The Knight Scale

I love extremes, especially the bottom of the barrel. Once we can agree on the worst of the worst, everything else can be ranked from there. I was once in a community theater production of “Sugar,” the stage musical version of “Some Like It Hot,” that was so hilariously messed-up that I was excited about it; I was certain that it would finally set the elusive rock bottom for the worst theatrical production of all time. For example, the actress playing the Marilyn Monroe part had gained about 40 pounds during rehearsals, and the actor playing the tap-dancing gangster was recovering from a heart attack, and could barely move. Sadly, the show was cancelled before it could open. I’ve seen a lot of dogs since then, but nothing close to the disaster that “Sugar” would have been.

<sigh>

This is why I am so grateful for Los Angeles Times blogger Christopher Knight’s demented post claiming that a satirical cartoon above (first published on the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit) is “baldly racist.” Unscrupulous, race-obsessed or paranoid political allies of President Obama have been equating any criticism of the President, and by extension his wife, with racial bias from the moment he stepped on the national stage. It’s an excellent way to restrain legitimate criticism, to be sure. As a phenomenon, it is also a wonderfully vivid example of confirmation bias, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept. When the exact same criticism or attacks that would have been dismissed as either well-earned or politics-as-usual when leveled at Presidents Clinton or Bush suddenly become racist slurs when attached to a Chief Executive who happens to be black because a listener expects racial bias, that’s confirmation bias exemplified. For example, I continue to hear callers on talk radio, many of them African-American, say that there has never been any President so savagely attacked by the political opposition as Barack Obama–and they mean it. Could they possibly have forgotten the calumny hurled at Presidents Clinton and Bush (I’ll give them a pass on unfamiliarity with the equally vicious treatment of Nixon and Johnson) so quickly? No…it’s just that the callers were less invested in those presidencies, less loyal, and less defensive, and they were not predisposed to believe that a black President would spur criticism based on his race. Looking for and expecting racism as the explanation for opposition to the President, they see it and find it, whether it is there or not.

To admirers and supporters of President Obama, much of the criticism of his leadership seems unfair, and because racial bias is the ultimate example of unfairness and the President is black, it is easy to add it all up and attribute any criticism to racism. It is also intellectually lazy, emotional rather than rational, harmful to open political dialogue and unfair to Obama’s critics, most of whom are not racist.

It has been difficult, however, to agree on an example of the President’s defenders crying racism with no conceivable provocation whatsoever. For example, the attempt to paint the whole Tea Party movement as racially motivated conveniently ignores the legitimate issues the group has raised, but many in the Tea Parties are racists, including some of the local leaders. Rhetoric about “taking back the White House” and “taking back America” has been used in opposition to white politicians for centuries, but race bias theorists can always claim it is “code” when used against a black leader—as indeed such phrases have been used that way. This is why Christopher Knight’s post is such a gift to us all. Here he is, in a major U.S. daily, furiously calling a piece of satire racist that has no racist elements to it whatsoever. Here is an excerpt from Knight’s fantasy:

“A baldly racist depiction of First Lady Michelle Obama that appeared Tuesday on a right-wing website is based on a 1775 portrait of Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty (1740-1786). The full-length painting hangs outside Paris in the Palace of Versailles. The Internet image grafts Obama’s face onto Gautier-Dagoty’s lavish depiction of the French queen, dressed in full regalia. It also replaces the draped left arm of the young monarch, then barely 20, with a muscular black arm and shifts the position of the right hand to place it in front of a world globe.

“The caricature of Obama as a profligate queen relies on the racist stereotype of an “uppity Negro,” which emerged among slave masters in an earlier American era…”

This is wonderful. Although the obvious explanation for the juxtaposition of the doomed French queen and Michelle is the latter’s much criticized taste for luxurious vacations and high fashion in the midst of historic financial hardship around her (contrast Michelle’s priorities and habits with those of Eleanor Roosevelt), Knight leaps over all obvious comparisons and arrives at a tortured explanation relying on the First Lady’s race. It makes no sense. Do we think of Marie Antoinette as “uppity”? No, can’t say I’ve ever heard that. How, then, is comparing one First Lady with another—one who is marked in history by her habit of making the poor in her country feel even worse by flaunting her wealth and privilege—in any way a racist statement? It just isn’t.

Is it unfair? Satire is always unfair. Saturday Night Live portrayed George W. Bush as so brain dead that he spent policy meetings on his back on a sofa playing with a yarn ball like a kitten. Had Bush been black, I’m sure some fool—a right-wing Christopher Knight— would have said Saturday Night Live was racist. Knight sees the rather obvious Marie Antoinette-Obama comparison (I came this close to making it myself in the recent post about the Obama’s lavish Halloween party—whew! That was a close one!) as unfair, reasons that when one is unfair to an individual who is black, one is being unfair because of his or her race, Michelle is black, ergo the satire is racist. Baldly racist, no less.

Interesting theory. But stupid. And as clear an example of race-baiting and confirmation bias as we are likely to see.

Knight unwittingly confirms my diagnosis in his one rebuttal to the furious thread of comments that followed his piece: L.A. Times readers may be liberals, but they know liberal nonsense when they see it. To a critical commenter who notes the First Lady’s large staff, Knight replies,

“The false claim of relative staff sizes of First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush apparently derives from a chain-email first circulated in 2009. Factcheck.org has debunked the false claim: http://www.factcheck.org/2009/08/michelle-obamas-staff&#8221;

Ok, that response argues that the criticism of the First Lady is unfair, though it is a weak one. If Laura Bush maintained a high-profile schedule of expensive vacations and social events after the 2008 crash, she’d get the Marie Antoinette treatment too. The fact that Laura Bush had a large staff that flew under pundit radar because the housing bubble hadn’t burst yet doesn’t prove racism at all. Knight’s position is clear and pure: criticism of the Obamas are racist when the same criticism of a white First Family would not be. “Is that all you have?” one incredulous commenter parried back.

Yes, it really is.

Therefore I’m proposing that Knight’s condemnation of a clearly non-racist cartoon be designated a symbolic 10 on the ten point scale for rating the outrageousness of race-card sightings in the coming months, and that the scale itself henceforth be designated the Knight Scale.

Sadly, I’m sure the Knight Scale will get a lot of use.

6 thoughts on “The Knight Scale

  1. “Interesting theory. But stupid.”
    Jack, were you channeling Arte Johnson from Laugh-In there? (just teasing – and probably exposing one of my confirmation biases)

    • Huh! You may be right, though Arte would have said, “Very interesting! But stupid!”

      I thought I was paraphrasing Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang, a Charlie Chan parody,in Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death.”, when David Niven, as a spoof of “The Thin Man” ,goes into an elaborate and ridiculously complex theory about how a puzzling murder was committed. Wang reacts to the speech with this:
      “Very interesting theory, Mr. Charleston! Only one thing wrong with it…it’s stupid!”

      Now that you mention it, SIMON was probably stealing from Arte.

  2. Question for clarification: What precisely do you intend to set up the Knight Scale to measure?
    Do you mean:
    “rating the outrageousness of race-card sightings” =
    “rating accusations of racism according to how obviously and outrageously they lack credibility”
    ?
    I am leery that a scale like this (needed as it is, and given how widespread attention to it also is needed) could nevertheless result in your and your blog followers being accused (without basis in fact, of course) of racism.

    • “Cynical,unfair and indefensible racism accusations designed to stifle legitimate criticism or smear political adversaries for personal or political gain.” A completely justified complaint of racism would be a zero. The recent flap over Santorum’s comments would rate a 1 or a 2 on the scale.

      I’ve been accused of racism before, and by employees I hired over equally qualified white candidates as a personal/professional exercise in affirmative action. Unfair accusations don’t scare me. They do tick me off, though.

      • I may be over-thinking this (or fantasizing that I can somehow hold my own while debating points with an expert scale-designer). But I think your parameter definition sets an especially difficult high bar for abundance of evidence sufficient to reconcile possible eye-of-the-beholder vs. consensus-on-reality conflicts. (I think I’m thinking about confirmation bias.)

        For the two samples we have discussed thus far (Knight’s reaction and Santorum’s stumping), your relative scoring seems reasonable to me. Where would you rate the “card-play” with respect to criticism of AG Holder in context of his embattled status because of Fast and Furious? Will scoring be an average of commenters’ ratings? Will you be staking out a rating, then awaiting comments that may justify adjustment, then adjust according to your judgment? It seems like you might need a dependable panel of judges, or maybe a “statistically significant” (whatever that is) population of ratings (like a poll!) to get the points plotted most credibly and meaningfully. Again, I am probably proposing to demand too exacting of a scientific approach.

        This whole thing is fascinating to me because I work in a realm that makes design of meaningful metrics a chronic and terribly frustrating brain-tease. The Knight Scale, or something very much like it, is direly needed, and quickly, before the 2012 campaigns gain much more steam.

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