices and, given this country’s troubled racial history, it is not hard to figure out what the fears and prejudices of the larger white community might be.

You can read the entire piece here.

3 comments:

Transient and Permanent said...

Seems like a stretch to me. I don't see any racial content here, but maybe someone who spends their life studying slavery and racism can't help seeing racism no matter what they look at. The message in the ad seems crystal clear to me: Clinton knows the military, etc, and has more experience than Obama (that's what the voiceover is talking about, after all). That means when peril looms in the middle of the night she's already prepared to meet the challenge, rather than a greener politician like Obama who hasn't been around as long. The mother image isn't meant to make you fear (black) Obama, but to feel confident with protective (female) Clinton. This is a gendered, not a racialized, ad, and it's a shame anti-Clinton people can't see things except through the worst possible lens. Clinton has to put out ads like this because she needs to compensate for the omnipresent sexism of American society, which is likely to automatically trust (male) Obama more than (female) Clinton. She needs the mother image to recontextualize her gender in a way that inspires late night confidence instead of middle of the night anxiety.

Comrade Kevin said...

That ad affects men and women very differently because we see the same images in completely different contexts for biologically motivated reasons.

That's the real reason there's a gender divide.

Paul H said...

Birth of a Nation? Really?

BO is a political genius and makes John Edwards look like an amateur, but what, if any, foriegn policy credentials does he have other than "I was against the was before she was for the war?". It remains to be seen whether he will be on the right side of history, if there is such a thing.

BO is often portrayed as a "black" JFK, though he is as much white as he is black. That I think is his true attraction, he blends and trancends two cultures, but that does not qualify him to be President, does it?

BTW, have you ever clicked the handicapped symbol next to the Word Verification box? On my PC it sounds like somebody speaking Chinese backwards.