THE BLOG
10/31/2008 09:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The complications of conscience and elections

My little website has been about as critical of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy as any one might find outside the Right and the sectarian Left. I am unapologetic about that criticism; and folks can rest assured that such criticism will extend past the election and the inauguration of -- I hope, frankly -- Barack Obama.

I was reading a short piece by the young evangelist, Shane Claiborne, entitled Voting as Damage Control. Claiborne takes no definitive position on the question of whether to vote or to withhold votes as a matter of principle. Unlike the evangelists of the Right -- who we know so well -- he says he is interested in getting people to think before they act instead of telling them how to act. This seems a pretty transferable idea, beyond Claiborne's Christian audience, that is.

Being critical is more work than being told what to do (from a pulpit or a party), and it is not synonymous with being ideological and memorizing someone's playbook. Being critical also requires some set of values, some criteria, as a bottom-line (to use the common capitalist parlance), a final authority or principle.

Whatever that authority or principle is, I will suggest that benevolent solidarity is a 'good' for most of us. It's complicated, however, in an American general election, as we all know, because solidarity-with-whom can be between solidarity with, e.g., solidarity with African America that is anything but solidarity with Afghanistan, about which Obama repeatedly declares he will expand and intensify the military occupation. They're tough, these competing solidarity dilemmas. They can even lead to paralysis, either from demoralizations or sectarian perfectionisms.

As Claiborne says but doesn't say, damage control itself cannot be minimized. Some minimizers of damage control strategies (to which elections have been reduced) elect inaction for themselves in order to hold onto the sense of being superior to these competing solidarities.

If there is damage -- you make the list -- damage does spread. Decry the damage control as imperfect if you like, but if there is real damage being done, defensive measures are better than none. Waiting for the eschaton or some Utopian program is just... waiting. We are not going to 'build' Utopia; and the eschaton is out of our hands. Meanwhile, time marches on and the bifurcating sequels of the damage with it.

Choosing between who will kill the most or the least is -- as Claiborne suggests -- a pretty shitty choice for people who care about strangers... like Afghans or prisoners or Iraqis or the poor.

There are a couple of other factors, however, beyond damage control (or lesser-evilism), that ought to be taken into account, and solidarity is just one of them.

This election means a great deal to African Americans, as it should, because the mere fact of a Black President is indicative -- in a tangible way -- of some 'good' in our culture. Anyone who argues otherwise is dishonest with themselves or others. I remember Klan billboards on the interstate highways, Jim Crow, and miscegenation laws. White supremacy has not been transcended; but it has lost a lot of ground.

We are witnessing something historic, and something that was not possible even ten -- much less fifty -- years ago. African Americans are being motivated to vote in record numbers this year, because, among other things, the parents of Black children want those children to see someone who looks like them accepted in this society to the most powerful political office in the world. It's important in ways too numerous to count. Sherry and I are two of those parents.

God bless Sister McKinney, a principled Black politician, but her being Black does not give her candidacy anything like equal material force with Obama's, and the people need to exercise that material force for all its worth -- at this particular historic conjuncture -- as a step down the path to communities retaking power.

The possibility of Obama has now entered into the realm of the probable, and so the issue of damage control (is Obama less dangerous than McCain) and the issue of solidarity (with the overwhelming majority of African America) are both real... and to some of us, compelling.

I'm not a fan of "building" political parties, even though I admire Green Party people. With each day, I become more convinced that the principle in nature and society of self-organization is always more determinative of outcomes than long-term strategic intent.

Obama's candidacy has taken on the character of something more than an election. It has taken on the character of a mass movement. There is stage management and choreography in wild abundance, to be sure; but there is also a movement esprit that animates the Obama campaign. This spirit is self-organizing now in large part because there is a shared -- if not-yet-clarified -- sense of dissatisfaction, combined with a yearning for those intangibles: hope and change. The campaign tapped into this yearning, and it hit a colossal wellspring.

Two mass phenomena, then, are colliding: a latent mass movement, and a slowly waning mass cultural expression.

The mass expression of the substantial vestiges of white supremacy in US culture is the Republican Party, as a quick perusal of the demographics of McCain-Palin rallies shows. White supremacy and male supremacy have been the cultural synapses of Republican power for decades, with the Democratic Party playing the role of good cop and getting away with it. In this election, a very significant bloc of Republican and unaffiliated voters will vote against Obama because he is Black. And they are not voting against one Black man; they are voting to maintain white hegemony in American politics. No one who raises the aforementioned Black children will ignore this. The main effort in this election from the Republicans will be directed against African America.

I will not stand on the sidelines while African America -- which has such a powerful stake and such an historical investment in this election -- is under an organized attack for being African America -- African America as it is, African America right now. For me, this election is damn-sure about race.

The mass movement aspect of the Obama campaign, however, is not tapping into simple antiracism as it mobilizes a very significant white plurality. The actual conditions that have generated these high levels of concern (with hopeful concern as part of the mix) are war, economic insecurity, etc. The other things that can be found in abundance in this latent movement are a lot of real empathy, goodwill, and altruism.

These latter qualities have space within the Obama phenom now, and will not evaporate after the election is decided. The connections have been made, and the experience of an historic turning point in which they participated cannot be undone. They have seen results in the enthusiastic exercise of their own collective work and creativity; and that can't be taken back from them. These people are not turning back inward en masse. They will be the core of the immediate conscience of an Obama period.

I believe that, because I believe the latent movement has now overgrown a single personality. Getting Obama elected will not be everyone's last act.

The acts that follow are going to depend on and be determined by leadership and its ability to critically discern.

It is my own hope that we can finally get the public talking about this hideous energy war again, as well as retooling for relocalization. Whatever the priorities are, one person who is certain feel the pressure of these critiques from inside his own political base will be the POTUS.