I am glad of Barack Obama, and gratified that he has been elected President of the United States. These are pleasures without reserve, and there is more to them than that Obama in the White House means that George Bush and his plutocratic regime of C-students-from-Yale are no longer running the joint. It is because Obama is an extraordinary and exemplary human being, and because the person in charge of the most powerful country in the world is a man of good will for the first time in more than a quarter century, and better still, that he is a man of high intelligence and moral character.
But Obama is also the source of a specific anxiety for me and for many others, most of whom are about the same age as I am. It is an anxiety I recognize well, even though I haven’t experienced this strain for most of my adult life. There is a cost to caring about exemplary public figures: here, I worry that the many enemies Obama will have might kill him, whether because he is black or intelligent or socially progressive doesn’t matter. His enemies are the implacable kind, and they include the sort of people who kill people they disagree with.
Now, I sort of liked Jimmy Carter, who was, back in the day, a man of good will. I also sort of liked Bill Clinton toward the end of his presidency, despite my better judgment. But I haven’t had an emotional stake of any depth in an American politician since the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. Most of my generation—or at least those of us with an interest in social justice and democratic fairness—hasn’t. That third political murder of the 1960s killed more than John Kennedy’s younger brother. It neutralized the last of the political sugar America inherited from the heroism of the Second World War, dissolved it in the acids of the Cold War, and washed it away with the corruption and greed of American capitalism’s saturnine sense of entitlement. After Robert Kennedy’s murder, mine became a generation without mainstream political hopes even when we were strong enough to resist cynicism, which hasn’t been often. In Canada we became anti-American nationalists, but wherever we live in North America, we became, whether on the left or right, people who were always looking for a still smaller political constituency to comfort us. For many of us that constituency became our bank accounts, and for a minority, it has meant political extremisms and more recently a resurgence of religious or ethnic fundamentalisms.
But now that has changed, and people like me are nervously back in the believers’ tributary of the mainstream. We believe in Barack Obama, or want to. But we’re still carrying the baggage of our now-ingrained paranoia, and as I watched the run-up to Obama’s inauguration, the paranoia reached takeoff velocity. What I’m seeing out there is scaring the shit out of me.
It scares me because the mass media, both in the U.S. and in my own country, have spent the last 10 days playing Obama’s presidency almost as a purely racial accomplishment. It doesn’t seem to matter that they’re doing this in the face of minimal cooperation from Obama and his people, who likely understand how politically stupid and potentially dangerous it is.
Racializing Obama’s presidency is stupid because the very presence of Barack Obama in the White House ought to be taken as a clear signal that race and racialization are finished as legitimate human markers. Obama didn’t get elected president because he’s black, and he didn’t get elected president in spite of being black. He was elected because he was smarter, morally more sure-footed and politically more astute and relevant than the people he ran against. Obama and his supporters took the herd-of-cats Democratic Party out of the self-destruct mode that had seemed permanent during the Bush years, and outsmarted or outflanked the Republican party’s electoral machine on every major issue and event. So why is Obama’s blackness the focus now?
In accordance with my longstanding policy of not asking rhetorical questions (because we’re living in a world where there aren’t any left), I’ll answer that question as firmly as I can. The mass media are playing Obama as a racial phenomena partly because the bottom-lining owners of the media know that it is the easiest way to encapsulate a complex event while minimizing coverage costs. Another factor is that the editorial and on-screen actors in North America’s mass media are intellectually and other wise lazy. They’re aware that for the last three weeks, Washington has been full of picturesque black celebrities off their meds, and they’re putting them to use. Even Whitney Houston showed up to display remnants of her singing voice, looking like the personification of Hurricane Katrina—and a lot of other black celebrities have been doing picturesque if stereotypical black activities like singing and dancing and quoting gospel. Whatever their motives—and I’m not disputing that this is an emotional high for black people across the United States and the, um, symbolic achievement of some of Martin Luther King’s goals—it has given the networks more cheap content than they’ve had since the OJ Simpson trial, not to mention truckloads of really good out-of-copyright live music than has been available free since the Second World War.
CNN has been the worst. One of my acquaintances noted on the day of the inauguration that he hadn’t seen a white person on a CNN screen for three days. This is an exaggeration, but only a slight one: black on-screen personnel appear have been pulled out of the depths of their broadcast farm team and sent out with camera crews to shoot focus group after panel after celebrity testimonial. The unanswerable questions being posed for the edification of the public were almost exclusively about race: how will Obama affect race relations? Does this make you feel empowered? Is it enough to create equality of opportunity for black people?
None of these folks seemed to want to ask anyone whether Obama’s presidency is going to mean the end of distinctions base on race, or, hey, do you think we can now maybe stop whacking one another over the head because of our skin pigment and get on with saving the planet?
Repeat: none of this is meant to suggest that America’s black population ought to be deprived of their hour of celebration. Even if they end up partying in the streets of Washington for the next month, I’m okay with that. Most black Americans have been down and kicked around for a very long time, and now they’ve been deeded a perfect role model for personal dignity and social equality. Things won’t ever be the same for them, just like it won’t ever be the same for everyone else.
But let me say this again: Blackness just isn’t what Barack Obama is about, and it better not be what his presidency is about. He said it himself in his inauguration speech: we need to create a new era of responsibility. What he didn’t say was that what we’ve just lived through was an era of unearned, destructive entitlement and entrepreneurial selfishness, and that it was at least part of what has put the United States into the condition of near economic, cultural and political bankruptcy we’re seeing the effects of everywhere. But you can see in his eyes that he understands it.
Canada’s mass media, including the normally-sane Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, slavishly followed the racialized American reporting agenda, interviewing black activist after black activist—they didn’t seem to distinguish between American and Canadian activists—in its “in depth” radio reportage, and during the several days before the inauguration, frequently framing it with sentimental music that sounded shamefully like it had been taken from the “Old Black Joe” songbook, and hinting that the late Oscar Peterson and not Rita McNeil has become our most relevant cultural icon. The always air-headed Canadian television coverage was slightly less droning, but barely less racialized than the CNN agenda.
But hey, shameful and inaccurate media coverage wasn’t invented earlier this week, and it isn’t quite what activated that surge of reptilian core paranoia in me. While the media moguls have no doubt been backslapping themselves about how their coverage is the new “shock and awe” for the underdeveloped parts of the world, and cheerily sending off crews to Obama’s ancestral village in Africa to harvest the richer plumes of ecstasy, I’m wondering about the shock and awe effect it is having on all those rednecks in Arkansas and Texas and the rest of Red America that is so set on American arcadia that they suspect that anyone on the Pepsi side of the Pepsi/Coke divide is a card-carrying communist and atheist. Not that I’m suggesting that these people are any more or less racially loony than, say, Dick Cheney, but they have to be seeing all this chest-thumping celebration by the more over-the-top black celebrities as an aided-and-endorsed-by-CNN takeover of America by its black minority. And these are people who tend to respond badly when they think they’re threatened.
Are these the same guys who killed the Kennedys and Martin Luther King 40 years ago? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, Oliver Stone notwithstanding. It was them, or the oil lobby, or the Miami Cubans, or the various mobs; Russian, Italian, Episcopalian or whoever doesn’t like their prejudices crowded by the demands of social justice and common sense. The point is that the Kennedys and Martin Luther King were killed because they posed a threat to the status quo of America’s crazy religious, social and racial norms. And anyone who doesn’t recognize that Barack Obama poses a similar threat to those interests is deluding themselves, no?
What am I saying? Just this: let’s be careful, first. No showing off, no showing people up, no trash-talking. Second—because race is divisive nonsense any way you cut it, let’s not make Obama a racial cipher, because there are just too many mean and crazy people out there ready to turn the wheel on that one, and they don’t care who gets crushed under the wheel when it turns.
1712 w. January 27, 2009