Op-ed: The First Lady of microaggressions

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, May 17, 2015 4:51pm
  • Opinion

Michelle Obama gave a commencement address at Tuskegee University that was a ringing call for the graduates not to be discouraged by her whining.

Much of the first lady’s speech was what is right and proper for a Tuskegee commencement, drawing on the story of the determination and skill of the Tuskegee Airmen. But she devoted a long passage to her own struggles that was off-key and characteristically self-pitying.

Few women in modern America have been the focus of as much adulation as Michelle Obama, a Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate who was making almost $270,000 by the time her husband was elected senator. She is routinely lionized for her beauty and her public spiritedness.

Yet the first lady often strikes an aggrieved note when talking about her experience in America (her notorious comment in 2008 was that “for the first time in my adult lifetime I’m really proud of my country.”). Her gloss on the famous Wallis Simpson line is apparently that you can never be too rich, too thin or too easily offended.

At Tuskegee, she related a series of inconsequential gibes or perceived insults mostly from 2008 that, for her, loom large enough to share with graduating seniors years later.

The first lady cited, for instance, a controversial New Yorker cover during that campaign of her sporting an Angela Davis-style Afro and a gun. The image was meant to satirize “misconceptions and prejudices” about the Obamas, in the words of the publication’s editor, David Remnick.

The first lady said that “it knocked me back a bit.” Give her this: Few of us know the pain of being featured on a cover of one of the nation’s most respected magazines in a spoof meant to illustrate how our critics are mean-spirited loons.

Michelle’s other specific plaints included a barb from Rush Limbaugh, another from Michelle Malkin and a chyron on Fox News. Grim stuff, right? Needless to say, this comes with the territory. No doubt, people will say mean things about Heidi Cruz, too, should her husband become the GOP presidential nominee.

After all the outrageous slings and arrows she suffered in the 2008 campaign, Michelle Obama limped into office with a 68-18 favorable rating, according to Gallup. It couldn’t have been easy being showered with such widespread (but, admittedly, not quite universal) acclaim.

After six years of partisan warfare waged by and over her husband, Michelle Obama still has a 2-1 favorable rating, and according to a recent YouGov survey is the fifth-most admired woman on the planet, finishing just below Queen Elizabeth II and above Celine Dion.

But even the mighty apparatus of the imperial presidency can’t protect the first lady from irksome interactions. In a People magazine profile in which the Obamas told of their struggles with racism, Michelle Obama recounted how hurtful it was that when she once visited Target, a women asked her to help get something off a shelf. Perhaps because she was tall enough to reach it.

In her Tuskegee address, at least Michelle Obama urged the graduates not to be daunted by slights (and more meaningful obstacles, like rotten schools). Even though she didn’t mention the word, what she was talking about was “microaggressions,” the trendy term on college campuses for often inadvertent offensiveness.

The underlying premise of the microaggression is that only people who belong to certain select groups ever suffer indignities or humiliations, when they are, of course, inherent to the human condition. George Orwell once said that every life seen from the inside is a series of defeats.

The microaggression, properly understood, is a sign of progress. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow to innocent misunderstandings and occasional rudeness is a vast leap forward. But the logic of the microaggression increasingly defines the Democratic Party, because identity politics needs the oxygen of perpetual grievance.

As channeled by Michelle Obama, the party’s animating sentiment is we shall overcome — every insult real or imagined.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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