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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Obama and the Politics of Symbolism

Some time ago, I wrote that Barack Obama may well be undeserving of the high praise he engendered from nearly all quarters (myself included) regarding his ability to transcend race, politics, and division. Certainly, this man has some obvious weaknesses that now threaten this hagiographic narrative. How will this man--who has not only failed to repudiate the politics of identity, but actively embraced them--going to restart the dialogue on racism in America? How will this utterly conventional liberal--who not only rejects conservative thought, but shows a very limited ability to interact meaningfully with it--going to change political culture from poisonous to one of respectful disputation? All these and more are worthy challenges to the preferred Obama narrative.
BUT, we’re way past policy in some ways now. The criticisms that Obama is a blank slate upon which we project our desires (and policy preferences) is a valid one, perhaps the most valid of the campaign. That said, don’t we do that very thing with every president and potential president? I certainly have something invested in the history of President Bush’s tenure. My friends with whom I discussed these matters saw in our respective choices possibility, possibility that we could do something great, and we would, in and through our president. Perhaps we were at best naïve, and at worst, president-worshippers. Very well. But we saw our chance to (I know, cliché) make a difference, to improve upon our past. It was our country. [Thanks, John Mellencamp!] I hear my readers saying, “Oh, no! A conservative about to encourage us to vote for Obama on the basis of his skin color!” No…and yes. I’m simply wondering who Mr. Obama represents. Whose dreams does he carry? Are those dreams even bigger than his limited vision? Could he even transcend himself, all his flaws, and grow into the moment that none of us can see, that by his ideology, he might even strain to avoid? No, he’s certainly not a messiah. But history has a funny way of turning the ordinary into heroes. All of us have a statement to make about our history, corners we’d turn if we had the chance. Are we sure this is a moment we want to pass up? Barack Obama might be a black Jimmy Carter, he might be a terrible president. Maybe we should respect him and all people enough not to patronize them by ignoring their stupidity. But, like it or not, in either case for the Democrats, history will be made. And the reasons for wanting to make it don’t always make sense. (For the record, I cannot fathom celebrating Hillary’s election.) On the one hand, I’ll be voting for McCain, my only rational choice. On the other, Obama’s election, for purely symbolic reasons, for the opportunity to begin again regarding race in America, would be a thrill. He’s playing on this desire, this white guilt, if you will. And it works. We like him, white people, don’t we? Our sins of racism need putting away. We need to know that we’re unbound to a wicked past. What better way to do it? What better way to start a new era could be found? If you are white, and you haven’t thought what I’m thinking, I’m surprised. You’re likely lying. I’m sorry for being so irrational.