There was a moment on last night’s episode of The Office that I thought was one of its best in years. New employee Nelly tricks new manager Andy into thinking he’s related to Michelle Obama. This leads to the conclusion on the part of Oscar and other members of the office staff that someone in Andy’s family must have owned slaves. It turns out they transported them from Africa. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a few tense moments between Andy and black employee Darryl, who first tells Andy “it’s not a big deal,” but then gets annoyed at Andy’s insistence on trying to “act black,” by using slang and adopting an accent, in order to seem more hip and make up for the sins of his fathers. Near the end of the episode, Darryl retreats to the company warehouse where he tells confidant Jim that he “just can’t do this anymore.” It’s unclear exactly what “this” is, but Darryl seems to imply that it has at least something to do with the ambient racism that permeates the office, and ironically, somewhat disturbingly, provides some of the comic relief for the show’s viewers. Part of the humor of The Office is that it’s playing with double standards and stereotypes, and its characters’ tendency towards confirmation bias, Darryl is saying he wants to get away from all that, even though he plays along sometimes, but in the long term, it has him in knots.
As I watched the replay of Wednesday night’s debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I wondered if the reason why the president performed so badly was because he was feeling like Darryl. Here is the most powerful man in the world being mocked for living in the White House and using Air Force One, being ever so subtly reminded that he’s the “food stamp president,” having to respond to Mitt Romney’s outright lies and obfuscations as though they had anything to do with the economic, military, and political problems the country is facing.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Obama’s performance in the debate was bad, and I think he should be held accountable for that, but I also think Romney should be held accountable for what he was saying during the debate and how he was saying it. For instance, the more I think about it, the more I’m disturbed by this comment, directed at Obama during an otherwise innocuous exchange over policy, “As president, you’re entitled to your own house and your own airplane, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” This was clearly one of Mitt’s much-publicized “zingers,” which his campaign staff bandied about in the run-up to the debate. You don’t just come up with a comment like that off the top of your head (or at least Mitt Romney doesn’t), especially not in the context in which it was delivered. The comment is kind of stupid on its face since every president since Teddy Roosevelt has been entitled to those things and all politicians manipulate facts to their advantage, and it’s definitely not the type of thing that’s going to win over any Obama voters. So why did Romney say it? What was he really saying and who was he trying to impress?
Clearly, Romney is playing with the contemporary political status of the word “entitlements.” What he’s suggesting is that Obama is like the people in Romney’s 47%. He hasn’t really earned his office, but he thinks he’s entitled to it, presumably for the same reason that, say, Scott Brown thinks Elizabeth Warren is entitled to her office, because she identified herself as Native American when she applied to Harvard, as a minority, and therefore in Romney’s and Brown’s eyes, a self-described “victim.” According to people like Romney, Brown, and their constituency, many if not most of whom benefit from entitlement programs themselves (public education, Medicare, highways, police and fire services, etc.), people like Warren, Obama, and the 47% think the U.S. owes them something. At least, this is the rhetoric behind Romney’s “zinger.”
How easy is it for Mitt Romney to say these things, and how callous, to tell a thoroughly self-made man, Obama, to stop feeling “entitled” to the political office he so mightily, so improbably earned. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is a man whose father was the governor of Michigan and the president of the American Motor Company, a man from perhaps the most privileged background one can enjoy in the U.S. He belongs to a church that up until 1978, when he was 31 years old, the same age I am now, did not allow black members, and still doesn’t allow women to occupy places of power. (The latter, at least, is part of the reason I’m no longer Catholic.) You’d think that he could understand why Obama might feel entitled. After all, he’s worked pretty damn hard to get where he is. Romney probably worked hard too, but he steadfastly refuses, to his own detriment, by the way, that he had a headstart in the first place, that he might owe the little people who helped him get where he is something in return. In fact, his wife says we need to be more grateful that he’s even deigned to reward us with his presence on the Republican ticket in the first place. This is the ugly rhetoric at the core of the Romney campaign, and it’s not that different from the defenses that Andy on The Office offered of his slaveholding ancestors and contemporary peers in the American elite. The episode was obviously meant to satirize contemporary political discourse over racial identity.
Of course, I know that Romney was just playing politics, that an insouciant cut at Obama’s sense of entitlement was not intended to come off as racist or discriminatory, that he probably didn’t even write this particular “zinger” himself, but his entire debate performance was fueled by such a contempt for Obama as a man, and the American people as voters, that it’s really depressing that very few pundits I’ve read are calling him out for it. Sure, the New York Times and other publications have done a good job of covering the lies and half truths promoted by both candidates, and at least one blogger has done a good job of analyzing the basic dishonesty of Romney’s overall debate strategy, but as far as I’ve seen, no one has connected these lies and obfuscations to Mitt Romney’s own sense of entitlement, which is the direct result of his privileged background, and not just his hard work or personal accomplishment, as in the case of Obama. It’s as though we as the public have grown tired ourselves of the double standards and stereotypes to which Obama is subjected.
Mitt Romney started the debate last night with dog whistle insults of China; shout outs to the ecologically negligent clean coal constituency in West Virginia, an infamously racist state; and a reminder to the president that more people are on food stamps now then we he took office, a result less of Obama’s policies than those of his predecessor George W. Bush, who Romney more or less wants to emulate. Although I resented it, I sympathized with Obama’s lackluster response to these asinine and borderline offensive comments. I didn’t blame him for feeling worn down by four years of Republican resistance and lies, by Mitt Romney’s audacious mid-debate shifts in policy and opinion. Just imagine how Obama would be treated had he pursued the same strategy? Wednesday night’s shitshow was not really a “debate,” it was an extended commercial, a farce, and I got the feeling that Obama, like Darryl on The Office, just didn’t want to play the game anymore, and maybe for similar reasons. I can’t say I blame him, but like Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Stewart, I hope he wakes the fuck up, because the new Mitt Romney, who is pretending to be a centrist, like Obama, is even more threatening because of it.