Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Before proceeding with Hundal's trashy diatribe, let's pause and meditate on that term 'Uncle Tom'. Although the epithet originates in an abolitionist book written by a Northern white liberal, progressive for its era, it has come through usage to refer to a black person who purportedly collaborates with the white power system, and in general to refer to a sell-out. It was the latter sense in which Nader used the term. Ralph Nader was not, in fact, talking about foreign policy, but about Obama's support for Wall Street interests. He suggested that Obama had a choice between being an "Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or an Uncle Tom for the corporations". Obama is clearly not an 'Uncle Tom' in this sense, since - despite his carefully calibrated marketing campaign - he has not promised to be anything more than a centrist. He channelled an anti-racist vote while pandering to racist pieties about poor black people and pandering to racist contempt for Muslims. He channelled an anti-war vote while using the most hawkish language on Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He channelled economic populism while effectively championing the agenda of Wall Street, his most munificent backers. His sell was progressive, but his literally expressed agenda was moderately to the left of the Bush administration. Further, Nader's choice of words, contrasting a Frank Capra kind of patriotism with a racialised code for sell-out, is highly unfortunate. It does not, of course, make him a racist, and that splenetic charge is mainly a means by which Obama's more uncritical supporters discipline those who want to retain a more critical perspective. Nader, as always, is the whipping post for this crowd.
That isn't the only thing that is problematic about the term 'Uncle Tom'. It is always going to be the case that some of the oppressed collude with the agents of their oppression and are rewarded for doing so. They get praise for denouncing the group they are held to represent, and the more vitriolic and less nuanced they are, they more praise is heaped on them. It isn't hard to come up with examples of this, and it isn't hard to see why it is particularly infuriating when it happens. For example, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji attack Islam and celebrate US foreign policy, they provide Islam-bashing racists with a cover they are not entitled to. They are themselves participating in a racist discourse that is ascriptively humiliating for the vast majority of Muslims who are not prepared to consider that they belong to an inferior culture (even if it could be said, which it can't, that there is a distinctive, monolithic Muslim culture). Similarly, when Kanan Makiya in his role as a notable Iraqi exile commentator described bombs falling on Iraq as 'music to his ears' and participated in pre-war planning for the 'new Iraq', he was derided by another Iraqi exile as an 'Iraqi Uncle Tom' for having allowed his identity as an Iraqi to be rented out for such atrocious purposes. And there is clearly a desire to express the sense in which such actions provide a sort of 'decoy', just in the same sense that Zillah Eisenstein suggests that the integration of women into military life while progressive also helped provide a decoy for essentially masculinist ventures.
There is clearly a sense in which Obama is being used to rebrand the empire. This isn't only by tapping his race. It isn't only by tapping his 'Muslim' middle name, either. It is also his experience of growing up in Indonesia, a poor society where he was schooled alongside Muslims. He is sold as a man who, unlike the upper class twit from Midland, Texas, might be able to empathise with the poor and oppressed. He is sold as an intelligent, rational man quite unlike the vicious reactionaries he is replacing. He is sold as someone who worked in poor communities and therefore understands their problems. This is the sell that Pilger ironised about when he noted in a November article for the New Statesmen that Obama's aggressive foreign policy will see many "brown-skinned" children killed in Afghanistan. In the January article in which he referred to Obama as an "Uncle Tom" who would bomb Afghanistan, he also noted Hillary Clinton's sell as some kind of blow for women's liberation, though she is in fact an anti-feminist. It is the decoy that is the target here. Nevertheless, the trouble is that the insult 'Uncle Tom', even with the best intentions, can in fact reinforce a kind of identitarian essentialism. Depending on the context, it can imply that there is a particular standard of behaviour to which someone with such-and-such an identity ought to conform.
Hundal's diatribe, however, hardly escapes such essentialism. For a start, he presumes to speak on behalf of a "younger ethnic minority generation"™ that it is by no means clear he can adequately represent. He can no more say what this "we" believes than I can speak on behalf of a "thirty-something pinkish-yellow generation" because it is no more univocal than the "younger ethnic minority generation"™. This is not mere narcissism on his part, though as ever it is unmistakeably present. The things he puts into the mouths of that "younger ethnic minority generation"™ are boringly obsequious, and are precisely for the purpose of mandating Obama as a terrific guy. In other words, having railed against the (entirely confected) supposition that all black people must think alike, he then mobilises an entire generation of imaginary black people to support his case. Having done that, he places a critique of Zionists (a political category) in the same rank as a paranoid whinge about Muslims (an ethnic/religious category). In its best light, this is just myopic. In its worst, it regurgitates the baseless claim that opposing Zionism is a form of racism.
Of course, Hundal doesn't even remotely begin to grapple with the seriousness of the problems that both Pilger and Nader raised. Nor does he seem to grasp that the commitment to increased aggression in Afghanistan and the fervent support for Israel (to whom Obama has already awarded Jerusalem as its capital) isn't actually negated by the various saving graces that Hundal raises (and breathlessly exaggerates). To be concerned about the slaughter entailed by an intensified 'war on terror', and to be disturbed by the efficacy of the repackaging that will make it more palatable and therefore allow more people to be killed, isn't some personality quirk or weird obsession of lefties. The vast majority of people on the planet are opposed to this war, including the majority of Americans, and it is a legitimate basis for criticism. He clearly understands that "the world has changed", although it might be argued that such a phrase is so vague as to be meaningless. Technically, the world changes every time one sheds a few skin cells or pees in the shower. Of course, if this just means that the "younger ethnic minority generation"™ "don't see everything as a fight between black and white, but rather about looking forward to a shared history", then it is hard to see where the change is. After all, when was it ever simply a "fight between black and white"? When was it not fundamentally about social justice? What makes him conclude that either Nader or Pilger think social justice a "black and white" issue today, other than his own admittedly impoverished imagination? However, all Hundal has done is demonstrated that he doesn't understand the critiques whose language he professes to be offended by, and in the process contributed to a spurious rumour-mill about the leftists that liberals love to hate. Next week: how liberal bloggers made the Obama presidency.