Is the chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee a racist? I have no idea. And there lies a problem.
The Outpost published a story last Thursday about an allegation that Republican chairman Jennifer Olsen, also a Tea Party activist, had attacked President Obama with a racist joke on her Facebook page involving a watermelon under a box trap. The allegation first appeared on a blog, Montanafesto, which posted a screen shot of the Facebook image. The blog post was by Nicole French, an avowed Republican who has been active on the medical marijuana issue.
Ms. Olsen denied that she had posted the joke. Fair enough. People who know far more about Facebook than I do say that hacking it isn’t that hard.
But Ms. Olsen did something worse than just deny the allegation. The way she and fellow Republicans reacted says a lot about their miserable support among minority voters.
Had the same thing happened to me, or probably to you, we would have known how to react. We would have denied having done it. We would have expressed regret that such an offensive joke had somehow become linked to our names, and we would have repeated our deeply held beliefs in racial equality and justice.
We wouldn’t, without evidence, have accused anyone in particular of doing the hacking, and we certainly wouldn’t have blamed the incident on an entire political class.
Ms. Olsen got all of that wrong. On her Facebook page, she posted a cryptic note (now vanished) saying that she would not comment on blog posts. “It is what it is,” she wrote, about as lame a denial as the English language can craft.
In response to our inquiries, she didn’t express regret that she was an innocent victim of a malicious hacker. Without providing any evidence, she blamed the posting directly on Ms. French.
Worse, she added this comment: “Liberals always try to take our focus away from real issues by doing things like this. It is absolutely not true.”
This turned a muddle into a mess. We got a response from Ms. French, who acknowledged that she has no affection for Ms. Olsen but denied being a liberal and denied that she faked the post. She also noted that she couldn’t be sure someone else had not done so. A couple of fellow Republicans chimed in, saying they had confidence in Ms. French’s integrity.
The response of some other Republicans was, if anything, worse than Ms. Olsen’s. Ms. French said she posted the screen shot of the joke on the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee’s Facebook page with the comment, “Are these the ideals we wish to espouse?”
Before the post was removed an hour later, responses ranged from the dismissive – “it was a joke” – to the personally insulting to the idiotic, such as the suggestion that anyone who can see racism in a joke involving a black president and a watermelon must herself be racist.
Yes, that’s a mature response to an allegation of racism: Make an allegation of racism!
Now, it’s true that some Americans don’t understand the racist implications of watermelon. But for prominent members of a major political party, one that has struggled for decades to win the votes of black Americans, that level of ignorance amounts to dereliction of duty.
Following November’s election loss, Republicans began soul searching about why so many white people vote for them and so few blacks and Latinos do. Mostly, they seemed to conclude, they haven’t done a good job of getting their message out.
No doubt. But some of the loudest conservative voices on TV and radio still talk as if racism is something that only blacks do to whites. In a more generous frame of mind, they say that blacks won’t vote for Republicans because blacks don’t recognize their own best interests.
That’s the way to win over political opponents: persuade them that they are too dumb to think for themselves.
In Montana, Eric Olsen, Ms. Olsen’s father and also a local Tea Party stalwart, has written on his Facebook page that Barack Obama is a racist. Tom Balek at Rockin’ on the Right Side, perhaps the most prolific conservative blogger in the state since the Electric City Weblog recently shuttered its doors, has called the New York Times racist.
Such language abuse amounts to, if not full-bore dementia, an astounding display of ineptitude or, worse, a deliberate attempt to render the word meaningless. If “racist” means nothing, then no one can be a racist.
So where are we left? Amid squalor and ugliness. The Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee put out a statement saying that Ms. Olsen has received death threats. Montana Cowgirl, probably the most read political blog in Montana, says it has received hate email about its posts on the incident, including one email that said, “You are a racist bitch. Please drink yourself to death.”
America has come a long way since I was growing up in deeply segregated South Texas. That was an evil time, and I would never want to go back. We have learned hard-earned lessons since then.
Unfortunately, some of us remain unschooled, and our ignorance does us all harm.