O B A M A N O W
You know what I can’t stop thinking about?
Earlier today there was an organized hour-long group discussion with a bunch of intellectuals to discuss ‘what now.’
The community organizer (for Obama) presented the basic dilemma: a stunning level of support was marshaled, people of different strata learned how to work together, and far from it having the sense of a one-time thing, everyone wants to basically do what Obama told us to do in his victory speech — keep going. On the other hand, Obama’s policies are at best ‘solidly’ liberal: a first stab at a decent health care plan, progressive tax policy, pro-affirmative action, pro-choice, and at worst flat-out ‘centrist’: supported the bailout, supported FISA immunity, pro-death penalty, anti-marriage equality, and most important of all, pledges continued militarism, using the same logic as Bush. Nod to repeated co-optations of the left by the Democrats in history. Obviously there is more going on then just another run-of-the-mill smooth-talking Democratic senator touting reforms only inspiring for what they aim to replace. But what? Keep going: where to?
The theologian pointed out that Obama did not succeed by changing the minds of the conservative base: white evangelical support only increased for McCain, while his appeal among whites in general only applied to the under-30 set. His victory was based on new voters and volunteers, and secondarily on a generational shift (affecting religious conservatives as well).
The radical feminist theorist made a statement on Obama and race: his win was staged as the continuity of MLK’s dream, then interpreted as simultaneously a breakthrough for race-relations and the negation of race as an issue with continuing practical demands. ‘Change’ — the term for continuity in the sense of development — is deployed as a signifier to mark a forced break with the past.
The famous radical theorist served as moderator and didn’t say anything.
Questions were asked. People struggled to make sense of their emotional responses, what significance to give them. Someone of my generation said something about us. I asked something like, “How does a progressive group, practically autonomous but still somehow affiliated with Obama, avoid being limited in what it can do in the future by his actions as President, actions which we’ve all agreed won’t be to the left?”
The community organizer insisted that a politics of aspiration and not of cynicism is what gets people involved, and reiterated that his core group are all aware of Obama’s limitations and want to figure out how to turn the energy he catalyzed to positive ends. Which didn’t really answer my question.
The radical feminist theorist argued that the condition for Obama’s complex of signifiers to be as powerful as they have been is for them to be completely empty and open to projection.
I thought, wow, there really is something in this for everyone.
But the radical feminist theorist did say something really helpful, that we have to keep reminding ourselves that Obama’s election was not in itself a victory of the left, but a victory for the center in harnessing the left to achieve its goals.
Later on, I stumbled on an old post by voyou, with whom I usually disagree (and whose smugness generally makes me want to barf), which shamed me into realizing that I never pay attention to the man’s speeches. Really. Not once, until now. Voyou hits the main points: the transformation of MLK’s political rhetoric into generic reactionary sentiment in the interest of ‘pragmatism,’ or as that translates in the U.S., ‘transcending ideology.’ The same notes were hit during the victory speech. Various flavors of symbolic reconciliation, offered up in montage form, to make up for the music video version of the ‘failure’ of the ’60s to be as post-ideological as we can be, right now. While blowing up the world, and promising to continue to do so. Even to deride this sort of thing as cynical manipulation by a master is to miscast it by failing to grasp how effectively professional American-style pragmatism renders moot anything other than ‘false’ consciousness. It is to impute something that probably isn’t there, and is rapidly becoming about as necessary to explain social reality as the soul.
My studied ignorance of the speeches (and this despite the fact that rhetoric is supposed to be my ‘field’) was, I suspect, out of an instinct of self-protection which has been developing for quite a while despite my relative youth. My support of Obama was always itself pragmatic, lesser-evil-ism, and any ‘hope’ for ‘change’ I may have felt (and still feel) is from the contagious enthusiasm of his supporters. So it never occurred to me except in theory that his speeches were more worth listening to than those of other politicians. By dismissing them in advance as empty, feel-good rhetoric with no consequence I gave myself the opportunity to take a benign, tolerant view of the whole thing, analogous to treating Christianity as if it were just local color, ‘functioning’ simply to ‘bring people together.’ When he’s on TV I’m aware of the rhythm and pitch of his voice, but I watch the faces of his audience, in the room and on the screen. It’s the only way to get it to make sense. How can I tell these people, and by extension myself, that what they feel isn’t real, and that it doesn’t mean anything, when it so clearly has led to a genuinely historic achievement?
If bullshit ‘works,’ then can it still be called bullshit? What’s your alternate frame of reference?
A woman at the talk today reinforced something else I tried to ignore that night: the fear that Obama was going to be assassinated. I tried to laugh it off at the time but I can’t when the anecdote repeats itself. Not that I really think he’ll get shot, but it is now impossible to ignore the implications of that fear. When during the celebration of the most powerful office of the most powerful and violent nation in the world, the audience is overcome by fears that their future president will be killed while surrounded by bulletproof glass and the world’s best-trained and best-equipped security staff while giving a speech about the nation’s resurgent global dominance, and the debt of every citizen toward fulfilling this promise — killed because he is black — there is something deeply, deeply wrong. I can understand, in the abstract, that the rational response to the non-relationship between American government and its people is to attack the extreme, suicidal childishness, historical illiteracy, servility, cowardice, insanity, fill in the blank. I expect this is the view of many who don’t live here. What they don’t understand about America is that from where I’m sitting, their logic can only appear as the privileged but ultimately frivolous consequence of this one.