Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Story of 'O'

Barack Obama has animated commentators and polarised debate without necessarily leaving us any the wiser as to what to expect. A man who seems at pains to distance himself from much of black America, and yet needs to draw on the tradition of anti-racism and the Civil Rights movement. A man who needs to stimulate excitement about his campaign while reducing expectations as to what he might deliver (so as not to scare a constituency of white voters). A man who has spoken eloquently on the topic of racism in America, and yet often is all too willing to pander to the worst prejudices in America. Gary Younge's meeting at Marxism today sought to explain the apparent antilogies of BHO's campaign, both the irresistible allure for layers of hitherto passive voters and the inevitable ways in which he will disappoint. The strangeness of Obamamania was summed up as equivalent to the hysteria in the few weeks following the death of Princess Diana, in which rational discussion was suspended for several weeks. The temptation either to dismiss Obama entirely or embrace him so totally that there is no critical distance remaining is a temptation that eschews analysis, and it is analysis that we need.

Younge took pains to disrupt the fantasy of a racial nirvana signalled by the Obama campaign. An America whose ideology of 'opportunity' places undue weight on the symbolic, in which the token placement of an African American in a prominent position is used to override the horrible reality that most African Americans face in terms of poverty and incarceration, invites cynicism when it comes to claims that it has at last achieved colour-blindness. In fact, such putative colour-blindness can be seen as purblindess: it whitewashes everything, including racism. It is such colour-blindness, after all, that invariably sees a harsh racial hierarchy in which black people are allotted the bottom of every available pile, as a 'meritocracy'. And it comes after a generation in which 'white' America has been energetically re-ethnicised, in an effort at unloading historical 'guilt' or responsibility for white supremacy. (There is an anecdote in Matthew Frye Jacobson's Roots Too, about the re-discovery of 'ethnic roots' among white Americans in the post-Civil Rights era, in which a well-attended anti-racist meeting in New York sees several white participants noisily declaiming that they are in fact not really white but Irish, or Italian, or Polish, or Lithuanian. The instructor is left wondering where the hell all the white people went.) Younge reminds us that Hillary Clinton lost by a mere 0.4% of the popular vote; that her vote remained resilient long after her campaign was obviously lost; that Obama tended to lose in states where black voters were present enough to inject race into the conversation but not enough to swing the result toward Obama; and that Obama's own campaign was not multiracial but bi-racial, largely failing to win over Latino voters except by a narrow margin in his home state. This hardly epitomises a country in which 'race no longer matters'. Notwithstanding all this, and 'all this' counts for a great deal, Obama's candidacy is still a historical and symbolically important moment.

One cannot afford, in this instance, to "leave symbols to the symbol-minded" as the late George Carlin once put it. Symbols are efficacious in their own right, and in this case the striking thing about BHO is the extent to which he has generated enthusiasm and popular participation in politics of a kind that was depleted during the Bush years. The historical significance of the campaign, meanwhile, is manifold, and Younge has outlined this in numerous articles (for example). Obama's success, made possible by the civil rights movement, comes at a time when the movements that galvanised Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are exhausted. But this also gives us an insight into the 'dignity' that right-wing racists admire Obama for (why is it, Younge wonders, that black people in particular are supposed to have 'dignity'?). Republican commentators enthuse about a black candidate whose sensibilities appear so distant from the old church-formed radicals of the Civil Rights generation. Obama was able to benefit from access to an ivy league education because of the civil rights movement, but was not himself the product of a movement. Rather, his success had to emerge in a highly individual fashion (in his case by working his way up through the Democratic Party machine). And even if Obama's own situation is abberant - that is, his success comes in an era of growing stagnation for black Americans - it also comes at a time when it is possible for an African American to make a serious run at the White House. While once 56% of voters confessed that they would never vote for a black presidential candidate (and at least half of the rest were probably liars), today it is 6%. So that means Obama can appeal to a new potential constituency: "They're called 'white people'". Whereas previously, politics was seen as a step in the broader civil rights movement, it no longer is. And, as such, it has become necessary to cultivate new bases while not frightening off a crucial layer of white voters. And this means that the one thing we can be absolutely certain that Obama will disappoint on is race.

The one time that Obama made a positive and important statement about race in American politics was when he was cornered by the right over Reverend Wright. In that speech, he had to explain one part of America to another. "Every now and again, Obama has been 'outed' as a black man," Younge explained. "It's as if white Americans discovered a black friend they were comfortable with, but then it turned out that he had friends of his own...". As such, the more he attempts to closet himself, as he can be relied upon to do, the more the Republican attack machine will try to 'out' him, as they did with this ridiculous 'terrorist fist-jab' episode. Nonetheless, it is because Obama 'looks' like change, because he isn't just a member of the old dynastic political elite in the US, because every signal in his campaign points to the change promised in the civil rights movement (without being so vulgar as to explicitly reference it), that he taps into a mood among Americans. The nearly half of Americans who think its best days are behind it, the three quarters who believe the economy is getting worse, the two thirds who disapprove of the occupation of Iraq, the majority who are losing out because of stagnant wages and soaring food and energy prices - their enthusiasm for the Obama campaign which maintains such a commanding lead in the polls is not the same as Wall Street's enthusiasm for Obama. They are demonstrating, at least, that they hate war, recession and poverty more than they hate black people.

Much of the discussion from the floor was given over to the argument that the American left should in no sense simply second the Obama campaign, but rather should try and wean those enthusiastic new voters off the Democratic Party machine. There are concrete reasons for this. The sheer fact of the Obama campaign has apparently led much of the organised American left to shut down its campaigns for fear of making things difficult for Obama. My guess is that one thing that would indirectly favour Obama's campaign, even to his discomfort, would be an atmosphere of energetic left-wing activism. Turning off the politics is one sure way to send voters back to sleep. However, one can't second guess the effect that the campaign is having. Younge is certainly correct that one could not have expected such enthusiasm for a Gore or Kerry campaign. The question then is how to relate to the 'grassroots', the movement which is not yet a movement, the base which is hitherto rigidly confined to the single task of securing the election of the first black president of the United States. It will clearly not do to just point out the inevitable disappointment as the candidate most favoured by American capital gets to work intensifying the occupation of Afghanistan, sabre-rattling against Iran, coddling Israel and seeing to it that Jerusalem 'remains' its capital (though it is not actually the capital of Israel), and retreating on even his most modest proposals on Iraq. Corporate America is indeed anxious to rebrand American imperialism, and Obama is certainly a more plausibly salesman for 'humanitarian intervention' than an upper class white Texan conservative. However, we relate to those who wish to campaign for him because they are anti-war not pro-imperialist. So, there seems to be a real dilemma for the left here. Abstention is not an option, but neither is being seconded to 'Obamamania' in either its official or unofficial capacity.