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Friday, December 12, 2008

What is the Real Pedagogical Value of the Obama Election?

Editor: Author William Lyne, whose article, "Beautiful Losers," appears in our winter 2008 issue of the journal, updates his thoughts in light of the Obama election. We invite readers to respond to his post or to his article from our Volume 3 Number 1 Issue. Watch for the upcoming video interview with Professor Lyne in our “Talking with the Authors” section of the journal.
A POST FROM AUTHOR, WILLIAM LYNE

MEET THE NEW BOSS . . .

“I want to know, Which side is the federal government on?”

John R. Lewis, in 1963, long before he went to Congress

When Congressman Lewis shifted his support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic primaries, he said that he realized he had been on the wrong side of history. And certainly the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is historic.

Obama is generationally, geographically, and philosophically not of the Civil Rights or Black Power movements. The most visible claims he has on neighborhood or movement street cred come from his wife and his former preacher. There was a telling moment at Obama’s first press conference after the election. The reporter who stood up to ask the obligatory “What kind of dog are you gonna get the kids?” question had her arm in a sling. Obama asked her what had happened and she said that she had hurt herself in the crowd in Grant Park on election night. Obama quickly reassured everybody that hers was probably the only injury in the park that night. Forty years earlier, Grant Park had been the site where police had arrested, beaten, and gassed demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. Almost reflexively, Obama was doing what he had done throughout his campaign—letting people know that, while he might occasionally reach for the rhetorical figures of Martin Luther King or allude to Rosa Parks, he was not Bobby Seale, he was not the kind of Black president who was going to make the kinds of demands of a racist country that could lead to any kind of conflict. You needed a ticket to get into his Grant Park party.

And yet, once we get past the new president’s diasporic, multi-racial, and politically centrist identity, it is clear that personally he owes a great, great debt to the movements he distanced himself from and the hundreds of years of African American resistance, tenacity, and struggle that came before them. This guy is hard and he’s cool, an inheritor of Black American traditions that began with the Middle Passage. While every other politician in the presidential race (including Obama’s future running mate and his new Secretary of State) regularly put their foot in their mouth, some of them on a daily basis, Obama slipped up maybe twice. And one of those times, the time he talked about the people who express their internalizing of ruling class ideology by clinging to their god and their guns, he was both gracefully alliterative and right. The Obama campaign had a sleek, unsentimental discipline that was more reminiscent of the Tuskegee Airmen or the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment than it was of a U.S. mainstream political party. In order to beat the very formidable white structures of the Clinton machine and the Republican party, in order to succeed as a Black man in a very white institutional setting, Barack Obama had to be twice as good, three times as smart, and infinitely harder than anyone else. And he owes much of his ability to be all that to the many thousands gone before him in African American freedom struggles.

But as president, he’s not likely to end up much different from the rest of them. Sure, he will openly violate the constitution far less than Dick Cheney has, he won’t be the televised train wreck that Bush is, and he probably won’t have a weakness for blowjobs in the Oval Office. It will be refreshing to have a president who is thoughtful and smart and more competent staff will run government agencies and various social policies will move more toward the center. But at the end of the day, he’ll still be a president. And in our current political arrangements, no one gets within sniffing distance of a legitimate shot at the presidency without fully committing to the job description of steward of ruling class interests.

The only slim chance of genuine systemic change lies with the new electorate that played such a large role in Obama’s election. The millions of new voters who made Virginia and North Carolina blue and Karl Rove’s politics of hate irrelevant could not have been turned out without the reinvigorated infrastructures of various progressive political movements in this country that would not have worked as hard for any other candidate. The question now is, Will those movements who made Obama possible hold him accountable? And the answer is probably not. The energy that could bring real change began to dissipate in all those cathartic, teary celebrations on election night. Mardi Gras festivals are for letting the steam out of revolutionary engines. Instead of organizing in a forceful way to put real change on the table, the Obama electorate is punching its information into Obama databases, turning its eyes toward a symbol and chanting slogans of hope. And doing this in the face of overwhelming evidence that the new administration is going to be about business as usual. There is not one genuinely progressive or different face on any of the Obama teams. Eight years from now, we won’t still be fighting hopelessly stupid wars, but we will still have an imperialist and oppressive foreign policy. Health care will be a little bit more accessible, but it will still be driven by profit and millions will still not have it. There will be more jobs but they won’t be good ones. The bankers and CEOs will have retreated from their current embarrassment back to their corporate jets and private dining rooms. And in the genuinely immiserated regions of capital, the difference between Bush and Obama will not be noticeable.

So if the Obama election is going to have any pedagogical value at all, we must ground it in specific discussions of real American history, not a lot of empty blather about democracy, possibility, and hope. Instead of dumb liberal platitudes about transcending race, we should talk about the specific African American traditions, movements, and ancestors that made Barack Obama possible. We should put the Obama phenomenon in the context of slavery and rebellion, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Black Radical Tradition around the world. We should teach about American political power outside of individuals, charisma, and personality, showing that Barack Obama isn’t going to lead us to the promised land any more than Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. And we should cast some light on the genuinely progressive movements that made Barack Obama possible and will inevitably be further undone by him. We need to clearly delineate what the sides are and show just exactly which side the federal government is on. John Lewis crossed over to the wrong side of history when he left SNCC for the DNC. Leaving the Clinton band to comp for Barack Obama didn’t get him back.

2 comments:

Yoruba Chata said...

Acknowledged and no argument with me. My argument in my classes, is never whether he's been Black enough (Where Black is acting as if you have the memory of the Eldest people, who have been it, done it, wrote the book, suffered, dished out suffering, and healing, telling the truth and forgiving them when they lynch you, or sitting under the Bo tree until all beings are liberated)...but is he Mandela enough?
It's not as if COINTELPRO is actually dead. And it isn't as if in order to sit in that chair, in that oval office, you can't have made some backroom deals with the powers that be, especially those powers that would kill a black messiah, secret service aside its not like you can't be Wellstoned, or Ron Browned. To quote the good Rev. Wright, would we put it past them? No we would not.
This is America, Emmett Till, Tuskegee, Katrina, and ethnic specific bio-weapon research did occur, they were not conspiracy theories. So the question is can Obama, actually address health disparities, disproportionate sentencing, school inequities, and my particular favorite, promote effective strategies similar to what his pastor's church might implement, and not lame strategies like DARE, Yo' Chile Left Behind. If I'm not going to get my Slavery reparations check under an Obama administration, then I would settle for a Constitutional Rewrite along the lines of the post-Apartheid South African Constitution. Which if we memetically combine it with the Iroquois Confederacy's White Roots of Peace, gives us a constitution that is not racist, sexist, heterosexist, does not base nationalism on a particular religion, nor if we are smart about it, place the rights of corporate persons, over living beings, especially ecological systems...wouldn't want to have Bechtel claiming that rainwater is corporate property, like they tried to do in Bolivia.
So the pedagogical value is that of pointing out possibilities for praxis.
Theory is nice, but what happens on the ground to actually alleviate human suffering.

Obatkanker Payudara said...
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