Leonce Gaiter

Aug 2008

Obama the Politician Slays Obama the Prophet

At some point, Barack Obama had to decide if he wanted to be President, or a prophet; if he wanted to lead a government, or a Movement. In the primary, the whole "Movement" schtick worked. He was the insurgent, he had an front-running opponent he could vilify, and the issue (Iraq) on which to pillory her for a Democratic primary audience, a percentage of which was ripe for participation in an orgy of self-congratulatory 60s nostalgia all dressed up in the effortless chintz of "change."

But it wasn't working in the general. He's no longer the insurgent. He's the nominee. He's no longer a Chicago grass roots organizer; he's the head of the Democratic party, in bed with Wall Street Kingpins and Capitol Kingmakers, armed with a war chest that would make Croesus blush.

Yet he was still temped to play the political Pied Piper. Instead of simply telling us how, as President, he would make our lives better, he invited us--no, insisted--that we join his "movement." The whole movement aspect began to cloud his message. He was not telling Americans why we'd be better off with him as President than we would with McCain. His loud, clanking Movement machine was so busy belching smoke and pinwheels, the electorate couldn't get a good look at him.

His campaign seemed to mistake size for substance. Getting tens of thousands of people to show up does not mean you have a social "movement." It means you're a hot ticket. This central miscalculation allowed the Republicans to hammer Obama as an empty suit. It has kept everyone asking who he is and what he stands for despite an endless primary season that should have definitively answered such questions.

By now, the prophet thing is all so much yesterday's news. Earl Ofari Hutchinson did a nice job of narrating progressives'
spasmodic gyrations to justify Obama's shift on legalizing lawbreaking with the FISA bill, toleration of those who voted for the Iraq war, downshifting on a woman's right to chose, sidling up to Rick Warren at Saddleback Ranch and telling a crowd of evangelicals that he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman (but assuring us queers that we could have a back 'o the bus alternative.)

With this schism between his primary and campaign selves, you'd think he'd be sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge his mere politician's status and get on with it. In his acceptance speech, he finally did.

However, vestiges of the old, self-important movement mentality remain. I just received a lengthy solicitation missive from the Obama camp. I read most of the first page, looking for the salutation at the bottom. Then I saw a second page. Then I saw that there was a full page of text on the back of the first page. And there was a full third page, and yet more text on the back of that third page.

The campaign was asking me to read 4 pages of political junk mail before it got to its point. And then--4 pages not being enough--it had a frackin' P.S: "At so many decisive movements in our history we've seen one person stand up--and then another, and another still--until a movement was formed that could bring about change." He's asking you to write a bloody check, not face the dogs and water cannons on a protest line. Get a grip.

He kept such fluffery to a minimum in his speech. He talked policy, and what he wanted to do as President. He eschewed the political equivalent of putting his hands down our pants. He finally realized that some of us are not looking to join a "movement." We just want to vote for a President. Some of us don't get teary at the word "Kennedy." Some of us are dead sick of self-righteous invocations of Martin Luther King. Some of us are not saving an empty place at the table for the second coming of RFK.

Believe it or not, some of us are just looking for the best politician with the best policies to vote for. And we get turned off when a simple politician so loudly insists that he is so much more. Finally, in his acceptance speech, Obama showed us the politician, and left the prophet to the True Believers.

Katrina Plus 3 Years: The 'Nigga' in New Orleans

Three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the homes of hundreds thousands of Louisianans, too many residents are still unable to afford to rebuild their homes or find an affordable place to rent, according to a new housing report by the national research and advocacy group PolicyLink.

The new report, "A Long Way Home: The State of Housing Recovery in Louisiana 2008," shows that while some progress has been made during the past year, thousands of residents who want to return home are facing a critical rental housing shortage, inadequate rebuilding grants and a recovery plagued by red tape and ever-changing rules.

- Wall Street Journal MarketWatch, 8/21/08

"If the history of the Katrina recovery were written today, it would be a tragedy. Far too little progress has been made despite the remarkable effort and ingenuity of the people of the region who are fighting to restore their homes and their lives."

- Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America.

A version of the following appeared in Archipelago magazine less than one year after Hurricane Katrina.

Three years after Katrina… :

It was more than obvious. Large portions of New Orleans would never be rebuilt. Soon after Katrina, a reporter and I agreed on this. Too many of the people in the most devastated areas were poor. Too many were black. And, in the context of American history, those are hereditary crimes with recurrent sentences.

“You’re nothing if you’re poor and black,” my New Orleans-reared mother used to say. Clawing her way to a comfortable middle-class with her Louisana-bred husband, this was her desperate way of goading me into non-acceptance—non-acceptance of the 60s and 70s status quo of the all-black school, the segregated neighborhood, the “comfort zone” of black life as it stood back then. It was her warning that, at worst, the majority has contempt for you, and at best, is simply indifferent to you, and your sufferings or hardships. ‘You’re on your own,’ she was saying. ‘There is no country behind you, no countrymen support you, no government promotes your interest.’

You’re on your own.

Read the rest at Huffington Post.

The Evangelical Jesus Cure for Unforgivable Blackness

After a couple of slave rebellions in the early 19th century, American Christianity shifted irrevocably from a catalyst for slave liberation, to an additional shackle securing black men in bondage to white ones. After the Vesey and Prosser rebellions,
whites largely oversaw slave worship to ensure that blacks were taught the value of submission and docility, the heavenly reward for those who suffered well, and the superiority of white men and women via fantastical biblical interpretations insisting that black skin was a
curse from God.

The Jesus whom slaves were taught to worship was unquestionably white, as was God the Father who begat him. Black slaves worshipped white Gods--Gods who looked like their masters.

Of course, in the popular modern American fantasy, American racial history began and ended with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But down here in the reality-based community, history’s siren song still sounds strong and sickly sweet—if you’re willing to listen.

To swat at rumors that he’s a Muslim and alleviate fears of—and perhaps grab a vote or two from—white evangelicals, Barack Obama sat down with Megarich pastor, author and homophobe Rick Warren to woo evangelicals by saying things like, “I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him.”

Read the rest at Huffington Post

The Shelf Life of John McCain's Honor

My father was a career military officer, so pardon me if I don’t genuflect at self-important, self-serving mentions of our “brave men and women in uniform,” too often invoked by those who never served, or never knew anyone who did, or who fought like hell and worked every angle not to, and would riot in the streets if the US instituted a sensible draft that offered their rich, pampered little boys and girls the same opportunities to die and lose limbs with which we honor our all-volunteer force.

Being familiar with the military, I also feel no need to lionize everyone who’s been in it. There are fools in uniform. The conduct of several of our recent wars proves that. There are also heroes, knaves, psychos, savants, mensches, thieves, rapists and every other type of man and woman you can name. Their motives for service can range from patriotism to political opportunism to desperation. Donning a uniform does not make them better people. It just makes them soldiers.

Read the rest.

If Race is Not Welcome, Are Blacks?

[Like most of my recent work, this piece also appears in The Huffington Post]

Everybody considers Obama through the self-reflective prism of his blackness while pretending to ignore the fact that Obama is black. White Democratic primary voters made all manner of unsupported assumptions about Obama based largely on his skin. There was absolutely no indication that he was a progressive true believer.

In fact, in May, 2007,
The New Yorker ran an in-depth Obama profile entitled "The Conciliator." His background and actions suggested a highly pragmatic, malleable politician. Voting for him, primary supporters made a statement about themselves (see Salon magazine's "It's okay to vote for Obama because he's black," and made assumptions based on the "black saint/black radical" historical narrative, assuming that this decidedly centrist politician was going to somehow "heal the divisions" in America (for the first time in its history) and/or usher in a radically progressive renaissance.

Blacks, seeing his skin and appreciating his adoption of black culture, ignored his actual distance from it. A white mother and an African father means he formatively absorbed none of the cultural heritage of American descendants of African slaves. But overwhelmed by the historical first, and being ourselves largely blind to our own cultural distinction, we rallied behind a candidate choice George Will properly identified as "eccentric."

Neither blacks nor whites can overtly mention his race save to highlight his "first" status. Blacks can't because doing so would "raise the topic" and if it's a topic, he loses. Raising it is tantamount to a race crime. White conservatives can't mention it because their entire modern association with race has been to exploit suspicion and hatred for electoral success. White progressives can't mention it outside a very narrow perimeter because if they do, they're accused of racism, as Bill Clinton was for comparing Obama's vote totals to those of another black candidate in a state with a large black voting bloc.

We must all pretend to believe that race isn't there.
The Washington Post quoted John McCain as saying "[Obama] brought up the issue of race; I responded to it. I don't want that issue to be part of this campaign. I'm ready to move on. And I think we should move on."

He retreats behind the playground retort, "I didn't start it. He did!" But McCain's statement acknowledges that the issue exists. He refers to it as "that issue." He just doesn't want to be seen addressing it directly. However, he is more than willing to address it indirectly by insisting that his opponent has addressed it by simply acknowledging his own blackness. Very clever.

Race is an issue in this campaign. Whether or not Americans are willing to see a black man -- even a half-white one with no inherent ties to America's racist crimes -- occupy the highest office in the land is the issue that dare not speak its name: What do some Americans fear about a black man in the Oval Office? Do they fear he will seek revenge for historical crimes against blacks? Do they fear he will be too strong an advocate for black Americans?

Do they feel he will give short shrift to white Americans? Do they fear that he will simply remind them of the bulk of this nation's history that they'd rather forget? Are racist impulses still strong enough that many simply fear or hate the idea of a black man with power over them? These are the unasked questions. To ask them would unleash America's demons, the beasts we've locked and caged in the basement, whose diminished yet still-menacing growls we pretend not to hear.

If race, its place in American history and the American present are all unwelcome topics, it only stands to reason that the people at whom the word "race" is most often focused -- Afro-Americans -- are equally objectionable. We are, after all, the reason that the caged beast exists. Our very skin is the source of all of that discomfort.

On Tuesday, July 29, the House of Representatives quietly passed a non-binding resolution apologizing to African Americans for the crimes of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that stood until 1965. It was the first time the Federal government had apologized for those crimes of the distant and recent past. Oddly, it was not big news; no front page status. Stories that appeared highlighted fears that an apology would bolster calls for reparations, that most discomfiting topic.

The New York Times recently reported that even doctors, the stalwarts of the "deny and defend" strategy, are learning that earnest apologies dilute the anger that fuels expensive lawsuits. The most maddening thing to the injured is the insistence that they were not wronged, when the facts state otherwise. When they know in their hearts and souls -- when they hear in the voices of their parents and grandparents -- the pain and humiliation, the results we all still live with, such denials gall. To deny the injury is to deny the wronged -- to deny their rights, their value, their very humanity. It's a re-perpetration of the original crime in schematic.

Until Americans realize that if we take pride in America's greatness, we must also take responsibility for her crimes, we will continue to lie to each other and to ourselves about what we see in black skin. We will continue to inwardly cringe at its associations and wish that it, and therefore its wearers, would simply fade away. We will continue our vain attempts to emotionally disappear 12 percent of our population and the vast majority of our history. And we will do so with all the grace and dignity of John McCain's Britney/Paris TV spot.