Column | Feb. 25

Respecting the office

This past Friday, Ted Nugent issued a half-hearted, half-assed (though existent) apology for calling President Obama a “subhuman mongrel” while at a rally for Greg Abbott, attorney general of Texas and candidate for governor. This incident made me remember something I hadn’t thought of in a while: the flagrant and pervasive disrespect for the office of the presidency that has existed on an unprecedented level in the political sphere since, say, Jan. 20, 2009 (what a coincidence).

Since the president has taken office, we’ve seen Ted Nugent publicly say the president should “suck my machine gun,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her finger in his face while yelling at him, as though scolding a child, Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “you lie” during a State of the Union and Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro interrupting a Rose Garden speech to heckle the elected leader of the free world. These incidents, however, only scratch the surface of the attitude of disrespect toward the current occupant of the most powerful office anyone can hold.

I’m not saying no president has ever been disrespected before, nor am I saying it’s unacceptable to disagree with and revile the policies enacted by a president’s administration. But the attacks against the current president seem to be more frequent, more radical and more likely to come from people in positions of actual authority or influence. This begs the question of why now.

I tend to buy the obvious answer that such disrespect for the office is derived from a racist belief that its current holder is not “one of us,” isn’t American, isn’t Christian, is a communist. It’s much easier to rationalize calling someone who commands an army of four million a “subhuman mongrel” when you don’t believe he’s the legitimate leader of your country, of your people. But the choice of the phrase “subhuman” is particularly of note, and it’s why I’ve chosen to write this column now. I believe, more than any other of these events, the most recent Nugent scandal reveals unquestionably the racial element in all this. In the psyche of some, it is abundantly clear, there is still something unsettling about a biracial man with a “foreign-sounding” name being their president. The “otherization” that is so often inherent in modern, less overt racism has been playing itself out on the grand stage of American politics for over five years. Generations of dehumanization, from slavery onward, are called to mind when we hear the phrase “subhuman mongrel.” It expressly and intentionally makes us see the president as an illegitimate non-person, and why therefore would we need to respect him?

It is not a coincidence that such dehumanization began with the election of the first non-fully white man to the presidency. But people are hesitant to say so because it ruins the image we as a society like to construct, that a black man reaching the Oval Office symbolizes the end of centuries of racial oppression. It confirms that people, even those calculating and savvy enough to get elected to a governor’s mansion, still, in 2014, fear the “other.” It means that the work of those seeking real racial equality is still far from finished, which everyone involved already knew, but which is often swept under the rug in service of a revised historical narrative that sounds much more palatable.

If we’re actually to become a society with racial equality, we have to acknowledge inequality wherever it exists and in whatever form. We can’t sweep such ridiculous, disrespectful behavior under the rug, and we can’t ignore the fact that the gravitas of the presidency is currently being allowed to flounder, all in the name of saving face and keeping up images of a well-integrated, equal society. The standing of the office matters too much for that to continue to happen, for our country’s reputation around the world and for the ability of any president to use the “bully pulpit” and to get things done.

Ryan Dukeman is a freshman from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at rdukeman@princeton.edu.

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