Swans Commentary » swans.com December 1, 2008  



Remaining Silent About Obama


by Gilles d'Aymery





"What kind of sensitivity do we have for people wrestling with catastrophic circumstances? And how do they resist? How do they endure? How do they persevere? How do we democratize and embrace all of humanity so that the wretched of the earth are able to live lives of decency and dignity?"

—Cornel West, Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, November 19, 2008 (on Democracy Now!).

"Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute."

—Josh Billings (1818-1885)


(Swans - December 1, 2008)  A reader asks how come I have remained silent about Barack Obama following the November 4 election. I'd be tempted to answer with another question: Aren't you sick and tired of hearing and reading bloviations from white folks about symbolism, post-racial moment, game-changing, historical election, and the exuberance showed by the self-declared progressive leftists, often closet Democrats, before expressing their disappointment and their sense of betrayal once Obama began selecting the members of his future cabinet? I felt and still feel the need for self-restraint, a sense of reserve. A person born in France and who only began digging into American politics in the mid-1990s, a white man to boot, who did not even experience the civil rights movement, is certainly not the most qualified individual to comment and express an opinion of the meaning of having an American politician who happens to be black become the next president of the United States.

This momentous event, actually, cannot be fully grasped by white people. They may get an intellectual grip of that event and of its significance, but they'll never be able to integrate the emotional profundity of the experience that blacks must have undergone in the depth of their fibers. To witness the scenes of the joy and the tears (e.g., Jesse Jackson) within the black communities was extraordinarily uplifting and will be remembered for ages, but we white folks could not share that sensation. It's like one can understand the abomination of the holocaust but only Jewish people can feel in their fibers what it meant to have so many of their foreparents exterminated, bodies turned into bars of soap or skins used for lamp shades. The same can be said of members of the Indian Nations. Only they can emotionally relate to Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales. White folks haven't been on the wrong side of chattel slavery or that of a noose thrown over the branch of a tree, or shackled to a chain in the back of a pickup truck and pulled full speed ahead along rural roads to their horrific deaths, or again having their adobe set ablaze, or Jim Crow -- all because of the pigmentation of one's skin. Whites can't sense any of this. I can't.

I have heretofore remained silent and turned my attention to the voices of those who could -- respected voices such as Cornell West, Robin D.G. Kelley (a professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California), or South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1984 Nobel Peace Prize, 2008 J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding). Asked by Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!, November 21, 2008) how did he feel in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected in South Africa, and how does it feel in 2008, Archbishop Tutu answered:

Well, how do you describe falling in love? How do you describe red to someone who is totally blind? How do you speak about the glories of a Beethoven symphony to somebody who is deaf? Well, it's like that. I mean, I'm over the moon. I'm on cloud nine.

Robin Kelley, whose penetrating essay, "Finding The Strength To Love And Dream," was published in Swans on June 17, 2002 (with my own introduction), endeavors to place the Obama election in its historical context, suggesting that:

The President-elect brings an age-old vision of civil society, born in the age of Reconstruction (1865-1877), that demands democratic engagement and understands the state's role to support those in need, educate its citizens, ensure equal opportunity for all, protect civil liberties and civil rights and remove discriminatory barriers. It was a political vision for the nation, not just for African Americans, and one that was tragically rejected by most white Americans. By the 1890s, white supremacists had effectively used legal and extralegal means, including mob violence and assassination, to disfranchise black voters.

Kelley sees in Obama the continuation of the "freedom democrats" who in the 1970s saw themselves as "the vanguard in the struggle for a new society," which was embodied by Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" and Jackson's presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 in which Jackson built...

...alliances with Latinos and Asian Americans, supported Native American rights, opposed factory closings, supported a single-payer health plan, called for federal assistance to struggling farmers, promised to cut military expenditure by at least 20 per cent, and proposed expanding affirmative action for women, among other things. Like Obama now and [Shirley] Chisholm before him [the first African American to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972], Jackson mobilized millions alienated from politics, bent on moving the country in a new direction.

Kelley ends his historical perspective wondering whether Obama will turn out to be a "freedom democrat" or simply "another Democratic President who happens to be black," and whether America will "embrace or reject freedom democracy, or what W.E.B. Du Bois has called 'the gift of black folk'." (See "Beyond Race," Frontline, Volume 25 - Issue 24, Nov. 22-Dec. 05, 2008.)

In his interview with Amy Goodman, Cornel West echoes and expands on the words of Robin Kelley, on the long road traveled and sacrifices made to reach that moment, not a post-racial country but a "less racist" America in which a leader who happens to be black (of mixed heritage), and not a "black leader," will soon take residence in the White House with his wife Michelle -- a descendent of slaves -- and their two beautiful daughters...a house that was built by black slaves and poor white immigrants. Talk about symbolism! West exudes pride and hope but also profound humility and love...and critical thinking. He also helps clarify my lack of understanding of that long journey.

West thinks that at long last "we're at the end of the age of Ronald Reagan, we're at the end of the era of conservatism, we're coming to the end of the epoch of the Southern Strategy" -- which is all I have known since coming to the U.S. in December 1982. "This has been a political ice age," says West, and "the melting is just beginning." So beyond the beautiful symbol we need to move to substance, with decency and empathy, and empower poor people, advocates West, adding with a dose of realism: "At this moment, the best America could do was Brother Barack Obama, liberal, centrist."

Compare the richness of the analyses and colorful styles of these three prominent personalities with the colorless, odorless, savorless -- in one word, insipidness -- of that self-proclaimed progressive leftist who one day (November 6) writes a 1,700-word article filled with a pile of qualifiers about "The Hope of Obama" and the next day (literally) jumps on top of the barricades, in the safety of the Democratic-bent-and-financed publication Alternet, to pour vitriol on the president-elect for his choice of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. If there were a time to shout, "Shut up!" this is the time.

What did this oh-so-progressive imprecator and his ilk in the hypocritical "pwogosphere," who either openly advocated to vote for Obama or conveniently remained silent (another form of advocacy), expect? That Obama would call upon Michael Hudson, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Kuttner, or even the moderately economically-enlightened Paul Krugman? That Obama would reach out to Denis Kucinich for the Pentagon or State job? Matt Gonzalez for chief of staff? Nader at Commerce?

For good sake, Obama was the candidate the Establishment vetted and selected. Here again Cornel West gets it right:

You know, I fear that Brother Barack might be challenged by what Bill Clinton was. When you have been an outsider to the establishment, you want to make the establishment feel secure, and therefore, you want to recycle names that the establishment feels are legitimate names. And therefore, you're reluctant to step out too far, because you'll be unable to proceed and unable to govern with a smoothness that you think ought to be characteristic of your regime. And so, he ends up selecting people who the mainstream are going to herald as legitimate, rather than make that break and acknowledge this is a new day, and it ought to be the age of everyday people, the age of ordinary people.

The man has not been elected yet. This will officially and legally occur on December 15, when the Electoral College convenes. Then, if he is not killed in the meantime (there's been a recrudescence of hate crimes in the country, with people openly calling for assassinating Barack Obama), he will have to wait another 36 days before being sworn in the office of President of the United States of America. When he sits in the Oval Office he will face, in the words of Cornel West,

[I]mperial occupation in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, financial Katrina, legacy of Katrina in New Orleans, wealth inequality, dilapidated housing in chocolate cities, disgraceful school systems, unacceptable levels of unemployment and underemployment, not enough access to healthcare for fellow citizens across race and region, not enough access to childcare.

And that's just for breakfast.

No one knows for certain what Obama will turn about to be as president. No one knows the influence his wife will have on his decision-making, and what circumstances will make him be. FDR was an Establishment's candidate. So was Lincoln. Who Obama will turn out to be, a liberal-centrist, a reactionary, a bottom up or a top down, a community organizer on a grand scale, or a pal of the elites, cannot be predicted. Circumstances, luck, and the fabric of his own fibers will tell.

I think my brothers and sisters in the black communities understand this better than all the dim-witted progressive sophists that liberally expound their thoughtless nothingness to their small churches.

I, for one, will keep my reserve and remain silent for the foreseeable future. One thing is for sure: I do not envy president-elect Barack Obama. The management of the complexities he and his team are going to have to handle is mind shattering.


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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 1, 2008