By michael hureaux perez
The central issue of the modern political world (so far as many of us are concerned) was framed eloquently by Joy James in her study Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender and Race in U.S. Culture thirteen years ago:
Civil Rights activist Ella Baker’s pronouncement that ‘strong people don’t need a strong leader’ speaks to our obvious need for each other as leaders, learners and activists. Struggle for more than survival in sites where we are disciplined and discipline ourselves in conformity requires nonconventional education, political formations, and critiques for democratic community. The quality of political community and democracy depends on resistance to violence and state malfeasance. Resistance means that we must confront our fear. The fear of being perceived as and punished for ideological radicalism and nonpatriotism leads to a choreography of conventionality in which one sidesteps the labels of militant, communist, feminist (particularly radical feminist) queer, polemical, or ethnic nationalist (pg 243).
Political struggle, to paraphrase the late unlamented Richard Nixon, abhors a vacuum. And thus, postmodern political thought has bequeathed to us all at this moment, instead of a resistance to the world imperial project, a national leader of the “left” in the United States who soft-peddles imperialist warfare; a public subsidy for continued corporate hegemony with the proclaimed aim of saving the capitalist system; and a definition of “green industry” which includes the burning of coal, nuclear energy, and the insane idea that agricultural land should be used to produce fuel for the automobile. A genuine mass movement made up of critical thinkers would not be giving the hup-ho such an unimpeded free ride, but this is the age of Obama, beloveds. And many an old soldier will fade away before the pressure really begins to drop.
So on that note, allow me to call your attention to the essay that former Weatherman William Ayers, he of recent feature on the system’s version of Orwellian National Hate Week, and his equally maligned spouse Bernardine Dohrn contributed to the March issue of Monthly Review. Titled “What Race Has To Do With It,” the piece is a lively five page exposition of what institutionalized racism actually entails, and the various coded language that the politicos and cultural hustlers of the Great American Crapshoot employ in order to maintain their political game. So far, so good. But what I found disappointing about the Dohrn–Ayers piece was how it just had to contain the perennial blather that movement veterans who really ought to know better feel compelled to speak when asked about Obamaism. Why Ayers and Dohrn or their editors at MR think we want to read the party-line on Obama in the Monthly Review is totally beyond me.
But I did catch this gem from Dohrn and Ayers:
“On March 18th, 2008, Barack Obama delivered an epic, masterful speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on race and identity. Senator Obama’s talk was called ‘a more perfect union’, and it tapped a deep longing to be free from the racialized straitjacket of anxiety, fear and separation…
Obama managed to frame the discussion of racial justice in terms of broad American unity.”
Oh, really, Bernardine and Bill? I watched and listened to the same speech you saw and heard, and what I believe we were all party to that evening was a slightly more eloquent variant of the usual flag festooned grand eloquence the “democrats” crank out every election year, although it contained relatively little of the standard blood curdling appeals for war against yet another impoverished and exhausted people of color in the Middle East for which the so-called “opposition party” or its current darling are so admired. But I couldn’t help but note the candidate’s deep denial of the fact that racism is endemic to the political culture that has always driven the United States and its partners in the western world, whether we’re talking about the old saw “Manifest Destiny,” Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” or the insidious new form of race war that Zionist ideologues front for. Best of all was Obama’s public repudiation of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, which stood in the craven tradition of the old “I am not now nor have I ever been“ etc so beloved to McCarthyism and its kissing cousin, the corporate liberal.
To their credit, Ayers and Dohrn were careful to point out that Pastor Wright’s comments were “no more incendiary” then everyday conversations black folks have “when white people aren’t looking or listening,” or any more inflammatory then sermons from Dr. Martin Luther King. But did Obama say that in the follow-up to his speech, B.and B? Nope. He sure didn’t.
In fact, Barack Obama dismissed Wright as a sort of “eccentric relative” who speaks out of turn. You know, an embarrassing, eccentric relative, like Frederick Douglass, who had to straighten out William Lloyd Garrison on the fact that black people can speak for black people; or Paul Robeson, who had to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee to go back to the political crap hole that spawned them; or Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, who had to buck Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and the whole of the “Democratic” party establishment at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964; or a certain El Haj Malik Shabazz, who strove mightily not to let anyone put words in his mouth, least of all the sort of glitzy gangsters who run the “Democratic” party in our day. You know. Black people who got their asses kicked or killed so guys like Barack Obama can pose as the fulcrum of “hope” and “change.”
I don’t know anything about the “broad American unity” Obama addressed with the same old Eurocentric arrogance that insists on referring to the United States by itself as “America,” rather than as one nation among other Americas. But I do know that Obama stands in a continuity of black “leadership” which is applauded by extremely privileged sections of what may safely be called white America. Ruling class America. And I do know that that white America is one in which both “liberal” and “conservative” thinkers still demand from black politicians a “black leadership” that won’t burden the U.S. public with uncomfortable truths about killer cops, or a legacy of substandard schools that are the intentional program of land speculators and red-lining businessmen, most of whom continue to bankroll a rabidly murderous and paranoid national security state.
Ayers and Dohrn know this, and it is painful to watch them perform these ministrations for a political hack who won’t even stand up to the butchers who drove the Clinton political machine or the Carter political machine decades before him. Hell, Obama couldn’t even generate modest support for Ayers himself when Ayers was being accused of killing people in Weatherman bombings (completely false) by rightwing dogs who won’t admit to the criminal nature of the atrocities the U.S. committed in Vietnam nearly 40 years after the end of that war. A and D round out their article with the usual bromide about how Obamaism “offers up a new paradigm” of activists under 30, who will, at some point in the future, assuming they begin to understand the organic role of the Democratic Party, launch a new social movement.
All I can say when I see articles like this from the pens of people like Dohrn and Ayers, is like, look, just don’t help us, okay? We who continue this struggle to build an independent black political movement have had enough of this kind of help, and all it does is cloud the waters. Obamaism confuses the young activists Dohrn and Ayers extol in their article by building illusions in this systematic farce we live under. We live with capitalism, a system which chooses, even at a moment of great crisis, to expand a murderous presence directed against the poor of the world at the expense of domestic stability here at home. It is not capable of a change of heart, because capital is a machine mentality, not a spiritual brotherhood, and it doesn’t have a heart. Capital is a thing. It induces a culture in which people are taught to view themselves as commodities on the market, as lucrative objects, to be moved around like pieces on a chessboard, as some spectral presence called the market dictates. It is a barren thing, and it encourages thing-ism in the human psyche.
As Bob Marley used to say, you can’t use the fruit of Babylon, because Babylon doesn’t produce any fruit. And Obama lives in Babylon, Bill and Bernardine. He joined it. He’s the Emperor. He’s in it. He endorses it. He celebrates it. He leads it. And Race, as you say, has everything to do with not only the program of his detractors, but also the program of many of his supporters. Obama is the House Slave of Ol’ Massa’s dreams.
Back when there was still such a thing as a working class international, the Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin drew a sharp line in the dust between his people and the sections of the Second International which supported the European powers during the 20th century’s first effort to officially carve up the non-white world among Eurocentric business interests. That campaign is called in boojwah history texts “the First World War.” Among those public figures who were confused by the question of world imperialism were several leaders of the anarchist movement, most notably the Russian libertarian theorist Prince Peter Kropotkin. In his rejection of Kropotkin’s support for the western imperialist powers, Lenin remarked that, in the end run, anarchists were turning out to be no more than “liberals with bombs.”
I found myself thinking about Lenin’s observation when I read through Dohrn and Ayer’s article. It is far from unusual when the disaffected children of the wealthier classes who for a time swung to the nihilist corners of the political struggle rebound, and then swing as far “right” as they used to swing “left.” And let’s face it, Weatherman was never long on the craft that Sandinista leader Tomas Borge once so eloquently termed “the patient impatience.” Old habits take on a different shape where they don’t die hard.
But, it’s like Joy James said in the quote with which I lead off this article. If we are really going to be the change we seek to be, as the Obamaists are so fond of saying, then we need to be honest about who we are and the roles we have chosen to play. Obamaism is a step backwards, because it teaches community activists, both as students and teachers, to hide or apologize for our roots, the battles we’ve come through, and the insurrectionary or revolutionary continuity we represent. If we are going to be the change we seek, we have to embrace all the things we have been with diplomatic but direct language, and by the way, that means also a willingness to study and understand the unlovable political figures who have emerged in the effort to change this unhappy world. We won’t get there by employing the same craven, sneaky tactics the old Communist Party of the United States used to implement in its less enlightened moments. We need to be real about who we are and where we’ve been, and that is not the path of Obamaism.
Call this liberation effort radical democracy, or socialism, or communism, or anarchism, or parecon, or what have you, but it has made mistakes, it’s going to continue to make mistakes. But we will make much fewer mistakes and commit far fewer crimes against each other if we don’t try to start out with a massive repudiation of the things learned by our common humanity as we lurched towards a world without usury, racism, and imperialist war. As Amilcar Cabral phrased it so memorably, tell no lies, claim no easy victories.
Our effort requires an arduous and patient impatience, and Obamaism once again, is more impediment than it is catalyst. Certainly his recent panegyrics on the Tonight Show with Leno demonstrate that the man is still campaigning for president, more then four months after the election. Obama is the great salesman of the Spectacle. We have to push through his nonsense, and outward once again to a higher political subjectivity.
Cults will not resolve the ongoing trauma of race and class in the United States.
michael hureaux perez is a writer, musician and teacher who lives in southwest Seattle, Washington. He is a longtime contributor to small and alternative presses around the country and performs his work frequently.
Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org This article appeared originally in Black Agenda Report, to which he frequently contributes, on April 1, 2009