Sunday, March 23, 2008

Half-Way Houses of the Less Than Blind

I can't remember a time in my life of watching politics - going back to Nixon and Watergate - when so many people called a campaign speech one of the best in American history (Samantha Power, in a talk in Santa Barbara), or one of the best ever on race (Orlando Patterson) or one of the best in post-war history (Frank Rich). The reference is of course to Barak Obama's race speech in Philadelphia last week, and at the moment Obama is the king of the kingdom of racial healing and the king of the kingdom of political candor.

Of course in the US both of these kingdoms are kingdoms of the blind (see this ignorant, backward lead piece in the New York Times today). To rule them Obama need only have one eye. In the first, he need only admit both racial anger and racial mixed feelings, both of which have been denied in US political life. Thus he referred to his white grandmother both loving her African grandson above all things in the world, while admitting she was often afraid when she saw black men on the street. We must admit the feelings and the racial programming, Obama said. In the second kingdom, US politics is ruled by lying buzzwords that deny the emotional fabric of people's everyday life. See Obama's example of disagreeing with and yet loving his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, or his acknowledgement that he has been called both too black and not black enough, or his descriptions of the white resentment over their economic stuckness that both wrongly scapegoats black folks and yet is real and must be addressed.

The most appealing moment of the speech came toward the end, when he point-blank blasted the dissociative, the denial-based understructure of American political life.
We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time, we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
Obama named the corrosive source of American political stupidity - the mass refusal to face real sources of our problems. He did so in multiracial terms. He thus also rejected the politics of racial stigmatization. And he rejected the politics of group repudiation. These have been the twin pillars of right-wing rule for thirty years. Obama the two-eyed man - the one who would actually win both the nomination and the election - is the one that can tap these vast emotional reservoirs where lie mixed feelings and hence the capacity to negotiate with the other sides, including the other sides of oneself. Were this to happen, it would mean the sidelining of the authoritarian tendency in American political life, a tendency that has allowed conservatives to rule with ideas that, by any measure, have consistently and routinely failed.
Obama's political intelligence rests in his ability to offer Americans - especially whites - a political and a racial half-way house. The political half-way house appears in moments like this one: Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television sets and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man.
Obama says it's OK for you to reject the anti-white moments of this anti-racist preacher, one who may remind you of Malcolm X, or at least Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, since he, a black member of this black congregation would feel just as you do - IF he didn't know what he knows. So Obama relieves the white repudiation of black radicalism of its guilt and shame, and at the same time says look again. American politics without shame would be a revolution indeed - it would end the Right's power as we have known it.

Unfortunately, Americans in their political life move too easily from relief to innocence. Obama held out this temptation too by orienting his major race speech around a repudiation of the core beliefs of Jeremiah Wright, as in this unpleasant passage.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems — two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change — problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
In this speech Obama criticizes Rev. Wright again and again. It starts to feel like his version of Bill Clinton's Sister Soljah moment in 1992, when he showed how he could talk to and about black radicals as though they were misbehaving ghetto schoolkids. Obama relapsed into the language of racial scapegoating, using the particularly insidious updating that links anti-white "racism" to anti-Israeli "anti-semitism." In both cases, the vast majority of criticism of white racism and of Israeli policies are critics of the specific outlooks and actions of those parties, not of some essence of evil (whites as essentially racist, Israel = Jews = anti-Arab). Here weakened his "candor" with falsehood. We of course all do this - find freedom of thought in one area and bondage to received ideas on the other. But he blanketed with innocence one of the key Obamablindnesses of American domestic policy (that things are terrible for many if not most black folks today, and that white racism persists), and one of the blindnesses of American foreign policy - the obvious absence of fairness and evenhandedness and respect for popular Arab democracy. Both leave him open to manipulation by Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike. As he knows better than any other current politician, it is the lie that will leave him open to defeat.

1 comment:

Chris Newfield said...

I went looking for more on "disavowal" and found a comment by Freud: "whereas the neurotic starts by repressing the demands of the id, the psychotic's first step is to disavow reality."

Is the US collectively psychotic? It is at least split. Our handy media term for this is red state / blue state.

Those who disavow are splitting themselves off from a traumatic perception. What would that be in the case of the American people? Two candidates:

- I destroy my country
- I kill people for no reason