To-day’s topic seems obvious: the loss of my phone. Kind of. I did lose it at the DFL party the other night in downtown St. Paul. Appropriate since I also lost whatever sense of connection I had to Democrats. For as long as I can remember I qualified myself as a voting Democrat, even though there were the libertarian-voting-Democrat years. While I still am a voting Democrat, I have swung to the opposite direction: radical-voting-Democrat.
Until a few days ago I was not going to vote at all until a conversation with Ursa. While Obama is too conservative for my tastes (employing the partial birth vocabulary, uncontested respect for property, lack of universal health care, etc…) I was persuaded that this election really matters. So, despite my desire for a more liberal candidate – echoes of my grandmother: “How do you know he is not a socialist?” echoes of my reply: “Because I am a socialist and he is not me.” – he is a step in the right direction. I hate to sound like the clichéd American choosing the lesser of two evils but it really was a choice between two evils.
Perusing the newspapers to-day there are all sorts of references to Obama’s election as a blow to racial barriers. This is crap. For a couple of reasons.
First, a proof provided by my grandmother. She was torn about how to vote because she believes that neither a black person nor a woman have any business being in the White House. Let us assume she votes for the black man instead of the woman, is this really a blow to racism? Is it okay to proclaim racism dead when it may be the product of competing bigotries?
Second, was Obama black? The question really is: was he black enough? This question has been raised repeatedly and summarily dismissed, but is it so easy to dismiss? Has Obama faced many of the plights of the typical black man in the US? Has he been the product of stereotypes afflicting many black men? Or maybe he is instead the exception that proves the rule. I will not list out the differences between Obama and most black men (internationalized upbringing, difference in parental backgrounds, etc…) because they are by now rote. A black man is now President-elect, but I fail to see how that will change day to day interactions on the street as people are led by their cognitive habits.
My real beef, however, with the claim of the tumbling racial boundaries is that it is the wrong fight. I am not arguing that racism is neither an important fight nor a good thing. Race is incomplete as a struggle to make our society more equal and happy. What about the intersections of struggles? Does a black woman benefit from the same reliefs afforded a black man? What about class? Does Obama not just prove that the real barrier is not race but rather wealth? Can a poor man, regardless of skin color, ever be elected President? Of course not. Even though he may be black, Obama is well educated, married to a well educated woman and is wealthy. It is understandable that a person may be held down and the attribution may be his skin color, because one cannot see wealth whereas skin color is easily identified.
And this gets us to the heart of the issue: there are too many people to-day that see themselves as set apart from the problem, as though eating a few organic tomatoes can solve working conditions for farm laborers. As though voting for a black man makes all right with the world. Admittedly, they are better than many by accepting some change in their lives as a mechanism of progress instead of waiting for the (black) man to save us all from ourselves. But, liberals are too easily bought off by this acceptance – “I’ve done my part.” Here is a smarter person than I with a similar thought, mine is the echo:
While Lossky [a Russian exiled after the revolution] was without a doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilise Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systematic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible. We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploration, including the threat of violence. (Zizek 2008, 9)
This is also seen in the “I voted” stickers. Great, you voted. I am proud of you. You voiced dissent. And yet one cannot help but witness the stigmatization of some that are not wearing their stickers. “It’s your civic duty. You must vote!” “I voted because I wanted to tell the government that I am not satisfied.” As though voting is THE way to speak to power. Even if power is listening, do they interpret your vote the way you want it to be interpreted? Of course not. Voting does, however, grease the system and make it appear as though it is functioning smoothly. The problem is that the system is so greased that a dissenting abstention is also interpreted incorrectly: as apathy. And apathy is (incorrectly) interpreted as outside the realm of political acts.
On election night I was in a sea of people chanting “Oh” “Bama!” “Oh” “Bama!” and I was disgusted. The problem is the cult of personality. It is easy to see him as salvation when we have given up on the grand struggles. Bring back the parties. Bring back the grand commitments. Bring back normative assessments. If there were larger struggles than the choice of 34% to a 38.5% tax rate then we might actually find what it means to be engaged. The last general election with such a large turnout as last night’s was in 1910. Is it any surprise that that election happened immediately before the Red Scare. Political engagement is seen as disruptive and anti-American, whereas voting is supposedly the way True Americans voice their preferences.
Zizek, Slavoj. (2008). Violence. NY: PIccador Books.