Monday, January 24, 2011

How not to criticize Obama

As any reader of this blog could not have failed to notice by now, I do not think that the Obama presidency has been a victory for the Left or progressives. I can't say I ever expected it to be such a victory. I do not think that our society is (in any substantive sense) more just than it was before he took office, although there have been a few marginal improvements, "low hanging fruit" as some would say, here and there. I don't think that the Democratic Party is a force for progressive change, and I think a quick glance at the record of the party since it returned to power in 2006 makes the point rather obvious.

Still, there is a species of (ostensibly) Left criticism of Obama that makes me uneasy. It usually manifests itself in an excessive emphasis on Obama's individual psychology, his alleged weakness of will, or whatever.

I should say I think such analysis is a blind alley. It really is the system, in many important respects, that deserves the emphasis. It's only by ignoring the way our society functions that won could actually be surprised to find out that the Presidency isn't a fountainhead of progressive energy.

One interesting dimension of this misplaced emphasis and excessive criticism of Obama, the person, is the racial dimension.

Many Black people, rightly in my view, are skeptical about these sorts of attacks on Obama. With so many explicitly (or thinly veiled) racist attacks on Obama (for being a "foreigner", a Muslim, anti-colonial renegade, etc.) this skepticism is well placed. Moreover, there are similar "criticisms" of high profile Black men to consider here as well. Think of the way some white people boldly claim that they hate Kobe Bryant or Kanye West or Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens or Michael Vick. We could go on here. To be sure, many of aforementioned men (certainly this is true of Kayne) have done something obnoxious at one time or another. But who hasn't? I'm not convinced that when some white guy confidently declares his hatred for, say, Kobe, that he's saying something that lacks racial content. It sounds to me like a thinly-veiled way of saying the N-word without coming out and saying it. The readiness with which such vitriolic things are said (e.g. Tucker Carlson saying Vick should be executed) speaks to deeper biases.

So a healthy skepticism from the Black community regarding the tone and motivation of certain kinds of attacks on Obama is hardly unjustified. It reflects an awareness of certain patterns of discrimination and racism. As anyone who knows or cares about such matters is well aware, there has been no shortage of criticism of Obama from the Black Left in the US. But social criticism is not the same as obsessive scrutiny of some person qua person. My problems with Obama aren't personal. They're political. To be sure, I do think less of people who are blase, and I think this is true of Obama, about much of the most irredeemable injust on this planet. But that is a political qualm. Nothing but confusion comes from excessively focusing on Obama the person. As a matter of fact, Obama seems like a very likable, extremely swell guy. I have no reason to think that Obama is a despicable person, but that's irrelevant if we're talking politics. As I've argued elsewhere, asking the question "is Obama a progressive at heart?" is a pointless. It is a red-herring. Let's talk about (rather than entirely occluding) things like institutions, social structures, relations of production, exploitation, overproduction, oppression and all the rest of it. Save the individualized psychologizing analysis for another occasion.


Hank said...

Isn't there a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in saying that Obama seems like a likable, swell fellow and also recognizing that in many respects his policies are just continuations of Bush's, especially with regard to the War on Terror and such? Certainly, one could probably have a more interesting conversation with him than with George W. Bush, but at the same time, he's still the executor of devastating imperialist policies. He certainly does seem likable and swell as long as you forget about his position in world affairs, the ends he puts that position toward attaining, and the human cost of attempting to attain those ends. All one need do in order to know that Hannah Arendt's idea of the banality of evil is an accurate description of reality is turn on the TV and watch the news.

But I agree: personal criticism of the president is irrelevant. It could only ever be relevant if you agreed with the premises of bourgeois democracy in the first place, because you can only really criticize someone as a person insofar as you agree with the rules that they play by. I mean, you could criticize Obama 'personally' for not being a socialist, but it's kind of pointless.

Richard said...

By and large, I agree with you, although it is, in my view, always appropriate to point out the connivance of particular individuals within the social processes that you emphasize, without losing sight of the fact, of course, that they are part of a larger exploitative system.

Overpersonalizing Obama and his political deficiencies can lead us in an alarming direction, as I noted last year:

The Tokenism of Barack Obama?

Or, to summarize, criticizing women and people of color as tokens for colluding with capitialism, while accepting such collusion by powerful white males, is the way towards political self-destruction.

t said...

That's interesting thanks for that post, Richard. The argument seems right on to me.

Re: the cognitive dissonance- I'm not sure I agree. When I say Obama seems like a "nice guy" this isn't a profound compliment. All it means is that his interpersonal skills, insofar as they can be gleamed from his heavily manicured public/televised persona, seems vaguely agreeable to me. For me, this fact is neither here nor there when it comes to politics- and I am suspicious of those who make their criticism of him excessively personal, for lots of reasons. I think we're on the same page here.