Filed under: Democracy | Tags: Barack Obama, Cynicism, Disavowal, Election America 2008, Hope, Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Neoliberalism, Ralph Nader, Rhetoric
In my last blog post, I wrote about the emphatic rejection of neoliberal economics and criminal foreign policy represented by Obama’s recent victory. Or, if in terms less optimistic, the electorate expressed its doubts in the American Way, which had been their lot for the last thirty-plus years. Financial meltdown, tragic failure in New Orleans and a disastrous war in Iraq had at the very least made the American public suspicious, and unwilling to risk further complicitous behaviour. Judith Butler, as she does, weighs in with a much more nuanced and complicated take on this tentative disavowal by the United States electorate.
We cannot underestimate the force of dis-identification in this election, a sense of revulsion that George W. has “represented” the United States to the rest of the world, a sense of shame about our practices of torture and illegal detention, a sense of disgust that we have waged war on false grounds and propagated racist views of Islam, a sense of alarm and horror that the extremes of economic deregulation have led to a global economic crisis. Is it despite his race, or because of his race, that Obama finally emerged as a preferred representative of the nation? Fulfilling that representative-function, he is at once black and not-black (some say “not black enough” and others say “too black”), and, as a result, he can appeal to voters who not only have no way of resolving their ambivalence on this issue, but do not want one. The public figure who allows the populace to sustain and mask its ambivalence nevertheless appears as a figure of “unity”: this is surely an ideological function. Such moments are intensely imaginary, but not for that reason without their political force.
President-Elect Obama introduces a profound politics of disavowal: the American people have not only rejected the Republican policies that have marred the last eight years, but in order to choose Obama they have also had to disavow something else. Throughout his campaign, Senator Obama asserted that above all else he represented the American dream—in his narrative, a black man from a poor family who has been given the opportunity by his great country to achieve his full potential and become the leader of the free world. Along with this, however, Obama has come to also represent a nation fraught with impossible contradictions: the incurable traumas of race, class and region. In Obama, we see the American tendancy to launch missles in the name of peace, to torture in the name of freedom; or, more insiduously, to laud ambition as well as equality, democracy as well as capitalism. To accept one myth, we must disavow another. As Butler continues:
If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential. Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, “I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway,” there are surely also people on the left who say, “I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption.” I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort? And at what political cost?
If Obama permits us not only to reject the politics we dis-identify with, he also enables us to disavow the politics we hold close to our heart, to compartmentalize them and shore them against the fear of betrayal.
We see this in Ralph Nader’s unfortunate statement, reiterated in an interview with a distasteful Fox News anchor: ‘[Obama's] choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations’. The sentiment of the question is important, indeed, desperate, for those who put their faith in Obama. But the fact that Nader needlessly phrased this pointed challenge to Obama in racialized language indicates the kind of disavowal occurring in those who would put Obama in the same boat as McCain, Bush and Clinton: “I know that he is black and has overcome the impossible and criminal limits that have heretofore defined a nation, but he is a neoliberal hawk and a war-criminal-in-waiting’. We see the disavowal of race in a candidacy defined by it in order to pursue our own desires. Nader’s slip announces race as a determining factor in our expectations for Obama even as we swear to be colour blind.
I don’t know if the strategies Obama allows in us to overcome the contradictions of living in America today are the right ones. I don’t know if purchasing a chance at social health care with the human rights of Gays and Lesbians is a good deal. Or if a man who can look at Iraq and Afghanistan and call one war good and one bad is a promising sign of peace. I will only cautiously note the difference Lauren Berlant cites between Obama’s rhetoric of hope and Clinton’s obscene sentimentality:
in response to the Washington Post’s observation that Obama is uncomfortable with performing Clintonesque sentimentality of the “I feel your pain” variety, I thought, that’s right, Obama’s more like “I feel your hope.” Does the difference matter?
I think so. Obama is detaching from the liberal tradition of claiming that our wounds are what make us alike and what make us obligated to aid each other. Obama’s saying that it’s hope that makes us alike, especially the hope for politics to advance the world toward deserving our optimism for it.
So what are we bargaining for this optimism? And what do we get for our money? I’ll let Butler, whose equal parts cynicism and optimism appeal to me, conclude this piece:
In the place of an impossible promise, we need a series of concrete actions that can begin to reverse the terrible abrogation of justice committed by the Bush regime; anything less will lead to a dramatic and consequential disillusionment. The question is what measure of dis-illusion is necessary in order to retrieve a critical politics, and what more dramatic form of dis-illusionment will return us to the intense political cynicism of the last years. Some relief from illusion is necessary, so that we might remember that politics is less about the person and the impossible and beautiful promise he represents than it is about the concrete changes in policy that might begin, over time, and with difficulty, bring about conditions of greater justice.