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Democratic Promise: An Open Letter to Adolph Reed

By Benj DeMott

I’ve been expecting you to rain on “Obamamania” for years so your Harpers piece last month http://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/ didn’t come out of the blue. Though it feels a little inapposite to mention...me since your analysis nicely eschews authorial narcissism. You don’t go in for the sort of brazen self-aggrandizement that makes other wannabe-prominent leftist critics of our president seem mean and Unger-y—per that old YouTube video by Harvard Law Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gnf4k8EaL7M. As you’ll recall, this former teacher and backer of Obama insisted the president “must be defeated” in 2012. From Unger’s hemeroidal upside down angle, a G.O.P. win would’ve magically flipped the Democratic Party—leading to its “reorientation…as the vehicle of the progressive alternative.” You’re up for a progressive revival too, but you’re under no illusions loss is more. Your long view shouldn’t be confused with Unger’s selfie politics. It goes beyond any single election season.

That’s why you begin with Bill Clinton (and if you’d had more space, I bet you’d’ve brought up Jimmy Carter). But your double-troubling title, “Nothing Left,” isn’t aimed only at ambitious Democratic pols who reached the White House. It puts a hurt on millenarian American radicalism even as it echoes Christopher Hitchens’ polemic against Bill Clinton—Nobody Left to Lie To. Hitchens once said you were America’s sharpest argufier and your piece’s compactions—starting with that title—prove you haven’t lost your knack. Your list of faux-lefts—"youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban ‘precariat’; green whatever; the Black/Latin/LBGT ‘Community’; the grassroots; the netroots and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a ‘Trotskyist’ soft-ware engineer elected to the Seattle City Council”—is truly Reedy. Though I can't say your wit didn't wound as it wowed—I felt your shot at those (like me) who made much of Iraq’s post-Saddam unionists.

You’ll allow, though, the number of leftists with a weakness for stories about workers of the Levant is tiny. Which brings me to my first plaint about “Nothing Left.” While it’s good your contrarianism lands you in unobvious places, you often seem oddly inattentive to what’s right in front of your nose. Take your make-over of Paul Krugman. In your presentation, he’s a straight talker stinging beamish leftists who realized (too late) Obama wasn’t a “Nation-type progressive.” Maybe Krugman has been a scourge of the Nation. But isn’t he much better known for being a proud—some might say vain—critic of the Obama Administration’s fiscal responses to the Great Recession?

Not that you’re required to keep up with the flight of waspish columnists or monitor Cable News yada yada. It’s probably better for your soul as well as your temper to skip most of MSNBC’s inside dopes. Your anomalous historicism, however, isn’t a patch on up to the minute political reportage and analysis available on, say, Chris Hayes' nightly show. BTW, Hayes should invite you on to talk about your piece. Though its news value isn’t amped up by Harper’s layout. In the...wide margins of “Nothing Left” we get this: "Perceptions of Obama's difference from all other Democratic candidates was bound up in his becoming the first black president." That's a pull quote? In 2014?

Course your argument is founded on an a priori assumption there’s Nothing-New-Under-the-Sun in Obamatime. Which reminds me of other moments when leftists refused to be surprised by events other Americans seemed to think were a big f---ing deal. On that score, I’d trace roots of Obama’s rise not to Clinton’s era but to the post 9/11 period when Americans—outside the Vichy Left and provinces where New York haters ruled—were shocked into an unusual sense of comity. A few years on, Obama's brotherly positivity about America (which was bluesy and Hughesy: "let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—") spoke to a memory of felt unity alive in the country after 9/11 (and lost in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom). But things done changed again. When you trash Obama's "jingoistic oratory," you seem like a prophet in a country time forgot since right-wingers keep bashing the president for failing to uphold American exceptionalism. I'm guessing your anachronistic diss of Obama's supposed jingoism bespeaks more than a lack of currency. You seem peeved by Obama's "casual references to the left's excesses and Socialism's failure"? You’re right to notice Obama's good-byes to all that. Unlike you, though, I'm glad he cops to what everyone in the party of hope should never forget.

You’re also irritated Obama finds wisdom in conservatism. But I’m cool with that too since it hasn't killed his melioristic drive. It’s a no-brainer Obama’s no utopian as you underline by invoking Russell Jacoby's End of Utopia. Jacoby might be on your side now. But check his First reflection on the state of politics 5 years after 9/11. He started with a key antimony—Islamic fascism v. our old dog of a democracy—that’s gone missing from “Nothing Left.” Your critique of Obama for expanding "American aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else” seems pretty vacant. The following passage of Jacoby’s implicitly indicts you for shifting blame away from nihilists who attacked America first (and got our quandaries started):

A left flags when the status quo is better than the alternative. Today this is almost the case–not intellectually, but emotionally. Those who disembowel Dutch film makers, riot over Danish cartoons, behead American journalists, issue death sentences for English writers and slay Algerian novelists seek a future that makes the Inquisition look like a PTA meeting. We have nothing in common with them.

Jacoby’s lines take us back to the post 9/11 conjuncture that added resonance to candidate Obama’s patriotic prompts. (When Obama laid down black and white history lessons in his most famous speech, “A More Perfect Union”, he spoke of Jeremiah Wright’s world-view “as one that that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”) But Jacoby also flashed forward to the president’s domestic agenda. Note how your favorite utopian focused on the minimum wage and healthcare back in 2006:

Yet to defend a bad establishment against a movement that is worse is one thing. To forget it is bad is another. The captains of government that are unwilling to raise the meager minimal wage–now $ 5.15 an hour–without exempting $10 million estates from taxes deserve a fate they will probably escape. These same folk call special congressional sessions to intervene in the case of one brain-damaged woman and contentedly watch millions scramble for health care amid a collapsed system...

As it happens, me and my immediate family have been scrambling for health care recently. I lost my gig last year. No way for me to protect my wife and 10 year old without the Affordable Care Act. Serious biz for me and millions of others benefiting from Medicaid expansion. Forgive an ad hominem, but is it possible your own status as a longtime prof who's had healthcare guaranteed forever lies behind your exceptionally flat response to Obama's landmark legislation? The terms of your argument seem to require you to dismiss ACA, yet it’s undeniable: the biggest add-on to the Safety Net since the Social Security Act of 1965.

ACA surely undercuts your equation of Obama with Clinton(s). Obama once sought to distinguish himself from Bill Clinton’s minimalism by saying he wasn't interested in becoming president to do school uniforms. He wouldn't gloat about that today, but he's lived up to his promise to go BIG. He doesn’t deserve all the credit for hanging in when ACA was on the ropes. But it took guts to resist Rahm Emanuel’s advice to scale back ACA after Dems lost that Massachusetts senate race (and their filibuster-proof majority) in early 2010. Wouldn't a cautious Clinton have rolled with Rahm? Obama, by contrast, pressed on. (You ever read his moving speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2010 right before Scott Brown won in Massachusetts? Obama's churchy channeling of King on a doomy night when he sensed Brown was headed for victory might mean more down the line than those jokey Jeremiads about Popeyes chicken that give you heartburn.)

Leftists outraged Obama didn't preside over enactment of single payer or public option seem to allow (in the end) he got all there was to get out of a Congress with DINOs like Max Baucus. Would you argue nothing should’ve been done for the 30,000,000 uninsured until there's a workers' movement in America strong enough to make America Canada? Maybe that's in the cards, but it seems folks like me and my wife and 10 year old should be grateful to Obama in the meantime.

There's a hole in the heart of your piece here. I know you've given years of your life to an honorable effort to establish a Labor Party in America. It strikes me your case against Obama would be more...honorable if you addressed your own failures as an organizer. Isn't it less than large-minded not to notice the local pol cum slick Harvard grad you watched emerge in Chicago back in the day has done a helluva lot more for everyday people than Labor Partiers like you (and me—hey, I paid LP dues!)? While you’re snarky about those who joined Obama's "movement” perhaps you have more in common with them than you suspect. You might pick up on Jedediah Purdy rethinking (in First) his Obama-inspired faith political transformation could come from "the rhetoric and the sentiment:" "you have to be fighting for things—concrete things—and the poetry and the feeling grow up around them." Purdy also sounds like you when he talks up the need for "institutional development." But his learning curve doesn't get him so twisted he pisses on Obama from a great height or denies ACA is a "major moral achievement."

New believers in the need to organize around "concrete things" might note the success of campaigns against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for gay marriage. Progress on gay rights, though, seems beneath your radar which only detects class-based redistributionist politics. You don’t mention end games of Don't Ask Don't Tell or DOMA (which undo your Clinton=Obama equation since those policies date back to the Clinton era). Yet the President’s anti-discrimination interventions are not…nothing. In the fullness of time universal Civil Rights may even prove foundational for the pursuit of economic justice. I'm reminded just now how a working class hero—a First contributor and comrade of yours—mocked recent advances by gays: So the Wall Street bond trader gets to marry his boyfriend. It's a fine goof on forms of gay millennialism that sound like money. OTOH there are lots of gays in the working class. (Occurs to me you and your comrade might re-read Last Exit to Brooklyn.) And to come back to the non-trivial saga of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Department of Defense is not only larger than any financial services company; it's the biggest employer in America.

Though our army will get smaller (if Putin doesn’t kill Obama’s vibe) due in part to our president’s singular approach to foreign policy. The difference he once cited (per the quote you contemn in your piece: “a president who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian”) made a difference from the jump. Consider how Obama broke with the American Foreign Policy Establishment’s consensual wisdom in his Cairo speech—that great refusal of thin internationalism of diplomats and pundits “who when they say, ‘Egypt this,’ ‘Israel that,’ ‘America this’ really refer to about 50 people in each of those countries.”[1] Obama’s speech may not have inspired the Arab Awakening but it’s part of the prologue. If Obama hadn’t beaten Hillary, America might not be negotiating with Iran right now. (You’ll recall Obama took heat back in the 2008 campaign for saying he’d talk with our enemies there.) Without Obama’s worldly, inside-Out instinct, we might still be propping up Mubarak. And we wouldn't have led from behind to change Qaddafi’s regime. (Have you read Michael Lewis’s account of how that went down? He reveals how Obama pushed past nada options offered up by European allies, the Pentagon and his Cabinet. Lewis describes meetings where Obama subverted “status structures,” looking for input from staffers beneath the principals and generals in the Situation Room. With those subalterns’ help he made policy that prevented a mass atrocity in Benghazi and eventually liberated Libya.)

Your notion Obama’s just another drone-loving drone of Imperial America reminds me of Cornel West's recent demagogic turn at the Newark Memorial service for Amiri Baraka. West talked smack about Biden’s recent trip to Sharon’s funeral in Israel, hyping up memories of black-Jewish tension. Obama’s more-progressive-than-thou hater got what he wanted: reactionary shouts and murmurs. But the truth Obama is a bete noire to AIPAC and Netanyahu marches on. No guarantees Obama will overcome powers-that-Bibi but surely you shouldn’t go West since you've been committed to the Palestinian cause for decades. I'm reminded of Martin King's line: "we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

I may be more attuned to your silences than many of your readers. When you write: “Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes his election supposedly signified had already taken place.”—I’m struck by the absence of any reference to your own failed projections on this front. In the “cold light” after Super Tuesday in 2008, you found it “difficult to believe [Obama] could become president.” Your (new?) faith in demography as destiny seems like another way to avoid a nod to Obama’s… unbelievable achievement. Didn’t Paul Berman nail that?

I find myself thinking this election is the most inspiring event in American history...Big successes in the American past have been accompanied by a small, unobstrusive asterisk, which leads your eye to the bottom of the page, where you find the extra clause, which says: “Democracy is fine and good for most people, and yet, for various unfortunate reasons, one part of the American population is hereby excluded.” The asterisk has meant that America is living a lie. Even at America’s grandest moments. But no longer! Not on this one point, anyway. The election just now is the first large event in American history that can be recorded without an asterisk.

I shouldn’t complain too much at your uninspired take on Obama’s election, given you’ve been one of the most penetrating critics of Afro-American identity politics ever since you published The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (1986). Maybe it’s best for the Next Left if you stay outside Obama’s Big Tent, punching class-conscious holes in diversity-first politics. There are other heads, though, who managed to keep hard class structures in mind while being fully alive to Obama’s sweet leap forward. In an interview that amounted to his final testament, the late Lawrence Goodwyn interrupted an urgent disquisition on American history to tell a Texas tale that brought home how “marginal non-bankers like you, me, and U.S. Presidents are.” But Goodwyn still argued Obama was a president for the Ages: “Those aren’t softballs Obama’s throwing...as every card-carrying white supremacist in the Republican Party knows.” A line that reminds me how the late Amiri Baraka cut to the race when confronted with (what he called) “soi disant” radicals unimpressed by Obama’s win in 2008: “First of all the election of Obama has done more to bring some aspect of equality to the society than reams of pseudo-leftist posturing.”

Baraka grasped complexities of Obama’s role as an anti-racist exemplar, chiding those who trashed the candidate’s careful approach to a “black agenda”: “He’s not running to be president of the NAACP!” This black Marxist also saw Obama was something other than a tribune of the working class. It occurs to me a passage from Baraka’s unillusioned report on the 1988 Democratic Convention (which is a soulful complement to your critique of Jesse Jackson’s politics) defines a horizon that’s beyond Obama’s emotional and political reach. Baraka preserved the immortal litany for the Rainbow’s working class in Jesse’s great ’88 Convention speech—“Most working people are not on welfare. They work hard every day that they can. They sweep the streets. They work. They catch the early bus. They work. They pick up the garbage. They work. They feed our children in school. They work. They take care of other people’s children and cannot take care of their own...” Baraka’s invaluable historical record reminds us Obama lacks Jesse’s capacity to get mighty real about lives on the margin. One can be moved—even exalted—by Obama’s rhetoric and accomplishments without pretending he’s realized the democratic promise of Jesse’s Rainbow Coalition. The double truth of it is: Obama’s “movement” got over the rainbow without sublating it.

But I don’t want to diminish Obama’s victory. So let me do my own historicizing thing by placing a couple graphs in Baraka’s essay on the Rainbow side by side with a passage from a report in the New York Review of Books that captures the flavor of an Obama rally during the last triumphal stages of the 2008 campaign. (I had an occasion to cite those same graphs last month—sorry if I seem stuck on them.) Here’s Baraka:

Jesse was blowing hard and pretty, like a rhythm blade cut through most of us. “We didn’t eat turkey on three o’clock on Thanksgiving day, because Momma was off cooking someone else’s turkey. We’d play football to pass the time till momma came home. Around six we would meet her at the bottom of the hill carrying back Du Carcass.”

...In the transcript of the speech that has now been changed to “leftovers.” But he and we who heard know what he said and what he meant. That indeed this merriment was much like a holiday, and yes there were those of us down here who weren’t involved in the real business, we were just the marginalia the bubbles rising off the heady brew. We wanted to eat now, but all we were gonna get was Du Carcass, some leftovers. The white men and quite a few white women had already et...

Twenty years on, as Obama spoke to his base at a rally in Chicago’s Vernon Park (per that NYRB report from the 2008 Campaign trail), the crowd wasn’t looking at leftovers; they were anticipating just deserts:

When Obama launched into his story with “Because I love pie,” a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, “I'll make you pie, baby!”...The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting.

Middle-class Afro-Americans and folk closer to the grassroots were on the verge together. But your bloodless analysis leaves them out of “Nothing Left.” And this elision seems tactical rather than forgetful since you make space for “indulged upper middle class Children of the Corn” and Slavo Zizek’s bloviation—“Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of sigmun rememorativum, demonstratum, prognosticum.” Your, um, reason for citing Zizek’s shtick (“not usually a faddish enthusiast”—huh?) seems irreal. It’s hard not to think he’s there as an easy target—your argument’s Jerry Quarry. If you really care to follow public intellectuals who serve as interlocutors between Obama and his base, you might try Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog. (I bet Obama surfs it.) Thanks in part to Coates’ call and response with his “horde” of respondents, he’s become something close to an organic intellectual for the black nation. Coates’ blog isn’t an Obama echo chamber—Coates has called out the president (most famously during the Sherrod episode and most recently for indulging in the black-on-black auto-critique that enrages you too). But his vigorous popularizations of scholarship about slavery, the civil war and government policies implemented since the New Deal that amounted to affirmative action for white people remind me of an insight of Norman Mailer's (cited recently by Aram Saroyan in Door to the River, Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age):

I knew that I as an American...looked upon the president as one of the centers of our dream life. And it seemed to me that a lot of history is made in this country by the way that people react to their dream life. In other words, shifts in public opinion come out of many elements that are not available to the historians. One of them is whether the president of the United States gives people energy in their inner lives, their dream lives, their unspoken lives. Or whether he takes it from them.

Those American dreamers Mailer invokes above weren’t just white folks. (Amiri Baraka once recalled how FDR was one of his two childhood heroes; the other being Joe Louis.) But no-one has to buy into jive about a unitary “Black Community” to grasp why Afro-Americans might be particularly juiced by an Obama Effect. Contra Matt Taibbi (who saw Obama back in 2008 as a “human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or indeed sharp edges of any kind”), you’re surely right Obama “is not without race; he embodies it...” Though that’s not all there is to his persona. And it won’t do for you to insist his politics amount to a triumph of “image and identity over content.” That’s belied by his “obstinate will to do better” (to lift Kolakowski’s definition of democracy). Do you really mean to imply Obama is another David—“Anyone-for-tennis?”—Dinkins? Or worse—the lazy taker-in-chief of right-wing nightmares?

When it comes to the president’s approach to liberal governance, I think you trip on something real when you quote Taibbi’s assertion Obama aims “for the middle of the middle of the middle.” Holding the Center: In Defense of Political Trimming by Eugene Goodheart focuses on this aspect of Obama’s politics. Like you, Goodheart means to place Obama in history, but Holding the Center takes in a larger span of the past than “Nothing Left.” It’s a short book, but it’s not thin. Grounded in the best liberals have thought and done, Goodheart’s essay collection ranges across the past couple of centuries to illuminate Obama’s leadership style.

Goodheart’s term “trimming” is a word with a heavy negative valence in my house (right down there with hopefully, that term beloved by do nothings). But he rescues trimming from traductions that made it synonymous with C.Y.A. He recovers the original (nautical) meaning, treating it as a term of art for sincere efforts to steer the ship of state straight. Goodheart allows there are moments when political trimmers are out of time. (His book ends with a brief appendix on the struggle over how to respond to the Nazi threat between Churchill and an English trimmer, Lord Halifax, whose temporizing instincts “did not serve him or his country well.”) But Goodheart has revived a political tradition that should inform our imagiNation right here, right now.

The trimmer tries to find common ground between extremes not fore sake of compromise but because reason does not have a single location on the political spectrum. The great modern philosophical avatars of trimming are Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stewart Mill, Mathew Arnold and Walter Bagehot, and in our own time Isaiah Berlin and Lionel Trilling…The historian Jacques Barzun speaks of Bagehot’s “double vision,” which perfectly expresses the visual character of trimming. “In any conflict of persons or ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into these reasons, but also the feelings attached. This is a rare gift, especially when it does not lead to shilly-shallying in the double-viewer’s own course of action. Bagehot could always state the reasons for his choice with the utmost clarity.” In politics, the principled trimmers are, surprisingly, Lincoln, less surprisingly FDR, and in our present moment, Barack Obama.[2]

Goodheart appreciates our president’s readiness to receive light from minds who don’t share his politics. You have a darker view, arguing Obama’s trimming is marked by his “reflexive disposition to cater to his right.” But that’s not the only spot on the political spectrum where Obama looks for illumination. The former community organizer also gets lit when his base is on fire. His comments on the Trayvon Martin verdict come to mind here. And that, in turn, reminds me Tavis Smiley sniped that Obama’s speech on the verdict was “weak” since the president “did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium.” Smiley is one of those critics who wail on Obama for “leading from behind.” What he fails to grasp is that leading from behind is a pretty good definition of the democratic project.

Cf. Frederick Douglass’s “Oration on the Memory of Abraham Lincoln” (posted now in the archives of this site) where Douglass acknowledged frustrations felt by abolitionists during the first years of the civil war when Lincoln avoided offending pro-slavery constituencies in border states that had stayed in the Union. But Douglass’s final judgment on “the white man’s president” confirms trimming may lead to transcendent moral achievements:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Tavis Smiley’s ally Cornel West—btw, why aren’t you afraid West is calling from inside your house?!— once projected he’d be a friendly but astringent critic of the president, playing the role of Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Lincoln. West is no Douglass. But the link between “principled trimmers” Lincoln and Obama seems solid.

It’s all up there on the screen in last year’s movie Lincoln as screenwriter Tony Kushner noted in a recent interview. Kushner keeps coming back to the Left’s negativity about Obama which had an “enormous impact” on the film. Kushner’s clarity about the Left’s “impatience” makes your claim Obama’s race has largely “insulated him from sharp criticism from the left through the five years of his presidency” seem tendentious:

[T]here were people blogging furiously that he betrayed us when they heard that Rick Warren was going to be speaking at the first inauguration, that it was already over. And then Tim Geithner, Larry Summers—I mean it was one thing after another, just bad news, bad news, bad news, and then of course, everything that he did was wrong...

Kushner recalls all the carping you skip over in “Nothing Left” but he shares your diagnosis of the Left’s fantasts:

The left is eternally grappling with dreams of revolution that at this point have very little connection to any plausible, actual historical eventuality…There’s an underlying faith, or fantasy maybe, in an immediate, instantaneous and maybe necessarily violent break between the bad old world and the good new world that will come...It’s messianism in another form…

But the problem is...it’s sort of lovely to have no control over actual, on the ground events, because then you don’t have to compromise; you can always speak from a position of clarity and purity because you don’t have to worry about the consequences of your actions, and you’re also not limited by law. But I mean we didn’t elect a king, we elected a president, and I think an astonishingly effective, in fact a great president.

Kushner’s screenplay for the film about that other great president focuses on governing—and legislative—process. Its attempt to dramatize ways and means of principled trimmers like Lincoln (and the more radical Thaddeus Stevens) makes for an estimable work of pop entertainment. Though as I’ve suggested elsewhere, Lincoln’s takes on democratic process seem less compelling than similar scenes in The Great Society, Alexander Harrington’s recent play about “the unquiet Presidency” of LBJ—a work that’s also marked by its provenance in the Obama era.[3]

The best scenes in Lincoln aren’t those that focus on political process, but ones that fuse “Spielberg’s interest in children’s imaginative worlds and Kushner’s homosocial perspective” (to quote critic John Demetry). When Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln hoists onto his back his sleeping child Tad (Gulliver McGrath) his acting is charged with a manly sensitivity that calls to mind Day-Lewis’s first star turn as a gay skinhead in My Beautiful Laundrette. It probes (per Demetry) “the mystery of compassion and charisma” behind personal-is-political capital.[4]

Demetry’s insight is worthy of the great (gay) cultural critic George Trow’s investigations of presidential “aesthetics” in My Pilgrim’s Progress. (Born into a family of stone Roosevelt Democrats, Trow’s journey began as a young teen when he found himself unable to resist the magnetism of that “guy of guys,” Ike Eisenhower.)

A politics of charisma isn’t your meat. But in these days of Putin’s outrages, perhaps you’ll agree it’s lucky Obama’s homie cool appeals more to Americans than the hot bluster of John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Did you catch Rudy’s Putin envy? (“Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day…That's what you call a leader. President Obama, he's got to think about it.”) Bad actor Rudy was driven batty by the president’s improvisations during the Syria crisis: “...five or six days...thinking and thinking and thinking.” I had a different, positive response to that drama of “Man Thinking” on a high wire.

The apple don’t fall far from the tree on that front. Back when John Kennedy was killed my pop wrote a piece suggesting the assassination might be a heavy blow to mind in America since Kennedy was one of those rare figures in public life with the reflective inclinations to bridge gaps between thinkers and doers. [It’s online here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1963/dec/26/the-fate-of-the-union-kennedy-and-after-7/?pagination=false]

I was too young to dig Kennedy’s lucidity and we should all be wary of persona-mongering praise of pols. Still, when Obama leaves office it’s going to be Cold Turkey for me whoever comes next. Is it likely we’ll have another president in my lifetime with a mind as surprising as Obama’s? I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to the book he’ll write about his time in office. It should be on another level than most presidential memoirs. Though I know you’re skeptical of Obama’s books. You call them “performances.” Okay. But that doesn’t mean they’re not acts of imagination. I don’t believe it’s necessary at this late date to talk up Dreams From My Father(or take it down, Obama himself has noted it’s 50 pages too long—sharper criticism than you offer in “Nothing Left”). The Audacity of Hope is a lesser thing. But there’s that opening where the young Senator “enters the Capitol through the basement” and goes on a walk that evokes history made in the Senate chamber before zeroing in on the absence of vital debate there today: “In the world’s greatest deliberative body, nobody is listening.” I’ll take it over Goodfellows' Copa scene.

My responsiveness to Obama’s imagination may seem immaterialist to you. But “grub-first, then ethics” economism isn’t enough to dig forward movements of mind in our time or comprehend all the profound problems that still beset our politics. Recall how Obama invoked lives torn apart by gun violence in his 2012 SOTU, insisting: “They deserve a vote”—it wasn’t Wall Street that kept them from getting one. And it’s not finance capital that’s put the kibosh on Immigration Reform. You cite anti-racist politics as “dangerous” because of “the likelihood we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a dessicated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering and making up ‘Just So’ stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity.” That’s a mouthful which hints you’re talking yourself into a frazzle; it’s not as if B.S. versions of diversity are keeping American workers from getting it together. Local union organizing may be purer than any sort of national politics in a neo-liberal context, but there’s nothing worrisome about would-be immigration reformers who pressure Anglos freaked by “the browning of America.”

Authentic anti-racist voices shouldn’t get your vanguard up as a glance at a recent post at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog underscores. Coates interviewed Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis—the black teenager from Atlanta murdered in Florida because he and his friends were playing their music too loud for one Michael Dunn. Ms. McBath allowed she was:

disheartened that as far as we've come it doesn't matter that we have a black president. It doesn't matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived. And I ask myself, ‘At what point are we going to get there?' And I have no answer. And I want to be able to answer.

Coates had brought his son to the interview with Ms. McBath and she addressed her final comment to this youngster:

"You exist," she told him. "You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you."

Is it possible your politics are too far North of Ms. McBath’s? I’ll leave you with Southern Liberal Lawrence Goodwyn’s last word on the state of the nation in these tender years:

America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years [after the Civil War] we're still discovering who we are…[P]eople took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they'll call it a post-racial society now.” —...and thought maybe we'd made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all...


1 This line is from Hans Koning’s A New Yorker in Egypt.

2 Goodheart’s line on Lincoln leaves me a little shame-faced at my own bloody-mindedness. A couple months back I smiled to myself when the subject of Lincoln’s legacy came up and Dror Moreh, director of the Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, turned tables on an American interviewer:

Moreh: The biggest threat to Israel’s security is those far right wing extremists. This is the biggest threat to Israel’s security. Who is the most renowned American president? I’m asking you now.
Director Talk: Lincoln.
Moreh: Why?
Director Talk: Because he brought the people together.
Moreh: And what did he do in order to do that?
Director Talk: Compromise?
Moreh: Civil war. He made civil war because he felt that at one point in its history, a country cannot yield to something that is so brutally and honestly immoral…

As you’ll recall, I sent you that Q&A since I figured you’d dig it. Yet that interviewer—and Goodheart—aren’t wrong to uphold the importance of Lincoln’s unifying compromises. They have Frederick Douglass as well as many modern historians in their corner.

3 There are lively scenes of parliamentary process in Amazing Grace (2005)—a movie about the abolition of slavery in England. Though any commendation of that film must come with a caveat since it passed on the opportunity to dramatize more grassrootsy forms of politicking pioneered by Thomas Clarkson, the great organizer behind Britain’s abolition movement.

4 Demetry refuses to credit Obama with such political capital. Everyone has his reasons.

From April, 2014

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