Barack Obama and the Dispiriting of America

May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji) (, , , )

 More than a year into his presidency it takes an effort to remember the hope and hype that Barack Obama generated during his historic campaign and victory. His candidacy and Presidency were seen as a renewal of America’s compact with its better self as well as a coming to terms with its less savoury aspects, including the ‘original sin’ of slavery and segregation. The media hoopla added to the aura of a ‘post-racial’ America that would now bring bipartisan governance to a United States racked by the divisive years of the Bush presidency as well as peace on earth. That these expectations were delusional at best was perhaps evident from the outset, that they would be diminished so quickly could not have been foreseen. While the conservative media was and continues to be implacably hostile to Obama, the so-called liberal media has joined an increasingly loud chorus of dismay and outright criticism. The reflection of oppositional stances that are played out within the political sphere in the media serves not only to highlight seeming ideological divisions but also the failures of the Obama Presidency thus far. Those failures, however, seem not merely those of policy but more fundamental ones.

As November 4, 2009, approached there were a series of positive commentaries on what President Obama had achieved. Eugene Robinson’s ‘A World of Change in 287 days’ [Washington Post, November 3, 2009] was fairly typical in its upbeat and optimistic listing. ‘It’s been a year since a healthy majority of American voters elected Barack Obama to change the world. Which is precisely what he’s doing.’ Robinson did concede that Obama is ‘a president, not a Hollywood action hero’ but then went onto see most of his policies in contexts of instantaneous change and hope. He ended with a prediction, which while proving substantively true, highlights in retrospect the pitfalls of journalistic and political crystal ball gazing: ‘We still have some fighting to do over two words – “public” and “option” – but it looks like the principle that everyone is entitled to health insurance, a Democratic Party goal for at least six decades, is about to become law.’ The aftermath of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts not only changed the dynamics of the health care debate (apart from the arithmetic of the Democratic Senate majority) but it also effectively buried the public option. The Democratic funk and then final vote on the health care reform bill on strictly partisan lines emphasized precisely the ways in which politics has not changed one whit in the age of Obama.

Simon Tisdall in an end-of-year assessment of the state of the world in The Guardian, ‘2009: the year of living dangerously’, asserted that ‘Barack Obama’s inauguration provided hope in a period marked by war, terror, nuclear fears and climate change anticlimax.’ [31 December, 2009] Tisdall was aware of the extraordinary burden of global expectation: ‘To paraphrase Churchill, never in the field of human conflict was so much expected by so many from one man.’ That sums up not just the absurdity of a single transformative leader creating the pathway for worldwide transformation but also the apolitical, decontextualized desire for redemption that will miraculously transcend the complexities of American and international politics. Within such a redemptive, quasi-religious framework it is not surprising that there is a sense of betrayal, of diminution, and hopelessness and Obama was aware of it. In a speech in New Orleans he mimicked his critics: ‘“Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” […] I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder.’ [John F. Harris, ‘Change has come’ … or has it?’ Politico, November 4, 2009] Obama highlighted the difficulties of governance, the necessity of incremental change, and the pitfalls of an easy radicalism that ignores these realities to fulfil its agendas while ‘their man’ is in power.

Harris went on to analyze the kind of president Obama is focusing on contraries in his political persona and desire. At one end is the inspirational figure: ‘He wants to be a transformational president – unconfined by the limitations of conventional politics and determined to put a lasting mark on his era.’ ‘But,’ as Harris continues, ‘Obama also has the soul of an operative. He and his West Wing team – dominated at the top by people whose expertise is in the world of campaigns and Washington maneuvers – have proved to be far more familiar political types that they admit to themselves or than was forecast by his insurgent campaign and the expansive, at times almost messianic, rhetoric that powered it.’ That this is a fairly accurate summation is evident in the ways in which health care reform – a transformational issue related to ideas of equity, fairness, and the type of nation America wishes to be – was ultimately passed after a series of backroom deals and obfuscation about how it will be paid for. The positive political futures enacted in the bill sit uneasily with the shenanigans that preceded its passing. Arguably the wheeling and dealing is an essential part of the democratic process and the ends justify the means. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision and legislative achievements such as the laws related to Civil Rights were achieved at the cost of increasing polarization (and opposition to the Vietnam War from within the Democratic Party didn’t help). In a different era and under very different circumstances Obama’s policies too have sharply divided the country.

There can be no doubt that the symbolic politics of Obama’s election as the first African-American President of the US is of enormous import and Obama will be remembered for his signal achievement in a country still coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and race hatred. Obama was also the non- or anti-Bush and that explains part of the global and national adulation. As Robinson writes: ‘On national security, Obama moved at once to categorically renounce torture – a big step toward removing the ugly stain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left on our national honor.’ Yet, more than a year later Guantanamo Bay is open and there is a greater continuity in foreign policy initiatives – the New START with Russia notwithstanding – than the Obama administration may wish to acknowledge. These continuities are even more apparent in modes of political operations within the US. To cite Harris once more: ‘As it happens, the Obama team is never happier – as in its frequent public disputes with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or the insurance industry – than when it can adopt campaign-style tactics to frame an adversary for public advantage. The logic of this approach is clear but also plainly at odds with Obama’s stated desire to unify Americans and drain politics of its anger and addiction to unproductive conflict.’ To blame Obama and his policies for this anger, division, and hate is simplistic just as it seems disingenuous to attribute the vitriol solely to the wing-nutters on the extreme Right. That Obama’s election was not the promised future, that it was a deeply disturbing event for many Americans was evident in the immediate aftermath of November 4, 2008. [For media examples of post-election despair and hate see my article in this blog – ‘The Promise of America’, November 18, 2008] The combination of the biggest recession since the 1930s, high unemployment, massive government spending to bail out ‘too big to fail’ banks, a record budget deficit, two wars, the health care bill, the perception of a more interventionist government, a general sense of American ‘declinism’ (and the corresponding unease over the ‘rise’ of China) along with paranoia, hate on the net and over the radio and TV, Republican intransigence, and race have roiled the American landscape in a manner not perceptible since the Vietnam era.

Quite clearly there are significant sections of the populace who dislike if not hate the figure of the President and his policies for reasons which have little to do with policy. The Southern Poverty Law Center in its report ‘Rage on the Right’ pointed to some of the reasons for increase in militia and hate groups in the US: ‘Patriot groups have been fuelled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy and an array of initiatives by President Obama that have been branded “socialist” or even “fascist” by his political opponents.’ The arrest of nine members of the Hutaree militia whose Web site bears the slogan ‘preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive’ is just one example of a rising tide of armed hate groups intent on fulfilling their version of a perfect union. Along with mainstream Republican politicians, Birthers (who believe Obama is not born in the US and therefore an illegitimate President), Tea Party activists, and the likes of Glenn Beck who provide media space for all sorts of conspiracy theories there is a constant churning of anger and a furthering of the ‘addiction to unproductive conflict’.

A large part of the blame for the toxic and dangerous divisions in the US today may be assigned to the Republicans, Birthers, and Tea Party activists. They are more visibly angry and given some of their absurd assertions easily lampooned in the liberal media. However, there has been a failure of leadership. Obama and his supporters have justly condemned the extremists but the alternatives he has provided have not always been clearly articulated or fully implemented. Obama’s failure has stemmed, paradoxically, from one of his greatest campaign strengths: the ability to be all things to all people. As Larry Sabato observes: ‘Obama’s great strength on the campaign trail was that he was a “tabula rasa”. People wrote what they wanted to write. That was true for moderates and independents and even some Republicans, and was certainly true for the Left. He was going to be everything.’ [Cited in Chris McGreal, ‘Obama battered by criticism as anniversary approaches,’ The Guardian, 18 January, 2010] What worked on the campaign trail is not necessarily good for governance. Obama has been criticized on the Left for being too timid and on the Right for being a socialist (among other things). This critique seems to overlook a larger failure of imagination, of political courage, of the inability to perceive alternative and viable ideas of being American. Commenting on the significance of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts Harold Evans wrote: ‘Of more significance, in my view, is the mood of the country, and it is becoming as sour as it was in the worst Bush years. With Obama, this disenchantment is not so much because of what might be. It’s because of what is. And what is lies at the core of national despair.’ [‘Lessons of a Mass revolt,’ The Guardian, 20 January, 2010] Part of the disenchantment is surely attributable to the gap between the promise and the reality, the ‘arrogance’ that ‘has seeped in’ to the administration, and the ways in which Obama and his coterie seem so comfortable in the ways of Washington.

Eli Saslow captures this sense of disillusionment in an article on three Americans who were invited by Obama for his first speech to Congress on 24 February 2009. They were a bank president who split his $60 million bonus among 471 employees, the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., rebuilding the city into a clean energy hub, and an eighth grader who wrote to Congress about the decay of her 112-year old school in South Carolina. Saslow cites the banker in conclusion: ‘“The risk here is that people are going to lose hope. I worry about what it does to our society, having people out of work for so long and struggling so hard to find work and getting into despair and things like that. People want to work and need to work. It goes beyond making a living. A lot of people are very scared, and they’re starting to lose their spirit.”’ [‘Some Obama goals for administration have still not been met,’ Washington Post, January 26, 2010] Saslow delineates the lives of Americans who are not extremists, who are supportive of Obama and yet deeply worried by the present, their futures and that of the nation, and their despair is a far more trenchant criticism of Obama’s governance than any of the rabid rhetoric resonating in Congress, the blogosphere, or the media. In some crucial ways Obama has failed to reach out to American citizens such as the ones characterized in Saslow’s article and therein lies the disconnect between promise and reality.

There is another aspect of the impact of Obama’s presidency and this relates to the notion of democracy. Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President George W. Bush, writes of the visceral hatred and contempt with which his boss was greeted and treated. He draws parallels between that expression of hatred and the current scenario and sees it as a sign of democratic decline. ‘While no democratic judgment is final – and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals – respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity. The opposite – questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one’s opponents – is a sign of democratic decline.’ [‘Tone down the hatefulness in politics,’ Washington Post, April 9, 2010] Conceivably there is a difference between the disputed election of 2000 (decided ultimately by the US Supreme Court) and the huge Electoral College victory of President Obama, but Gerson’s point about the need for respecting differences is worth considering. One consequence of the absolute lack of dialogue between political and ideological opponents is the diminishing of democracy and spaces for disagreement and debate. The process did not, of course, begin with Obama’s presidency but it is ironic that an articulate, intelligent, and acute President presides over public spheres vitiated by vitriol and worse. Politics now is largely a matter of ‘messaging’ and ‘massaging the message’, of advertising and hype bereft of substantive matters, a permanent state of campaigning.

Perhaps it is too early to judge and the febrile media commentary merely reflects the echo chamber of talking heads who lambaste Obama for dithering over health care and hail him when it is passed, who detest him as a socialist, fascist, and Muslim or revere him. Perhaps he will be a truly transformative President who, putting aside easy radicalism, genuinely sets America on a revolutionary trajectory. At this point in his Presidency, however, it seems that the promise of America represented in his being and administration is precariously poised. The dispirited nation needs more than rhetoric to regain its sense of hope and direction, to restore democratic spheres of debate and disputation.

– Subarno Chattarji

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IPL vs. ‘Indian Poverty League’: The Great Indian Cricket Show

March 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm (Essay, Subarno Chattarji)

 As the IPL3 (Indian Premier League) juggernaut rolls on there can be little doubt that it is a phenomenon and not just in cricketing terms. Lalit Modi’s brainchild is a spectacular combination of Bollywood (Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty as immediate stakeholders), corporate interests (Vijay Mallaya, Subroto Roy et al), the usual nexus of politics and cricket, U.S. style cheerleading and time-outs (a seemingly seamless intermeshing of American Football and basketball), and some excellent cricket.

That an event in its third year played only in a handful of countries is now comparable in commercial terms to major sport franchises in Europe and the U.S. is testament to the business skills of the IPL Commissioner and his team. Modi has little doubt that the franchisees will recover their investment: ‘“We are just two-year-old and every team that has been run well must be making profit. If not, they are probably marginally short of making profit,” he told CNN-IBN channel. Buttressing his case, Modi said, “Sports is one of the leading businesses of the world today. English Premier League, NFL, NBA, Spanish League, Bundesliga – these capture the imagination of the youth and the people.”’ [‘IPL franchises will recover their money: Modi,’ PTI, 21 March, 2010, http://in.news.yahoo.com/20/20100321/1416/tnl-ipl-franchises-will-recover-their-mo.html] The corporatization of cricket is not new – what is novel are the ways in which the T20 format has been converted into a major sporting extravaganza, intertwining sport, media, glamour, money, and hype to unleash a continuum of excitement and cricketing drama.

Most of the cricket has been brilliant and it is easy to be mesmerized by the series of games where world class players (some of whom have retired from international cricket) slog it out. The wham-bang nature of T20 has not meant that the action is cornered by younger players. In fact all time greats such as Dravid, Hayden, Ganguly, Jayasuriya, Tendulkar, and Warne have played some sublime cricket. Watching IPL teams battle it out is a perfect example of ‘dream teams’ pitted against one another in the only cricketing space where this is possible. In a different context Mike Marqusee analyzes the ways in which, ‘Sport became both preparation and substitute for war, a theatre of competition not merely between individuals and teams, but between nations and peoples.’ [Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2000, p. 46] IPL maintains the competitive element in terms of individuals and teams and the enormous financial rewards at stake, but it internationalizes cricket in a significant manner and seems to ameliorate the hyper-patriotism that the game has come to symbolize especially in the Indian subcontinent.

The template of this patriotic fervour is the India-Pakistan rivalry where cricketing skills meet with primordial anxieties embedded in national identity. To cite Marqusee once more: ‘Even as cricket’s base had become more democratic and inclusive, ethnic and communal divisions [in India] had grown more acute, and ethnic and communal politics more aggressive. These politics intervened repeatedly in cricket, and that was why India and Pakistan had been unable to meet on sub-continental soil for seven years.’ [Mike Marqusee, War minus the Shooting: A Journey through South Asia during Cricket’s World Cup. London: Heinemann, 1996, p. 20] Marqusee’s comment looks primarily at sub-continental scenarios prior to the 1996 World Cup but the long shadow of communal identity politics haunts the IPL as well. The exclusion of Pakistani players from IPL3 following threats of the Shiv Sena and the Sena’s questioning of Shahrukh Khan’s patriotism because he stood up for the Pakistan cricketers are two obvious examples. The Sena also wished to extend its writ to Australian players (to be banned from playing due to race attacks against Indians in Australia) and even Tendulkar for daring to say that Mumbai was for all Indians (subsequently silenced by Tendulkar’s record-breaking one-day double century). To its credit Australians and Tendulkar continue to play in Mumbai in the IPL, but the bidding fiasco over great Pakistani cricketers robs the event of some of its international sheen revealing the immediate parochial political spaces which cannot be transcended by all the razzmatazz.

In another context, a NDTV 60 Minutes programme (22 March 2010) attempted to deal with some of the politically charged and contrastive aspects thrown into relief by the bidding for two new IPL franchises. It highlighted the obvious dichotomy between Rs. 3235 crores spent to buy the Kochi and Pune teams for IPL4 and indices such as hunger which represent levels of deprivation in India. The contrast between the panellists – Subroto Roy insisting on the business model and Ashis Nandy and Harsh Mander pointing to moral, ethical, social, and political paradigms beyond monetary considerations – served to bring to the fore an important set of issues and debates. As a mainstream English language channel NDTV deserves all credit for entering this arena. However, almost inevitably, the binaries were projected by the moderator in terms of consumption versus austerity, the latter being associated with a ‘socialist’ model (the moderator’s terms) and ‘socialism’ seen as something that is discredited. As an aside it is interesting that President Obama is seen as a ‘socialist’ and his health care reform a ‘socialist’ takeover by big government. While providing Nandy and Mander media space to put forth alternate political and ethical models, the ‘socialist’ tag seemed to discredit moral concerns at the same time that it raised those very concerns. For the millions who live on Rs. 20 a day and the 50% who go hungry (statistical graphics provide on screen) well-targeted, effective, incorruptible government interventions may not be a terrible idea, especially since the business model seems largely uninterested in the poor and disenfranchised.

The NDTV programme is, despite its problems, representative of valuable media interventions and it raises further questions. IPL serves as a lightning rod bringing to the fore consumer and corporate cultures that revel in their own wealth and brilliance as exclusive domains. Within these corralled worlds national and international economic realities – such as growing inequities within India and the disproportionate burden borne by the poor during the recession – are either irrelevant or impolitic (impolite?) and therefore ignored. The internationalization of teams is wonderful in cricketing terms but these teams and their owners, advertisers, and followers are not innocent of particular local and indeed global contexts. The IPL mode of existence and operation could be perceived as literal and pathological markers of collective/national desires and a sense of having arrived (or at least moved further along the road to a consumer-entertainment haven).

Yet why focus solely on the IPL when there are so many other symbols of national desire from malls to multiplexes to the bomb? This criticism is not aimed at NDTV or any other single media provider but at the media landscape as a field which seems to see events as stand-alone ones rather than as being interconnected. Some concurrent media events such as Mayavati’s garland, Narendra Modi – the initial mystery of his date with the SIT and subsequent appearance, the continuing Maoist violence and recent bandh, increasing expenditure for the Commonwealth Games along with dubious labour practices at Games sites, the 26/11 trial and (non)access to David Headley swirl around the IPL as if they were totally discrete happenings. Various types of dispossession and modes of resistance, the history of communal violence and non-conviction of their leaders and perpetrators, terrorism and national tub thumping are all an integral part of India in the new century. Arguably by focusing on the inappropriateness of money garlands and on over-the-top bids for IPL franchises the media establishes a kind of equivalence and ‘objectivity’. Yet both are seen without context and the former is easily lampooned while the latter is a sign of Indian prowess. Similarly the Maoist ‘menace’ is seen almost universally as a law-and-order problem rather than expressive of desperation and anger borne of deep generational and institutional inequities fostered in independent India. The point is not that media outlets ignore inequities in India. Mainstream English language newspapers do carry articles which deal with problems such as a recent Times of India piece which focused on the 58% of Indians who do not have access to toilets. Such reports, however, exist as stand alone ones with no background and no follow-up, while the details, intrigues, tweets of IPL buyers and their ministerial backers are covered in great detail. Paradoxically it is through inclusion that the darker aspects of India are kept at bay, occasional blips in an otherwise confident and wealthy (and not afraid to flaunt it) country. It’s time to turn the TV on for the next IPL encounter.

– Subarno Chattarji

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The Promise of America

November 18, 2008 at 4:42 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

 

Barack Hussein Obama’s election as President of the United States is, as innumerable commentators continue to point out, a momentous, path breaking, and rejuvenating turn in US history. Obama’s life story, his biracial identity, and his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency all point to a central myth of American self-fashioning, whereby one can make oneself anew in the new land. In the eighteenth century Hector St. John de Crevecoeur asked a question quintessentially related to the United States: ‘What is an American’?

Crevecoeur’s answer implied that the American is special because he is not subject to the constraints of his European forbears; the American has unique opportunities to make his own life anew, to refashion himself as if there was no past; in America history begins. ‘He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. … There is room for everybody in America;’[1] Obama’s election represents one of these pivotal moments of change, of transformative agency which the rest of the world desires but cannot engineer in quite the same way as the United States has done. Part of the acclamation and euphoria – especially in Europe – can barely conceal the fact that Obama is the first non-white leader in the Western world, and there are no Obamas likely to spring from European soil in the foreseeable future. Europe’s celebration – genuine though it is in the hope of new directions in US foreign, economic, and environmental policy – reveals the extent to which race relations in the ‘old world’ are mired in platitudes of multiculturalism and diversity training. This is a moment for America to proudly proclaim its catholicity, that ‘there is room for everybody in America.’

 

The change that Obama intoned during his campaign and premised in his election is related to the history of slavery – the ‘original sin’ of America’s founding – and that fought for and dreamt of by Civil Rights leaders. Again, this has been commented upon to emphasize the extent to which the nation has not only changed since the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but the manner in which the country has redeemed itself in electing a black president, putting to rest the demons of a shameful past of overt and often violent racism. The transformation since the time of lynchings, beatings, and segregation is indeed dramatic. African-Americans such as John Lewis who survived the beatings at Selma or the Rev. Jesse Jackson have testified to a sense of disbelief and wonderment, of awakening to a world hitherto inconceivable in their lifetime. Obama has acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants who preceded him, who indeed made his moment possible and real. In his speeches he seems to encapsulate the inclusivity articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his immortal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That sense of inclusion is crucial for a contemporary black community apt to blame the white man for all their travails, to thrive on a diet of victimhood thereby disabling a crucial aspect of their ‘Americanness’, the ability to refashion themselves anew. In the example and life of Barack Obama they see a possibility now of renewing the American Dream, of re-entering the community from which they were excluded or excluded themselves. Inclusiveness is also implied in the fact that Obama could not have won without significant support from white people. There was no ‘Bradley effect’ this time round because blacks, Hispanics, and whites voted for an idea of a future not entirely corralled by race. In this context it is obviously interesting that Obama is biracial, that when his parents married inter-racial marriages were against the law in 22 of the United States, and that anti-miscegenation laws were on the statute books in Alabama till 2000. Thus this election holds out the hope of a ‘post-racial’ America where policies and intelligence, rather than race will determine suitability for elected office.

 

The hope of transcendence is further bolstered by the fact that Obama seemingly overcame a prejudice related to Islam and the idea that his middle name designated him as a Muslim. Islamophobia existed in the US prior to 9/11 as Edward Said, among others pointed out. 9/11, however, legitimated a pillorying and worse of Islam in ways that race or sexual orientation cannot be, at least in public conversation. The easy trashing of Islam and Muslims was evident during the campaign when rumours of Obama’s Islamic faith and his terrorist leanings circulated virally over the internet. The connection between Islam and terrorism was heightened during some of the McCain-Palin rallies and when Palin declared that Obama had been ‘palling around with terrorists’. Although it was William Ayres, the former Weather Underground bomber that Palin was referring to it was easy for Republican crowds to portray Obama as a terrorist because of his Muslim middle name and the fact that he had been in school in Indonesia.[2] The demonization of Obama as Muslim was not impacted by the fact that he is a Christian and had some traction both during and after the campaign. Moreover, as Colin Powell pointed out in his endorsement of Obama, being Muslim is not in itself a negative appellation or attribute; that it should be seen as such says much about America and its peculiar pathology vis-à-vis Islam. Every election campaign has its negative and hateful aspects. This one was unique in the ways in which Obama was consistently portrayed as un-American, an alien, and an outsider with dubious connections and therefore not to be trusted with the presidency. Here too the suspicion harks back to the question of who or what is an American? Can a biracial man with a peripatetic childhood and a ‘funny name’ be classified as ‘American’? The currency of these ideas did not disappear after the elections. Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post noted this the day after the elections. A McCain supporter in Houston, Texas reversed the once-in-a-lifetime narrative of the Obama win: ‘“It’s going to be very painful,” Charles Leff, 81, said of an Obama win. He added: “I never would’ve believed it. Not in my lifetime.”[3] Among others Ruane quoted ‘Sean Frost, 23, another disgruntled McCain supporter, [who] said, “They elected a terrorist.”’[4] These could be dismissed as natural post-election blues from the losing side but they presage a narrative of resentment and hate which has emerged across the country since the election.

 

Anti-Obama and racist graffiti was scrawled in a multi-racial locality in New York soon after the election. An article on November 15 documented the extent of race threats and crimes following Obama’s landslide victory:

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting “Assassinate Obama.” Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.

 

Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.

 

From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.[5]

 

The article catalogues instances of hate such as leaving faeces in pizza boxes outside the house of Obama supporters the day after the election as well as second and third grade students in Idaho saying that Obama should be ‘assassinated’. What is disturbing about the latter instance is the way in which younger minds have received and then repeat hate speech from adults. Within this paradigm the change presaged by Obama’s election is a travesty, a ruination of America and its founding ideals which are premised as fundamentally white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian. The article quotes one Grant Griffin, a 46-year old white Georgia native who said: ‘“I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change. If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama’s) church being deported.”’[6] It is possible that these are lone voices and stray incidents but to dismiss them as such is to overlook a not-so-subterranean sense of outrage and a recrudescence of racist hatred. For better and for worse Obama’s election represents a seismic change in American politics in terms of its actual and symbolic representative and while this is a welcome and long overdue one for African Americans, minorities, and liberal whites, it is a moment of fear and anxiety for the rest. ‘Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is “the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War,” said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. “It’s shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries.”[7] The contours of this recent change will be shaped in the years to come and much will depend on President Obama’s success or lack thereof. There can be no doubt that his ascendancy to the position is a ‘profound’ shift and representative of the ways in which America has been transformed in political, electoral, demographic, and attitudinal terms. To point to the post-election incidences of racial hatred is not to undermine the changes but to highlight how the Obama revolution brings to the fore contradictions and fissures within the American polity that cannot be wished away.[8] To cite Ferris once more: ‘“Someone once said racism is like cancer. It’s never totally wiped out, it’s in remission.”’[9] There can be no ‘post-racial’ utopia in the sense of erasing racial prejudice or hate speech. While Obama will have to tackle two wars, the economic meltdown, climate change, and a host of other major issues, he is the heir to both the hope of a new world and the bitterness of loss for a significant section of America. That sense of loss cannot merely be dismissed by liberal elites as the voice of unenlightened barbarians clinging to their guns, religion, and bitterness. In this sense the context of the American Civil War is important because it brings to the fore another era of loss and disenchantment. In many ways America has worked its way through that period and Obama’s presidency is part of a trajectory of hope and fulfilment arising from the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent battles for black and minority empowerment. That this is only a beginning was evident in Obama’s sober and down-to-earth acceptance speech in Chicago but he too shied away from the contradictions of race. While Obama ascends to the most powerful position in the world he would be aware of his co-ethnics who are not only in prison or ghettoized by poverty and lack of education, but those who now face the bigotry unleashed by his very power. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of his success but it highlights both the immense possibilities and the perils of this epochal moment. America is unique in its ability to reinvent itself, to reenergize and fulfil its sense of possibility and destiny. That is what Barack Obama represents in his person and in the people who have put their faith in him. The promise of America, however, is a work in progress and this is but one stage towards the possibility of a ‘more perfect union’.

– Subarno Chattarji


[1] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, ‘Letter III: What is an American?’ Letters from an American Farmer. 1782. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951, 45, 57.

 

[2] Some sources projected Obama as a Muslim anti-Christ.

[3] Michael E. Ruane, ‘With Obama Win, Elation and a Lingering Divide,’ The Washington Post, November 5, 2008, A10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27738018/page/2/print/1/displaymode/1098

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] One salient contradiction was the passing of Proposition 8 in California outlawing gay marriages, a proposition supported by a majority of black and Hispanic voters.

[9] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27738018/page/2/print/1/displaymode/1098

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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part III

August 24, 2008 at 9:46 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

 

Sebastian Mallaby in ‘Wright and Ridiculous’ dismissed the guilt-by-association criticisms of Obama in the Rev. Wright affair. ‘Of all the strange features of this presidential race, the tarnishing of Barack Obama has got to be the most ridiculous. […] Am I supposed to believe that Obama is a supercilious elitist or a menacing ghetto radical? […]Yes, Jeremiah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama’s qualities as a candidate?’[1] Mallaby’s dismissal may seem too pat and the questions rhetorical but he did take on a media consensus, particularly on the right, that Obama was unfit to be president by dint of his twenty-year association with Rev. Wright. That association was portrayed solely in terms of Obama’s sympathy with the bitterness and anger of Wright’s sermons and condemnations of America. Mallaby tries to unpack some of the bonding between the two: ‘The Wright affair tells us that Obama bonded with someone whose political views are sometimes toxic. But as a young man trying to make sense of his mixed heritage, Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance, not political tutorials; as a community organizer, Obama focused on Wright’s admirable social work, not his resentment of the white establishment. Indeed, Obama’s own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor.’[2] While the gap between ‘spiritual guidance’ and ‘political tutorials’ may not be as binding as Mallaby implies – the political and the spiritual are often intertwined in Wright’s sermons as well as in earlier paradigms such as that of Martin Luther King Jr. – the fact that Wright had done ‘admirable social work’ and that Obama’s views on race are not as ‘toxic’ as his pastor’s, need to be emphasized. The demonization of Wright as well as the tarring of Obama with the Wright brush is emblematic of a desire to create easily comprehensible, monolithic stereotypes that can then be pilloried. Stereotyping and personalization play, as Murray Edelman argues, an essential part in mediated mass politics: ‘It is characteristic of large numbers of people in our society that they see and think in terms of stereotypes, personalization, and oversimplifications, that they cannot recognize or tolerate ambiguous and complex situations, and that they accordingly respond chiefly to symbols that oversimplify and distort.’[3] Written before the age of the internet and blogs Edelman’s analysis may seem patronising and naïve, but the coverage of the Wright controversy bears testimony to the power of distorted and oversimplified symbols. In fact the proliferation of mass and instantaneous media has exacerbated the ease with which caricatures or half-truths may be purveyed.

Fortunately, however, as Mallaby and other analysts were testaments of, the media is not monolithic either.[4] Eugene Robinson extended the idea of difference between Wright and Obama, focusing on Wright’s hubristic homogenization of the black experience: ‘The problem is that Wright insists on being seen as something he’s not: an archetypal representative of the African American church. In fact, he represents one twig of one branch of a very large tree. […] his basic point — that any attack on him is an attack on the African American church and its traditions — is just wrong. In making that argument, he buys into the fraudulent idea of a monolithic, monocultural black America — one with his philosophy and theology at its center.’[5] It is not just the case that the media represented Wright in a stereotypical manner – which it did – but that Wright also colluded in this process by passing himself off as the voice of the black church. The lure of absolute representation of the self and the power inherent in those representations is as irresistible for the good Rev. Wright as it is for the media, and both sides take refuge in their vision of the evil ‘other’.

For conservative media in the US the Wright sermons were manna, effectively pinning Obama to a fundamentalist strain in his community with little chance of explication, communication, or escape. The general media coverage was, as Mallaby pointed out, ‘a revelation about our political culture: About its failure to distinguish the important from the trivial and about the inevitability that the race card will eventually be played against a black candidate.’[6] Obama’s assertions on race may sound rhetorically improbable but there is nothing unreal, no ‘fairy tale’ about the ways in which his candidacy has helped to redefine for both blacks and whites the centrality of race in American polity and imaginative frames. Race is not merely a ‘card [that] will eventually be played against a black candidate’ but it is a way of confronting and re-imaging the politics of race. In that sense Mallaby is right about the dominant media coverage being symptomatic of America’s ‘political culture’, not only in the context of Obama’s race but insinuations of his Muslim background and persuasion. As Betsy Reed points out: ‘[…] questions about his devotion to America carry a special potency, as xenophobia mingles with racism to create a poisonous brew. The toxicity is further heightened in this post-9/11 atmosphere, in which an image of Obama in Somali dress is understood as a slur and e-mails claiming he is a “secret Muslim” schooled in a madrassa spread virally, along with rumors that he took the oath of office on a Koran.’[7] Although the rumors have been debunked they continue to circulate and the Koran – as well as its attendant desecrations – carries a particular symbolic potency in the current climate of fear. The recent case of a US soldier in Iraq being disciplined for using a Koran for target practice followed by a public apology from the US commanding officer is an instance of disrespect and alien distancing, followed by a politically expedient apology.[8] Reed’s excellent essay deals with questions of race and gender in the current primaries election cycle and focuses on the ways in which the former circulates in political and media discourse.

Reed highlights Hillary Clinton’s complicity in making Obama’s race an election issue. ‘[…] what is most troubling – and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement–is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival’s race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior “electability,” she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right–in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country–seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly racialized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented.’[9] While Clinton has not gained much leverage from her less than principled positions on Obama’s race and Muslim identity, the fact that she too has played the game shows its potency and attraction within a political field that perceives race as a primary and often negative marker of identity and belonging. In the debate between gender and race Reed argues that while ‘Clinton has’ ‘faced a raw misogyny’ ‘racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront’.[10] Setting up a hierarchy of victimization is both tricky and ludicrous because it creates a competitive victimhood that allows for the Ralph Peters kind of dismissal of Wright’s sermons as belonging to a global victims’ club of dispossessed rant. Such a hierarchy is also demeaning in the way in which it privileges victimhood as the sole quality or value worth considering in a subject. Furthermore the media replication of Wright’s sermons is a not so subtle replay of racial oppositions and fears.

However, Reed is accurate in her summation of the implications of racial codification within a larger context of American identity, a point I emphasized earlier. Reed writes that ‘Wright’s angry invocation of race and nation tapped into a reservoir of doubt about the very Americanness of African-Americans. “American citizenship has always been racialized as white. Who is a true American? Are African-Americans true Americans? That has been the question,” she [Paula Giddings, biographer of Ida B. Wells] says.’[11] The debate over and anxiety about the idea of America is deflected in major media discourse into an attack on the messenger. The virulence of the attack reflects in some ways the depth of the anxieties.

John Nichols in a posting on The Online Beat, a blog on The Nation tapped into the idea that while Wright’s sermons may not be ‘comforting’ they are ‘for the most part’ ‘well within the mainstream of American religious and political discourse’.[12] He went on to observe: ‘In more ways than Republican and now Democratic critics seem prepared to admit, Wright is the embodiment of an American religious and political tradition of challenging the country’s sins while calling it to the higher ground that extends from the founding of the republic.’[13] Nichols is referring to what Sacvan Bercovitch calls the ‘Jeremiad tradition’ in American history and self-conception. Nichols cites Thomas Jefferson: ‘“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” wrote Jefferson in 1781’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asked, “(Can) the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”’[14] Jefferson’s fears about the wrath of God are related to the idea that America is a new Eden, established by a special covenant between God and His chosen people. ‘Because New England was God’s country, its inhabitants must expect His lash.’ This ideation created what Bercovitch calls a ‘teleology of tribulation’.[15] That slavery should be the cause of Jefferson’s fears is appropriate in the contemporary context where Wright and Obama in their different ways bring to the fore the troubled histories of racial oppressions. Nichols perceives this tradition as a positive and empowering one concluding that America needs to heed the sayings of Wright rather than caricature or condemn him: ‘America has been blessed from its beginnings by champions of liberty, by abolitionists and civil rights marchers, by suffragists and union organizers, by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and challengers of the military-industrial complex like Dwight Eisenhower. Necessarily, these patriots have said some tough things about American leaders and policies. They have acknowledged flaws that are self-evident. Yet, they have not done so out of hatred. Rather, they have loved America sufficiently to believe it can be as good and as just as figures so diverse and yet in some very important ways so similar as Thomas Jefferson and Jeremiah Wright have taught us.’[16] Jefferson, Twain, Eisenhower, and Wright represent for Nichols a pantheon of American nay-sayers who were brave enough to stand up to the orthodoxy of their times and their refusal represents a peculiarly American form of patriotism. Bercovitch refers to these ‘prophets of doom’ and their effort to reconcile reality with mythic expectations: ‘In spite of themselves, our prophets of doom [‘God damn America’] also helped persuade the American that the vision he inherited must be made to correspond to the fact. They too helped make him feel, if only out of desperation, that the distance between what is and what ought to be demanded his rededication to the spirit of America.’[17] While Obama has not used the intemperate or negative language of his former pastor it is interesting that he too taps into this national reservoir of prophecy, of the possibility of change that will redeem America and fulfil pledges that were made at its founding moments.

Postscript

In her monthly column for Salon.com Camille Paglia touched upon what Obama’s association with the Rev. Wright meant from a somewhat different, but still hopeful angle. ‘My one nagging question about Obama, given his Kenyan lineage and broad background in Indonesia and Hawaii as well as his Ivy League education, was how well he knew the history, passions and aspirations of African-American culture. But Obama’s 20-year membership in Rev. Wright’s Chicago megachurch completely reassured me on this score. First of all, sermons constitute only one small part of any congregation’s rich religious and social life. Second, not for a moment do I believe — as talk radio shows are tirelessly alleging — that Obama’s political views are secretly identical to Wright’s. On the contrary, it was through listening to Wright, who was reciting a black liberationist theology that has been standard issue for a half-century, that Obama honed his desire to bridge the gap between racial and ethnic communities in the United States. This is one reason I believe Obama is the right person at the right time for the presidency. Where Hillary divides and sows bitterness, Obama wants to unite and heal.’[18] Where many commentators saw naivety, bad-judgment, lack of patriotism and worse, Paglia perceives the Wright sermons period as a transitional one, preparing and honing Obama for a presidency that will transcend the divisions exacerbated by Wright’s sermons and by their airing on You Tube and radio and mass media outlets. Whether her hope is wishful and whether the politics and ideological frameworks of the campaign and possible presidency allow for such a transcendence is debatable. What remains vital and more than interesting are the ways in which all sides to this media fuelled debate participate in their conceptions of America and its future.

– Subarno Chattarji


 

[1] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), p. 31.

[4] An example of alternative analyses was an opinion piece in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California) which expressed the dissociation very clearly: ‘If Wright were running for office, he would get the full treatment for his race-baiting and delusional ramblings and for rhetoric that ill serves Chicago’s black community. But as long as Wright is not drafting policy for Obama, he is entitled to his uninformed opinion.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[5] Eugene Robinson, ‘Where Wright Goes Wrong,’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A 17.

[6] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[7] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080519/betsyreed

[8] See ‘Soldier uses Quran for target practice: Muslim holy book was found riddled with bullet holes at Baghdad range,’ Reuters, May 18, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24693647/ Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of US troops in Baghdad said, ‘“I am a man of honor, I am a man of character. You have my word this will never happen again.”’

[9] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080519/betsyreed

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,

http://www.thenation.com/blogs/thebeat/316575/wright_jefferson_and_the_wrath_of_god

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 57, 59.

[16] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,

http://www.thenation.com/blogs/thebeat/316575/wright_jefferson_and_the_wrath_of_god

[17] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, p. 197.

[18] Camille Paglia, ‘She won’t go easy,’ Salon.com, May 14, 2008, http://www.salon.com/opinion/paglia/2008/05/14/tarantella/index2.html#

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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part II

August 20, 2008 at 1:11 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

  

Barack Obama’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination has triggered anxieties not only about what it means to be American but has also led to a spate of speculations into the nature of blackness and the black community in the United States. Teddy Davis’ ‘Obama: “A Bound Man?”’ is one example and Davis’s article was based largely on a book by Shelby Steele, A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win. The title in its combination of hope and inevitable loss encompasses the notion that Obama is a passing phenomenon, that America is not ready to vote a black man yet.

Davis, summarising Steele, makes a distinction between two kinds of black leaders: the ‘challengers’ and the ‘bargainers’. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright are the ‘challengers’, because ‘they make whites feel guilty’. Obama is a ‘bargainer’ because ‘he agrees not to shame Americans with the history of slavery and segregation and whites respond with enormous gratitude’.[1] Steele does not perceive Obama’s possible cross-racial bargaining capacity as a positive quality because he thinks Obama has to ‘prove’ his blackness. Steele argues that in order to establish his black credentials Obama advocates a type of black agency which is contingent on whites (and their approval) and if this is so blacks will remain at the bottom forever and they will continue to need government help. ‘Steele thinks Obama’s alleged insecurity about his racial identity explains not only his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also his continued support for affirmative action’.[2] Steele’s pop-psychological deconstruction of Obama’s racial identity and dilemmas is cited without comment, indeed with approbation, throughout the article, indicating the need for definitive frameworks to understand as well as criticize Obama. In Steele’s formulation it is not so much that America is not ready to vote for a black man but that the black leader is himself flawed and insecure and therefore unworthy of trust and votes. Davis concludes with a quote from an interview of Steele: ‘“What he is really saying is that he’s afraid,” Steele continued. “What Obama is saying is, ‘I’m afraid if I am less than receptive to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they’re going to call me an Uncle Tom, they’re going to call me a sellout.’ The terror of Barack Obama’s life has been that blacks would reject him. That’s why I call him a bound man.”’[3] Steele was responding to Obama’s comments that he couldn’t selectively distance himself from being African-American in American society. Steele perceives Obama’s capacity for bargaining as a type of ‘sellout’ and it is interesting that the Uncle Tom stereotype is wheeled out to condemn Obama for trying to conceptually and ideologically, if not actually, challenge the idea of a black politician as speaking to an exclusively black constituency. So while it is theoretically possible to postulate the idea of the ‘bound man’ the phrase seems emblematic of community and perhaps national insecurities rather than only the anxieties of Obama.

Part of Obama’s problem with sections of the black electorate is related, as noted in the Shelby Steele/Teddy Davis analysis, to his refusal to take extremist stances and to tap into a wider sense of black nationalism. Thus while Obama has benefited from African-American support, his repudiation of the Rev. Wright as well as his more nuanced responses to matters of race, has made African-Americans unhappy. As Jonathan Tilove observes: ‘To many, [Andra] Gillespie [political scientist at Emory University] among them, Obama’s problem is that he has never made explicit what, beyond symbolism, his election would do for black America. Now, he is rejecting Wright’s racial agenda without having clearly articulated his own. “The whole thing with Barack’s campaign is making all the other black leadership be on mute,” said Kevin Alexander Gray, an activist and writer in South Carolina. “The idea is that black people should just shut up and accept him as the prize of racial advancement with nothing given in return except him being the president.”’[4] Black nationalism, according to Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago ‘refers to a way of thinking that “takes race as the fundamental dividing line in the U.S.” and the “primary determinant for making political judgments”’.[5] The testimony of Obama’s political workers in the field, the persistent focus on his alien background and upbringing are indicative of the racial divide and it would be too much to expect Obama to heal that rift in his person and his campaign. What is interesting in the commentary of Gillespie and Gray, however, is the reinstatement of racial identity and division, this time from a black point of view. For one black commentator ‘So much of the educated white people’s love for Barack depends on educated white people’s complete ignorance of and distance from the rest of us. Barack is the black person they want the rest of us to be–half-white and loving, or “racially transcendent,” as the press loves to call him.’[6] The anger and disillusion is based on Obama’s appeal to a certain class of white people (the ‘latte liberals’ from a Republican perspective), his ability to reach across racial divides, however inadequate that might be. The polarization mediated here is not just between black and white, right and left (the continuance of the culture wars), but within a black communitarian ideal that sees itself as authentic only when it is defined in exclusive terms. Part of this exclusivity is predicated on a memory of slavery, a collective pain and generational trauma and Obama, although his Philadelphia speech referred to the well-springs of communal anger, has largely steered clear of the divisive terrain represented by this memorial and historical landscape.[7] At one level this could be seen as an attempt to escape history, a political sleight of hand whereby race is fore-grounded but not brought to the forefront to upset the idea of racial transcendence. At another level Obama’s soft peddling of race may be connected to the ways in which many black leaders have thrived on constituencies of victimhood, and his desire to move to a more positive frame.

The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is not a liberal newspaper but it carried an analysis of Rev. Wright’s speeches in the context of victimhood that is worth considering. Ralph Peters in ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club’ reduced Wright merely to the level of a demagogue who thrives on a sense of historical dispossession, but he also pointed to certain contradictions and contexts not mentioned by other analysts. Peters wrote: ‘Blame is delicious. And easy. Progress takes work. Nor is it in the interest of demagogues to see their followers graduate from society’s margins toward the center. Social, economic or political success undercuts their fundamental argument that their poor will always be with us.’[8] Parts of this argument are unexceptionable, particularly the ways in which leaders in all parts of the world – and Peters gives examples from the Middle East to Latin America to China – thrive on historical memories of dispossession and the idea of being victims because victimhood seems to erase historical responsibility for the past and especially the present. Within the African-American community this is a point that Bill Cosby and Obama (among others) have stressed in varying ways: that blacks need to take responsibility for their own lives and futures rather than blame the past and the government. While this argument is important, Peters also implies that since blacks have moved to the center and since America is a land of opportunities the blacks have only themselves to blame for their plight. This argument is disingenuous at best given systemic inequities which have led to large numbers of blacks without decent schooling, or the high rates of incarceration among the black community. Thus while there is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of victimhood – as Obama does – there is equally a need to focus on the dispossessed and the angry within the black community. Peters refuses to contextualize Wright’s anger lumping it with the demagoguery of ‘white supremacists, polygamist child molesters, UFO cults and the less scrupulous “advocates” for troubled minorities’.[9] The catalogue deliberately trivialises black issues by association with ‘UFO cults’ and the implication that ‘troubled minorities’ generally have unscrupulous advocates.

Peters then goes on to place his generalizations within the context of America since the battleground in all these debates is the imagining and refashioning of the nation. ‘Fortunately for us, this paralyzing cult of victimhood is the antithesis of the ethic that allowed the United States to achieve the quality of life the vast majority of us enjoy today. What built our country was the get-up-off-your-butt belief that God, by any name, helps those who help themselves.’[10] The reiteration of a founding myth of energy and progress based on a Protestant work ethic is imaginatively powerful but historically problematic in its elision of moments when America has placed itself in the position of the victim. The re-writing of the Vietnam War in popular culture (Hollywood in particular), literature, and political language has created the iconic image of American soldiers as victims of their government, the Viet Cong, the media, the anti-war protestors, or a malevolent combination of all these. Post 9/11 America positioned itself as a victim of terrorism – which indeed it was – but that positioning allowed for an erasure of histories of US violence within and outside its borders. As Suman Gupta observed: ‘In one fell swoop on 11 September those who could be perceived as perpetrators (the West) and their allies had turned into victims, and those who could be conceived of as victims (the objects of Western power politics and self-interest) had turned into perpetrators.’[11] Peters does not deal with these troubled contexts because for him ‘victimhood’ is a minority disease, an affliction from which mainstream America is miraculously immune, and Rev. Wright represents a recrudescence that only bolsters the argument that ‘the global victims’ club’ have nothing really to complain about. Between the explaining away of victimhood through trivialization (Peters) and the fixation on victimhood (Gillespie and Gray) there seems to be little middle ground. Are Obama’s silences on some of these issues evasions or are they indicative of his realization that mere rhetoric will not address the problem? These questions are not within the media matrix under consideration but there are more thoughtful responses to some of the problems raised by Wright and the response to Wright and what he represents.

 Subarno Chattarji.


[1] Teddy Davis, ‘Obama: “A Bound Man”?’ ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/Story?id=4524005 March 26, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Tilove, ‘Renewed Wright Imbroglio Exposes Fissures Among Black Voters,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/05/renewed_wright_imbroglio_expos.html  Accessed May 2, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cinque Henderson, ‘Maybe We Can’t: The Black Case for Obama Skepticism,’ The New Republic, May 28, 2008. http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=331c77bb-9591-422c-aa2b-11a741c6ebb9

[7] Obama’s even-handedness does not mean that he has moved beyond the consciousness and travails of race. As Debra J. Saunders wrote: ‘Obama is a viable candidate because he is a black man with a foot in two worlds. Obama appeals to white America as a black success story. But even if Obama has grown beyond grievances, that doesn’t mean Obama has moved beyond recognizing grievances of underclass African Americans, who have fared less well in a world that can look at them with hostility.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[8] Ralph Peters, ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club,’ The New York Post, April 30, 2008. http://www.nypost.com/seven/04302008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/the_rev__the_global_victims_club_108818.htm

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Suman Gupta, The Replication of Violence: Thoughts on International Terrorism After September 11th, (London, Sterling, VA.: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 10.

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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part I

August 15, 2008 at 9:54 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

 

 

The spectacle of the Democratic Party primaries nomination for the US Presidential elections has occupied media space since January 2008 when Barack Obama created a sensation by winning Iowa. Media reports have dwelt on the epic and interminable contest between the first African-American and first woman candidate for President in United States, emphasising in turn the inspirational, the banal, the personal, the gimmicky, and occasionally, the political aspects of this race. Inevitably race and gender have figured in the debates and commentaries and while the intersection between the two is important – and analysed in at least one media outlet – it is the issue of race that this piece will focus on. This is not to privilege race over gender but to see the ways in which media debates on Obama are refracted through the history and contexts of race relations in the US as well as the conception of America itself.

 

A quantitative analysis of reportage reveals an enormous amount of column space as well as air time spent on the relationship between Obama and his former pastor for twenty years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. A LexisNexis search indicates that there were more than 3000 entries in US news outlets from 20 February to 20 May 2008 with articles or mentions of Obama and the Wright controversy. When the search is narrowed to headlines over the same three month period the incidence comes down to 322.[1] The print media along with television as well as the internet and World Wide Web coverage are indicative of the obsessive nature of media focus. A qualitative analysis reveals some of the underlying issues inherent in the reportage as well as in the ways in which Obama’s bid for the Presidency brings to the fore overt and latent anxieties and prejudices in the US polity and the imagining of the nation.

 

A significant part of Obama’s appeal seems to lie in his apparent transcendence of race, a ‘post-racial’ paradise where race does not matter. This was, from the beginning, a fiction sustained by Obama himself and by his younger supporters as well as sections of the media. The fictional nature of a colour blind campaign and candidacy was revealed not only in the Wright controversy or in earlier attempts by Bill Clinton to pigeon hole Obama as a black candidate, but also in rare media reports of racism on the ground.

 

Kevin Merida’s ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause’ outlined the extent of the problem. ‘For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed – and unreported – this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.’[2]

While Merida’s is a mainstream media awakening, racial profiling of Obama has been active in the blogosphere for a while. One set of family photographs emphasises Obama’s alien background highlighting his Muslim identity and apparent links to Luo opposition leader in Kenya, RaRaila Odinga ‘(who signed a Shariah pact with Muslims and claims to be Obama’s cousin)’. A photo of Barack’s father is captioned ‘Muslim, hard-drinker, was married three times, attended Harvard and returned to Kenya.’ A Kenyan family shot focuses on Obama’s brother ‘Abongo “Roy” Obama who is a Luo activist and a militant Muslim who argues that the black man must “liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture.”’[3] The photo montage and captions position Obama as a Muslim with dubious family and political connections and place him outside the pale of American identity and patriotism. The notion of ‘Americanness’ harks back to the founding of the country and finds repeated resonance in the American imagination as well as in politics. Hector St John de Crevecoeur travelling in and writing about the United States in the eighteenth century famously asked the question ‘What is an American?’ in his Letters from an American Farmer, and went on to answer it in archetypal terms of plurality, democracy, and hope. More recently Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post analysed the implications of being American in the context of the 2008 elections. Meyerson claims that ‘Obama’s story […] represents a triumph of specifically American identity over racial and religious identity. It was the lure of America, the shining city on a hill, that brought his black Kenyan father here, where he met Obama’s white Kansan mother. It is because America is uniquely the land of immigrants and has moved beyond a racial caste system that Obama exists, has thrived and stands a good chance of being our next president.’[4] This is the idea of the transcendent melting pot, the land where individual self-fashioning opens the way to success and communal acceptance. It is, however, a partial vision and Meyerson characterizes another notion of Americanness, one that is predicated on being white and Christian, a homogenous core that perceives ethnic ‘others’ as outsiders and aliens. In West Virginia, a state that is 95 percent white and recently voted for Hillary Clinton ‘a disproportionate number of people write “American” when answering the census question on ethnic origin. For some, “American” is a race — white — no less than a nationality, and it’s on this equation that Republican prospects depend.’[5] What is at stake in the 2008 elections is not merely the choice of a successor to George W. Bush but the ways in which America and Americans define themselves within the particular cusp of nation and race.

Within these contexts and in the current climate of fear Obama’s supposed Muslim identity coupled with his blackness creates a direct as well as subliminal threat that must be subverted. In fact, his Muslim middle name and connections (such as the ‘endorsement’ from Hamas) have been repeatedly emphasised to underline the absolute ‘otherness’ represented by this candidate. While mainstream media has been largely innocent of this characterization its circulation on the internet is indicative of the profound suspicion of Islam mediated in the US by the media. As Edward Said pointed out in a book written more than a decade prior to 9/11: ‘“Islam” seems to engulf all aspects of the diverse Muslim world, reducing them all to a special malevolent and unthinking essence.’[6] In emphasising Obama’s Muslim identity in a post-9/11 world it is the malevolence of the religious association that is fore-grounded. An example of this was a letter written to a local paper by Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball. Mayor Ball explained his support for Hillary Clinton in the following words: ‘Barack Hussein Obama and all his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some that didn’t rub off on him. No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office.’[7]

 

The central focus of media coverage and controversy has, however, been Obama’s race and the persistent racism of sections of the American electorate. Kevin Merida quotes a Victoria Switzer who was on phone-bank duty during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. ‘She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!”’[8] Merida also notes that ‘In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: “Hamas votes BHO” and “We don’t cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright.”’[9] The vandalizing and graffiti are reminiscent of an earlier era when Civil Rights protestors were attacked physically, churches and houses fire-bombed, and lynching a common practice. The reaction to Obama hasn’t reached the same level of violence and intimidation but the incidents cited by Merida are indicative of a strong and under-reported current of racial hatred.

 

A significant part of the media debate about race, loyalty, and patriotism was triggered by the Rev. Wright’s incendiary sermons blaming America for unleashing the HIV virus to decimate blacks, characterising 9/11 as a case of ‘chickens coming home to roost’, and his ‘God damn America’ diatribe. Obama’s response to his pastor’s opinions were outlined in a major speech in Philadelphia on March 18 where he attempted to place the anger and the bitterness expressed by Rev. Wright in contexts ranging from the history of slavery to the memory of the Civil Rights movement. Obama’s speech was followed by a further spate of media attention, some negative and some hailing it as a landmark speech in American politics.

 

Ed Koch, a former Mayor of New York City, weighed in with a piece on ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing’ and asked several questions: ‘Why didn’t Senator Obama stand up in the church and denounce his hateful statements or, at the very least, argue privately with his minister? […] What is it that I and others expected Obama to do? A great leader with a conscience and courage would have stood up and faced down anyone who engages in such conduct. I expect a President of the United States to have the strength of character to denounce and disown enemies of America – foreign and domestic – and yes, even his friends and confidants when they get seriously out of line.’[10] Koch’s argument was emblematic of the guilt-by-association logic whereby Obama was tarred with the same brush of intolerant and excessive rhetoric. In Koch’s and subsequent media articles there was little or no attempt to analyse the contexts and substance of the Rev. Wright’s works and words nor was there any sense that Obama may not agree with all that his former pastor says.

 

The Rev. Wright did not help his or Obama’s case by his series of media appearances in late April wherein he repeated his earlier assertions and forced Obama to formally and forcefully dissociate himself from the pastor’s ideas and iterations. Obama’s denunciations did not, however, alleviate the ‘out-group homogeneity effect’ whereby, as social psychologist David Hamilton puts it ‘on average, people tend to feel that those from other ethnic, cultural and political groups are quite similar to one another, whereas they know that people from their own groups are quite varied’.[11] The need to homogenise and thereby minimise and condemn a person as belonging to the ‘out-group’ was expressed in different forms in media analyses.

George F. Will’s article ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ was subtitled ‘And a Parishioner with Questions to Answer’ and it raised questions similar to the ones raised by Ed Koch. Will concluded by establishing a close symbiosis between Obama and Wright: ‘He is a demagogue with whom Obama has had a voluntary 20-year relationship. It has involved, if not moral approval, certainly no serious disapproval. Wright also is an ongoing fountain of anti-American and, properly understood, anti-black rubbish. His speech yesterday demonstrated that he wants to be a central figure in this presidential campaign. He should be.’[12] It is interesting that Will ignored nuances within Wright’s arguments classifying them as ‘anti-American’ and ‘anti-black rubbish’ implying that to make such connections – between 9/11 and the conduct of US foreign policy, for example – is to be generically ‘anti-American’ (a not so subtle reminder of the ‘you’re with us or with the terrorists’ adage). Will omitted mention of Obama’s Philadelphia speech but one of his colleagues was quick to dismiss that as a ‘shameful, brilliantly executed, 5,000-word intellectual fraud’.[13] These swift and sarcastic dismissals are emblematic of an anxiety whereby the fissures and often unpleasant contexts revealed by Rev. Wright are sought to be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic and Obama, by association, is unfit to lead the nation. While bi-culturality, multiculturalism, and the heterogeneity of the United States are justly celebrated, there is a strong resistance to these ideations and constructions of the nation, a resistance reflected in media outrage.

Obama’s Philadelphia speech was interpreted by Robert Tracinski as an attempt ‘to neutralize criticism of Wright by appealing to white racial guilt. Shelby Steele has memorably described “white guilt” as the presumption that whites are guilty of racism until they can prove otherwise, which they do by subjecting themselves to “diversity training,” by embracing “affirmative action” racial preferences–or by patiently taking abuse from the likes of Jeremiah Wright, in order to show how understanding they are of black grievances.’[14] Tracinski and Steele simplify ideas of white responsibility and guilt to the point of caricature and thereby create absolute polarities between the seemingly irrational anger of Wright and the rest of America that is truly American. To be sure this kind of polarization is ably aided by the politics of the liberal left which seems to fetishize ‘white guilt’ and the celebration of an untroubled multicultural country, but Tracinski and Steele and Krauthammer and their ilk are quick to denigrate any criticism of American race-relations, as well as its troubled history and continuities. The Rev. Wright serves as a perfect hate figure in this framework of partisan paranoia and the fear of transition that Obama represents. As Tracinski concluded with some satisfaction: ‘This is the final collapse of the noble promise of the Obama campaign. The man who had once put himself forward as the candidate who would transcend racial politics once and for all has ended up legitimizing a Christian equivalent of Louis Farrakhan–and injecting him into the American political debate.’[15] The construction of Obama’s denunciation of Wright’s extreme views as ‘legitimizing’ them is linked precisely to the idea of ‘out-group homogeneity’ whereby nuances, disagreements, subtleties of context and history are swept aside in favour of a monolithic black ‘other’, the enemy within who refuses to assimilate appropriately to mainstream roles and ideas. Even Obama’s supporters, as The Guardian reported, ‘fear that his denunciation of Wright will not be enough. Stacee Nichols, 33, said: “The state [Indiana, stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan] has a horrible history. There is still racism but it is more subtle now.”’[16] While Obama lost Indiana by a whisker the issue of race and its importance in the defining and re-defining of America and Americanness continues to reverberate in media debate.

– Subarno Chattarji.


[2] Kevin Merida, ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause,’ Washington Post, May 13, 2008, p. A01.

[3] Karel Prinsloo, ‘What do we know about Obama?’ AP

[4] Harold Meyerson, ‘McCain’s America,’ Washington Post, May 14, 2008, p. A19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 8.

[7] Kevin Merida, p. A01.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ed Koch, ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/obamas_unconvincing_speech.html  Accessed March 27, 2008.

[11] Shankar Vedantam, ‘The Candidate, the Preacher and the Unconscious Mind,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A02.

[12] George F. Will, ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A17.

[13] Charles Krauthammer, ‘The “Race” Speech Revisited,’ Washington Post, May 2, 2008, p. A21.

[14] Robert Tracinski, ‘Obama’s Chickens Come Home to Roost,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/04/obamas_chickens_come_home_to_r.html  Accessed April 30, 2008.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Fatigue and racism threaten to knock Obama bandwagon off the road,’ The Guardian, May 2, 2008, p. 28.

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