The Opacity of Hope

Saw this the other day (find the link to the whole video after the gap)

The best of the Obama-as-blank-screen readings — at once totally fascinating and symptomatic of a certain type of boomer leftist intellectual, the one driven to irrational exuberance over the contradiction between traditional origin myths and ‘radical breaks.’ The archetype Critchley summons to contain Obama is that of the empty postmodern hero, drained of all positive qualities, ‘open’ for being ultimately enigmatic, bearer of an essential mystery identified with his origin. Critchley invokes psychoanalysis to penetrate this mystery, using it to structure the more common fixations on the future president’s mixed race and international upbringing. Perhaps the most fascinating film versions of the postmodern man without qualities to come out of the ’70s (when his generation came into maturity) were aliens: the David Bowie character in Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Christopher Reeve’s Superman (1978). Both were updates of characters inherited from the ’50s — Klaatu and the George Reeves Superman. Subtracting the then-discredited rational paternalism magnified their strangeness, their aura of vulnerability and their capacity to reflect and transcend, through personal, moral suffering, the divisions of the Cold War society into which they had been thrust.


Right and left boomer critiques of Obama’s immense popularity tend to be carried out in the standard language of the belittling of Generation X, i.e. that his rhetoric is basically devoid of content, unoriginal, unpolitical, inauthentic, etc. This resistance partially stems from the fact that Obama defies readings based on identity or origin. Despite Critchley and others’ best efforts, not even the ambiguity of his racial politics can be fetishized in the usual way (as ‘oppositional,’ ‘transgressive,’ etc.), nor is he particularly convincing as a sex object, ‘alternative’ or otherwise. But he is also not, as Gen X heroes have tended to be (from the amoral ciphers of Bret Easton Ellis to Beavis and Butthead), aimless, apathetic, or nihilistic. What wins these critics over despite themselves, I think, is that as the first black president, Obama has actually realized the symbolic victory that American culture under Reagan and then the New World Order had dismissed as either impossible or irrelevant. He offers the opportunity to move on from battles over representation which a) seem to be all the American left has been capable of winning since the ’70s and b) seem to be carried out based on questionable assumptions about identity and identification that have nevertheless been protected from criticism due to their increasingly limited political utility. Obama’s election was not a victory over racial prejudice, but over an identity-based rhetoric of opposition. Though it’s been monopolized in mainstream politics by the Republicans, it has also been largely accepted by the Left as the only authentically political discourse. Reactions from this quarter have been accordingly ambivalent.

What sensible responses by people like Judith Butler(via) leave out, which exhort supporters to have their fun but be emotionally and practically ready for inevitable disappointment, is an analysis of how Obama’s rhetoric functions. They start from the assumption that his slogans are ’empty’ in the sense of being without content, and therefore not worth taking seriously. She is led to question her naive friends, but not the political assumptions she shares with them. It’s of course true that Obama relies on the same myths of ‘the American people,’ the overcoming of internal division, freedom, and inevitable sacrifice as just about every president before him. But, while the language of American presidential politics may not change, emphasis and strategic function do. So it’s important to understand these shifts, no matter how minute they may appear when written in books.

First we have to remember that every definition of ‘real’ Americans insists on their impatience with ideology and partisanship, a trait usually connected to good, honest work. Though the transcending of ideology despite/as intense nationalism is a feature of liberal ideology in general, what Habermas identified as “the Janus-face of the modern nation,” Americans seem especially invested in denying even its occasional suspension; any decline in the political capital of ‘natural unity’ always seems to coincide with a long and painful period of disillusionment. Recall that, despite their reputations, Bush and McCain both based their success on calls to unity: Bush’s “compassionate conservativism,” McCain’s “reaching across the aisle.” Indeed, they established their singularity precisely by touting consensus against partisanship — “uniter, not a divider” — another recurring feature of American political rhetoric. We find the distinctive qualities of American presidents in how they stage the reestablishment of continuity.

The following is from The Audacity of Hope, after Obama describes his ‘real America’ as those who “understand that politics today is a business and not a mission”:

“A government that truly represents these Americans — that truly serves these Americans — will require a different kind of politics. That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived. It won’t be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf. It will have to be constructed from the best of our traditions and will have to account for the darker aspect of our past. we will need to understand just how we got to this place, this land of warring factions and tribal hatreds. And we will need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break.”

Despite the mix of assertions and provisions, Obama defines consensus negatively: it is not autonomous from the everyday (“will need to reflect our lives”), not a commodity (“prepackaged”), not ahistorical or historical in a purely aesthetic way (i.e. quoting the Founding Fathers and celebrating WWII), not given (“constructed”). Our national scene, lacking consensus, is figured as premodern (full of “tribal hatreds”). In the last line, the naturalness of community is reasserted; the work necessary to construct it is also the work of remembering the eternally true. Of these themes, repeated again and again in Obama’s speeches, the attention to history is probably where he most distinguishes himself from Bush, most strikingly in his settling of accounts with the ’60s.

“I’ve always felt a curious relationship to the sixties,” he writes, and he singles out the basic contradiction of the Democratic Party since Carter defined it as the party of social values. The movements of the ’60s were for social values against the political-economic values of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and racism, and were only really coherent in that context. Their ‘values’ did not mix well with reconciliation, no matter how many of their activists eventually did. The usual response is repression. Part of what makes Obama so exciting is what his race forces a president to admit about the last 50 years of American life. In his speeches, he reconstructs the ’60s as an exciting era of struggles against injustice, and in the book locates himself as its “product.” His distance from the civil rights movement (his youth, his upbringing abroad, his white mother) leads him to seek a separation of its culture from its politics. He is not a product of its ideology, not a bearer of ‘black identity’ as constructed by and through Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and their successors in the cultural sphere, but of the political struggles, defined in terms of their victories. In this way he subtly replaces the old ideology with a new one — his blackness is not a condmenation of America but its redemption, its ‘spirit’ authenticated in the fact of his election: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

There are two disciplines associated with the ’60s he rejects: economics and rhetoric. He is for a “dynamic free market” against the various radicals (including both Bush and environmentalists) and their oppositional, divisive politics even though he Feels Their Pain. Here is his reconciliation between right and left in the sphere of political economy, free market vs. social welfare:

“But our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive, government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us that we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. Like those who came before us, we should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility. And we can be guided throughout by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately.
In other words, we should be guided by what works.”

The various threads in this argument coalesce in his characterization of Reagan. Reagan’s aggressive foreign and domestic policies and his divisive rhetoric only worked for a tiny elite. But they did work. The ideological success of Reaganism was not just that it defended a certain position, still less that it made good on its populist promises (quite the opposite), but that it used what Obama identifies as the New Left’s rhetoric of intense partisanship to change the field of American political discourse against the left: “the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he had written for them — a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites.” It’s not difficult to see in retrospect that the rewriting of political language and the marginalization in advance of his opponents has always been key to Obama’s strategy.

Idealized pragmatism allows the establishment of formal equivalence between right and left radicals, rejecting them together as “cynical.” Their real differences are politely bracketed — the Iraq war and the financial crisis join the collapse of communism as undeniable proofs of failed, impractical ideologies. The (obviously flawed) existing popular language with which to debate “socialism” vs. “capitalism,” or “free market” vs. “social welfare” has been swept aside, but their defenders are redeemed by shared American values, welcomed back into the fold. In this transitional period at least, when Obama’s policies are still unclear, his success in reframing American politics in strictly idealist terms — “idealism” against “cynicism” — is undeniable. His ability to turn the Iraq war and the finance crisis in his favor has closed off any attempt to analyze him in terms of existing theory; we critics are virtually locked into waiting patiently for the results.


We are now finally able to get at the truly unique aspect of Obama’s politics. Almost no one seems to recognize that he has already anticipated the most common criticism of him, that his rhetoric and even his person are ’empty’ and meaningless. The point of his slogans is not just that they remain open to different meanings, in the typical fashion of traditional advertising. They are open to different uses; they open outward, as a call to fill an empty signifier with concrete action (like contemporary advertising). Reid Kotlas of Planomenology is one of the few to get it right: “The republican criticism that Obama talks a lot about change, but doesn’t tell us what exactly this change is, is thus poorly aimed: it is by virtue of leaving the goal of this change open, by entrusting us with its realization, that Obama’s message is truly effective.” Critchley remains focused on the out-of-context “blank screen” quote. Also his “listlessness” which “generates in us a desire to love him,” but in a “restrained,” liberal sort of way. I think Grant Park proves this reading is at least incomplete. Obamamania was always just as fervent as Palin-mania, just without the threat of violence. Critchley’s psychoanalytic reading acknowledges the political valence of the ethical demand Obama makes on his supporters, restaging boring liberal compromise as potentially radical. “No one is exempt from the call to find common ground,” Obama asserts; to substitute mere words for action is “to relinquish our best selves.” But he pointedly declines to critique it. Critique, however, is necessary to understand that Obama’s rhetoric is directed at organizing, not just generating fantasy fodder.

His opacity, his refusal, we might say, to entirely identify with himself, instead offering his biography and campaign together as a kind of open-source “vehicle” for emotional and practical investment, is his most important political move. As Critchley does note, the prophetic plays a big role here. “Change we can believe in” is pure speculation, open to further speculation. If we have (as the pessimists say) been witnessing the steady deterioration of political discourse over the past however many years, then this would have to be its absolute nadir. And yet at the same time it spawned a massive popular mobilization. What Butler has to say about left disavowal should also be applied to Obama himself, with the proviso that his provoked the movement that got him elected while ours produced it: beyond liberalism’s politics of anti-politics, Obama, by visibly taking a step back from his own power, has inspired the masses to create their own anti-politics under his brand. His election is not his victory, it’s our victory — his win has nothing to do with his race, but our enlightened attitude toward race — he’s done everything shy of announcing that his office will not be in his power but in our power. We are not led to identify with him. We are led to identify our politics through him.

This is not to say that his supporters do not think, only that the campaign is (pragmatically) indifferent to any thoughts they might have which can’t be incorporated into the ‘movement.’

Doesn’t all the increasingly anxious speculation about Obama (this post included) have something to do with the fear that when he actually becomes president, something precious will have been lost? We already have intimations that this will be the case, though it’s impossible to tell exactly how the actual dynamics of his relationship with his activists will play out. Just as ironic distance fails to negate its real investments, the image of Change fails to negate its material function as an image, a commodity bought and paid for by Wall Street with the American people as (now) minority shareholders. If the image America just opted into is that of Future President Obama giving our politics back to us, then the Left, if there is still to be one apart from Team Change, has to ask itself: would this obviously compromised image be so appealing if the practical (anti-) politics it enabled were not ten times more radical than the most radical of ideologies?


15 Responses to “The Opacity of Hope”

  1. One of the things that I find … interesting about analysis like Critchley is the automatic assumption, on the part of the critic, that he or she is so much smarter than Obama. The poor schmuck! If only he’d campaigned with the wonderful advice of the left ringing in his ears!

    Well, having an arrogant sense of my own smartness myself, I thought I knew all about the elementary mistakes that poor dumb fuck was makin’. Of course, I was … wrong. That my sideline opinion, garnered from zero years of campaigning for anything, proved to be much less valid than Obama’s practice, was of course hard for me to swallow, but at least I’m not going to take refuge in thinking that it will all be explained by my understanding of how Obama was constructed as an image in the collective psyche. Cause I have to think: this isn’t a movie. This isn’t batman I’m watching, here. And treating it like a movie is simply rationalizing my own sloth and impotence.

    I’d rather think about Obama’s campaign than Obama as my entertainment center. I was wrong in thinking that Obama should have responded immediately to this or that lie or distortion from the McCain campaign. I think I know why I was wrong. I was wrong because that kind of immediate response campaign, and the style that it inevitably brings to governing, was the gift, the poison gift, of the Clinton years. Years in which the disconnect created between the economic and the political was compensated for, by lefty critics, by shifting into movie critic mode. Treating politics as a thing done by politicians, and politicians as celebrities. What Obama seemed to realize that I didn’t is that we are not in the age of speed. Rather, because each days newscycle is speeded up and greedy for the next new thing, the newest outrage, you can be confidently patient – Ayers will pass, Joe the Plumber will pass, victory in Iraq will pass. You can make your own time.

    So I’m fuckin’ amazed that this guy and his organization did this, thought way beyond me, realized this, (although of course in retrospect I’m one hundred percent smarter and will start my Freudian analysis of Obama tomorrow in order to show it). What that means for liberals like me who see a sliver, a little opening of influence, is that the rapid response, rapid cover-this-with- theory-while-I-watch-it style might just be headed for the garbage can. It might take a while, more than an hour, even, to figure out how to squeeze political progress out of Obama’s election. I could luxuriate in figuring out Bush’s psyche, since there was no chance I’d have any influence on anything in the last eight years – I’ve attended the demos to prove it. Now, however, I don’t have to figure out Obama. In many ways, I could care less about him, which is why I like him. I’d rather figure out how to aid Detroit, how to take advantage of the opportunity to actually have some say – or not – in the future of the combustion engine, that little devil – how to diminish inequality, how to cut into the public’s habit of investing -via our multiple retirement vehicles – in our own immiseration. The best news out of D.C. recently is that the Obama campaign’s netrootsy side is going to be shifted into how Obama governs – because that is a true vehicle of influence. Not a vehicle like organized labor, of course, but a vehicle nonetheless.

  2. “would this obviously compromised image be so appealing if the practical (anti-) politics it enabled were not ten times more radical than the most radical of ideologies?”

    radical in the strict sense, perhaps. It is pure opportunity, unfettered invitation to participation, so able to enclose everything already there. The openness is the formula of ‘ least objectionable for the most people’. The “emptiness” is not so much about leaving space for filling in, or not only about that, but mainly about avoiding any positive content that could offend and antagonise anyone. This was difficult, impossible, with the middle east and caspian foreign policy, and he chose to offend those to his left knowing he had them anyway, but even so he made an effort not to totally offend. He didn’t shove the belligerence of his policies in the faces of those they offended. A little content on that was unavoidable but he skillfully minimised it in his discourse. In a country as big and diverse as the US, not offending seventy million people is a tall order. The US national mass culture is very bland because of this. The content free quality that is postmodernism is driven initially by this need for mass media not to offend anyone, when broadcasting to really diverse populations, to New York city and the rural deep south. NY is dominant but the rural south is significant enough you want them too so what you get as national culture is urban northeastern culture adjusted and emptied of possibly offensive contents. Obama’s position on gay marriage for example…it’s almost hilariously the fine line network tv walks. You know he and his wife don’t really careabout this, that they would happily serve as best man and matron of honour at a same sex wedding of their friends, they convey they are not lunatics who want to meddle in people’s private lives. He conveys basically that attitude but when actual content in speech is unavoidable, he conveys it adjusted to not offend anyone.

    the point about organisation over fantasy is very important I think – the campaign didn’t create it, it used and enlarged existing american progressive politics. People worry about demobilisation, when what is demobilising is the marketing campaign, the fraudulent aspects, and good riddance to that – what remains is the core of the “movement” itself which preexisted Obama’s candidacy, this movement made out of existing activist networks enlarged and focussed because in contact with a three quarter of a billion dollar marketing budget.

    the first black President was made into the event it was. I don’t want to diminish the significance, but as you say it had the status of impossible or irrelevant – actually more irrelevant than impossible. in the primaries, almost all progressive black intellectuals who were not too ultraleft to care about the election were favouring edwards, the progressive of the bunch. the “first” was not initially perceived as a significant issue. remember in 1996 all the polls showed that Colin Powell could have very handily won the presidency if he had chosen to run. In a theoretical matchup he had Clinton beat by a landslide. The historic moment would have been more sedate had it happened like that. In some ways a certain kind of really pretty obsolete racism had to be pumped up in the US, resuscitated, steps taken backwards in recent years, to make this step forward as dramatic as it was, but also the intensity of the event had to involve a perceived progressive candidate as protagonist of it. Just the first black president is not enough for the elation – had he been someone really hostile to the politics of the majority of black Americans and antiracist Americans then it would not have meant much to people that the President was black. It had to participate and link up with all the content of the civil rights movement, not just the chain of visible ceiling breaks. It was an emotional theme that was refined and intensified in which strong passions about the Bush regime were gradually wrapped. The Obama campaign’s real energy came out of determination to evict the Republicans, and with some genius it transformed this from a negative and very specific goal to a vague but untainted affirmative posture. But the breadth of support maps over the breadth of the hatred of the Bush regime (didn’t quite equal it). there was plenty of the energy of vengeance there too. His speeches are as you say not empty. They are full of this antipolitical unity nationalistic content, a lot of it unpalatable.But you can see people just tune it out if they like, or personalise it, individualise it. But this open quality – Obama is just the brand on the content his supporters create – is asserted and also frequently explicitly rejected. He says this is your victory, its all up to you, then two seconds later he says not everybody will agree with what I do as President; its very much the way smart new media ceos run their organisations.There is (genuine) respect for the employees, and great encouragement of their creativity, and recognitition that they produce all the value. But this does not amount to abidcation of the tyrannical power the cheif executives wield. They just use tactics that get the most out of the elite of their workforce.

    Which is not a bad thing, given what the options are with the Presidency. Better than terrorising. Election night a friend of mine was walking around nyc, feeling the buzz, running into people, and she met up with some people,and was saying oh remember the last time we were all out in the street like this together? yeah i remember, and i know i am not the only wimp in america who thought once was enough with the tear gas. Under the shield of Obama you are safe, bring the kids again. To say that Obama actually provoked and created this movement is to forget the “battle of seattle”. and also the global protests on the eve of the iraq war. But the republican and democratic parties havent forgotten and this is what Obama is about right now. We have to have as roger said a longer attention span as they do. It’s quite obvious if you look at the last ten years, there has been repression, repudiation and now domestication, because we are so weakened and were really in fact traumatised. People painted as “the fringe” are now acknowledged to be the People, having accepted the leadership of the democratic candidate and the reduced expectations. Doesn’t mean its forever, a permanent loss, but this is what’s going on, an ongoing struggle of the owners of everything to control the population as they undertake an unprecedented fleecing of them. Consent is always more reliable than coercion, and the US ruling class does the combo very well. But the optimistic thing here is they have to – things don’t just run on their own, people don’t just lie down and give in. So now the task is to master the interaction that is happening, that was initiated by the democratic party in reaction to a furious public, who want to see impeachments and prosecutions, who want to see major changes in foreign policy and fiscal policy, who want democratisation. Because if this furious public was not already there, and potentially capable of effecting change, there would be no Obama to provoke it to the polls for Changeling Change.

  3. …that critchely is appalling. but do these people who _love_ obama like that exist? it seems to me that’s one thing that is reallymedia produced – but maybe i just don’t know the right people. a few friends of mine really campaigned hard for him, and against prop 8, in california, but they are the “without illusions” type, though very very hard working on getting the vote out, and they also only met other “without illusions” people. As the victory neared, and once it happened, the Historic Moment of the first black president was emotional and exhilirating, no one can deny it. But “Obamamania” – is this something that really existed? Do you know anyone like that? I see on the web so much comment about these fans who see him as saviour and redeemer and superhero, but i haven’t seen anyone actually professing this posture, except in the smallest “Go Obama!” sports teamish rooting way. I mean, i haven’t anything that isn’t from media professionals that conveys that uncritical devotion/adoration thingy.

  4. Thank you for the approving comments about my post. I’d have to say that I agree with you here, and that if I could supplement this notion of Obama’s rhetorical shift as itself a political gesture, I’d say that if his administration in fact fails to live up to the hype, failing to deliver a ‘change we can believe in’, this is only proof that the campaign was always ‘about you’, his supporters. If his policies fail to deliver what we’ve been dreaming of – well no shit, its on you to follow through with realizing those dreams, all he can do is provide the minimal gesture of preventing the government from crushing such a mobilization, and perhaps offering some minimal infrastructural support or good will. If you really want a substantial change, then you need to learn that voting is not enough, and that change will not come from Washington, we must initiate it, follow through with it, and expect nothing from above. Does that make sense? Anyway, great post.

  5. (oh and great post, i meant to say at the start)

  6. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks all, great set of comments —

    i see critchley has a follow-up in adbusters in which he’s apparently decided to criticize after all, and push his argument from Infinitely Demanding:

    This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated.

    “One of the things that I find … interesting about analysis like Critchley is the automatic assumption, on the part of the critic, that he or she is so much smarter than Obama.”

    i wholeheartedly second that, as well as hope for obama’s win marking the decline of insta-theorizing (even if it puts my blog out of business).

    “The best news out of D.C. recently is that the Obama campaign’s netrootsy side is going to be shifted into how Obama governs ”

    what are you referring to there?

    “But the breadth of support maps over the breadth of the hatred of the Bush regime”

    if there was anywhere the affirmationism was a necessary component it would have to be on this point, that we can’t expect justice, retribution, rule of law. i mean obama’s now fighting to defend lieberman of all people, who was an activist against him.

    “do these people who _love_ obama like that exist?”

    i know some people who really like him a lot and are willing to defend him from criticism, others who will defend him reluctantly for pragmatic reasons; adoration is probably exaggeration but there are several steps in the ladder between it and ‘without illusions.’

    the point that i really find vile about the campaign, looking back on it, is the moral component, that obama consciously (if we accept the testimony of his campaign managers) wanted to frame his election in moral terms, to give the whole thing a telos. and it worked — a perversely contentless sort of guilt put a lot of feet on pavement, along with anger, vengeance, hope, pragmatism, etc.

    i know this:

    “If you really want a substantial change, then you need to learn that voting is not enough, and that change will not come from Washington, we must initiate it, follow through with it, and expect nothing from above.”

    is the proper moral to take from this story, but it still makes me queasy that someone based their presidential campaign on popularizing it.

  7. “is the proper moral to take from this story, but it still makes me queasy that someone based their presidential campaign on popularizing it.”

    yes, it also is a fashion – notice CNN’s “wildweststyle most wanted” feature CULPRITS OF THE COLLAPSE counted down fromnumber 10 to number 1 most guilty for the financial crisis…and number one……YOU.

    You the consumer!

    Like Time Mag’s man of the year YOU.

    And this of course fits in with the unifying theme of all bourgeois dissent, the vanishing of the ruling class. You can be as brutally critical and disgusted as you like with the status quo, as long as you don’t notice that its beneficiaries exist and are active agents in its reproduction. If you disappear them, into a biopolitical state, ” capitalism”, tele-technics, Empire, potestas, you’re free to notice all the terribleness. As long as ulitmately through these constructions it can be blamed on that “we” who blindly somehow reproduce it and who are YOU the consumer!

    Years ago, during the OJ trial, Henry Louis Gates Jr wrote an article in the New Yorker about juries. He said look if the point was consistent justice in accordance with the law, you would have professional judges determining guilt, people who know how to evaluate evidence and who would have training and a culture and render consistent verdicts. The point of the jury is to implicate the population in the process of punishment, but its no more reliable than killing a chicken and examining its entrails.

    I don’t know if that’s quite right – juries can be politicised, juries are important I think while the current conditions exist – but this point of implicating the victim population in its victimisation. Obama’s campaign attempts to achieve this – you the voter will be to blame for the terrible things the democratic party inflicts on you. And this theme has been developed elaborately over the past thirty years or so by liberal historians, especially writing the histories of fascism.

  8. yoohoo, yo soy consumento numero 666 at

    time to mention the best site on that, comment about which a specialist site ‘in deze’ censored but that is kinda (beside) the point i guess

    tadaaa, ladz and gynz, try this (you will nevermore be susceptible to the religio part of the religio-economic conpluckers:

  9. john steppling Says:

    “Idealized pragmatism allows the establishment of formal equivalence between right and left radicals, rejecting them together as “cynical.” Their real differences are politely bracketed…”

    Are they? Im not sure this is what the critique about cynicism is doing. I think a hefty chunk of the left reverts to conclusions already established — though this is tricky. I mean Obama seems significant only because of an opening up of history, because of race, and its clear he’s a product of the DNC system, and has little leeway in his appointments, probably. The pragmatic isnt idealized in a lot of cases, quite the opposite. That opening up of historical discourse comes with a large number of new voters, too.

    “remember in 1996 all the polls showed that Colin Powell could have very handily won the presidency if he had chosen to run. In a theoretical matchup he had Clinton beat by a landslide. The historic moment would have been more sedate had it happened like that. In some ways a certain kind of really pretty obsolete racism had to be pumped up in the US, resuscitated, steps taken backwards in recent years, to make this step forward as dramatic as it was, but also the intensity of the event had to involve a perceived progressive candidate as protagonist of it. Just the first black president is not enough for the elation – had he been someone really hostile to the politics of the majority of black Americans and antiracist Americans then it would not have meant much to people that the President was black.”

    This is interesting chabert. Though Im not sure how obselete this racism is. But in any event I think Powell has never seen as part of the *black community* — and Obama is. Its perception, maybe, but Obama saying he liked The Wire and his favorite character was Omar was an example of this hip posture…….or of something……Im not sure exactly what. But he had to be *black* and not just, you know, *black*.

  10. traxus4420 Says:

    “Are they?”

    i mostly mean the MSM characterizations — all this noise about how he’s “NOT A COMMUNIST, REALLY!” — but there is or at least was also a common reaction against critiques of obama from the left, precisely for being too cynical, standing in the way of progress, etc. it would be hard to say that obama’s race suggests a radical move made by anyone except any racists who voted for him (there is of course the whole history of the civil rights movement, but that’s referenced and defanged in pretty sly ways, as indicated above) having a black family in the white house now signifies another success for the pragmatic-idealist frame. it’s definitely not sold as ‘anti-racist,’ the message (from obama himself) is that race has been transcended, without bloodshed, anti-government protests, or ‘making a big deal about it.’ just by voting.

  11. john steppling Says:

    well, I think there is a leftist critique that does suggest a certain cynicism to the degree that its part of the tenured cottage industry left…….and its not a very nuanced analysis…………..but that said, I think the race factor isnt so telling terms of *racism* per se, in the reductive sense, but it *is* pretty significant as symbol (though again, its so co-opted that its hard to tell) and as phenomenon that opens up ideology for discussion, and history.

    I mean a black family in the white house is going to be sold (by brand obama himself) as a proof of this or that, but its also going to resonate in other ways I suspect.

    Its almost this auto-corrective to certain historical truisms. I keep seeing it in weird places….Joe Frazier is redeemed now, rather than ali. But really, its also about how this auto-mechanism has brought sixties radicals to the surface.

    Now the question is, how quickly does this all get digested. And I have this feeling that the Clintons being back in town in this fashion has already de-railed the Brand Obama machine. Its likely his first big tactical error, in terms of his machine.

  12. that patrick gaspard gets rove’s old job is though pretty positive and suggests there is a real intention to pivot the mainstream, to change the climate in which all the seasoned opportunists will be operating.

  13. traxus4420 Says:

    it’s funny that almost every article i read about that quotes from gaspard’s memory obama saying “I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” are they trying to reassure people?

  14. “are they trying to reassure people?”

    A reassurance in every pot.

  15. […] the progressive struggles of the ’60s), then, took it to its logical conclusion. But, while many have argued convincingly that Obama’s victory (and his remarkable use of decentralised organising) is yet […]

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