Silly White Crush on Obama
By Paul Street at Jun 20, 2007
My ongoing assault on the Obama campaign continues. Please see my latest effort, titled “Obama's White Appeal” in the excellent left newsletter Dissident Voice and also at Black Agenda Report. Among other things, this essay addresses the unpleasant fact that the technically biracial Obama's campaign and persona are perfectly calibrated for the current post-Civil Rights era of victim-blaming neoliberal racism. Obama allows whites to assuage their racial guilt and feel non-racist by liking and perhaps even voting for him while reassuring them he won't do anything to tackle and redress the steep racial disparities and systemic racial oppression that continue to scar daily American life and institutions. “What… me and my country racist? You can't be serious: we're thinking seriously about voting for a black man as president. My daughter just loves Oprah.”Here are some of my previous efforts to warn people (including a shocking number of left liberals) off their childish CRUSH ON OBAMA:
“The Obama Illusion,” Z Magazine (February 2007): 29-33, available online at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Feb2007/street0207.html“Obama's Audacious Deference to Power: A Critical Review of Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope;” Black Agenda Report (January 31, 2007), available online at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task =view&id=61 and at ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), www.zmag.org/ content/ showarticle.cfm?Section ID=72&ItemID=11936
“The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” ZNet Magazine (March 16 2007), available online at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12336) and at Black Agenda Report, (March 21, 2007), www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task =view&id=149&Itemid=34.“Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City,” ZNet (April 28 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12687.
“ ‘ He's a Mouse:' Russell Simmons' Speaks Some Truth on Obama,” Black Agenda Report (May 9, 2007), available online at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=204&Itemid=34.
A few people have asked me why I've spent “all [my] time criticizing Obama” instead of the Republicans and the other top tier Democratic candidates and broader institutional forces in the United States? One person at an excellent left journal recently started to dismiss an Obama article I did by saying that it didn't have anything about Hillary in it. A few readers have even absurdly charged racial discrimination, saying that I'm singling Obama out because of some perverse hostility toward a black candidate.
I have a seven point response.
First, I'm not spending “all my time” on Obama. It's not even close. Restricting inquiry just to ZNet, if you go to ZNet's search function and punch in my name and “2007” (leave the “topic” field blank) at http://www.zmag.org/search/index.cfm?action=database, you will see that I've done 33 article for ZNet this year. Just four of those articles are about Obama. The other 29 deal with precisely the issues I'm falsely accused of ignoring.
Second, I have offered some very direct criticism of Hillary Clinton (see especially “Who Does Hillary Clinton Think She's Kidding?” at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12120) and John Edwards (see especially “Imperial Temptations” at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928 and “We've Done a Lot More Than Talk” at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11895). I will do more, especially on Hillary Clinton.
Third, I never criticize Obama in isolation from broader institutions and structures. I portray Obama (and other presidential candidates) behaving in ways that are consistent with the goal of attaining power within a plutocratic, imperial, white majority nation where democracy is trumped by concentrated economic power and the authoritarian logic of winner-take-all politics. In the end my core subject matter in the Obama pieces is not Obama per se but rather the broader societal and institutional framework in which his campaign and celebrity have emerged.
Fourth, the notion that one is anti-black because one criticizes a public figure who happens to be black is of course absurd, on par with the claim that one is prejudiced against all Cubans if one criticizes Fidel Castro or (scaling the heights of absurdity) that one is anti-Semitic if one criticizes Israel. And if I am racist than so is the excellent Left and Black and Black-run zine Black Agenda Report, which is every bit as harsh --- if not harsher ---- in its criticism of Obama.
Fifth, far from being anti-black, part of my argument against Obama is that the election of a black Democrat like him to the presidency could be a “disaster” for the cause of black equality. It would be a negative from a racial justice perspective, I argue, because it would reinforce the pervasive majority white notion that racism is essentially over as a relevant barrier to black equality in the U.S. For the full argument (which has to do with my by now oft-repeated distinction between “level one” and “level two” racism), see the “Obama's White Appeal” piece linked in the second sentence of this post.
Sixth, too many left-liberal peace and justice types have a juvenile and mindless crush on Obama. The biggest reason I've focused on Obama more than other leading presidential candidates is that none of the other candidates is more wrapped in toxic progressive illusion. None of the predominantly Left and liberal readers at journals and zines I write for hold the preposterous notion that any of the big Republican candidates are progressives. Very few of those readers hold such illusions about Hillary Clinton. She is fairly well understood to be a corporate centrist by people on the U.S. left.
Obama is a different story. If you read at least three of my articles mentioned above (“The Obama Illusion,” “Obama's Audacious Deference to Power” and “The Pale Reflection”) you can see that he's every bit as centrist as “the First Lady of Triangulation” (as Ari Berman describes HC in “Hillary Inc,” The Nation, June 4, 2007). But a shocking number of left liberals and peace and justice types want so badly to think otherwise. There's a big and sorry group of white progressives who just insist on believing that Obama is some kind of populist man of the Left and enemy of the power elite. They've got a crush on the Barockstar. I have been systematically dismantling that myth in the articles linked above, with some positive effects across the country though very little I must admit in the two locales where I spend most of my time – Chicago and Iowa City.
Part of the perception problem in the latter community, I hate to say, is about race. A lot of the nice university town guilty white liberals around there have so little experience with the black community (and so little sense of the internal differences that can be found among African Americans) that they just can't wrap their minds around the notion that a black Democrat could be a conservative man of empire and inequality and a heavily ruling-class- indoctrinated dagger in the heart of the Left cause. It's a big part of their identity as non-racists that they are ready to vote for a black president. “Look at me, I'm not a racist; I've got a crush on Obama.” Informing these nice campus town Caucasians that black and Democratic Obama is a corporate-neoliberal militarist and a calculating racism-accommodator (and that tackling racism is about deep structural and institutional change, not voting for a conservative black guy who doesn't threaten societal white privilege) is like telling a first grader there's no Santa Claus. Except the first-grader will listen to the evidence.
Seventh, the considerably pro-labor Edwards (who glares a campaign spotlight on extreme class inequality inside the U.S. and routinely says that "the labor movement is the single greatest anti-poverty program in American history") is better to a degree that matters. While I have made some criticisms of JRE and will no doubt continue to do so, I spend a lot less time writing against him for a simple reason: he's much better than Obama and (given the complete impossibility of a Kucinich victory) on numerous and interrelated levels and I want him to get the Democratic Party nomination. There's more sincerity and less hypocrisy in his populist and peaceful pretensions and he's running substantively to Hillary-Obama's left (see the Adam Nagourney write up in the New York Times a couple days ago). Far enough left for my taste? No; I'm well to the left of Kucinich and I have particularly big issues with many of JRE's foreign policy declarations (see especially the "Imperial Temptations" piece linked above). But my taste is largely besides the point right now – that's a cold hard fact in the American winner-take-all plutocracy. American electoral politics is what it is: a real problem for some time to come. We need to change the whole game to enable actual democracy replete with multiple parties and non-elite (and non-elitist) candidates (some of the things required are public financing, proportional representation, instant runoff, and free media time) and the like but the change isn't coming between now and November 2008 and I don't feel the luxury of not bothering to care which of the officially (to use the key Iowa caucus term) viable candidates will inflict the least damage and do the most good. If you agree with me that the Republicans are borderline proto-fascists, moreover, you want the Democrats to run the guy with best chance of winning. For all his considerable flaws from a Left perspective (flaws I've written a bit about), Edwards gets my endorsement on (i) relative decency and (ii) relative electability.
(This will no doubt spark the standard childish recriminations and bloodlettings from election-focused radicals claiming to be on my Left, but what else is new? Think of the American electoral system as a capitalist textile mill. Just because I am willing to lend a little support [quite minor] to an effort to replace a vicious, mean and driving mill supervisor with a more welfare-oriented and human mill supervisor doesn't mean I don't also and ultimately want to the mill owned and directed by the workers themselves. It doesn't mean I want to disband the independent organizations and self-activity and bottom-up rank-and-file historical agency of textile workers. And it doesn't mean I don't think the broader system in which the mill operates is rotten to the core).Some final reflections on the state of our political culture and a certain political music video that is sweeping the web. The stunning and widely viewed “I've Got a Crush on Obama” video – featuring the incomparable “Obama Girl” Amber Lee Ettinger (who was crowned “Miss NYC” in the 2003 “Miss Hawaiian Tropic Pageant”) – might seem to be nothing more than trivial political marginalia…sheer entertainment. But watching it the other day, I couldn't help but flash back to a very brief conversation I had with four University of Iowa undergraduates in a coffee shop in Iowa City.
I was getting up to leave and noticed that they had a flyer on an Obama speaking engagement in town and asked one of them if they knew when and where he was talking. “So,” I said, “is that who students are supporting - Obama?”
“Oh absolutely,” a 20 year old white woman practically yelled, “We all love Barack. He is so cool.” “
Really?" I said.
" I don't know what is about him," another sudent added. "it's just that, like...he's on TV like all the time, you know what I mean? All my friends are like really into him. Just the way he talks and looks. It's hard to explain. He's awesome. I can't stand Bush.”
“What do you think about Kucinich?” I asked. They'd never heard of him.
“What about Edwards?”
“Oh's he's alright. I like his wife and the way she's fighting back against cancer. He's pretty good looking but I don't think he needs to spend all that money on a haircut.”
These kids possess the franchise – the right to vote.
Fortunately, the students don't participate widely in the Iowa caucus process.
You can be horrified by this little exchange but it's actually fairly representative of the basis on which many Americans vote in presidential elections. They are encouraged by campaign consultants and political advertisers to select candidates on the basis of trivial personal perceptions, not actual policy positions and issues. This is one small part of the great American democracy deficit – the growing chasm between the citizenry's fairly progressive policy opinions and actual policy.
And how much more informed about Obama's real moral and ideological chcracter are the local university town's older “peace and justice” types than Amber Lee and the naïve undergraduates?
Constructing the demcoracy deficit is a cynical exercise, kind of like the video. If you watch “Crush on Obama” to the end you see an outtake of Ms.Ettinger collapsing in laughter on a New York City rooftop after screaming “Obama” down ti the street below. The impression is that she and her film crew know they are engaged in a ridiculous and cynical exercise – an Obama-worship-mocking video intended to ride Obama's coattails to some media fame and a few bucks.Whatever.