Monday, March 31, 2008

A Psychoanalyst Tries to Explain Barry

ShrinkWrapped gives it a masterful whirl.

March 31, 2008

Obama's Failure

At the moment the Conservative blogosphere is working to make sense out of Barack Obama's identity, his identity politics, and his electoral chances. Mickey Kaus has suggested that there are two distinct negative versions of Barack Obama:

Two Memes Running: I'll try to keep track of the two most underdeveloped negative memes on Obama:

1) He's a wuss! He hedges on welfare, he hedges on affirmative action. "[H]e has a major deficiency in the realm of moral courage." He won't speak up against his own church's victim mentality until he absolutely has to (because he himself gets in political trouble). In the campaign he's done a whole lot of pandering and not much Sister Souljahing--certainly nothing as bold as Bill Clinton saying welfare should be two-years-and-out. He listens to everyone and everyone loves him for it. But he's conflict-averse--it would be more reassuring if everyone didn't love him. ...

2) He's arrogant! His failure to even admit to the slightest mistake in the Wright affair plays into this meme, originally ratified by AP's Ron Fournier. My colleague Robert (no relation) Wright thinks he saw additional evidence recently. ...

Are these memes contradictory? Not really. Maybe they go together. Arrogance is likely to build up in the absence of conflict, no? You can't take it out on your enemies in public so you take it out in private. Are they disqualifying? No. I'm not sure Obama can't accomplish a lot by being conflict-averse and respectful. But I don't think there was a conflict-averse way to, say, reform welfare. The liberal interest groups who supported the system weren't about to be "illuminated" or "elevated" (or fooled). They had to be beaten. The same probably goes for some conservative interest groups in, say, the health care debate.

There is another school of thought that Obama is a far left stealth candidate who would likely feel free, once in office, to institute a program of change that would only be a surprise because he has been so successful in obfuscating his true ideology.

Much of Obama's success has stemmed from his candidacy apparently offering an exit from this country's long and troubled preoccupation with race and all the difficulties that have arisen from the unhappy experience of blacks in America. Unfortunately, it is in this area that Obama's failings have been most pronounced. The opportunity has been squandered and the outcome of his candidacy will likely set back race relations for a very long time to come.

Barack Obama has established conditions that make it almost impossible for his candidacy to help resolve wounded feelings among either his supporters or opponents. Whether or not he personally agrees with the "black liberation theology" espoused by his church and whether or not he believes in the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories that his former Pastor (and, from early reports, his current pastor) espouses, his candidacy has championed such ideas among those people who do ascribe to them. This means that if he should lose the nomination or the election in November, as I believe is very likely, a significant portion of the black electorate and a significant portion of the white liberal electorate will understand his defeat as confirmation of their firmly held belief that America is irretrievably racist.

If he should happen to win the election he will be the personification of affirmative action as the route to success in America. This would be unfair to such a bright attractive candidate but by effectively making himself into a post-racial candidate who upon examination turns out to be nothing more than a racial candidate with better diction, Obama has made himself less of a man and more of a symbol of a race.

[The reason I think Obama's election would be an unlikely scenario is that I have spoken to a great many very liberal, life long Democrats who have no intention of voting for him and are not horrified by the possibility of a McCain presidency. Their disinclination to vote for Obama is not racism, though the usual suspects will certainly consider it such, but rather a visceral disgust at being called racists by Obama's Pastor with nary a peep of demurral from Obama. This is what will cost him the election.]

In City Journal, John H. McWhorter reviews Larry Elder's Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card—and Lose. In his article, Looking Past Race, McWhorter has two essential criticisms of Elder's thesis:

Yet Elder’s analysis only takes us so far. He asks: “If so-called black leaders and other influence-makers can simply halt the widespread use of the n-word by rappers and others, why not use this power to deal with urban crime?” He thinks it’s because they’re lazy: “Crying racism takes less effort than exploring why black children underperform compared to their white and Asian counterparts.” Elder fails to see that self-doubt cripples many blacks, leading them to mistake weakness (crying racism) for strength.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 suddenly left black people responsible for proving themselves before they had had a chance to overcome their internalized sense of inadequacy. After centuries of marginalization, this should not have been surprising. There were now two ways for a black person to make his way. He could embrace accountability and work to take advantage of the new opportunities. Or he could fashion a sense of legitimacy by playing the noble victim, exploiting white America’s new susceptibility to such postures.

The damaged black soul settles for doubletalk and elided moral vision in seeking self-affirmation. The “victicrats” whom Elder describes are insecure people who would be best off in twelve-step programs. But Elder also implies that such people are more important to the current racial conversation than they actually are. Most are getting on in years, having reached adulthood just as the whites who once barred them from Holiday Inns became hip to “the Negro problem.” For blacks of this vintage, the empowering novelty of thumbing their noses at whitey imprinted their worldview permanently. They will remain forever on the barricades, but they are no longer the future.

McWhorter's analysis offers a great deal more depth and insight than (his description of) Elder's positions; it also fits neatly with my description of the damage conspiracy theories do to the holders of such views. (And, I would add that a current fixation on the "rich white man" holding down the morally and ethically pristine black man that forms the core of Reverend Wright's sermons, is nothing more than a paranoid conspiracy theory.)

Barack Obama could have spoken to white and black Americans in a post-racial vein; ie, he could have described a universal approach to the opportunities America offers. Note this from McWhorter:

Elder quotes James Q. Wilson’s 38 most important words for black Americans: “Finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after the age of twenty. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor; 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.” Few could deny the wisdom of that counsel, but many fail to see that it logically requires letting go of the racism fetish. As Elder puts it: “Racists do not prevent kids from studying, racists do not demand that men father children outside of wedlock.” And further: “Complete and total eradication of racism cannot instill the necessary moral values that create healthy, prosperous communities.”

James Q. Wilson's 38 words are not most important for black Americans but for all Americans. A recognition by Obama that America, more than any other nation on earth, allows one to have a say in one's future that surpasses the advantages (or disadvantages) of sect, tribe, ethnicity, or lucky parentage would not mean that race and racism have been banished from our nation but that it is no longer a sufficient reason to accept failure among black Americans. For all of Michelle and Barack Obama's great success in achieving the American dream, they have never escaped from the chains of a victim mentality.

We can even take the argument a step further: Even if a black American is convinced that white racism presents great barriers to success in America, for that man or woman, eschewing the anger and resentment can be even more crucial. Anger and resentment can only impede one's progress; racism as an explanation offers a too ready excuse for failure and encourages acceptance of failure. As well, the race based ideologues replace the struggle for achievement with the struggle to get even. It was not simply happenstance that led to the burgeoning of gangsta culture and all the damage that the idealization of failure produced in the poor black community. The ground was first fertilized with a toxic mix of an exaggerated hypersensitivity to perceived racism, guilt ridden affirmative action, and the failure of the black family, all of which reinforced the "self-doubt [that] cripples many blacks."

In addition, McWhorter points out that race based victim ideology belongs to the “victicrats” of the past. Obama's left wing politics as well as his race based identity are both reactionary and regressive, even as his rhetoric soars on the wings of "progressive" thought.

Whether through a failure of self-reflection, moral cowardice, or arrogance, Barack Obama has run a campaign that has reinforced the damage done to black Americans through their legacy of racism and slavery. The opportunity costs of the Obama candidacy are the greatest failure of Barack Obama.

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