I usually stick to one or two themes in each of my columns, but no fewer than five distinct themes comprise this week’s column. I’ll be addressing America’s peculiar institution, and by that I don’t mean a euphemism for slavery, although matters of race and racism are certainly pertinent to today’s topic. Our country’s other peculiar institution is that of the position of First Lady of the United States. It’s an odd institution because it’s been with us in one form or another since the founding of the Republic, yet, unlike the presidency, the role of the First Lady is neither defined nor even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The First Lady is not elected and the position brings with it no official duties. Usually, but not always, the role is filled by the wife of the president. The First Lady is granted her own staff, which includes a chief of staff, press secretary, and White House social secretary. She has an unofficial ceremonial role organizing domestic, and attending international, state functions alongside, or in place, of the president.
The First Lady is generally accorded public respect, in part because she is a lady, in part because of the respect due to the office her husband, the president, holds, and because she represents the face of the United States, at home and abroad. When I was a boy, it was considered disrespectful and a sign of ill manners and poor upbringing to insult or denigrate any woman, let alone the First Lady of the United States. In fact, viciously insulting the First Lady would have been viewed as unpatriotic and downright un-American.
Things have changed in my brief lifetime. For one thing, the tone of civil discourse has completely devolved into gutter sniping. We had heated arguments in my day, but we disagreed respectfully and politely. Our arguments were based in reason and not anger or prejudice. We argued with passion, not hatred, in our hearts. Democratic and Republican senators could wage fierce debates on the floor of Congress and then retire together to the local watering hole to quench their parched throats. No more. Today, the animosity spawned by the arguments remains long after the words have faded into silence.
This phenomenon now occurs not only in the hallowed halls of Congress, but throughout American society, around water coolers and dinner tables. Nowhere is it more evident than on the World Wide Web. The Internet is another peculiar institution: a public forum cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity and completely lacking in accountability. Civility is stripped from the tone of civil discourse because the speakers feel no accountability for their words, hidden behind screen names and located many miles from the people who hear them. Few would be shameless enough to say such things in a face-to-face setting.
I came across a Facebook group page this week that posed this query: Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree? Considering that the First Lady is an unofficial position with no official duties, I would say every First Lady would qualify as first class unless they were observed stumbling drunkenly through the White House halls. Granted, some First Ladies have exemplified class and grace. While Jackie Kennedy brought youth and unprecedented glamour to the White House, the nation was awed by the 34-year-old’s inspiring display of grace under pressure as she led the country through the period of mourning and transition following her husband’s brutal assassination, which had taken place as she sat beside him. Unlike Mary Todd Lincoln before her, Jackie Kennedy lived in the age of television, which broadcasted to the entire world every moment, from the shooting itself to the burial and its aftermath. Yet the First Lady maintained her grace and dignity throughout the most difficult circumstances imaginable. But sure, I would agree that more Laura Bush was a lovely First Lady.
“She was a true American patriot first lady,” Mike King wrote on the Facebook page. Yes, I agreed; but then, haven’t all First Ladies been patriotic? Isn't patriotism an attribute that attaches to all of those married to a nation’s leader? Could not the same be said of Eva Braun? Yet, as I read the comments in response to the question, I discerned a disturbing trend. A majority of the responses insisted on contrasting Laura Bush with the current First Lady, Michelle Obama. I’m reprinting a sampling below, unedited. I feel cleaning up the respondents’ poor grammar might aid in legitimizing their demonization of the woman who is presently our country’s First Lady. Likewise, I’m attributing their quotes to their Facebook names because I believe individual should take responsibility for their words. I’ll return in a moment with my thoughts, but first, a sampling of responses to “Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree?”:
Aniano Enrique: “She's a classy lady. Michael Obama on the other hand...”
Charles Johnson Jr.: “And michelle is a low class low life piece of garbage first lady”
Delma Lehnert Pearce: “We went from CLASS to TRASH.”
Reuben Hart: “She is also a female. Something the present first freak can't claim with veracity.”
Sharyn Bell: “I wish we still had a 'lady' in the White House but sadly we have trailer- trash lottery winners there now.”
Sheila Prong: “Unlike the lipstick wearing pig there now”
Lynn Yocham: “Not one single pic of her with hatred spewing from her with her face all twisted in anger. On the black slut you never see a smile always face twisted up in hate.......”
Val D'Gal: “A 1000 times yes, unlike the ghetto rat currently defacing the Peoples' House!”
Cherie Roy: “Absolutely. So was Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy. This one now is a total disgusting mess. She acts like and dresses like she is fresh from the hood.”
Phil Chiachetti: “Not like the ape in the White House now.”
Skip Klinefelter: “Absolutely!! And now we have something that even reporters refer to as an ape!!”
Cynthia Zelene Velasquez: “How about she is a real lady not a transvestite like Michael!!”
Bob Pruyne Sr.: “Real class vs ghetto trash”
Dan Johnston: “As opposed to the pig we have in there now...”
Chatty Kathy: “Unlike the classless piece of crap in the WH now!”
Rebekah Bennett: “The difference is having a lady in the White House or a manly thug.”
Gerardette McCarthy: “yes she was!! not like the black pig!”
Bernie Milot: “WAY better than that ghetto pig shemale we have now!!..”
Jennifer Snyder: “now we have the ghetto infesting OUR WHITE HOUSE. Send in Terminex to get rid of the awful infestation”
Randall Hughes: “What about chewbacca's hairless sister?”
Josh Diles: “I would never call our First Lady an ape.......apes deserve way more respect”
I’m back. Let’s review: “low class low life piece of garbage, trash, first freak, trailer- trash lottery winners, lipstick wearing pig, black slut, ghetto rat, fresh from the hood, an ape, pig, classless piece of crap, manly thug, black pig, ghetto pig shemale, ghetto infesting…” Do you see a trend here? Not a single respondent criticized Michelle Obama for anything she did in her role as First Lady. All of the attacks were personal, filled with racial epithets and vitriol. This isn't about politics. This isn't about Democrats or Republicans. I can’t imagine any partisan making these comments about any previous (i.e., white) First Lady. This is about racism. It’s about bigotry and bigots. It’s about people who wear the American flag as a mantle of their alleged patriotism yet display the ugly racism that is anathema to the precepts of American democracy. What’s worse, is that in doing so, they are attacking their own country’s First Lady, America’s representative to the world. What could be more unpatriotic than that?
I grew up in an era of overt racism, amid segregation, integration, and race riots. I watched our society and our culture change. Black faces appeared in greater number on our television screens and in our neighborhood schools, and the overt racism faded. While there would always be scattered pockets of hatred and bigotry, it appeared as though racism no longer existed. I associated with other progressive, well-educated individuals and in these circles there was no racism to be observed. But the overt racism had become covert; it had never really gone away, it was simply confined to discrete groups and individuals in whose circles I did not travel. Since I rarely encountered it, it appeared to me and others that, except for a few fringe outliers, racism had been banished to the history books along with the KKK, cross burnings, and lynchings. But the Internet allows us to travel outside our circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances, and to see the rest of our society. By cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity while simultaneously removing any notion of accountability, the Internet has both enabled and exposed the ugly racism so prevalent today in America.
The new generation of Americans poised to inherit stewardship of our society’s culture, politics, and laws must address this racism, as well as the lack of decorum in public discourse.