I'm about to do something I hate doing. I'm going to preface my argument with a statement. I hate prefacing things because it feels like making excuses or buying a Get Out Of Jail Free card, but this needs to be said: I like Barack Obama.
Okay? I like him. I like everything about Barack Obama, even though I know little to nothing about him, which is problematic. But you know what? Fuck it. I like his talk, his walk, his family, and his speeches.
He's made me like a politician, a rare feat. Even more remarkable, he's done this by using the same word bank of commonplace rhetoric like "hope" and "change" that feel so stale when other hunchbacked politirats use them. Barack gets away with it because Barack has style, and he also appears to mean what he says. He really seems ready to charge the gates of the White House with his army of dreamers.
This article isn't about how I don't like Barack Obama. Instead, it's about how I fear people like HIM for the wrong reasons. Considering even his own people know little to nothing about what he actually plans to do if he's elected President, it's safe to say that people plan to vote for him simply because - hey - this country needs big change. And considering we're entering year eight with a dumb white dude, you can't get bigger change than voting in a smart black guy.
So sit down, Fred. I like Barack. This article isn't about how I don't like him. Instead, this article is a plea for people to get their heads back on their shoulders. Like the rest of the pack, Obama is a politician. Yes, even though he's black and young. He may be a great guy, but let us examine his presence objectively, so if there is some kernel of hope in him, we can press him, cultivate it, and move forward into a new decade.
After all, a politician is only as good as their constituents, so it's up to voters to recognize the fact that Obama is unshaped in his policies, but willing to listen, so now is the time to mold him through demands and dialogue.
First, let's focus on what we DO know about Obama. It's difficult to say because he speaks in such general terms, and his policy ideas are nothing new for the Democrats: universal health coverage: check, helping the poor: check, diplomacy: check, etc.
It's actually easier to discuss Obama by focusing on something he rarely addresses: race. When Obama won the Iowa Caucus, Chris Matthews and other pundit fatheads crowed about a new era in American history. According to them, racism expired the moment Barack won. We've turned a new leaf and moved past all those ugly centuries of slavery.
Middle America loves Barack Obama because he allows us to look past our ugly history of racism. He's brilliant, well-educated, and a hell of a talented orator. So maybe all those lynchings weren't SO bad, right? Not only does Barack allow us to forget about slavery, but he encourages it. Obama very rarely talks about race issues. Obama has already written the civil rights movement as a moment in history. It's over. It's done.
His Iowa celebratory speech was a thing of beauty. In a rare moment, Obama addressed the issue of slavery, though you would have missed it if you zoned out for a second:
Hope is what I saw in the eyes of the young woman in Cedar Rapids who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill. A young woman who still believes that this country will give her the chance to live out her dreams.
Hope is what I heard in the voice of the New Hampshire woman who told me that she hasn't been able to breathe since her nephew left for Iraq. Who still goes to bed each night praying for his safe return.
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.
Hope -- hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.
Any racist could hear this speech and miss that Obama was alluding to the Civil Rights movement. Obama has to allude. He can't be explicit in his oratory smoke signals to the black South. After all, militant black leaders tend to get...well...killed, or at best, cut before the primaries.
The race message, which was vague...something about hoses...is the meat message, squashed between the fluffy white presence of a Wonder Bread American History lesson. Barack talks about a student, the mother of a soldier, the Revolutionary War, and his own experience as a biracial person. Obama links himself to the civil rights movement via his father. He's half black, but his father wasn't from rural Louisiana. He was from Kenya, and his mom was from Kansas (and you can't get more white bred than that.)
Is he black enough? The question was portrayed as a thinly-veiled racist comment, but it's a valid consideration. IS he black enough? Obama must be deeply connected with the black community if he presumes he speaks for them. Obama's not that presumptuous, though. Instead of speaking for the black community, he generally ignores them, which has fueled his popularity among moderate Democrats. By remaining middle-of-the-road, Obama presents himself as a non-threatening "presidential" fellow.
White people love Obama because he's not interested in rehashing the past. He's a quick-fix solution to racial tension. No need for white guilt. No need for reparations. Whether he has the right to or not, Obama offers a collective "No sweat, man" to the part of America that still remembers the Rodney King trial or the little Jena Six incident. That's how he's able to gush about uniting the country and being the bridge between blue states and red states as though nationalism was a valid way to unite people with very little in common.
You can imagine how thrilled a poor southern black person must be when Barack stands at his podium in his thousand dollar suit, spouting ivy-league words to his white, northern audience, saying something about us all being brothers and sisters. In theory, that's a nice sentiment right up until the child of a wealthy white family is able to get medicine, and the child of a poor black couple dies from diarrhea. Then, inequality rears its ugly head again.
Obama's reluctance to address the issue of race is probably why it took so darn long for Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to say a handful of kind words about him. Black southerners don't trust Obama because he's eager to move past the race issue whilst they're still living with it.
Ultimately, though, Barack won the brief affection of Jesse Jackson. I say brief because as recent as this week, an associate of mine participated in a panel discussion with Mr. Jackson and said he seemed less than thrilled with Obama. Maybe the lovefest is beginning to dwindle.
Jackson used to claim Obama didn't need to talk about race because the issue of race in America is "self-evident." Bullshit. It may have been self-evident to Jackson, a black man, who deals with matters of racial injustice every day. However, this topic should still be on the table, especially when people of color are so badly exploited and neglected in this country.
Calling race a "self-evident" topic is like me writing that it's obvious I should be elected president of the universe. I am fully convinced this is true, but you may take issue with my scope of reality. My experience tells me I should be president of the universe, but I am sure your experience tells you something much different.
The reality of the race situation comes to us from The Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly 17% of African-American men have been in prison at some point during their lives. Compare that with 7.7% of Hispanic and only 2.6% of white men, and you begin to get the picture. No matter how Obama spins it, race is still very much an issue in our "great united country."
Jackson is in all kinds of denial when it comes to Obama and the two share a complicated relationship. Jackson appeared ruffled when interviewed by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, who asked him if Obama had ever asked him for support in his presidential campaign. Jackson mumbled something about respecting Obama's desire to keep his distance, whatever that means. That's what a high school D&D nerd says after the hot cheerleader in his class drunkenly makes out with him at a dimly lit kegger..."we're keeping our distance, but we're totally dating now."
Truth: She doesn't want to be around him because he hurts her social status. Jackson could cost Obama the election because Jackson might "black up" the room. And just in case anyone doubted Jackson's ability to hurt Obama's presidential run, CNN panelist and Captain of the S.S. Douchebag, William Bennett, painted the picture all too clearly when he said, "Barack Obama has taught the country that you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson to win elections."
In other words, don't act black, Black Man, or we won't vote you to be our president.
It's sad because Obama's impressive early win is a result of decades of struggle from the Rainbow Push Coalition, which Jackson founded, the NAACP, and hundreds of grassroots efforts led by black citizens to gain social equality. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988 when Barack Obama was still basking in his ability to legally drink alcoholic beverages for the first time in his life. The harassment Jackson withstood throughout his campaign makes Obama's efforts look like a cakewalk.
So it's not as though Obama fell from the heavens, a complete gift from the gods to unite America. It took men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton agonizing decades to build a foundation of possibility for men like Barack Obama to stand upon.
The least he could do is - ya' know - acknowledge the poor old bastards.
I know, I know. Running for president is hard work, and he has oodles of people to please, but Obama neglecting the civil rights issue is sort of like Hillary Swank not thanking her husband when she won the Academy Award. I guess she did it all on her own, but she's still a BITCH for not at least thanking him.
Okay, so we know Obama isn't - at least for the moment - interested in discussing his race, or the issue of race. He wants to be a uniter, whatever that means, the bridge to somewhere, the Great Black Hope, but what about his policies, those little ideas journalists sometimes talk about between discussing politicians' haircuts and wardrobe choices?
Under careful scrutiny, it becomes clear that Obama is hardly proposing a concrete progressive agenda. Look past his pretty words and frothing-at-the-mouth supporters, and you get the same pretty rhetoric and vague promises presented to us by the other Democratic nominees.
Obama said he wanted to cut the lobbyists out of Washington, but the Catch-22 is that he needs those lobbyists to GET to the White House. Then he said he wanted Universal Health coverage, and yet he's bringing the big insurance companies to the table, as though the insurance companies will be the ones to propose they cut themselves out of the privatized health industry action.
Right now, it's unclear if Obama will bring any real change to the Democratic party. The only thing anyone really knows is that he's young, good-looking, one hell of a writer, charismatic, and has pumped some real life into a movement that is part grassroots and part corporate in nature.
So why does everyone so easily assume he's the candidate of change and a really exciting progressive? Well, he's articulate, charismatic, and black. Everyone's thrilled to see a woman and a black man running in this race, but no one appears to look past these aesthetic qualities.
When asked about Hilary Clinton, comic Jamie Kilstein remarked, "You're not progressive just because you have a vagina." Well, the same goes for being black. I'm not impressed by the color of Barack Obama's skin. I've come to hear his ideas.
Those liberals shrieking "RACIST!!!!!!" any time anyone addresses Obama's skin color claim they're not voting for him out of a warped kind of white guilt, but rather because he seems like an Everyman - a sort of Average Joe - if you consider ivy league educated, wealthy men Average Joes.
And perhaps Obama IS the perfect Everyman candidate because he doesn't clearly represent anyone or anything. He's not black, nor is he white. While he's rich now, he claims to come from humble roots. He's anti-corporation sometimes, but he doesn't want to fully cut them out of policy-making, a juggling act that John Edwards has called "a total fantasy."
So who is Barack Obama? Right now he seems dangerously familiar, but occasionally exceptional. Just when I'm dozing off during his chunk of 30-second debate rebuttal where he faithfully recites his campaign script, he wakes me up with a beautiful oration in front of an audience of 30,000 screaming followers. Just when he seems like another passionless fossil, he comes alive in a way I have never seen a politician behave before.
Regardless of who he is, he is not the end of our shady past. Barack Obama is an extraordinary man, sure, but he is not the culmination of man. There is still vast intolerance and inequality in this country, and it cannot be forgotten that millions live in squalor despite the fact that one man was able to rise above the shit.
Perhaps there is a method behind his vagueness. Obama may long to lay low and avoid divisive issues like race just long enough to get elected, and then he'll become a champion of the disenfranchised minorities in this country. I buy into this campaign of hope because he appears genuine, but I think his supporters must lean on him throughout this election process.
A genuine man like Obama is kept honest by those people surrounding him. If we can get to him before the special interest groups, if we can keep him from being perverted by the sickness in D.C., there still yet may be hope to save the country. And if not - fuck it - at least you can tell your grandkids that you voted for a black guy.
Follow Allison Kilkenny on Twitter: www.twitter.com/allisonkilkenny