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

"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.