FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Barack Obama: Lost in the Foothills of Hope

by KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY

My wife, Sandra, warned me, “Don’t be hating.” Now San (as we call her), who has worked in retail sales, selling ladies shoes, throughout her working life, is not an overtly political person. She is one of those old-timey, “salt of the earth” types. But when she doesn’t like a person, there is usually something wrong with that person. For instance, before it became evident that Al Sharpton’s effort in South Carolina was going nowhere fast, she coined the now-popular phrase “scampaign” to refer to the reverend’s run. I know it is ill-advised not to take heed of her warning.

With San’s admonition in mind, I tried to table her (and my) Oprah-tainted, media-hyped preconception of Baraka Obama so that I could read The Audacity of Hope with an open mind and with the same hopeful spirit as the title seeks to portray.

But the book is like those two solid yellow lines on a two-lane mountain road. They’re just there in the middle and never-ending, with a stop sign as the only relief.

He offers no boldness. Dr. King set out to change the social, economic, and political structures of this country. He described the change as a ‘third way’ beyond capitalism and socialism. King’s “third way” is far different than Bill Clinton’s “third way,” promoted by Obama and all those around Hillary, who tout the Clintons as the second and third coming of Camelot.

The Clinton “third way” is Republican Party politics in slow motion. Under Bill Clinton, U.S. troops weren’t trapped in Iraq, but just as many, if not more, Iraqis died as a result of his policies. His destruction of the welfare system, his embrace of capital punishment and other punitive and discriminatory crime policies, his bowing to Wall Street all made him palatable to Republicans.

The hope in Obama’s title is for a mixture of Kennedyism, Reaganism, and Clintonism packaged as the new face of multicultural America. At its core, this is what The Audacity of Hope promotes, instead of any fundamental progressive change.

Nonetheless, it comes as no surprise that The Audacity of Hope is a New York Times bestseller. The book arrives amidst the hype of an upcoming and wide-open Presidential race, the collective angst over the country moving in the wrong direction, an economy that working people know isn’t as good as they are being told it is, and a war that has washed away – at home and abroad – the country’s preexisting false sense of moral superiority. As the line in Ethan and Joel Cohen’s 2000 movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, goes, “Everybody’s looking for answers.”

Yet, does Obama’s book provide any real answers? It there anything in it that will help stimulate measurable change? Or, is it all just talk, posturing, and positioning for personal political goals? Is it an orchestrated, consciously plotted pretext to inoculate a politician from the perceived liabilities of race, lineage and inexperience?

The answers are no, no, yes, yes.

I can agree with Obama on the need for a new kind of politics. But he suggests that what’s broken can be fixed versus being replaced altogether. He opines that if we would all just recognize our “shared understanding,” “shared values,” and “the notion of a common good” that life (or politics) in the United States would be better.

Take, for instance, his praise of Reagan, hedged as it is by criticism of Reagan’s “John Wayne, Father Knows Best pose, his policy by anecdote, and his gratuitous assault on the poor.” Writes Obama:

“I understood his appeal. It was the same appeal that the military bases back in Hawaii always held for me as a young boy, with their tidy streets and well-oiled machinery, the crisp uniforms and crisper salutes. . . . Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies. So long as we rediscover the traditional values of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith.”

Obama gets a lot wrong from start to finish. While people may indeed have a shared reality – which means we witness the same things – we don’t always feel, understand, process, or react to what we witness in the same way. The simplest example of not having a “shared understanding” is the difference in how blacks and whites view the police.

What is lacking here is devotion to principles, which Obama constantly sacrifices on the altar of “shared values.” And of course the issue is not of shared values. It’s how we rank our values. Many people value religion, but which religion has more value? In this country we all know the answer to that question. As proof that the United States government values Christians over Muslims, consider that the United States is at war with an Islamic country. Consider that Muslims in this country are subject to increased government scrutiny and racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. No one in their right mind could believe that the United States place a Muslim on an equal footing with a Christian or Jew. The daily body count dispels that notion.

At the top of Obama’s shared values matrix is his Christian faith, his heterosexual family, the American flag, and the Democratic Party. “Shared values” and “the notion of a common good” pretty much amounts to the same thing in Obamaspeak. It all sounds pleasant, but it’s surely not new. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s “common ground” theme that he built his ’88 campaign around. Clinton picked up the phrase, and it is now a standard part of the political lexicon.

But the use and meaning of Jackson’s phrase has changed over the years since Clinton co-opted it. Jackson’s “common ground” meant bringing together a coalition of workers, women, men, blacks, progressive whites, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, anti-apartheid activists, those opposed to Ronald Reagan’s illegal war in Central America, farmers, Latinos, Arab-Americans and other traditionally underrepresented or unrepresented groups. With Jackson’s phrase, all could demand a seat at the Democratic Party table.

By contrast, Clinton wanted the Democratic Party to renew its “common ground” with those who left the party with Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats and those who jumped ship when Ronald Reagan rose to power: white men. Clinton’s “common ground” was with the Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton “common ground” pushed aside those whom Jackson brought to the party. And The Audacity of Hope places Obama squarely in the DLC camp, even if he never applies for a membership card.

As a political tome, The Audacity of Hope is kind of a new and improved, better-written version of Clinton’s long-winded speech at the ’88 Democratic Convention in book form. Obama touches all the hot button words like the “nuclear option,” “strict constructionists,” and the like but never really says anything deep or brave or new other than to remind us that the hot buttons are really hot.

Give Obama credit for copping to the fact that his “treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete.” Overall, the treatise reads like a very, very long speech of sound bites and clichés arranged by topic and issue and connected by conjunctions, pleasantries, and apologies. Pleasantries like wishing for a return to the days when Republicans and Democrats “met at night for dinner, hashing out a compromise over steaks and cigars.” Or, leading with apologias to describe painful parts of United States history or softening a rightfully deserved blow as when he describes racist southern Senator Richard B. Russell as “erudite.” Or accusing his mom of having a “incorrigible, sweet-natured romanticism” about the ’60s and the civil rights era as he waxes romantically about Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party. It’s like he did not have a clue about the 1964 struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The shame of Obama’s lack of depth is that Hamer’s conflict over representation pretty much set the table for how the Democratic Party deals with blacks today. But of course he was only three years old and living in Hawaii when Lyndon Johnson went on national television to give a speech so that Hamer’s image and the MFDP challenge would be off the airwaves. Hamer’s fight was a precursor to the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first black to seriously run for President in 1972 (if you exclude Dick Gregory’s 1968 bid). Chisholm continued Hamer’s fight for a greater black and female voice in politics and government.

Throughout, Obama proffers an unnaturally romantic view of the Democratic Party for a person of his age. His appreciation of party seems as times deeper than his understanding of the civil rights movement, which comes across as antiseptic. And he goes out of his way to comfort whites with a critique of black Americans that could tumble out of the mouth of William Bennett. “Many of the social or cultural factors that negatively affect black people, for example, simply mirror in exaggerated form problems that afflict America as whole: too much television (the average black household has the television on more than eleven hours per day), too much consumption of poisons (blacks smoke more and eat more fast food), and a lack of emphasis on educational attainment,” he writes. “Then there’s the collapse of the two-parent black household, a phenomenon that . . . reflects a casualness towards sex and child rearing among black men.”

The book has no soul. That perhaps explains why some (with motives good and bad) in the black community complain that he “is not black enough,” or “he has no respect or appreciation for the past,” or “he is the amalgamation of everything white folk want a black man to be,” or “he’s a white boy being scripted by smart-ass white boys.”

The book is surprisingly short on substance. Given all the policy disasters of the Bush Administration, what troubles Obama about the Bush era is not so much the policies Republicans championed but “the process” or lack of process “by which the White House and its Congressional allies disposed of opposing views.” In the end, all he offers is the promise of a ‘hope’ that he will manage the process better than the other guy or gal.

So then, why write the book?

Obama’s face is everywhere. And, there is no shortage of opinion about him, which makes it difficult to read his book and sort things out without atmospheric bias. But The Audacity of Hope plays on the creation of a Kennedy-like mystique. I’ve spoken to a couple of writer friends who attended an Obama event and in both conversations the comparison to John Kennedy was bandied about. On cue, Obama plays the Kennedy-card throughout his book, tossing in passages from Profiles in Courage.

Although we now know that John F. Kennedy did not write Profiles in Courage, the book is one you have on your shelf that you might look through on occasion and actually enjoy rereading. Profiles in Courage is a historical marker in a way Audacity of Hope will never be. Not that I am a fan in the slightest regard of the early John and Robert Kennedy. There was much to dislike about them even before the days when they authorized then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to bug Dr. King, after which the top cop and closet cross dresser (no disrespect to cross dressers) in turn authorized his agents to try to prod King into killing himself.

Not everyone writes a book before running for the Presidency. But some do, and those books reveal things about the person and the time. Jackson’s Straight from the Heart, of which many people contributed to, still holds up as a record of where progressive stood at a particular point and where many progressives stand today. Ross Perot’s United We Stand at least tried to confront some familiar problems such as the federal debt. And he actually wrote of reforming the system of campaign finance, increasing electoral participation, and eliminating the Electoral College.

The title of a book usually tells the story. Sometimes it may take reading the entire book, down to the last page before you realize how telling or appropriate a title is. The Audacity of Hope. You can’t chant it in a crowd like, well, “Keep Hope Alive!” Or “Keep the Faith, Baby!” or “Power to the People!” And while the book is technically well-written with aspirations to inspire, Obama falls far short of the mountaintop. In the end, the feels trapped in a valley of buzzwords, catch-phrases, and insider jargon with words like “halcyon” thrown in for good measure.

So, if you are searching Obama’s book for hints or even the language of the kind of change that means something in a structural and systemic way, it’s not there.

But I’m afraid people are going to discount Obama not for what he says, but for who he is. I was at the bank talking politics, among other things, with Maria, the head teller. As I spoke in my usual unrestrained and audible way, so as to let anyone hear me without having to eavesdrop, Obama’s name came up. An older white gentleman standing next to me said, “Ya know his middle name is Hussein? This country will never elect a man named Hussein President!” To which I could only respond, “Well, the country elected a man that is insane!”

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is lead organizer of the Harriet Tubman Freedom House Project in Columbia, South Carolina, which focuses on community-based political and cultural education. He is also a contributing editor to Black News in South Carolina. Gray served as 1988 South Carolina coordinator for the Presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and as 1992 southern political director for Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s Presidential bid. He can be reached at: kagamba@bellsouth.net

This review originally appeared in the print edition of The Progressive.

 

Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at kevinagray57@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 30, 2017
William R. Polk
What Must be Done in the Time of Trump
Howard Lisnoff
Enough of Russia! There’s an Epidemic of Despair in the US
Ralph Nader
Crash of Trumpcare Opens Door to Full Medicare for All
Carol Polsgrove
Gorsuch and the Power of the Executive: Behind the Congressional Stage, a Legal Drama Unfolds
Michael J. Sainato
Fox News Should Finally Dump Bill O’Reilly
Kenneth Surin
Former NC Governor Pat McCory’s Job Search Not Going Well
Binoy Kampmark
The Price of Liberation: Slaughtering Civilians in Mosul
Bruce Lesnick
Good Morning America!
William Binney and Ray McGovern
The Surveillance State Behind Russia-gate: Will Trump Take on the Spooks?
Jill Richardson
Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs
Robert Pillsbury
Maybe It’s Time for Russia to Send Us a Wake-Up Call
Prudence Crowther
Swamp Rats Sue Trump
March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail