Friday Five: The Obama Era

This is a busy time of year for me. I’m barely keeping afloat in a rising sea of work. Much of it is good work, work I enjoy, like teaching and advising. Some of it is exciting work, like my current research project and the exhibit I’m working on. And a good share of it is bureaucratic, the work that never seems to end.

But in the midst of it all, I’m moved by the words of Ramsey Clark. Mr. Clark is still going strong at 89 years. Clark was the Assistant Attorney General of the US under JFK and LBJ (1961-1965), the Deputy Attorney General under LBJ (1965-1967), and the 66th Attorney General of the US (1967-69) under LBJ. He was a champion of civil rights (he supervised the drafting of the Voting Rights Act) who became a staunch antiwar activist, after leaving the Justice Department.

About a year ago, during a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), he talked about his slow transformation surrounding the war in Vietnam. He said:

As a citizen, I made one mistake in government, and that is – I worked too hard on the task at hand, on my responsibilities. And didn’t keep up with events that democracy – every citizen has an obligation to keep up with events, like a war. So when I finally looked at it I was appalled. It wasn’t that sudden, obviously.

I remember i had a very close friend named Barefoot Sanders… He was my deputy, until Johnson stole him and took him to the White House. The point was that Barefoot followed the war. And he was tortured by it. And I was just thinking about what i was doing, in the Department of Justice, but we lived about 3 houses away from each other, so we’d drive in and back with each other nearly every single day. And that was my basic exposure to the war. He’d be saying how awful it was. And I was thinking about how awful the Civil Rights Situation was.

The moral is we all have an obligation to be involved in the critical moral issues of our time. And not get so self-absorbed in some other, all-consuming thing.

Democracy depends on that. And as a citizen, you do your duty to be aware, and have an opinion on major political issues that must be made.

Tonight, what Mr. Ramsey said feels especially right.

Before my kids went to bed, I showed them the White House website. I wanted them to see it, to make a memory of what that page looked like on the last night of the Obama presidency. There’s a lot of things this presidency did that I don’t agree with. There’s a lot they did that I do agree with, too.

I don’t put too much stake in any politician. I don’t think they’re the solution to any of our collective problems. But, on the whole, I’m proud that Obama was my president. I’m proud of how he served.

Tomorrow, around noon, there’s going to be a totally different page on that site, one representing a man with whom I have more disagreements than I can count. He doesn’t make me proud; to be honest, he disgusts me and makes me fearful of what the next four years will bring. But here’s the thing: Even though the new president doesn’t represent me or my values he is my president.

I don’t mean that as a rebuke to the #notmypresident folks. I share their values and their feelings. But it is a simple fact that tomorrow this man will be the president of my country.

That gives me both the right and the responsibility to do what I can, as part of a larger community of like-minded folks, to keep him in check and hold him accountable to the values and the issues we care about. Mr. Clark helped remind me of that. We’ve all got a job to do.

So today, as “The Obama Era” comes to an end and another era begins, may this new era be one of community, one of democracy, and one of justice.

5. “The Weight”–Aretha Franklin (1969)
4. “So Much Trouble in the World”–Bob Marley (1979)
3. “Superpower”–Beyoncé (ft. Frank Ocean) (2013)
2. “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”–Method Man (ft. Mary J. Blige) (1995)
1. “Sinnerman”–Nina Simone (1965)

Obama’s “Safe” Same-Sex Marriage Stance

The President came out in favor of same-sex marriage today during an interview on ABC.

His stance was measured and deliberate. “[A]t a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

The response from detractors has been immediate. Even the pro-same-sex-marriage Log Cabin Republicans found room to disagree with the President for his timing and motivation.

Obama isn’t going out on a limb when it comes to same-sex marriage. The polls often show most Americans are in favor of it. All studies suggest the issue is certainly trending in that direction at an amazing speed, even when the poll results show the population more evenly divided. When you take out older voters the issue is a no-brainer. As Obama himself said today, while trying hard to portray himself as a man with evolving opinions, this is largely a generational shift:

You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation, that they believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it. You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.

When it comes down to it, Obama isn’t pandering to the LGBT vote or even to the Left. A majority of voters approve of same-sex marriage. He’s pandering to the white, straight, moderates who make that statistic true.

Of course, in the realm of electoral politics the issue seems to be much more hotly contested than it is with average voters. By announcing his “change in perspective” in the late spring before the November election, Obama disarms his political shift in the political arena by letting it settle into voters minds and benefit from their general attitude of acceptance.

It also reanimates and reinvigorates support for him among moderate whites. The anti-same sex marriage backlash Obama has inspired–a stance that average voters see as steeped in old ways of thinking and hate–makes your moderate pro-same-sex marriage stance feel like a political movement. It makes you into a person with a cause. And that moves you to the ballot box in November.

Look at this screen capture of the top ranking comments from younger voters on Reddit responding to the President:

[If you click on the image it should open larger.]

The lesson here is simple: the Democrats are playing it safe but doing so in a way that makes it seem like they are taking risks based on principle and movement passions.

If only those white, straight, moderate voters thought of Mexicans as more than their unfortunate wage slaves. Maybe then Obama would also stop deporting us.

Gingrich the Grey

In the last 20 years of Presidential elections, the younger of the two major party candidates has won the national popular vote every single time.  Of course, winning the national popular vote doesn’t necessarily translate into an electoral victory, as 2000’s Bush v. Gore reminds us.  But the numbers are interesting nonetheless.

1992: Bush (68) versus Clinton (46)
DEM -22; DEM WIN

1996: Clinton (50) versus Dole (73)
DEM -23; DEM WIN

2000: Bush (54) versus Gore (52)
DEM -2; DEM WIN*

2004: Bush (58) versus Kerry (60)
REP -2; REP WIN

2008: McCain (72) versus Obama (47)
DEM -25; DEM WIN

This November, Obama will be 51 years old as he seeks reelection for a second term.  His opponent will be older than him.  On election day, Rick Santorum will be 54; Mitt Romney will be 65;  Newt Gingrich will be 69; and Ron Paul will be 77.

This trend says something about how each party vets candidates and values certain qualities in leaders.  For example, you could argue that youth has a powerful association with change and the future, and age with the status quo and the past.  In each of the contests above the prevailing mood of the nation was either inclined toward those associative qualities or actively seeking them.  That’s a far cry from Reagan’s two victories, when the national mood sought a return to an imagined past and other qualities best found in an elder leader.

Right now, I see nothing to suggest we are less inclined as a national body to favor the qualities most associated with youth.  This–and the circus that is the slate of Republican candidates–bodes well for the Prez.

Osama, Obama, y un poco más

I said most of what I wanted to say about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden on Twitter tonight. First, about some of the “analysis” of the talking heads:

“The innocence behind newscasters hypothesizing the end of the “war on terror” is shocking and sad.”

Simply put, from where I sit:

“When you create a war against a floating signifier it never ends.”

To his credit, Obama rarely invokes the rhetoric of “The War on Terror,” instead opting to portray the US in a war against Al Qaeda. But neither war will end any sooner after tonight. These are both just recent names to processes with much longer trajectories than a decade.

In my opinion, something was won tonight, however.

“Barack Obama just got re-elected.”

Finally, the most enduring analysis I take away from tonight is the same one I have carried since September 11, 2001. It is a strange and frightening thing to watch patriotism in action, taking hold of people’s emotions and intellects at the same time. The same cultural dynamic that buttressed the empathy of millions of people for the thousands of people who lost something close to them on that day is the same dynamic that propels some to hate, to fight, and to celebrate the death of another human being.

I don’t have a commentary on this, other than to say I think any phenomenon like this is dangerous when left uninterrogated. Tonight, I just watch it all as a historian and as a Chicano and as the son of a veteran, hoping for a future when it all becomes so less relevant to our collective existence.

Birthers and Brawlers

The White House released President Obama’s “Certificate of Live Birth” today. This “official” document adds to the others, including the “Certification of Live Birth,” which had already been released, as well as the mountain of other evidence which proves the man was born in Hawaii.

This won’t fully extinguish the so-called “birthers” from proclaiming their doubt and continuing their efforts to “free the United States” from the “foreign takeover” that is the Obama Presidency. Simply put: a “movement” based on a preponderant lack of critical analysis can not be defeated by evidence. There is no way to sufficiently disprove something that had no reasonable proof of being true in the first place. Since their “belief” is really based on racial fear and the desire for their myth to be true, many will hold steadfast to their cause.

No matter what we believe about this “controversy” now is a useful time to (re)reflect on what it all means. Why is it this president has had to face this particular charge? Why is there a constituency in this country who continued to believe this myth in the face of evidence to the contrary? Why are there people who believe it now? Why have their been politicians who have used this as a rallying point for their own gain?

We live in a time and place where the effects of racism are palpable and yet hard to fully comprehend. One of the reasons for this is the complexity of some of the ways race acts to frame inequity in our present. Another reason is that we have been robbed of the tools to analyze even the simplest of its manifestations.

This is one of the latter occasions. If we are smart about it, we will use it as a teachable moment for ourselves, a time to critically reflect on the ways racism reproduces itself, generation after generation, because we cling to parts of the past and recast them anew for our present moments.

Why I Don’t Care (Much) About Hate Speech

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona is beginning to foster a national discussion on “hate speech” and “civility” in politics.  There is nothing inherently wrong in this.  I’d say its even welcome from the millions of Americans who feel politics has grown especially vitriolic in the past decade.

I do worry that too much will be given to such a discussion, as if the tragedy itself is the direct result of our political discourse.  It is an undeniable factor in what occurred, but focusing on “discourse” seems to hide as much as it clarifies for me.


WWII era poster, published by Seagram-Distillers Corp.

One of the disturbing trends in politics from the Right in the past generation has been a willingness to engage in what I call an inflammatory rhetoric of absolutism.  (Actually, “willingness” might be a soft word to use in this case because I think we have every reason to believe that it is a political tactic that is knowingly organized in its use.)  This language feeds off the idea of crisis, turning political debate into a “war.”  It frames the opposition as a threat to “your way of life,” not as a group of people with different ideas, analyses, or philosophies than you, but as “traitors” to the country.

This is where the absolutism comes into play.  In this way of thinking, there are only two ways to think: your way and the wrong way.  People who oppose you or don’t agree with you are “un-American”; they are “Socialists” and “Communists”; they are trying to “ruin our great country” and to “take away all that makes us great.”

All of the above terms (and more) are employed to end debate by excluding the authority of the opposing side to speak.  For example, somebody who advocates “un-American” ideas can not be rationally listened to.  So these characterizations become rhetorical tools to limit debate rather than foster it.  This is another form of its absolutism.

Of course, much of their language is imbued with the rhetoric of danger and violence, where people are encouraged to “take our country back” with allusions made to revolution, physical violence, death and blood, and the like.  These particular linguistic tactics convey the sense of urgency and crisis inherent in their absolutism.

Now this might seem like a defense of the current debate about rhetoric and language, but it’s not.

You see, while I don’t like to hear this language, and while I also think it contributes nothing positive to our political process, I don’t fear it or its use.  As a historian of the 20th century, I can’t tell you how many times the Right has policed activities of the Left on the basis of language.  Ideas and ideals like “civility” are as dangerous as ones of “radicalism” or “un-Americanism.”  The danger does not lie in these forms of debate and rhetoric but in the heavy-handed power that gets to label them and define them as outside the “appropriate” parameters of participation in our political system.

The danger is inherent in the ways power assigns “acceptability” and “unacceptability” to forms of discourse, in effect delineating who can and can not participate in the political system.

I don’t fear language. I do fear many of the ideas behind language.  I do fear many of the systems of belief which undergird our current political system and the positions of certain people in power.  But even ideas are not the problem.

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona wasn’t caused by language.  It was caused by the implementation of nihilistic ideas into our political system, comfortably and callously promoted by certain members of the Republican Party.  Language and ideas aren’t the real problem, except in how they let us understand the ways our system of power operates.  They become reflections of the problem in their use as rationalizing systems for power.

I don’t care if people go around saying they think Health Care for children is “the most un-American piece of legislation ever passed.”  It is hyperbole.  It is irrational and untrue.  If somebody actually believes it they are likely to be ill-informed.  But I don’t care if they say it or even believe it.

I do care when a mainstream political party who is in power makes a decision to deliberately use this hyperbole as a political tool to gain more power.  I do care when they implement their absolutism as the foundation of political debate in this country.

Too many people in the GOP have been willingly promoting this nihilistic political analysis in order to gain a greater position in the government.  I don’t doubt there are many ill-educated or dimwitted Congresspeople who actually believe Obama is trying to dismantle the country, but most of them do not.  Most who are engaging in and promoting these ways of thinking have been doing so while know all along that they lack credible foundation.

Most of the GOP opposes Obama’s health care plan because they want to defend the profits of tremendously powerful corporations and because they don’t want a Democrat in the White House.  As they nurture a context of crises and political radicalism they do so for the most traditional of reasons–to protect power.

And this is the real danger.  This empty and inflammatory political rhetoric is not the reflection of a real political analysis of our present but a tool in order to protect the status quo.  People are being mobilized into a political frenzy by people who are trying to limit their real political efficacy.

Congresswoman Gifford wasn’t shot because of rhetoric.  She was shot because people in power have made stupidity seem rational, just to protect the powers they serve.

Whether or not politicians believe in white supremacy, vigilantism, armed revolution, that “God hates fags,” or that Obama is a muslim is irrelevant in our present situation.  Whether or not they advocate for the killing of Democrats is also.  But each must ask themselves if they are comfortable attracting the support of people who do.  Each politician must account for their own political ways of thinking which resonate with the kinds of movements that are the real threat to our democracy.

We lose much more than we gain when we live in a society that wants to police rhetoric for inclusion and exclusion in our political realm.  That absolutism is bad on both sides of the spectrum.

As a democratic society, we have an obligation to openly debate policy, sometimes by confronting radical, revolutionary, fringe, or extreme views.  But this isn’t what we have been doing.  Instead, we’ve been using these views as a priori conclusions in order to stifle the free exchange of ideas.  We’ve been subverting the heart of the democratic process–the free and open exchange of ideas–by limiting that debate with a fascist tactic of absolutism.

One cannot openly advocate and institutionalize a philosophy of absolutism, crisis, and panic and not take responsibility for the results.  Those who have done so must now face the consequences.  If those entail a national litmus test for “civil” and “uncivil” ideas–an emboldened absolutism–then we have all lost.

Who is telling Latinos not to vote?

His name is Robert de Posada, and he is a Republican.  He is also the President of a group calling themselves “Latinos for Reform” who, judging from their new ad campaign, are either idiots or morally bankrupt.

The following ad was scheduled to begin running on Univision in Nevada, Florida, and other Latino-rich states.  Univision–who had run the radio version on some of its Nevada stations and who had already accepted an $80,000 ad buy in to begin running the ad on their television network–has now said they will not air the ad.  Telemundo has also agreed not to show it.

For those who don’t speak Spanish, the ad is telling Latinos not to vote in order to send a message to politicians–Democratic politicians who haven’t followed through with their promises to reform immigration.

The idiot de Posada claims he is sincere, and is all just an “effort to express Hispanic frustration with the Democrats failure to deliver on immigration reform.”  The President and other Democrats think  it is a ploy to elect more Republicans.

This is one of the dirtiest and most demeaning political tricks I have seen in a long time.

Here is the English version.