20 May 2008


I was becoming more and more isolated in the splendor of my office. It was a tiring little game once the glamor of being student council president wore off. I longed to return to the potato patch and raise hell with kids who didn’t know the difference between Weejuns and Old Maine trotters. But those kids grew up and wore tons of eye-makeup, iridescent pink fingernail polish and scratched each other’s eyes out over the boy with the metalflake, candy apple red ’55 Chevy with four on the floor. There was no place to go back to. No place to go to. College was going to be like high school, only worse. But I gotta go. I don’t get that degree and I’m another secretary. No thanks. I got to get it and head for the big city. Got to hang on. That’s what Carl told me once, you got to hang on. It would be nice to talk to Carl. God, it would be nice to talk to someone who wasn’t fucked up.

Rita Mae Brown

This blog has not been following the Democratic presidential contest too carefully, partially because its author seeks to be resistant to easy polemic, which unfortunately has tended to characterize the contest so far, but also because the balls have remained largely in the air, although there is a strong feeling now for most about where they will fall. But more importantly has been my own sense of ambivalence over choosing: a veritable embarrassment of riches, as much as one can say that for presidential candidates in the United States at this moment, which is to say, imperfectly and perhaps ironically. This putative richness of course is representational, but also exists in relation to the lifting the socio-political pall that has fallen over the United States since the turn of the century under its current political leadership, which is a polite way of saying, well, lots of things.

So, my aim here is not partisan politics, of which I remain, at least in the current contest and at the current moment, somewhat disinterested in, although natürlich I have made my own choice in the matter. Rather, it does seek to engage some interesting observations made regarding the leading candidate over the past few weeks. The most immediate is the subject of a recent ill-considered editorial that is making the rounds across the interwebs. But another is a piece a few weeks ago by Maureen Dowd that sought to consider why it would be that Barack Obama seemingly cannot connect with the working-class people and their communities that his own youth is firmly rooted in.

The question of full-blooded American identity as deployed by Kathleen Parker is easy enough to dismiss almost out of hand: incoherent as it is, it is rather simple work to cherry-pick the piece not only for its historical inconsistencies but its reliance on the murky concept of blood, the one thing that, remarkably enough, has generally not been an organizing principle in American juridical tradition. Of course, blood here really means race, and some commentators have drawn the obvious connections between American identity, blood, race, and whiteness.

Dowd, admittedly not one of my favorite journalistic commentators, and her foray into the cultural politics of Obama’s perceptual class anxiety, strikes at notes familiar to most professionals, racialized or otherwise, who have had to significantly transform themselves on the pathway to success. She writes, not without a strange dose of smugness,

“It must be hard for Obama, having applied all his energy over the years to rising above the rough spots in his background, making whites comfortable with him, striving to become the sophisticated, silky political star who looks supremely comfortable in a tux. Now he must go into reverse and stoop to conquer with cornball photo ops.
[…] It’s hard not to be who you are, but it’s doubly hard to be who you’ve strived not to be. Obama not only has to figure out how to unwind with a Bud. He has to rewind his life.”

But is this not the putative American Dream? To leave behind our old selves like so many used clothes and emerge from our chrysalis state into something more beautiful, more capable, more free? Isn’t this American success writ large? To move on up, to make one’s self better through class advancement? The fact is that this transformative social politic remains, at best, available only to certain Americans. The rest of us, to a large extent, must continue to labor under our old selves, even when those old selves have long outlived their usefulness, not to mention their relevance. Self-transformation can be an awfully tricky thing in a white supremacist and anti-intellectual society.

Obama’s story of self-improvement and class transformation through education and opportunity lies at the heart of the very processes of the formation of the professoriate of color, and ostensibly what we seek to bring to our students, again racialized or otherwise, similarly situated. While Parker’s narrative of race forever delimits citizens of color to the margins of authenticity, reinscribing the racialist, anti-republican politics of the 18th and 19th centuries, Dowd’s critique punishes Obama, and by extension all accomplished people of color, for being Zip Coons, striving for something that is just beyond their purported natural reach. It is a curious racialist pastoral, one embraced across the political and social spectrum, not the least of which would be the university. But it does little to address the dynamism of our society, much less those of us who actually live within it.

There is no required rewind, for the simple fact of the matter is that education and experience do, in fact, change the student, irrevocably. That is the point, arguably, of education. That does not erase what existed before, but rather, as in Freud’s invocation of Rome as an allegory for the mind, layers different experiences and selves on top of one another. Self-reflection tends not to be a strength in American media or political culture, but if one were to reflect on the strange career of race, class, and gender in our society, one would be forced to recognize, a bit more forcefully than either Dowd or Parker, that the interstices of the three largely determines who we were, who we are, who we hope to become, and a host of other life factors that are material as well as representational, empirical as well as ephemeral.

Just as the spectre of the full-blooded American elides our complex and violent history of national formation, the house of which we continue to live in rather vividly, so the pantomime of ersatz populism masks a decidedly more brutal regime of class warfare. And both boil down to the question of essence, of true selves constantly elusive to the American experience, yet irrationally and violently insisted upon. Do I, in my most private moments, seek a return to the prelapsarian state, to the real me, under all the other real mes, the really really real me? Not on your life. Like Gertrude Stein once famously said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” And in this refusal there is elegance, which perhaps is what Obama might be touching: a truer, deeper vein of the American character, which also explains why it must be so violently disavowed.


historiann said...

This is a great post. You're entirely right that Obama's narrative is the classic American man's story of self-improvement and uplift: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton are all from the same mold that Obama has modeled his life story on. (And arguably, this may explain the reason why Obama probably has the narrow but decisive edge over Clinton for the nomination: we have no stories about American women's uplift in that heroic mode.)

The experience of Bill Clinton, Obama's clear role model and immediate predecessor, may offer some instructive lessons. Clinton was never embraced by Washington insiders and the national media because of class. The Parkers, Dowds, Broders, and Cohens of the world were disgusted by the notion that a nobody from Arkansas could ascend to the White House. In spite of his considerable erudition and degrees from Georgetown and Yale, Clinton was always despised as a hick pretender, so they never extended to him the consideration and wide berth for personal foibles that they extended to previous Democratic presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, and FDR in particular). That, and the fact that his wife was not a traditional political wife, meant that he would be shown no deference and no mercy when he (like all powerful men) enjoyed the attention and favors of other women. To the Washington insiders, Clinton was a parvenu with a pushy wife, and therefore someone not to be respected at all.

Although they've crafted their campaign around the notion that the Clinton years were just as bad as the Bush years, the Obamas may want to study the example of the Clintons carefully. Perhaps they'll come to regret their unwarranted trashing of the Clintons. After all, the Clintons are the only people in the world who might begin to understand what's about to happen to the Obamas in the next few months.


LC said...

This comment assumes that the Cohens, Broders, Dowds etc. come from markedly different class backgrounds than Bill Clinton, which I believe, at least in the case of the columnist Richard Cohen, to be quite untrue.