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Barack Obama and the Crisis of the White Intellectual

After Iowa and New Hampshire the nation will now finally entertain the very real possibility of an African American president. Or rather, a president who happens to be African American.

No longer a distant dream, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has energized the 2008 presidential race with such force that David Brooks used one of his columns to announce that an earthquake had rocked the American political landscape. With breathless excitement, Brooks gushed, “When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say No?”

And there’s the rub.

While Barack Obama presidential bid has energized an already energized democratic base and promises to bring more youth and independents onto the political scene, Brooks’s less than critical assessment is emblematic of the profound crisis that has afflicted the white intellectual class.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the world of the white intellectual was suddenly turned upside down. The bombings, death, and terror that stalked the everyday lives of the vast majority of people living in foreign locales with exotic names came crashing on the shores of America. No longer was the United States immune to the calamity and chaos unleashed by those intent on killing others while sacrificing themselves. For the white intellectual, the terrible events of that day made “all that was solid melt into air.”

The warrior response of President Bush was at first attractive for an intellectual class that desired a firm reaffirmation of American power in the world. However, as the dreams of a newly stabilized world vanished into a repulsive nightmare of war without end, white intellectuals were forced to confront a world that did not conform to their preconceived ideas not to mention an administration that decidedly refused to abide by what is generally held to be the norms and rules of the American political system. Indeed, the fiasco in Iraq, the rejection of America by its European allies, and the international isolation of the nation has exacerbated the anxieties of the white intellectual who now faces that which s/he most deeply represses the inability of American democracy to live up to its professed ideals. Thus, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama comes at one of the darkest moments for the white intellectual.

And it is here where we come to understand why Obama’s run for the presidency has been hailed by the white intellectual.

Obama’s campaign slogan “change we can believe in” resonates with the white intellectual that yearns to believe again. In many ways, the substance of Obama’s policy positions is incidental to the many meanings that have been attributed to the symbolic status of his candidacy. Writing in the wake of Obama’s Iowa tsunami Maureen Dowd offered this emblematic commentary: “The Obama revolution arrived not on little cat feet in the Iowa snow but like a balmy promise, an effortlessly leaping lion hungry for something different, propelled by a visceral desire among Americans to feel American again.” It is his soaring rhetoric, his effusive smile, and his audacious presence that enables the white intellectual to believe in American democracy once again.

Despite what some take as President Bush’s messianic vision of himself and his presidency, the white intellectual believed in President Bush and his agenda in the aftermath of September 11th. But soon a creeping skepticism caused the white intellectual to jettison this belief in the wake of a protracted war in Iraq, the multiple assaults on civil liberties by the Bush administration, and the chaos and confusion engulfing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the meteoric rise of Obama’s presidential campaign and its belief driven rhetoric of change, white intellectuals are able to believe again. Such a belief mirrors the beliefs that animate those more religiously attuned citizens with the notable exceptions of the lack of any overt theological commitments and any relation with organized protestant Christianity. In other words, for the white intellectual Obama is the messiah without messianism.

Obama’s call for a politics of transcendence be it partisanship or the past speaks most directly to the desires of the white intellectual to be free not only of the politics of the present, but more importantly the past itself. In the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan remarks, “Unlike any of the other candidates, [Obama] could take America­finally­past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” With Obama, the white intellectual is not only freed from a political context that is defined by the inadequacies of a Bush agenda that has failed to deliver on its promise of perpetual peace but also from a past that is all to present not only in the candidacy of Hillary Clinton but also the racial politics that have defined America.

Regardless of the fact that for the past seven years the Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on the planet was an African American, neither Colin Powell nor Condoleeza Rice has inaugurated a post-racial era. Perhaps this is because of Secretary Powell’s unabashed support for affirmative action. Maybe it is because of the foreign policy agenda pursued by Secretary Rice that has caused some white intellectuals to openly call into question her abilities for the position. Or possibly it is because of their proximity to the politics and policies of a conservative republican President that neither Powell nor Rice can move beyond the politics of race because they are viewed as occupying their position because of their race. Whatever the reason, for the white intellectual, the bi-racial Harvard educated Obama along with his New Age nationalist campaign for change is the latest hope for America to finally enter a post-Baby Boom and post-Civil Rights era. As Andrew Sullivan aptly put it, “We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.”

Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the white intellectual has not only found the embodiment of King’s dream but also the person who can redeem the soul of America in the candidacy of Barak Obama. And in so doing, the crisis afflicting the white intellectual has found, if not its cause, then most certainly its fix.

At least for the moment.

COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.

 

 

 

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