The Cultural Roots of the Dismissive Argument that Obama Supporters Are “Obamamaniacs”

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Bob Myers is an advanced candidate for the Ph.D. in U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Myers is currently a Teaching Fellow in the UCLA Cluster Program.

"I remember the time (about 15 years ago) when the advocates for… Africans were treated as fanatics, and considered as the disturbers of the peace of society." --Dr. Benjamin Rush to Granville Sharp, 1783

As an African American historian of mental illness in the 19th Century, I am compelled to comment on the frequent use of madness metaphors to explain the success of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Clinton and the media at large repeatedly characterize Obama’s historic success and momentum as “Obama-Mania,” some sort of intangible phenomena in which people are “spell-bound.” Instead of rallying for support, like any other candidate, Obama supporters are portrayed as “delusional.” Psychiatric language may be common place, even ubiquitous in the 21st century, but to employ it as a way to marginalize and disenfranchise African-American political momentum certainly has historical roots.

Reports of Obama’s “animal magnetism” and “frenzied crowds” re-occur in media coverage of political contests, suggesting that supporters are merely “caught up in Obama-Mania.” 1984 Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro stepped down from Hillary Clinton's finance committee after attempts to diminish Obama’s capacities and accomplishments, asserting his supporters are simply “caught up in the concept” and that Obama is “very lucky to be who he is.” She added, "It's been a very sexist media. Some just don't like [Hillary]. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign."

What is most troubling here is not Senator Clinton’s metaphors or Ferarro’s bitterness and race-baiting, but how press and lay-people alike continue to characterize Barack Obama’s political momentum as something which people are getting “caught up in,” insinuating that instead of rationally choosing to be political participants, Obama supporters are operating outside of reality, trapped under some kind of “spell.” History indicates such language comes to us from 19th century American psychiatry, where black people were thought to be “morally insane,” and incapable of free, rational thought.

Not only are Obama supporters cast as “out of touch with reality,” the Clinton campaign also casts Obama himself as morally incompetent and untrustworthy. Clinton ridicules Obama’s intellect (“Hope we can Xerox”), his oratorical skills (“…the celestial choirs may open up…”), his substance (“rhetorical flourishes”), and more recently casts Obama as “unknown” and untrustworthy should the phone ring at 3 am. During the Texas debate, Senator Clinton herself ridiculed the Saturday Night Live skit, insinuating that Obama mesmerized the press-corps into a docile, non-aggressive state.

Obama took all these ideas head on. In his response to Clinton he stated that she had been insinuating he and his supporters were “Somehow delusional,” that they didn’t have a “firm grip on reality.” As a commentator on My Fox in Texas put it, “[Obama] holds the crowds attending his rallies spellbound, mesmerized as he speaks about change and hope. Obama seems to draw people in to himself in an eerily "messianic" fashion…He doesn't have supporters, he has FOLLOWERS, and his followers are drawn to him not on the merit of his accomplishment, but rather by the sheer force of his personality.” In an article for Real Clear Politics called, “Obama Casts His Spell,” Charles Krauthammer uses madness metaphors like “dazzle,” “aroused,” “mesmeric power,” and “infatuated” to describe the pro-Obama movement. ABC's Jake Tapper notes the "Helter-Skelter cultish qualities" of "Obama worshipers," while the Los Angeles Times’s Joel Stein calls it the “the Cult of Obama."

Accused of having a strictly irrational, “emotional” attachment to Obama, one young African-American became a You-Tube sensation simply by being knowledgeable, not delusional. Pressed by a skeptical CNN journalist to provide substantive rationale for his Obama support, Derrick Ashong perplexed the reporter with his clarity and competence. (Watch video). This is clear contrast to the characterization of Obama supporters as easily duped, weak-minded or mesmerized.

The word “mesmerized” is derived from Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician from the 19th century recognized as the father of modern hypnosis. Dr. Benjamin Rush—who signed the Declaration of Independence and whose image adorns the seal of the American Psychiatric Association—pioneered studies in “mania” and his writings on insanity dominated American psychiatry until well after the Civil War. Rush, a strident abolitionist, diagnosed several forms of “mania,” including “Negro-mania,” a condition wherein white southerners were obsessed with the “Negro question.” There are striking similarities between characterizations of Obama supporters as “Maniacs” and the 19th century discourse on “Negro-Mania.”

Influenced by scientific notions of black insanity, Louisa McCord, a 19th-century Southern U.S. conservative intellectual, published a prominent essay on “Negro-Mania.” Her collection of essays describes her as “a supporter of slavery and a believer in the superiority of the white race.” Additionally, John Campbell expanded on the concept in his 1851 publication, Negro-Mania.

In stark contrast to Rush’s characterization of the political fervor surrounding the abolitionist movement as “Negro-Mania,” other prominent psychiatrists determined that Free Negro political activity itself was “insane.” In 1840 the United States Census published statistics indicating that Free Negroes living in the north were 14 times more likely to suffer from “mania” or “insanity” than the “well-kept slaves” of the south. In 1851 Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright—student of Dr. Benjamin Rush—diagnosed a mental disease, Drapetomania, which he argued made slaves want to escape from service, run away and be free. For Dr. Cartwright, the idea of Negro freedom was delusional and could only result in insanity.

Though debunked much later, psychiatric skepticism and ”statistical pictures” of Negro delusion never evaporated. Richard Shryock points out that many physicians became influenced by the writings of Dr. Rush, including the British authority on psychiatry and creator of the term “moral insanity,” J.C. Pritchard. (According to Richard Shryrock: "Pritchard cited Rush; Pritchard in turn was cited by Samuel B. Morton of Philadelphia; and both Pritchard and Morton were subsequently used by Arthur de Gobineau in his famous essay on racial inequality.")

Arguments against Negro political participation on the grounds of “insanity” helped pro-slavery advocates to claim slavery was in fact, a “Positive Good.” Psychiatrists inspired John C. Calhoun to lecture both the House of Representatives and the English foreign secretary on the merits of slavery for the Negro population. He used the latest science and statistics to support his argument: whereas some people might “go insane” as in moments of religious ecstasy or political excitement (like the “Negro-Maniacs”), others were born “morally insane,” meaning that such individuals lacked the moral capacity for reason. Free Negroes, psychiatrists argued, were “insane” because to exercise freedom required using faculties they did not possess.

To use Senator Clinton’s metaphor in a somewhat anachronistic way, if the Free Negro’s phone rang at 3am, he would not have the moral capacity to respond. In fact, as far fetched as that metaphor may seem, it is concurrent with the racist, fear-based tone of the controversial Clinton ad which helped win her Ohio and Texas delegates. In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times Harvard University’s Orlando Patterson exposed the similarities between the Clinton advertisement and 19th century propaganda used to inflame tensions between free blacks and whites.

When it came to successful, rational Free Negroes—the “clean, bright and articulate” blacks of the nineteenth century—the United States was running out of language. The crisis of language touched litigators on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line who sought precedent in order to comprehend the combined person/property-hood of the Negro. When faced with this challenge, Justice Taney’s Supreme Court mutilated jurisprudence to create entirely new categories of citizenship in the 1857 Dred Scott case. Ultimately dissatisfied with the consequences of Dred Scott, which declared that the Negro was outside the Constitution and not a citizen, legislators finally jettisoned that language after an incredibly bloody Civil War. The nation had to force itself toward a new understanding, one wherein “being free” meant more than just “being white.” The language had to open up.

What we call “Madness” is inevitably a challenge to communicate more deeply. Neither Senators Obama nor Clinton are responsible for racism or sexism in America, but each of them is responsible for the kind of tone they set and the public spirit they inspire during this historical campaign. “Race” is too towering, too knotty a concept to be trotted out as a political tactic to win delegates from an already intimidated and nervy public. Hegel referred to Africa as the “footstool to history,” but the American racial experiment cannot and should not be allowed to be the footstool to the Democratic Party’s potential re-alignment crisis.

The pro-Obama movement is not comprised of unthinking maniacs, delusional and drunk on the rhetoric of “hope” and “freedom.” We are rational-choice, free-thinking individuals just like any one else—and we possess a deep memory and a discerning spirit too.

The Clinton campaign’s argument that Obama is “incompetent,” that his supporters “are caught up,” and his message of hope “delusional” not only exposes the kind of intellectual impotence that could leave the already fragile Democratic Party fragmented, but it also highlights the inherently racist assumptions with which we continue to operate. The argument that supporting a black man who speaks of “Hope” is somehow delusional is a dangerous and divisive argument to make. Not only is that perspective an unfortunate echo of 19th century scientific racism, but Clinton’s cynicism simply indicates a lack of originality and a shrinking, myopic vision.

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R.R. Hamilton - 4/1/2008

... fall for this nonsense, did you, Ms. Brown? Maybe you should go back and read all the comments, many of which focus on the mental-competence-questioning names given to supporters of white candidates -- most recently as "Deaniacs" in 2004. (Since it hasn't been mentioned yet, I will now add Al Gore's description of the "extra-chromosone conservatives" -- connoting, of course, Down's Syndrome.)

Then as far the 3 AM phonecall add being one that raises concerns about "negroe incompetence", keep in mind that that ad would never be run if the opponent were Colin Powell or even Condi Rice, because it would seem ridiculous for Hillary to claim she had more foreign policy experience than either of those two. It was a slap at Obama's inexperience, not his race. Wake up and smell the coffee.

Tristan Larelle Brown - 4/1/2008

What an amazing observation. I hadn't previously thought about the connection between "Obama mania" and archaic notions of negroe incompetence. It is certainly the case that Obama's supporters are classified as spellbound sheep who are lead primarlily on emotions.

It is also worth noting that Obama is also classified as a Jesus figure to which no emperical sense of accomplishment can be attributed. He is shown to have desciples (as opposed to simple supporters) that care not for his records but are fueled on pure faith. Even though many may consider this a positive classification, we again see Obama depicted as a figure lacking the mental capacity to "answer those 3am calls" and gains his support on blind leaps of faith. Little mention of his accomplishments, abilities, achievements, etc

Jasin Samarcolm - 3/30/2008

I agree with your basic premise that racism is no covert.

"It's the underlying belief that black people are unable
of being articulate and smart so that when you do have an intelligent
black person, they are often treated as a novelty." Exactly, Joe Biden proved this point with his description of Obama early in the campaign cycle.

"segregation that is illegal by law but is still implemented economically." Interesting fact, Pastor Wright lives in an area that is 93% white and 2% black.

Can you define the "neo con doctrine" for me please?

Jasin Samarcolm - 3/30/2008

I think this is reading too much into things. -iacs was most recently used to describe Dean supporters in '04. What's the cultural significance of adding -bot to Ron Paul supporters (Paulbots)? Nothing. This piece is nonsense.

What about the Obama video depicting Clinton supporters as zombies? Ever heard the phrase Bushtards? No? Check out a lefty blog site. There is absolutely nothing new about casting one's opponents in these terms, and the one used, maniac, was used in 2004. It's analogous to calling Ron Paul supporters Paulbots.

When will someone write about the actual, clear, overt, cultural bias evident in the attacks on Bush supporters since at least 2004? The disregard for people from the South, evangelicals, and other stereotypical Bush supporters is not hidden, did not involve use of a term used to describe a former white DNC candidate, and reflect the roots of liberal elitism some on the left want to project on to the right. How about a piece examining the less cryptic attacks on Black Republicans, i.e. throwing Oreo cookies at Michael Steele, putting an asterisk next to Justice Thomas’s name, calling Condi a house . . ., etc.? How about the disregard and disrespect for, and attacks on, the female Clinton accusers but the praise for the single Justice Thomas accuser? How about the cultural roots of what happened to the Duke lacrosse team? Please. This article is another hoax like self-written racial epithets on a door. You see what you want to see when you have a chip on your shoulder.

Sandra Arreguin - 3/27/2008

I appreciate your gratitude, though a bit misguided. I suppose I should make some clarifications. I NEVER said “Obama’s critics” –as if they were one kind—were ALL racist. That would be as myopic as it is to say that all Clinton’s and McCain’s critics are sexist or ageists, respectively. I am saying that the rhetoric employed by MANY (not ALL) in the media (“Obama-maniacs,” “crazed followers,” looking for the emotional rationale for supporting Obama, etc…) and those who espouse this specific perspective (clearly not ALL Americans ) are showing how important it is for them to NOT talk about his race. They prefer to talk about his supporters as delusional.

I should also add that it may be your point that “Obama supporters believe that ‘there cannot be a rationale explanation, other than racism, for NOT supporting Obama,’” but that’s NOT my point. There are many reasons other than race why people may not support Obama. Many people I know had been waiting for Hillary to run and now they are sticking with her. As far as they are concerned, Hillary and Obama are interchangeable and they want to help elect the first female president. They are not being charged with being racist. Some believe the war on terrorism should be the priority and leaving Iraq would only make the US look weak to the rest of the world. They think McCain is the best candidate for them. No one says they’re racist. Saying Obama’s speeches are empty or only inspirational when there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary, well, then it gets questionable. Saying supporters are “followers” who are “mesmerized” by his oratorical skills, very questionable.

Re: your comment about Bill Clinton’s sex scandal and the obstruction of justice that followed

I have to say that Obama has not been charged with anything as scandalous as “obstruction of justice.” If he was, certainly there would be some who would say that he is being accused of this because we live in a racist society, but there would also be those who would feel betrayed by his actions as an elected official. Clearly, things are not black and white (no pun intended).

So, I would like to close by saying that the dynamics involved in this election season that expose the racism in our society and supporting or not supporting Obama do not have to go hand in hand. Many figure they can just charge complainers of pulling the “race card” and then feel free to make racist assumptions and comments. That is not a defense for anyone. It’s a waving hand to distract.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/27/2008

...for making my point. I don't think I could have paid someone to write a better post supporting my point.

When you say, "[Obama's critics] are racist, because it exposes their belief that there cannot be a rational explanation for supporting Obama", it makes my point that some Obama supporters believe that "there cannot be a rationale explanation, other than racism, for NOT supporting Obama."

(Disclosure: I do not favor any of the three major candidates. I truly don't care which of them is elected in November. Not that I think they are all bad; I think they all have their good points and bad points and, overall, they are as Presidential candidates equal in that regard.)

I'm reminded here of the Clinton-Lewinski Scandal. In that case, sex was not the crime; it was the defense: Anytime a Clinton critic said "perjury", the Clinton defenders would scream "SEX! It's SEX!" If another one said "obstruction of justice", the reply was always the same: "IT'S SEX! You want to impeach him for a BLOWJOB!!" (I think the drama now before us involving the Detroit mayor's perjury charges -- charges related to lying under oath (about SEX!) -- is an interesting equipoise to the Lewinski Scandal. Unfortunately for the mayor, sitting mayors aren't immune from indictment the way sitting Presidents are.)

And thus it is with Obama supporters today. His race isn't his crime; it's his defense.

Sandra Arreguin - 3/26/2008

Here it seems that we are again missing the point. First, though Obama’s speeches are inspirational, they are NOT empty. It is not just rhetoric. He is talking about important substantive issues that have previously received little attention. Second, Obama did not change his name, nor has he lied about his age. He even shared his tax information when he was under no obligation to do so. I see nothing to compare between Obama and Hart, except to say that they have both been charged with having empty speeches. The main difference is that Hart’s speeches were, arguably, “empty” and Obama’s speeches are not. So, it makes no sense that he AND his supported be dismissed as maniacs or that he and his supported be praised for their intellect or ability to be articulate. Perhaps he should be praised for being articulate and erudite for being a politician, but not for being black.
The reason why he is being dismissed as a good orator is because no one wants to really come to terms with the fact that he is exposing (by talking about and being subject to) the fact that we still live in a racist society that masquerades as one that is “colorblind.” Similarly, his supporters are also subjected to an alternate standard. It seems that the media and many other Americans cannot help asking themselves, “Why would you want to vote for Obama?” And they all seem to silently believe that if you are a white Obama supporter, you are either guilt-ridden or have succumbed to Obama’s “spellbinding” speeches. If you are a black Obama supporter, well then, you must be voting for him ONLY because he is black—no other rational reason. If you are of an in-between group, well then it must be because you a.) don’t know any better or b.) you too are mesmerized.
In sum, the what is being said about Obama and his supporters, by the media, some members of the public, and the Clinton campaign is not “deemed ‘racist’” because Obama is black. They ARE racist. They are racist, because it exposes their belief that there cannot be a rational explanation for supporting Obama.

Ashoka Finley - 3/26/2008

Prior to reading this article, I didn't know the historical basis of "maniac" black
politics. I feel that overt racism in our country in nearly a thing of
the past, but this has been replaced by covert racism in the form of
condescension. It's the underlying belief that black people are unable
of being articulate and smart so that when you do have an intelligent
black person, they are often treated as a novelty. I have
experienced situations where people have been more mesmerized by my
ability to form a coherent sentence then by what I am actually have to
say. I think the election of a president of color would be a step
towards less prejudice in the minds of the American public, but I
think the portrayal of blacks in society as rappers, athletes and
criminals (sometimes as a combination of the three) hurts the position
of Obama and intelligent people of color in general because we often
aren't lauded for the progressive ideas we are presenting, but rather
that we are able to present them. But that is a discussion that I
think is beyond the scope of this election, because of its
implications on the societal and cultural values in our country. Not
to mention the segregation that is illegal by law but is still
implemented economically. I think the Clintons are running out of
words for the, as you say "clean, bright and articulate". I hope as
this race continues the democratic party does not fall victim to the
self defeating spiral of gender and race, and actually focus on the
task at hand, defeating the neo con doctrine.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/25/2008

The supporters of this "post-racial" candidate are the ones who most often remind us of his race. I mean, it's one thing to respond to criticism like Ferraro's -- which treated Obama as a racial candidate -- but his supporters trumpet "racist" components in even "post-racial criticism", like criticism of the substance of his speeches, or the character of his supporters.

Can you imagine if Gary Hart had been black? What would be said about Mondale's challenge to the Senator's allegedly "empty rhetoric" in which he quoted a famous TV commercial to ask, "Where's the beef?" Or about Hart changing his name (from Hartpence) or misremembering the year of his birth (1942 or 1941)? From this year's campaign, we can say for certain that if Hart had been black, all those criticisms would have been deemed "racist".

Brian Martin - 3/24/2008

supporters of Howard Dean were called "Deaniacs" or "Deanie babies", is there something sinister about that?


Greg David Mutch - 3/23/2008

This article is one of the most lucid and relevant I've read. It's always fascinated me why Sen. Obama's speeches have been dismissed as empty, just because they are so uplifting and persuasive. When Pavarotti sang and had a similar affect on his audience it didn't mean that he didn't understand what he was singing about or that he lacked musicality and sincerity. Conversely, why should a mediocre speech, or performance, be any more substantive thsn one that is not?