Facing a hi-def future

The very first video aired on MTV was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” I recently entered the wonderful world of high-definition-television ownership, and after a few months I’m beginning to wonder how many careers will be killed by HDTV.

In particular, there’s a real chance that John McCain, who appears to be on the verge of wrapping up the GOP nomination, will see his presidential hopes crushed by a technology he helped make commercially viable.

Ten years ago, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain backed legislation that brought HDTV into millions of American homes just in time for the 2008 election.

The problem, from the point of view of McCain’s presidential campaign, is that HDTV is simply too good. The quality of the picture is so high that you can see every blemish and wrinkle on a candidate’s face — which is a serious problem for a man who will be 72 this summer, and if anything looks older than that.

Of course, if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton secures the Democratic nomination, she will face a similar problem. Although she is more than a decade younger than McCain, her gender makes her even more vulnerable to being judged harshly on the basis of appearance.

In a culture in which Hollywood actresses panic as they approach their 30th birthday, we can be confident that a Clinton presidential campaign will have to deal with questions about such crucial issues as rumors of possible plastic surgery, as well as her makeup, hairstyle, fashion choices, etc. (I’m already dreading the seventeen columns Maureen Dowd will dedicate to these subjects if Clinton should defeat Sen. Barack Obama.)

As for Obama himself, the high-definition-broadcast spectrum loves the man in general, and his skin in particular, which in comparison to Clinton’s and McCain’s is practically flawless.

All of which raises the interesting question of whether Obama’s skin is a net political positive for him, given that he is “black.” I put the word in quotation marks, because what counts as blackness is a constantly moving target in American culture.

I was reminded of this while watching a Super Bowl advertisement featuring the repulsively handsome Derek Jeter, shortstop for the hated New York Yankees and alumnus of my own high school’s cross-town rival.

Jeter, who like Obama has a “black” father and a “white” mother, is someone who, if he were to be born in 2024 instead of 1974, would probably not even be considered “black” any more.

Consider the words of Benjamin Franklin in 1751, as quoted by Luis Rumbaut in the Washington Independent: Franklin notes that “the number of purely white people in America is very small,” and that all of Africa and Asia are either “black or tawny.”

Franklin then adds that even in Europe there are very few truly white people, as “the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.” He goes on to suggest that it might be best to try to keep America as white as possible.

Nothing is easier than to indulge in sanctimonious historical revisionism: After all, Franklin was merely expressing the conventional wisdom of his time and place. Indeed, Franklin concludes with the admirably self-critical observation that “perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.”

The larger point is that in a country where Swedes and Germans were once not considered really white, Obama’s future grandchildren may well become so — especially if their grandfather should be elected president of the United States.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)

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