Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Obama "Bargain" and Blues for Obama

On this Easter Day I give thanks that Barak Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, gave voice to rage and indignation from his pulpit. White people don't like hearing it, but he speaks for many black people who agree but dare not say so. Sooner or later that level of suppressed anger was sure to surface on the body politic. It is a great blessing that it has done so at a time when Barak Obama serves as interlocutor bridging the extremes of America's racial divide.

There have been many references to nuance and civil debate and complexity, but the fact is that for the first time since Black Panthers chanted about "Black Power" with fists aloft in symbolic protest, we no longer have to speak in code. (Well actually, it is not yet acceptable for white people to speak candidly -- we are still expected to speak in code -- But for Black Americans the gloves are off once again. Witness the bowed up reaction to Obamas "typical white person" reference. We can say typical white person all day long but someone half-black is not allowed to do so without finger-pointing.)

Early in the week, following Obama's More Perfect Union speech, Shelby Steele's wonderful piece of
rhetorical calisthenics in the Wall Street Journal describes "the bargain," advancing the idea that Obama is offering a "bargain" to whites. Like so many layers of protocol enabling post-slavery Black survival in America, the word bargain has a deeper meaning that the economic angle it suggests.

...Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain -- and feel affection for the bargainer -- because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.

Okay, then. With that thumbnail summary describing one facet of how the Black minority is expected to behave in order to get along in a majority white society (here in the South we called it keeping in their place), the vulnerable corollary can be revealed. Power Line's Paul Mirengoff spins the consequences very neatly in the middle of a smart-sounding commentary, tucking these little lines neatly in the middle.

Barack Obama made his political breakthrough as a bargainer. By constantly referring to the national yearning (including, he said, by many Republicans) to "come together" as blacks and whites, Obama presumed we are not racists. His reward was an almost magical appeal to broad portions of the electorate.

Obama, of course, would like to remain a bargainer. But Steele predicted this would be difficult given the scrutiny presidential candidates receive because bargainers must wear a mask. Once we learn who they really are and what they really think about race, the magic is lost. They can no longer offer us the required assurances that they know we’re not racists, and hence they can no longer receive our unconditional love.

Obama, it is now clear, has been wearing a mask. No one who listened to his post-racial happy talk would have guessed that he regularly attends a church run by a pastor who preaches hatred of “White America,” much less that Obama is close to that pastor.

You catch that? Once we learn who they really are and what they really think about race.... Love that use of THEY. Now we know who THEY really are, don't we? From that point on, all credibility is shot. No amount of back-peddling, explanation or denial will ever put the toothpaste back in the tube. Now we know, don't we, that once he has been caught in one lie, everything else he says is open to reasonable doubt. I wonder if the writer is a trial lawyer.

Obama is in a no-win situation. No matter how he turns he will piss off someone. That wasn't supposed to happen until after the election. And make no mistake about it...when a man says stuff like "I'm not going to tell you what I think you want to hear. I'll tell you what you need to hear." [That's a little softer than when he said at the start of the campaign "...what you need to know."] he's not using the language of a "bargainer" in the sense that the essay indicated.

So what did he do? He looked his everyone straight in the eye and let them know he doesn't agree with what Wright said, but he doesn't aim to let this affair cause him to throw Jeremiah Wright under the bus.

That, in my eyes, is a mark of character.

This from the Nation blog is worth reading.

Blues for Obama

Win or lose, whatever happens next, Barack Obama is now established as one of those rare, courageous teachers who leads the country onto new ground. He has given us a way to talk about race and our other differences with the clarity and honesty that politics does not normally tolerate. Whether this hurts or helps his presidential prospects is not yet clear, but he has done this for us and it will change the country, whatever the costs to him.

His words should discourage the media frenzy of fear-driven gotcha. His speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday may also make the Clintons re-think their unsubtle exploitation of racial tension. But nobody knows the depth or strength of the commonplace fears streaming through the underground of public feelings. No one can be sure of what people will hear in Obama's confident embrace, beckoning Americans in all their differences, leaving out no one, to a better understanding of themselves.

The essence of the blues, as I learned to understand, is what Barack Obama accomplished in that speech--the beautiful and hopeful wrapped in pain and sacrifice, the despairing truths about the black experience in America that mysteriously exalt the human spirit when we hear the music. We don't need to understand why or define the meaning. In this case, Obama himself is the expression of what we are feeling. His speech will live on as a complex, exalting memory, whatever happens, because what he said about us is true.

Remember, this is a very shrewd politician, not just highly intelligent and worldly, but wise about himself. He must have understood fully the nature of what he was doing in this speech because all of his life he has coped successfully with the dangerous cross-currents of race. In that speech, Obama was taking all the risks onto himself, going where no one had dared to go before in politics with awareness he might personally pay a price. That is what leaders do, isn't it?

First, Barack Obama did not speak to Americans as though we are children. His discussion assumed that people could relate to a sophisticated explication of the American experience. He did not repackage the realities of race into uplifting myths. Above all, he did not leave anyone out of this generous approach, not his white grandmother for her folk fears of black strangers, not the cruel narrative of the African-American struggle, not the white working class whose immigrant stories have their own legacy of suffering and resentment. Nor would he renounce his friend and mentor Jeremiah Wright, the minister who expresses deeply felt anger and disappointment at the American story.

If you understand the risks Obama undertook, you can see the beauty and pain in what he did. He could not back away from the risks without betraying himself and all those people who are part of him. On the other hand, he was putting at risk his own great promise as a politician. In psychological terms, what's extraordinary is his refusal to split off himself and his own experience from those others. So he embraced them, knowing the risks. Then he tells us--audaciously--that we are capable of doing the same. Yet most of us do the opposite in everyday life, defining ourselves in contrast to the others we are not, idealizing our own selves by demonizing the others. Obama knows all this. He still insists we can do it. He has seen it happen in life.

Could Obama be right about Americans? The proposition itself is thrilling to hear. We feel ennobled by his hopeful account of who we are, but also a little scared. Obama didn't let anyone off the hook. He threw the choice back at the people. But what if he is wrong? We are scared to find out. His hopefulness makes us feel nervous for him.

Obama sounds like cool blues. The calmness of style, the strength of his self-confidence, pull us through the nervousness. If people have the opportunity to hear him in full and think about it, they will recognize the strength it took for him to open his arms this way, casting aside all defenses and evasions. With the hope and everything else he stands for, this guy is one very strong character.

Obama is the new politics, I believe, whatever happens this year. His way of talking and thinking will shape the future because I think he has got it right about the country.

And no, I don't think Barak Obama wrote that speech in the short time between when the Wright videos surfaced and when he delivered that speech. And I also don't believe he had a ghost writer putting it together for him. (Sorenson, for example?)

I think he has been thinking about what he was going to say from the start of this campaign, maybe even making a few notes ahead of time for future reference. That is not the speech of a man ticking off talking points. Those are the words of someone who gave the matter a lot of thought ahead of time. Those are the words of a reflective leader. That is the kind of person I want to answer the White House phone at three in the morning. He clearly thinks ahead.

Postscript: I didn't choose the word interlocutor above carelessly. Nearly fifty years ago, I'm embarrassed to admit, I participated in a couple of high school minstrel shows. That was before the Civil Rights Movement got into full swing and segregated white schools, even local civic organizations, could stage a variety show of local talent in the context of an old-fashioned minstrel, complete with black-faced end-men and a master of ceremonies addressed as "Mister Interlocutor." Mine was part of the mediocre talent of the stage band, but the end-men got all the best laughs with derogatory put-downs of the Black characters they portrayed. Anyone in denial that Jeremiah Wright's rage is without merit needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

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