politics is to want something

onsdag, mars 19, 2008

Heh Heh

your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams

“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

- Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave one of the most important speeches in recent American political history. In a different climate, with a different media and surrounded by a different presidential race, Obama’s speech would be seen as what it was: a paradigm-shifting argument about the nature of America, her many ills and their possible solutions. Instead, like a Beatles song used to sell sneakers, his words have been analyzed, cut and repackaged as nothing more than a response to an immediate threat to his position in the electoral horse-race. It was, after all, a response to yet another in a series of campaign-associate-says-something-stupid “scandals”.

Of course, there was a lot of beauty, art and thoughtfulness in yesterday’s watershed speech. His personal reflections and honesty about his family were incredibly touching. Even though few can directly relate to being a person of color who has to grapple with racist comments from their white family members (such a joy), Obama’s characteristic rhetorical genius was to tell such stories in such a way that it felt universal. His willingness to be nuanced and brazenly intellectual was amazing. His analysis of racial discourse, taking the media to task for their dumbing down of all talk of racism in America was masterful. I was especially energized to hear him call out conservative iterators’ cynical entries into the conversation. That was all great. But the big news is that Obama finally made an argument about what his movement really is.

As I’ve said before, the Reverend Wright-inspired attacks on Obama will continue to plague him should he win the Democratic nomination. White America has discovered, almost at once, that Obama is, indeed, a black person, and like most black folks, has been in rooms full of other black people who will articulate an embittered account of racial injustice in America. For many, many white voters, that’s scary and off-putting. White people, we all know, tend to be somewhat touchy on the subject, which is why the national memory has cleansed even hard-fought struggles like the Civil Rights movement of anything remotely threatening.

And so, as a response, Obama could have taken the easy way out. Say what you will about the mean-spirited will behind Geraldine Ferraro’s comments, but she’s not wrong that loads of white folks were willing (and some excited) to vote for Obama because he seemed to absolve them of having to face the reality of black anger. Obama could have tried to sprint back into that cozy space, thrown his Pastor under the bus and moved on. He could have tried to stiff-arm a part of his constituency in that patently Democratic way that Party leaders have done to labor, African Americans and others for decades. He could have taken a cue from Colin Powell. He could have continued to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. as if King were a religious Bill Cosby. His speech could have called upon America to simply “transcend” race, as many of the headlines today misreport.

Instead, Barack Obama did something remarkable. He explained black anger. Then he did something even more remarkable. He explained white anger. And then he did something I haven’t heard him do in a long time. Instead of simply stating that anger is bad and unity is good, he explained why such anger, while understandable, is a mistake. He did that by talking about class.

Why shouldn’t black people pull away from the political process and be cynical about working together with whites? Because to do so is both pessimistic and unrealistic. Progress comes from coalition-building and struggle. Why shouldn’t white working-class people believe the racist scapegoating of the Right? Because it isn’t poor communities of color who deny their health care, destroy their schools and ship their jobs away. In a way, with this speech, Barack Obama wholly adopted the John Edwards narrative, and then radically improved on it. Finally, he named an enemy, however carefully: a “corporate culture” of greed and inequality, backed by a political opposition that deliberately sows disunity in order to protect that culture. He named this enemy, however, in the context of directly addressing the salient and tangible realities of race. It was a class appeal, albeit a very American one. And that’s a good thing. Nothing else would make any sense

This is a shift in Obama’s narrative. He has always called for, and certainly embodied a notion of reconciliation along racial lines, and, at his most distressing, he has spoken much about coming together across party lines to “deal” with challenges and problems facing the nation. That has always disturbed me, as I find such attempts to depoliticize politics to be dangerous and demobilizing. I must confess that while many of my friends swooned over his entreaties to “come together” and “move beyond the divisions of the past”, it has sounded to me like a song about triangulation sung to the tune of kumbaya. He’s always said that we are our “sister’s keeper”, but now he’s translated that familiar Christian notion into a political argument. We should come together because there are opponents whose pursuit of their own narrow interests poses a real and common threat. That’s an important caveat to the call for unity. In religious terms, it’s the difference between the Opus Dei and Liberation Theology, between throwing charity at people and throwing the money changers out of the temple.

This shift may not be enough to push through to beating John McCain. However, it was more than enough to make me very glad indeed that I voted for Barack Obama. I pray that Senator Clinton will be smart enough not to take any of this as bait.

fredag, mars 14, 2008

Notes on the Primary Process

Very quickly, I'd like to answer questions I've gotten about my opinion of the Primary process in the context of the likely scenario of a contested Democratic Convention.

As all my regular readers know, I am not a huge fan of primary elections in general, especially with the added antidemocratic practice of opening them to non-Democrats. The primary election process, promoted by liberal and reformist Democrats as a way of destroying the cartels and machines of old-school Democratic politics has, as these things tend to do, completely backfired. Instead of tightly controlled regional and urban machines, the power in the Democratic Party, as in all of American politics, flows in the form of campaign dollars. Our primary elections have degenerated along with the rest of our political process into battles based on spending power and charisma.

All of that being said, the Party has led millions of voters to believe that the primary elections and caucuses are meaningful. That's why they've turned out in droves, doubling, tripling even raising by an order of magnitude voter turnout in States across the country. We are going to need that energy in the coming general election, no matter who our Nominee is.

The worst possible thing that our party could do would be to allow Superdelegates to flip the outcome of the nomination process away from the results of the state-level caucuses and primaries. It may be legal, it may be exactly why Superdelegates were created, but it would be a horrible mistake.

And let me be clear: I think this is true no matter who comes into the convention with more delegates. There will be no way to untangle or disprove large scale feelings of sexist or racist power-brokering if party officials are seen to be responsible for blocking the first black or first female President from advancing. Let's not do that.

Likewise, I completely support efforts to find an equitable way of including delegates from Florida and Michigan, but only with some method that allows voters or caucus-goers in those states to chose from among all the candidates still contesting the election. The Clinton campaign's cynical claim that the delegations should be seated as-is is honestly laughable. However, she and others in the party are completely right that going into the general election having burned two state's worth of Democrats (one of them ever-crucial Florida) would be foolish.

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Jeremiah and Geraldine

Barack Obama is a black man. Hillary Clinton is a white woman. I'm sorry to break this news, but it's true. Ask them.
In recent weeks, two figures affiliated with the rivals have engendered passionate denunciations for essentially stating the above uncontested truths. True, some of what has come out of Geraldine Ferraro's mouth has been appallingly insensitive to the realities of racism in the United States, and Pastor Jeremiah Wright's now infamous sermon about Obama and Clinton made it seem as if gender simply didn't exist. However, the controversial kernels of both of their controversial statements are unimpeachable.

First, let's take Ferraro's bitter complaints on behalf of Senator Clinton. There is a truckload of sexism at the core of the current election season, and no serious proponent of Obama's campaign could or should deny that his racial identity is crucial to his appeal, his experience, his soul and, yes, his success. I mean, come on. Duh. What's galling and blinkered about Ferraro's statements is that she implies that this is a bad thing, and that, somehow, Clinton's race and gender aren't also shaping her life in important ways. Clinton, in Ferraro's assessment, is primarily a victim of sexism, and isn't also a beneficiary of racial privilege. One strikingly honest thing that Ferraro did say, about herself and about Clinton, is that their gender played a huge role in their advancement to the top (or possible top) of the Democratic ticket. Clumsily, and with a blindness toward race that is sadly typical, Ferraro has said what a lot of people won't say. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and that accounts both for a measure of her success, but also for the particular and vicious attacks on her personal worth and character that have plagued her since she entered the race.

In many respects, Pastor Wright has done the same thing. Speaking in the language of black Christianity, Wright has worked to remind black congregants, and black voters in general of the simple truth that Barack Obama is also black, and that he has shared many of the experiences of other black people in America. The fact that this simple reminder has shocked and awed so many white pundits (and, anecdotally, potential voters) is distressing but predictable. Just as Clinton has had to be very careful in walking a line between being "too" or "insufficiently" feminine, Obama's got the same problem with his blackness. Wright's comments are a reminder that just because there is a mainstream black candidate for president does not mean that black people have forgotten about the realities of racism in the United States.

Of course, a lot of what Wright has said in his sermons sounds extreme to many Americans. "God Damn America" is not something I'd want ringing around my campaign. No doubt, it's a PR problem for Obama, and is part and parcel of the fact that as a liberal politician in Chicago, he's rubbed shoulders with parts of the left that have been effectively shuttered out of the mainstream. We can all look forward to more of such attacks based on Obama's "associations", something that Clinton doesn't have to worry about because she didn't have to move up from the grassroots of big city politics. Incidentally, there's nothing about Wright's sermons that is any more "radical" than what comes out of the Evangelical movement churches that Republican candidates frequent, but Obama's not going to be able to fix the ideological and discursive double standard in national American politics in the course of one campaign.

I don't envy either Obama or Clinton for having to walk these treacherous lines. At the same time, I'm pretty fed up with watching both of their campaigns pounce whenever there appears to be the potential of point-scoring.

We live today in the shadow of the reductive and destructive “debate” over “political correctness” that emerged in the 1990’s. That framework helped to reduce the realities of racialized and gendered inequalities to sparring over word choices and speech. The problem of racism, sexism or homophobia became one of hurtful, offensive statements, as the popular imagination merged concepts of bigotry and plain old rudeness together into a useless mishmash. In the end, simply mentioning the existence of race or gender, or class or sexuality as real factors in the real world experience of real people becomes a lightning rod. We can't talk about any of it in a serious way because the only way that people know how to talk about oppression is by denouncing someone's speech.

This is not to say that discourse isn’t important, or that words do not have power. However, actions by both the right and left during the “culture wars” over political correctness helped create an environment in which the stupid rantings of a comedian on stage was nearly as big a story as the horrific crimes of New Orleans.

Perhaps it is utopian folly to wish that mainstream public discourse around race, gender and class would be anything other than superficial in the United States. But in this election season, faced as we are with the most sociologically complicated set of choices imaginable, the superficiality of our discussion is as stark as it is dangerous. The campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing themselves, their party and their natural constituencies no favors by choosing to score points amid the maelstrom instead of concentrating on issue differences and together denouncing racism and sexism.

The Republicans are taking notes.

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