There seems to be wide agreement that Hillary Clinton's 'red phone' ad was a disappointing foray into the politics of fear - but was it also subliminally racist? When I first saw the ad, I admit I shared something of Orlando Patterson's reaction: 'I was left with an uneasy feeling that something was not quite right - something that went beyond my disappointment that she had decided to go negative.'
At the time I attributed my own confusion to the ad's poor narrative construction. To me, there seemed to be a mis-match between what we were watching - small children asleep in bed, a mother looking in at the bedroom door - with the commentary which referred to events off camera - a phone ringing in the White House (so how come we can hear it in the bedroom, and it appears to summon the mother into the room...?) and 'something...happening in the world'. Not to mention the unnerving final scene of Hillary (to quote Camille Paglia) 'sitting at her desk in full drag and jewelry at that ungodly hour.'
Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, has a different explanation for his own unease:
I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.
The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.
Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.
Interviewed by Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball the other day, Professor Patterson suggested viewers watched the ad with the sound turned down. He argued that, without its commentary, the scene is more reminiscent of home security commercials than terrorist threats, reinforcing the sense of danger to the home from an unknown outsider. If shown in the Deep South, he added, the Clinton ad could not fail to summon up divisive fears of the alien (i.e. black) intruder.
I don't know if he's right. I certainly don't think the Clinton campaign is deliberately exploiting racial fears, but I worry that they're not unhappy for such fears to come into play, if it takes the shine off Obama's attempts to transcend racial politics. I also think that a kind of obfuscation and avoiding-the-obvious has marked discussion of Clinton's appeal to a bedrock of older, white working-class voters. Commentators tend to assume it's some quality in Hillary that accounts for their stubborn support, rather than voicing the uncomfortable possibility that something more visceral and unpleasant might explain their resistance to the idea of an African-American candidate.