If the globe can’t vote next November, it can find itself in Obama.
Troubled by the violent chasm between the West and the Islamic world?
Obama seems to bridge it. Disturbed by the gulf between rich and poor
that globalization spurs? Obama, the African-American, gets it: the
South Side of Chicago is the South Side of the world.
—NYT columnist Roger Cohen, 12.15.07
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the
war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation
into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed
since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a
nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the
world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about
religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers
the possibility of a truce.
—Andrew Sullivan, December cover story, The Atlantic
With two more MSM heavyweights weighing in on the "Obama is the future" tip (in very short order after this recent NYT magazine piece) it's time to inaugurate a new sidebar update item.
Sullivan's piece is especially interesting, and not just because he's a Republican conservative who initially supported the Iraq war. Sullivan goes further than anyone I've read in distilling generational healing from Obama's not-boomerness. Only Obama carries no baggage from the intraboomer culture war rooted in and symbolized by Vietnam, Sullivan says. But the maverick gay conservative also comes back to the plain matter of Obama's face.
What does he offer? First and foremost: his
face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the
United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s
central to an effective war strategy... The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of
soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but
also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s
advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with
the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.
Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani
Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein
Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft
power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A
brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia
and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the
alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon
against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology,
Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in
ways no words can.
NB- I'm not necessarily an open Obama supporter. I honestly don't know who I'll vote for when the Democratic primary gets to New York. I don't even know if it will matter by then. But I am convinced that we have still not seen the full meaning of the Obama candidacy, whether he gets the nomination, or the presidency, or he does not.
Sorry, but I'm compelled to get a quick hit in on the story I've been waiting for the tweezers of journalism and sociology to finally grasp:
Black is not a race. Specifically, we have been wrong to maintain the idea of a discrete, unitary black race. Black or African-American is really an ethnic group, at best. The first nail in the coffin of the "one drop rule" that creates us as a race has just been driven.
This is big stuff. It comes as the annual study contrasting black vs. white television viewing preferences (a study I used to write about every year for over a decade) finds so much conversion of tastes as to declare in the headline "One Big American TV Audience" It comes as the New York Times discovers that "black skater youth" is not an oxymoron. Check out the discussion in Bold As Love.
I'm really packing it in here, because I'm still vain enough to want to be one of the first to dig into the standout stat: 37% of African Americans polled say blacks are not one race anymore.
It is one thing when "US" more affluent and/or well-educated, over 40 blacks (like me) complain—often bitterly and ALWAYS in private and among ourselves—about the problem of "THEM" —the younger, poorer, less educated, hip-hop steeped black America— who don't share our values (or appear to have no values) but, unfortunately, share our skin color.
But it's quite another thing when a poll discovers that the 18-29 age group is even MORE likely (44%) to say they're not in the same race as us older folks. As Juan Williams points out this morning, the fight to free a unified black race has been a token of fatih for many, many black generations, especially the boomers who wanted to believe that deliverance had come to pass after the Civil Rights movement. Even as we moved to the suburbs and otherwise penetrated the mainstream by the 80's we always maintained the thin fiction of racial solidarity with those left behind in the projects that produced the rap/hip-hop culture that now claims hegemony over what it means to be black.
But when so many in that very younger hip-hop cohort seem ready to sue for separation, it's a watershed moment. Why? Imagine the moment when American Jews stopped being a "race," like the Irish-Americans before them. When all the Jews fortunate enough to find themselves in Scarsdale were comfortable believing they had more in common with the goyim neighbors than their distant cousins still living in the South Bronx or the Lower East Side. How the Irish became white isn't just historical fact, it's literally a book title. So is the story of how Jews became white folks, and what it says about race in America.
Yes, the Irish and the Jews were Caucasians, and the color-line was firm and all encompassing as the Great Wall of China then. But that was then. The color line just ain't what it used to be. Already, it no longer confines people of clear African decent who happen to also be Hispanic to the so-called black race. It no longer confines Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter, though in theory they are no less black than I am. It only nominally confines Barak Obama.
Yes, the door to opt out of an Irish or Jewish race was open much wider, and eventually taken off the hinges (which is why the self-identified American Jewish population continues to dwindle toward statistical insignificance). But the door to a new perception of black racial identity has long been open wide enough to escape for those who wanted to.
Many have literally done it by passing for white in broad daylight. But a great many more have been doing it in the dark of the privacy of their own homes and families for a very long time. Especially here in New York, where you don't have to look very hard to see Caribbean and African from Africa Americans consciously distinguishing themselves from black Americans.
There won't be a book "How The Blacks Became White." But there will be a work of history called "The End of the Black American Race." The first hot draft is all over NPR today, and many other media outlets near you. It should be in the New York Times, but their Pew poll story, borrowed from the AP, missed the lede, in my not so humble opinion.
“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power...” —Barack Obama, beginning to wax profound
So began a recent, characteristically thoughtful and uncharacteristically game changing NYT magazine piece by James Traub. It's about Obama's unique take on the future of American foreign policy. But what strikes me for this blog is the piece—after so many months of the usual B.S. horse race coverage— finally fingers what makes Obama so compelling for so many more folks than those who are dying to see the first black president.
The headline, and this "so what" paragraph from near the top of the piece says it all:
Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?
He presents himself in all his cultural hybridity — African and
American and Asian, black and white, infused with all-American
hopefulness and with the reserve that comes of living on the receiving
end of power.
The piece then goes on with reporting the (mostly admiring) observations of foreign policy experts on what Obama's foreign policy mind brings to the table. But the subtext, what Obama's being, maybe his soul, brings to the table—symbolized in his skin—is never buried.
Obama tells Traub that when:
“...you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House
who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake
Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a
Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a
better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country. And
they’d be right.”
Skillfully, Traub lets the Times reader (read educated, liberal but still not fully in-touch with their feelings of attraction) take a long, almost loving gaze on Obama as he relaxes in a comfortable chair on his jet and tries to catch a nap. What keeps him from dropping off is the nub of the story: it's one thing to stand for reforming our relationship to with a world that is not on average as white and/or Christian as we are. It's quite another thing to actually be not as white or as Christian or as Western as the American average.
Thus Hilary Clinton still has an almost commanding lead over Obama on the foreign policy/national security issues.Neither Hilary nor John Edwards, while pressing essentially the same critique of the war in Iraq and the need use more respect and humility and less military preemption in our foreign policy, is confronted by the "experience" question that still dog's Obama. All have no more foreign policy experience than you get being a Senator. None have ever been president, though Hilary (presumably) slept with one in the White House for eight years. Obama doesn't come close to calling it the liberal racism that it is.
But read, please, between these lines:
“Hillary gets a unique pass on this issue,” he went on, “not by
virtue of her service in the Senate but by virtue of the idea that
through osmosis she gets it from Bill. And they’ve been actively
pushing that story.”
finally leaned back to nap, and I went across the aisle. I was telling (Obama communications director Robert)
Gibbs my theory that Americans might be looking for a president whose
protection they can huddle under when Obama opened an eye. And as he
resumed the conversation, the frustration of months of pedaling hard
and getting nowhere began to show. He wanted to know what kind of
experience Clinton supposedly had that he didn’t, and what kind of
crisis she was supposedly better suited to than he, and why “toughness”
had become a stand-in for experience, and how Clinton could get credit
for it when she failed to stand up to Bush on the Iraq vote. We batted
all this around. Finally he said, “Ask Nye why Hillary’s
paint-by-the-numbers foreign policy makes her more qualified to handle
a crisis when for most of our history our crises have come from using
force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force.” I promised that
And how did Harvard professor Joseph Nye, whose book about the Bush folks critical failure to use "soft power" should make him an Obama supporter (but he's not) answer?
“By osmosis of going through this,” Nye said, though he conceded that
he wasn’t sure tacit knowledge could in fact be acquired osmotically.
And he added that he had great respect for Obama. “It is,” he said, “a
51-49 type of distinction.”
"Great respect." I don't think Nye meant it this way, but I can't help hearing echoes of Sen. Joe Biden's gaffe about how Obama was "so articulate" in that remark.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will be able to focus America's still vague yearning to embrace the greater truth engraved in Obama's American Skin. I've been humbled, to say the least, by how many of my pronouncements about the meaning of the browning of American popular culture over the last 20 years have turned out wrong. It's a subject I'll be taking up in posts to come.
But, humbly, I still think I was right about one thing: A sizable part of this country is trying to find a way to believe that Barack Obama's story is their own. So far, though, the fear factor is up, even if it's only 51 to 49.