So, I once again got embroiled in a facebook political diatribe *mostly against my will* because of this ridiculous cartoon. It immediately struck me as insulting — in part, because it mistakes sanctimonious asshattery for being funny. Beyond this initial annoyance I found the bitter core of my indignation: it’s bloody well racist, that’s why (not the only racist attack in recent memory, I might add).
Before I tell you why, let me admit that I am not a raving fan of Mr. Obama’s presidency. I have nothing against the man himself: he’s broad-minded, well-read, genteel, moderate, and reasonable. But his presidency has certainly disappointed liberals as much, if not more, than it has conservatives. Given the
hysterical historical timing of his election, I don’t believe this was really avoidable, and my critique is but a droplet of water amongst a sea of better argued ones (like this one).
That does not excuse this cartoon, which is guilty on two scores:
- Factual inaccuracy: Obama never said these words. Many people have confused the idea of progressive taxation with “confiscation” or “class warfare.” In actually, Obama’s presidency has actually shrunk the federal budget for the first time since 1987. Better yet, the administration has done so in the midst of the mountain of debt created by his Republican predecessor. That’s right: the Government Accountability Office (surely a socialist or even a communist facade) calculated that GW’s Medicare Part D created a greater fiscal burden than Social Security.
- James Madison owned more than 100 slaves for most of his life. While he was a good owner (no irony intended) by most accounts, and critiqued the idea of slavery on principle, he didn’t do a damned thing to confront the institution while it burgeoned during the early days of the Union (in his defense, even Lincoln didn’t get behind emancipation until it aligned with his principle purpose of ending the rebellion). Nevertheless, the fact of this history puts a different spin on this cartoon. Here on the one hand, we have a man of compound heritage, a largely self-made man, who has had words of confiscation and theft artificially placed into his mouth. On the other hand, we have a white slaveholder who was born to the richest family in Orange county and was raised as the primary heir of a Virginian tobacco farm. Unlike Washington, he did not voluntarily free a single slave during his lifetime.
But the ultimate irony of misrepresentation is, as usual, found in the crinkles and recesses of historical context. Madison’s home state of Virginia (the land of tobacco and freedom!) was one of the most regressive in the union. It wasn’t until the constitutional revision of 1851 that Virginia even got around to dropping the requirement allowing unpropertied white men to vote — the poorer, Western half nearly seceded over this issue even before the Civil War.
To review the state of voting rights in Madison’s home state during the time of his political career:
I’m not saying Madison was bad — he wasn’t at all, by any measure. Like Obama, he was broad-minded, well-read, genteel, moderate, and reasonable. He was, I think, more idealistic than Obama in his thinking — or at least his idealism had a broader scope — but that was coupled with a greater pragmatism in accepting the injustices of his time period. Those injustices were certainly greater than the ones we are confronted with in our own time period. That is why Madison was able to build a political legacy around the topic of “Freedom”, earn the title “Father of the Constitution,” and two centuries later be referred to as “an architect of Freedom” — despite the fact that he personally owned a hundred or more slaves, governed a population that systematically displaced the entire native population of an eastern quarter of North America, and lived in a state that didn’t universalize even white male suffrage until 15 years after his death.