The talk today in the blogosphere is all about last night’s debate — who won, who lost, who discreetly scratched his ass, whatever. There’s a good bit of discussion going about already on the issue of McCain’s factual gaffes and his infuriating appropriation of the Jewish Holocaust. I didn’t notice anything pounce-worthy in Obama’s comments, though he did make some headscratchy connections and rambled in some of his answers. But hey, I’m sure FOX will find something to nitpick about him.
What I did keep noticing was McCain’s body language. He wouldn’t look at Obama. He wouldn’t address Obama directly, even when the debate moderator explicitly urged him to do so. He didn’t even turn in Obama’s direction, as far as I saw. He seemed doggedly determined to act as if his opponent didn’t exist, and the debate was strictly a one-on-one conversation between him and Jim Lehrer.
Others have noted this body language, and chalked it up to McCain’s general frustration with his opponent. I saw something else.
Not so long ago in this country — within McCain’s adult lifetime, though not Obama’s — white men did not look at black men, except to order them around or warn them off white women. They did not address black men directly if they could help it — and if they had to, it was never done in a way that might suggest respect. Black men did not look at white men either, because that was the shortest path to death; a black man who dared to look a white man in the eye was “uppity”. Didn’t know his place. Needed to have a lesson taught him, usually with a bullet or a length of rope. Even today there’s a certain kind of white man — usually older ones from the South or from wealthy backgrounds — who still won’t accord a man of color the simple courtesy of looking him in the eye. They’ll look everywhere else, address “the air” rather than the person, and get progressively more irritated if that person doesn’t back off and go away.
This irritation is what I saw in McCain’s body language: affront that a black man dared to challenge him or speak to him as an equal.
I don’t think I would’ve seen that if McCain hadn’t shown this kind of contempt in other contexts: his behavior towards his wives, for example. That certain kind of white man isn’t all that fond of uppity women either. And yeah, some of it might simply be McCain’s infamous temper; he’s had equal-opportunity hissyfits, pretty much at anyone who disagrees with him. The man simply needs anger-management training. But at least the white men who piss him off merit his direct address and his vocalized contempt. This “I-dismiss-you-from-my-attention” treatment? That’s something else.
Now, McCain isn’t stupid, and I don’t think his campaign managers are either. I don’t think McCain’s body language was accidental or unplanned. They knew full well how this would look, and I think they’re counting on it. The silent language of McCain’s posture and eye contact is practically a shout-out to white Middle America, sending a very clear message: “Can you believe this boy? Can you believe he’s actually talking to me?” And in the unspoken fury telegraphed by McCain’s surgically-constructed cheeks, and the constant flexing of his jaw muscles as he
ground his teeth tried to smile graciously, I heard, “Y’know, back in the day, we would’ve known just what to do with a fella like you.”
McCain’s post-GOP-convention surge has faltered. Sarah Palin, who initially seemed to be energizing the evangelicals, is starting to look more and more like a mistake. Poor and middle-class Americans, which includes a whole lot of Republicans who are suddenly beginning to realize that the current economic crisis is their own damn fault for voting in a bunch of rich thieves, are up in arms. McCain’s only hope at this stage is a blatant appeal to something that will unite Republicans regardless of class, faith, and issues. Well, the Southern Strategy hasn’t failed yet.
Hmm… given that, I’m not sure I should call this subtext. Is it still subtext when it’s right there in your face?