Against Toughness


The phrase “I ain’t no punk” has probably led to more renditions of “Blessed Assurance,” more grandmothers in big hats and dark dresses, and more black boys laid out in closed caskets than any other four words in the English language. “I ain’t no punk,” is of course corner-talk for “I am foolish enough to mortgage my life on even the pettiest act of perceived disrespect.” I grew up in West Baltimore during the late 80s, a time when being seen as a chump was basically the worst thing that could happen to you. So I’ll admit to throwing out that line once or twice in my younger days, though I can’t think of one instance where the "slight" was actually that bad.

Having seen the cost of living by the “I ain’t no punk” credo, I have an instant distaste for posturing. This runs the gamut from rappers who threaten each other with great bodily injury (often mere months before doing a press conference, and recording a song together) to Democrats attempting to show that they're tough on the various annoying phenomena of the day. (crime, defense, obscure black people etc.) So I’m going to whole-heartedly back John Dickerson’s call for Obama and McCain to kill the “I’m more macho than you act.”

I like seeing Obama get after McCain as much as the next vino-sipping, Claritin-popping, trust-fund dipping, lefty. (It’s been told to me that you can put virtually any string of adjective in front of “lefty” now.) But I’m now seeing how much more I enjoyed watching Obama mix it up with Hillary. I think maybe because he was running against a woman, or a fellow Democrat, Obama basically didn’t get into a competition of brass balls. Instead he responded with the jujitsu of humor, which repeatedly exposed the stiff, stilted nature of Hillary’s whole campaign.

Much has been made of gender’s role in this race. To me, it’s most insidious effect was that Hillary always had to show she “wasn’t no punk.” In debates she was always solid on the issues, but then she’d throw these wild haymakers which would leave her open to some brutal counterpunches. It began with her yucking it up during an Iowa debate at a tough question about Clinton advisors on Obama's team, and Obama catching her flush with that "I look forward to you advising me Hillary" line. In the Ohio debate, she allowed Obama to get in the last swing (“I would reject and denounce.”) when Tim Russert had him in a tough spot on Farrakhan. What I remember most about her “Shame on you” rant, is how Obama turned it on its head with that Annie Oakley riff. Her woefully scripted “change you can xerox” line only served to highlight Barack’s earlier “silly season” response to the whole plagiarism flap.

But the jujitsu period of this campaign seems to be over, and now its Obama who has to show that he “ain’t no punk.” Of course, war hero John McCain is going for the gold in the "ain't no punk" olympics. So now we reconcile ourselves to a long hot summer of dueling press releases, miscellaneous rants, and feigned rage. Yay. Obama really shouldn't drop the humor from his pitch--it's one of his best qualities. McCain may not need to show toughness because of gender, but he can’t help himself, and does it anyway. I’m hoping Obama doesn’t leave me thinking he deployed his humor, strictly, against the only woman in the room.