A raw noon-time, early in 2009, the wind biting, the sun bright. It takes a moment upon descending into the dusky underground of the subway for objects to resume their shape, and I figure out which side of the tracks is the Brooklyn-bound side.
It’s February in the city, the sparks given off by the fireworks of the recent election continue to scatter among the boroughs. The embers are still warm, and today one live-one wafts its way to my subway car where three male passengers board a stop after mine…They are African American and Latino, a voluble trio who break loudly into the hush of the off-hour, mostly empty car. In their thirties and forties I surmise, they are similarly burly, barrel-chested, dressed for outdoors work. They seem filmed over by the dusty hues and uniform garb of labor: thickly booted, layered in hoodies and wind-breakers and parkas, toting lunch-pails and thermoses, and between them one CD player about which there is a good deal of joshing and grinning, like there’s a story behind it.
While one of the trio slumps quickly into subway sleep – head thrown back, mouth open -the other two in opposite-facing benches continue their conversation, or rather the more voluble of the two carries the other agreeably along in his meandering stream of topics ranging from his own grandmother’s exquisitely soft skin (“Man, blacks have good skin!”) to the issue of whether they’d get a shift that afternoon (“I know we started late but I always get work!”).
So, they are itinerant laborers. Their status is weakly echoed in my own adjunct position as a professor floating between poorly paid per-contract gigs, a status which yet remains tucked within the trappings of the managerial rather than menial caste.
At some point the man’s discourse slows down to wrap itself about the wonder of Obama, a victory urging him to shake his head with what I’d call a melancholy amazement. “Man, now there’s no more excuses; yeah you know I’d like to go up to all those folks in Harlem and tell them just that… You know, hmmm, when I think about my own life….” It was a thought that took him back. There was an arrest record; it was during his youth. “You know nothing big, no felonies or nothing, just small things.” It was as if he had been fishing for some mislaid sequence of befores and afters, feeling the tug of a pre-arranged sign-chain of discrete decisions to pull and release him into a current situation that could be understood as the effect of his own individual choices, his personal responsibility.
It is bracing to hear an itinerant African-American worker, incarcerated as a youth, declare “no more excuses,” thus articulating catechisms of the campaign linking personal responsibility to hope and back again on a train whose only point of destination is the hyper individualism of neo-liberalism refurbished with ingenious finesse in the figure of Obama. The hope-full Left (across the race-spectrum yet white-dominated) is yet more disturbing in its hope-fullness than the African American worker whose image they brandish as fodder for their unfounded optimism. Even when some leftists admit to other illusions about Obama (world peace; universal health-care; the “stimulus” package—for banks), they cling to what they call his “symbolic victory”. Like many good white leftists, one acquaintance argues this by repeating several times the story of a black woman friend who saw pride in her teenage son’s eyes for the first time.
“You’ve outlived the bastards!” Bruce Springstein exclaims to Pete Seeger on the occasion of the famous folk singers’ 90th birthday-concert celebration. The two sing “We shall overcome” together. There has been a symbolic victory though what has been overcome should be questioned: The victory that is Obma is that of a brand-presidency that suceeded in absorbing the residual mythos of the Left (and feminism) into its own logo. “This is what a feminist looks like” with Obama’s face, the emoticon pasted next to it, circulated on the web, and memorialized by Ms. Magazine’s boast of its first cover-man. This is what a center-left candidate looks like as magazines like The Nation persist in dubbing the man who has already invaded Afghanistan and extended troops in Iraq. The phenomenon is far bigger than Obama but represents a specific triumph of neo-liberalism in its genius of putting empire in black-face, thus lubricating a more fluid, “gentler” continuation of empire, patriarchy, and the neo-racial order.
The neo-racial order – Obama has always been “perfectly clear” (a common speech-ism) about his position favoring Clintonian personal responsibility:
“I know some of y’all got that cold Popeye’s [chicken] out for breakfast. I know . . . . You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition.” (Campaign speech)
We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of
growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grade (Applause)—that’s not a reason to cut class—(Applause)—that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. (Applause) No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. (Applause). No excuses. (Transcript of Address to NAACP)
With such hyper-individualist addresses to Black America, a dialectical spin on the shiny image brandished by progressives as “symbolic victory” is needed in order to whirl that baby into its time-zone, its temporal dimension, its history, the fact of power relations which suspend that history, blotting it out, upholding its anti-human progress. Dialectics is a way of thinking that puts things back into time, disclosing process where objects appear to be, and realizing that appearing to be, is not what is, much of the time. Or maybe what is but not, for lack of critical consciousness, seen in its mode of its becoming.
Historically speaking, the mythos/logo of personal responsibility has been the chief artillery of neo-racialism for decades following the uprisings of the sixties and seventies, and more blatant racist bigotry of early decades. A gentler-in-tone version of the victim-bashing of the Reagan era, it inherits the same cultural-DNA of a system reforming itself to anneal the ruptures wrought by the flares of militancy in the sixties, to produce new means of ideology for mystifying extant forms of brute domination and exploitation. The genius of neo-liberalism is in how, ideologically, it roots even more violently than before the effects (poverty, alienation) of deep structures (exploitation, domination) in the attitudes and beliefs of the individual self—as if those attitudes and beliefs were the causes of those effects.
Personal responsibility like empowerment (see entries of Dialectical Spin to come) is not just a phrase, not just the policy consecrated by Clinton (and Newt Gingrich) to deform welfare “as we know it” in the 1990s (the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act), but a way to name a whole hegemonic shift that re-structures racism into its current prevailing form. Adolf Reed Jr. has written trenchantly about the “myth of the underclass” through which racism now assumes its most virulent attacks on people of color – and the poor, generally. He argues that this has been the dominant ideology demobilizing black politics in the decades post the radicalism of the sixties and seventies. With the myth of the underclass, racism shifts gears from the blood and soil essentialism of yore, to a moralizing ideology which roots poverty and other injuries of class and race in pathology, aka the underclass mentality, the psychology and feelings and values of blacks (e.g. whether they feed their children Popeye’s and Pepsi for breakfast or not). With Obama we have a Clintonian presidency rebooted in black-face for down-loads even easier than Clinton’s ouch-less “I-feel-your-pain” rendition.
On election night, the fireworks erupting in African American neighborhoods were momento-mori to former uprising in those same locations (Newark, Harlem). Obama provides the perfect fire-wall for dousing those earlier flames of protest. For we have all been arrested by the light of his smile, turned in—all accountability for power now out-sourced (or in-sourced) to the privatized realm of the individual/self which is bloated by hope, or burdened by responsibility, or even whittled to that flicker of proverbial “small still voice,” bottled up in the voting-booth, a relic, if not fetish, of conscience.
With the outsourcing of accountability, public actors emptied of responsibility for actual deeds become instead vessels of traits and qualities – they become, in short, personalities. But this is not only celebrity-star-gazing. There is a compulsive way in which the inner intentions of this president, his good will, and most of all his “tone,” is attributed to Obama by the liberal-left as if to compensate for any political deficiencies or worse, traits are confounded with political deeds themselves. Certainly this “personalization of the political” (credit to Nancy Meyer) reaches a zenith of absurdity in recent days with the granting of the Noble Prize to a president whose “tone” is supposed to inspire “hope” that he will do something other than exactly what he is doing—continuing the imperial policies of the previous regime (and many before).
No excuses – the flip side of this paradigm of thought is all excuses and nothing but excuses. Some sharp thinkers I know seem to be stumped in the task of distinguishing excuse-making from thinking: in the first case, critical thought is blocked and truisms like Obama’s “symbolic victory” are barricades against rather than inlets to consciousness. The “citizen of conscience” is hailed by the Left to win this victory and celebrate it. Conscience itself becomes a barrier to consciousness – individual conscience as memorialized in the vote, or in the gush of warm feeling one gets (if one is white) listening to black neighborhoods bubble over with joy. This is partly due to an imperative for positive thinking that glasses-in any possible negative thought (thought that negates what-is) within its aviary of platitudes and slogans. On exhibit, in its gilded-cage (the Obama bubble), the thought-forms of long-lost radicals (those former “Nay-sayers”) are preserved – as in preservative, the living-content extinguished, the shell retained, a container of radicalism called “hope.”
“Popeye” speech, delivered in Beaumont, Texas in 2008
(Between the Lines: Jonathan Alter, “The Obama dividend” Newsweek March 31 2008). http://www.newsweek.com/id/128548
“No more excuses” speech: Transcript of Obama’s Address to the NAACP convention upon its Centennial,
Adolph Reed Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, New Press, 2000.
Thanks to Nancy Meyer for conversations critical to the dialectical development of this blog and this entry; to Nicole Whalen for setting up the blog; to Yael for sharp editing.