As has become the norm these days, most of the media is agog over Obama’s Race In America speech. To his credit, the man tackled some of the controversies that led to this speech more directly than employ his usual forceful repetition of uplifting trivialities. The intent of this blog post is to ponder on the trend (in the way we talk about things) that seems to have reached its nadir in the rhetoric surrounding his campaign. I will offer two examples, at least one of which any member of the broad left will appreciate.
The first example is that incongruous claim of Fox News: that they are Fair and Balanced. It is not arguable (I hope) that even those who disagree on whether Fox can make this claim will agree that Fair and Balanced is a good goal for a news organisation. I believe that is not necessarily so. Why not instead Objective and Factual? We are aware of the valid critique of notions of objectivity and fact as offered by philosophers, post-modernists and relativists. Yet, all that suggests is that a fair and balanced approach is a good means to the end of informing the public in a critical manner of events and issues. Instead, a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) substitution of terms occurs, where Objective is replaced by Neutral or Centred. As some have said: “Nazis and gypsies/Jews get equal time — we report, you decide!”.
Similarly, you have this class of political citizens now known as “independents” — the name denotes that these individuals are independent of political parties and (by some extension) ideologies. But where do they stand on right and wrong? After all, those who support this or that party or ideology do so (typically) not because of some arbitrary preference, but because they believe their ideology to be right or just. It should perhaps be unsurprising then that independents tend to be those who are least affected by issues of truth and justice.
A second example is the appeal, via Obama, of the term “unity”. We, the public, are “yearning for unity”, some sort of “middle path” (as one New York Times writer, Ron Klain, puts it), implying either that disunity is the primary problem facing us, or that unity can simultaneously serve as both the means and end. The real problem however is that it can be neither, exactly because it cannot be produced from thin air (or hot air, for that matter!), for the resolution of the issues of contention rightly preclude unifying behind a programme, agenda or methodology towards a common goal. We are often offered the analogy of ‘herding cats’ to highlight the problems of extreme fractiousness, and it is not an entirely invalid argument, but it is not the central problem. Feminists, labour activists, minority rights advocates, animal welfare activists and others are not acting out of a sense of feline disobedience, but rather constantly working on reconciling the righteous demands of their cause with the limits of immediate political change.
As in the case of creationism vs evolutionary theory, the divisions among political groups reflect fundamental disagreements in the way we see and project the world, how it is and how it should be. Unity cannot resolve the issues but rather the resolution of these issues can bring about unity: if the parties involved can agree upon a mechanism for resolution. And that, in my humble opinion, is the real issue. The divisions among groups remain intractable because these groups do not even share a methodology for resolving disputes. The routine fallback, in the face of this block, is the invocation of allegedly shared “values”, common roots, mythical glorious pasts, and such bromides. Which incidentally are a large part of many of Obama’s “inspiring” speeches. If you don’t believe me, here are the “greatest hits” from the Race in America speech as they appear in the first few paragraphs:
- Obligatory introductory reference and eulogy to founding fathers
- Unite for “our children and grandchildren” — childless need not apply!
- “Unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people”
- “… no other country on Earth is my story even possible” (why not?)
- “we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity” (this is a leap of rhetoric even for Obama, that people hunger not even for “unity” but for a “message” of unity. Jon Stewart pointed out something puzzling about George Bush’s speeches: the man would arrive at various spots facing emergencies and proclaim that he was there to reassure the people, and so on. What Stewart found strange was that Bush would tell us what he was there for, which is more or less obvious, but fail to give us a clue on how he planned to go about this task!).
Obama is possibly a more honest chap than many others in his sphere. Rather than capitalise on the Geraldine Ferraro controversy, by continuing the ongoing “framing” of her comments in a racist context (no doubt ably aided by her continued blathering), he astutely nails the crux of the criticism:
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.
In case it isn’t obvious, I don’t speak for Ferraro or her psychologist, but the above is the legitimate form of what I would like to call the “Obama as a non-threatening black man advantage” thesis. And as noted in a previous post, this is the promise offered explicitly by Obama supporters like Oprah Winfrey: “[you] are free from the constraints of gender and race”.
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