Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why Jesse Jackson Hates Obama

This guy is a conservative, I think. Mr. Steele is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win"

He has interesting things to say. If I have often criticized Mr. Jackson, I have also, reservedly, admired him. I wonder why reservedly.

Now, this caricature: Jesse Jackson is in Barack Obama's shadow, as is the real case: Jackson's time is past, Obama's is beginning. But Jackson is made to look pathetic: pigeon-toed, his body contorted, as if he is either holding something in, or pleading. Obama has a power green tie, and his expression is of humbly deflecting all the attention and praise given him.

Mr. Jackson was always a challenger. He confronted American institutions (especially wealthy corporations) with the shame of America's racist past and demanded redress. He could have taken up the mantle of the early Martin Luther King (he famously smeared himself with the great man's blood after King was shot), and argued for equality out of a faith in the imagination and drive of his own people. Instead – and tragically – he and the entire civil rights establishment pursued equality through the manipulation of white guilt.

Seems valid. Some people criticized that as extortion. I remember feeling uncomfortable, on one level, that he was getting contributions made to his foundation and programs, working on guilt, yet I also felt that he was confronting the primary institutions of American society and forcing the issue of past racism and of redress. A lot of blacks adored him. He preached a message of hope, of black empowerment.

Mr. Jackson and his generation of black leaders made keeping whites "on the hook" the most sacred article of the post-'60s black identity. They ushered in an extortionist era of civil rights, in which they said to American institutions: Your shame must now become our advantage. To argue differently – that black development, for example, might be a more enduring road to black equality – took whites "off the hook" and was therefore an unpardonable heresy. For this generation, an Uncle Tom was not a black who betrayed his race; it was a black who betrayed the group's bounty of moral leverage over whites. And now comes Mr. Obama, who became the first viable black presidential candidate precisely by giving up his moral leverage over whites.

Again, valid. Considered in the proper historical context: after Martin Luther King was killed there was a vacuum in the black community. Jesse Jackson stepped in and took a lead role in getting the civil rights movement back on track. The next step, after protest marches, after legislation, was made to be empowerment, and if the government wasn't going to provide funding then Jesse got funding elsewhere, namely corporations. To state that the choice was between black development (which is left undefined) and extortionism seems oversimplification. In 1969 Nixon was in office, and he'd gotten there by playing to the South, by emphasizing law-and-order and by cynically manipulating the military involvement in Viet Nam. I don't remember there being anyone else other than Jesse Jackson agitating for social change.

Yet Mr. Steele makes valid and important points: to not do as Jesse was doing was to be exiled and reviled. Yet, that is so often the case: the dissident is reviled.

Mr. Obama's great political ingenuity was very simple: to trade moral leverage for gratitude. Give up moral leverage over whites, refuse to shame them with America's racist past, and the gratitude they show you will constitute a new form of black power. They will love you for the faith you show in them.

An interesting analysis, and, of course, also valid. It make some sense. Yet it again seems to be an oversimplification. Gratitude seems a cynical twist on Obama's candidacy and strategy.

Normally, "black responsibility" is a forbidden phrase for a black leader – not because blacks reject responsibility, but because even the idea of black responsibility weakens moral leverage over whites. When Mr. Obama uses this language, whites of course are thankful. Black leaders seethe.

Perhaps even cynical, yet spot on. Still, only one way to look at it. I'd love to know what Henry Louis Gates would say. I don't think that every black leader plays the guilt card, shaming whites into holding back criticism or giving support to black causes in order to not be called racist.

Until Mr. Obama, any black with a message of black responsibility would be called a "black conservative" and thereby marginalized. After Obama's NAACP speech, blacks flooded into the hotel lobby thanking him for "reminding" them of their responsibility.

Well, yes: there are those such as Cornel West that keep playing the old revolutionary tune

Blacks, Mr. Steele writes, are willing to openly embrace the truth of responsibility because Mr. Obama potentially offers them something far more profound than mere moral leverage. If only symbolically, he offers nothing less than an end to black inferiority. This has been an insidious spiritual torment for blacks because reality itself keeps mockingly proving the original lie. Barack Obama in the Oval Office – a black man governing a largely white nation – would offer blacks an undreamed-of spiritual solace far more meaningful than the petty self-importance to be gained from moral leverage.

Imagine a black president. A young black president, at that. And imagine a black first lady. A young black first lady. A black first lady who dresses in similar ways to how Jackie Kennedy dressed: with style, with a pizazz, an attractive and exciting style.

White Americans, Mr. Steele continues, have also been tormented by their stigmatization as moral inferiors, as racists. An Obama presidency would give them considerable moral leverage against this stigma.

I don't feel tormented as morally inferior. I do not feel I am a racist. O, I am not pure of heart, devoid of racism. But I struggle, work to be good-hearted, to treat all with dignity and respect. And yet I am not tormented by feelings of moral inferiority. Still, I grant the point: to have a black president would make me feel good. I would consider such an election a giant step forward in tolerance. But I would not feel we'd reached nirvana. No, progress is made in incremental steps, and electing Obama would be quite a step forward.

It would be a good thing were blacks to be more open to the power of individual responsibility. And it would surely help us all if whites were less cowed by the political correctness on black issues that protects their racial innocence at the expense of the very principles that made America great. We Americans are hungry for such a cultural shift.

That line about American principles loses me; perhaps he means something such as all are created equal.

This, no doubt, is what Barack Obama means by "change." He promises to reconfigure our exhausted cultural arrangement.

He did say that the Sixties children, the Boomers, have to get over it, and end the polemics.

But here lies his essential contradiction: His campaign is more cultural than political. He sells himself more as a cultural breakthrough than as a candidate for office. To be a projection screen for the cultural aspirations of both blacks and whites one must be an invisible man politically. Real world politics, in their mundanity, interrupt cultural projections. And so Mr. Obama's political invisibility – a charm that can only derive from a lack of deep political convictions – may well serve his cultural appeal, but it also makes him something of a political mess.

Mr. Steele then writes of Obama flip-flopping on various issues. Well, he is a politician running for office, not a candidate for messiah or prophet.

Mr. Obama has already won a cultural mandate to the American presidency. And politically, he is now essentially in a contest with himself. His challenge is not Mr. McCain; it is the establishment of his own patriotism, trustworthiness and gravitas. He has to channel a little Colin Powell, and he no doubt hopes his trip to the Middle East and Europe will reflect him back to America with something of Mr. Powell's stature. He wants even Middle America to feel comfortable as the mantle they bestow on him settles upon his shoulders.

Well, so the presidency is won; all he has to do is prove to be patriotic, look good with other world leaders, and exude gravitas: look dignified, formal in bearing and appearance; that is, get some Colin Powell polish.

Well, Colin Powell ...

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