“He’s a sort of new sort of Republican. Old style was a Boston Brahmin liberal Republican.… What followed that was the scrappy Reagan Democrats, ethnic and working class. This is something new now, regular guy, looks like an American…”
—Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
This is the kind of thing that I’ve come to expect when traveling abroad: Like the time I was waiting in line at the Islamabad Airport, and the Customs official, apparently disregarding my U.S. passport, asked me if I’m Pakistani. Or the Mayan Indian kid in Guatemala, who told me that there’s no way that I could be American. Gesturing at his brown arm, and then mine, he said, “You’re black, like me!” Americans, he told me with all seriousness, are blonde. And male. And loud.
So if you’re hitting up various ports of call, and you don’t look like Brad Pitt—or Michael Jordan, for that matter—you take the don’t-look-like-an-American thing in stride. But when you’re on your home turf, you expect other Americans to know what American looks like. After all, since elementary school, we’ve all been fed the line about that great melting pot. We all got the memo: Anyone can be American!
So how do you explain this?
Now, I was hoping that Peggy Noonan would break this whole looks-like-an-American thing down for me, but she declined to comment on the record. So we’ll have to proceed with this exegesis sans Noonan’s participation.
Which is to say: Game on.
Watching her video clip, I was struck by a couple of things: First, there’s the matter-of-fact manner in which Noonan ticks off Scott Brown’s attributes: He’s self-made; he’s regular—and oh yeah, he looks like an American. Since Noonan is choosing to keep mum, we can only surmise that in her world, this is what an American looks like:
As opposed to this:
I have to admit, Noonan’s words stuck in my craw, bitter and indigestible. Here’s why: Her remarks are a very different thing from the dog whistle machinations of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waxing enthusiastically about “real Americans, hardworking Americans” in 2008. Or Sarah Palin saying, of Barack Obama, “he’s not one of us.” This wasn’t some cynical calculation designed to rile up the tea bag-waving, town hall shouting base. Looks like an American just slid out of Noonan’s sub-conscious, like some oleaginously poisonous eel from the ocean’s deepest depths. Which is surprising, considering that Noonan is a sophisticate, a well-educated, well-published pundit who lives and works in New York City—a city populated with all kinds of differently colored Americans.
She should know better.
She should know way better.
What’s telling is that no one else on the all-white panel on Morning Joe panel called her on it. Not one. Instead, they all nodded in agreement: CNBC’s Donny Deustch wondered if Scott Brown, the Senatorial candidate, reflected that “we’re going back to basics.” After all, Deustch said, we already have “our first African-American president.” Veteran columnist Mike Barnicle, champion of Boston’s blue-collar Irish, described Brown as the “football coach.” (I’m assuming Barnicle isn’t referring to these coaches.)
“Back to basics.” “Reassuring.” Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: Are they talking about how Brown, on some cellular level, taps into some Americans—read white Americans—need to hold onto old-school, ‘50s era tropes about all-American, apple pie eating, football playing, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people? With this group, is “American” by default, white? Is black, brown and beige destined to be considered other, the plus one? Is there something inherently threatening about the presence of a black president, the one whom birthers passionately insist is really a “furr-iner”? In the face of all this scary change, are a certain group of Americans clinging to antiquated notions of race and ethnicity like some well-loved, fuzzy teddy bear? And if so, have they forgotten that the original Americans came wrapped in brown skin?
Apparently, this is the case with former wrestling promoter Don “Moose” Lewis, who recently announced that he was forming a new, pro-ball league, the All-American Basketball Alliance. To play in this league, you’ve got to have two qualifications: You must be American-born with both parents of the “Caucasian race.” (Insert your white men can jump joke here.) Then there’s the Hawaii talk radio host who this week had this to say our president: “I’m not racist, but we need to keep an eye on this little brown man.”
Clearly, we’re living in an era of high anxiety; there’s nothing like the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to ratchet up the crazy. The American pie is getting smaller and smaller—and everyone is scrambling to grab a piece. But, as The Root’s senior writer Kai Wright touched on, there’s something else at work here, too: The country’s shifting color palette. Opportunists—Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—tap into this nascent white rage to freak out the base, spewing and bloviating as they divide the country into a strict, us-vs.-them paradigm. It’s their job to do so, and so they do it, with numbing predictability.
But Noonan’s slip speaks of something else: Arrogance. She’s not mad at all. Her slip speaks of something else, a way of looking at the world, a world where "all-American" is code for a certain kind of American. It's a point of view that ignores this country's multiracial heritage and history. Never mind that this country has always been multiracial. And in this era of ever-changing demographics, Noonan's slip shows that she—and her compatriots nodding in agreement on Morning Joe—are hopelessly out of date.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.