Friday, August 15, 2008

Being & Politics: Another Way Of Looking At Obama

Being & Politics: Another Way Of Looking At The Obama Campaign
A. B. Spellman

I was talking politics with Marc Sims, the contractor who was renovating our house, & the electrician whom Mark brought in for some installations. The subject was, of course, the Obama campaign & Marc, a man who has pulled his family out of one of the most desperate quarters of Washington, D. C., remarked, “well, if Obama makes it, these kids in the ghetto got no excuse.”

It is a statement that has stayed with me because it speaks of the defeatist psychology of one of the most oppressed sectors of American society, “these ghetto kids”, sometimes called the urban underclass, long thought to be phylogenetically problematic. I took Marc’s comment to concern the power of Barack Obama as a symbol: Sims is too smart a man to think that this one event will obliterate the very tangible social factors that sit on the shoulders of our criminally under-educated & under-valued urban youth like a yoke of lead & keeps them from rising. He was speaking of the awful ghetto world view in which so many of our kids grow into a consciousness, or rather an unconsciousness that learning is pointless, not cool, for white people; that to be smart & literate is to surrender one’s blackness, the proudest possession that they own.

This kind of presumed self-defeat is social death, as I will discuss. It begins with the premise that the positions in the American social polity that determine how things will be, what buildings will be built, whether wars will be fought, how much food & energy will cost, what jobs will be available - the positions of power, are designated white. & there is plenty of evidence to support this belief. There are exceptions, but until African-American & Latino participation in the executive class is unexceptional the youth can at least argue their point.. But when this degree of nihilism sinks down so deep that large sectors of American teenagers believe that they will lose their soul by studying, the issue becomes existential. Mark Sims’ statement implies that they have “excused” themselves from the effort of the broader social participation that is advancement because they think themselves born locked out. It rings disingenuous when we say to them, “you can be anything you want to be, even President”. That the grandest job in America is one that they could not apply for even in their dreams is the billboard symbol of their subordination.

To the Existentialist, such individuals live in a state of alienation: they Exist, but they cannot Be. Jean Paul Sartre wrote that self-negation is an absurd form of freedom. In this way Sims’ self-excused ghetto kids are not so very different from large numbers of inert people of all races & classes who do not examine their lives & therefore do not act to become realized.

Amiri Baraka recently compared 21st century America with the Weimar Republic, that boiling cauldron of social, intellectual, political, & artistic experimentation that was Germany in the decade & a half between the Revolution (actually, it was a half revolution) of 1918 & the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Baraka’s point was that division on the left allowed a right wing minority party to assume power in those depression years, & that the same could occur in the U. S. in this depressed time. True. In this brief essay I will write of the implications for this political year of a philosopher that Weimar produced, perhaps the most influential thinker of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, who extended the Existentialist theories of the Dane Soren Kierkegaard, & other Existentialists.. (Note that I do not pretend to be a philosopher so I will not be offended if someone more competent takes the discussion further or refutes my applications).

From our inner city young, from most of us, really, I hear echoes of Heidegger’s argument that the fundamental material of existence is not selected or sorted by the individual, so the structure of existence escapes the consciousness of the individual self. In other words, we accept without question the stuff of life that makes us what we are. We begin with an “inauthentic” conception of ourselves as our sense of self is not gained by reflection, by looking deeply into ourselves to determine who & what we are. We assume that we are like everybody else. Therefore, if everybody around you is doing everything they can to avoid being seen as a nerd, you are likely to do the same. “Angst” for Heidegger occurs when we become aware of our own inauthenticity. Angst directs us to ourselves. We need a magic mirror to tell us no, you are deeper than that. You’ve got to break this assumed image. Only then can we begin to become.

For Heidegger, the made world of modern capitalist industrialism removed man (& he meant man) & his work from nature &, therefore, from himself. Its concomitant mass communication, its standard products with all the sameness that they offer, put us into the assembly line existence of conformity, which can be devastating for those whose lives are directed by the opinions of their peers, viz. “these ghetto kids”. Technological mass communication, the “they” of Heidegger, demands awareness to overcome. “Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by…struggle becomes just something to be manipulated… This…averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency…which we call the ’leveling down’ of all possibilities of Being.” In this context Sartre’s dictum that “we choose ourselves” is less forgiving.

Reason, says Heidegger, is too weak a weapon against this state. It takes understanding to become authentic, to Be, & understanding is more akin to revelation than to logical conclusion. We can approach understanding through the integration of the self into nature, a prospect that is denied us in this artificial world, or through “action in time.” This relationship of action & Being is the aspect of Existentialism that gives it relevance to us in 2008. I think that it is true that the effect of passive inertia is more than a lost election or a failed career, it leaves us in an unfulfilled state of existence, it stunts the self. For Existentialist thinkers from the antimodernist Heidegger to the progressive Frenchmen Jean Paul Sartre & Albert Camus, one can only attain the transcendence of existence by knowing the world & acting on it. There is no raw human essence that forms a skeleton for human life that can be separated from the goals & actions that comprise our existence by adding a practical layer to our individuality. We are what we do; action liberates the self. The corny but effective “yes we can” of the Baraka campaign applies here.

Furthermore, the self neither Exists nor transcends to the state of Being in solitude. Eric D. Weitz in Weimar Germany, Promise & Tragedy, wrote, “Heidegger links Dasein [Being] to the community so that the organic racial & national community becomes the individual writ large: through an authentic community Being is writ large”. Further, “there is no completely abstracted “I’ in Heidegger’s philosophy.” Wrote Heidegger: “Dasein in itself is essentially Being-with.” But without reflection & Understanding the mass can crush the individual. Sartre, who disagreed with Heidegger’s belief that authenticity is not an ethical issue, extended & improved Heidegger’s community ideal by arguing that authenticity can only be attained within a community that values mutual respect.

Perhaps this denial of the relevance of ethics represents a contrary in Heidegger’s thought, for his life leaves us with a flaming flag of caution about this aspect of his thinking. There is an incipient nationalism in his conception of national & racial Being that the right of Weimar Germany found to be delicious. Nationalism, a world view that African-Americans know well, is a politically & socially adolescent orientation: good for national esteem but insufficiently analytical to build a modern state. Xenophobia follows naturally from nationalism, & a Xenophobic state is a danger to the world, as we can see so readily in our times, & which Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, & Franco’s Spain made clear in Heidegger’s. Nationalism is inherently incomplete as ideology; unless it matures into broader, more humanistic theory, it can corrupt into fascism. While his work was read by literate Germans of all political orientations, Heidegger, like Oswald Spengler, the Weimar author who wrote The Decline Of The West (as popular in the ‘30s & ‘40s as it is irrational) contributed, wittingly or not, to the intellectual foundation of Nazism by arguing so fiercely against the modern world with all its liberalism, & by calling for a specifically German national soul as an antidote. Heidegger’s writings did not call for Nazism, but they did enable it.

Heidegger became a Nazi after Hitler’s ascension. Whether this was because of opportunism or ideological attraction does not matter; he behaved as a Nazi by expelling Jewish students from the University of Freiburg, which the Nazis made him President of, & he fired the Jewish Phenomenologist philosopher Edmond Husserl, who had been his mentor, & to whom he had dedicated the early editions of Being & Time. Still, this should not deter anyone from reading Heidegger; his thought heavily influenced such as the philosopher Ernst Bloch, a Marxist, Hannah Arendt & Hans Jonas, both Jewish progressives, &, of course, the mighty Jean Paul Sartre, the most powerful left intellectual of the mid-late 20th century.

This cycles us back to Baraka’s analogy of Weimar Germany, the U. S. in 2008, & the danger of the political right. It is not a perfect simile of course; we do not have armed groups of left & (in greater & more vicious numbers) right activists slaughtering each other in the streets, or hostile armies occupying our territory until we comply with a hated peace treaty, but many of the conditions of Weimar do attain today: massive governmental indebtedness, intractable economic problems as manifest in failing banking and manufacturing sectors, deflated currency, an eroding employment base, a cynical & jingoistic right that is not above playing the working class races against each other, increasing antipathy to immigrants, the kind of hunger for meaning that caused Heidegger’s Being & Time to be written – all this we share with Weimar Germany. If the Republicans had not created this mess, if they could blame liberals for it, the survival o f the American left, such as it is, would be in question. As it is, we stand to blow a rare opportunity if we do not build a strong & enduring coalition that extends into the bottom of our economic & social strata.

This 2008 election promises the broadest public participation of my adulthood. I do not know what the opportunities are on the right, but the Obama campaign is remarkably open. You actually can walk into an Obama office & get an assignment. Because of the democracy of the internet & the fact that, & this is difficult for an old fart like me to understand or even admit, the virtual world is demonstrating such a capacity for activism that it now possesses body in the real world. Someone smarter than I about the sociology of reticulation can correct me on this, but it seems that the meaning that the internet generation has been decrying the lack of is being somewhat reified in the Obama campaign.

As for the inner city youth who got me into all of this lucubration, I have no way of knowing the degree to which Barack Obama has illuminated this existential light, the Angst of understanding, for them. Of course they are alienated; when was the last time that a Presidential election really suggested tangible hope to their class? Certainly not Kennedy in 1960. Maybe Roosevelt in 1932? Lincoln in 1860? I can only imagine that more than a few will look at Obama’s inauguration, if it occurs, & say to themselves, “that could be me.” Or at least, “maybe it is cool to be smart.” Then the questions might be asked: whether submitting to the standards of their peers is best, whether they might be able to act in time, whether they can Be. Kierkegaard wrote that, “It is impossible to Exist without passion.” By this he meant that we only perceive our identity by becoming involved in situations that arouse passion. Obama can offer them passion, can offer it to all of us who consider ourselves progressive.

… .

There is a lot being said today about how the Obama campaign, with or without victory, exemplifies how the U. S. has matured into a post-racial society. This is a pleasant conception that the candidate himself has come close to suggesting. It suggests that America has taken half the time to clear its head of structural & pathological racism than it took to get rid of slavery.

I can understand how many Americans of all races & political orientations would be anxious to believe this. It would relieve us all of the burden of motive as it applies to the situation of ethnic minorities, particularly poor people of color, as individuals (the kid you saw on the news being beaten into jelly by the police) or as a subclass (the preponderance of African-Americans & Latinos who lost their homes because of predatory lending). If America has grown out of racism, the teenager in the video either brought it on himself or was the unfortunate victim of a couple of cops who didn’t get the post-racial America email &, anyway, wasn’t one of the baton swinging cops black? As for the mortgagees who saw their furniture deposited on the street by the sheriff, that was economics, not race; they weren’t picked out by vampyric lenders; the burden is on the borrowers to assume no more debt than they can afford to pay. That’s the American way.

But tell me the truth: what goes through your mind when you see four or five black teenaged boys walking toward you with their belts strapped below their asses? How lucid do you imagine that the explanation of the risks of variable mortgage rates in this economy was to the Latina mother who thought that she was, finally, moving her family into a nice home? No, not even an Obama victory will bleach race from the subconscious responses of most Americans, nor will it alleviate the fierce anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in many parts of the country, nor will it dissolve the invisible Berlin wall that surrounds our inner city communities or the overt prejudice that my Muslim friends tell me they experience almost daily.

An Obama victory, as meaningful as it would be, would not make America post-racial any more than Virginia became post-racial when Douglass Wilder was elected Governor, or Cleveland when Carl Stokes was elected Mayor. I do not mean to suggest that there has been no racial progress in America as many of my friends insist. I grew up in the ante-Brown v. Topeka Board South which was proto-fascist & not ashamed of it; where racism was proudly enforced by law, advertised by signs wherever one might not be sure of what to do, taught as good manners to children, black & white, & where white murder of African-Americans for violating racial taboos was tacitly legal. This ain’t that, but it is real enough.

Make no mistake: race will be a determining factor if Obama loses to this demonstrably inferior opponent. I spoke recently with a young woman who canvassed for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. She told me that she actually spent half of her time defending Obama because the racism that she encountered was so outrageous. The political scientist David Leege of Notre Dame has written that from 17 to 19 percent of white Democrats will not vote for Obama because of his race. Then on the flip side there’s the fact that greater numbers than ever before of African-Americans will show up for Obama because he is black, though it is true that most of those would have turned out for Hillary too. So win or lose, race is in it.

As I’ve written above, I hope that an Obama victory will have great meaning for all Americans, particularly those in our inner cities. But the group for which it would signify the most is the African-American middle class. Obama reminds me of my daughters, my nieces & nephews: educated at elite schools, about 2/3rds deracinated, comfortable with & unthreatening to white people. He does things, like my children, that my generation could not have dreamed of doing: my son writes screen plays for a living; my older daughter plays classical oboe in a successful contemporary wind quintet; my younger daughter is a minister in a predominantly white denomination, though the United Church of Christ has long had black ministers. I look at Obama & think, “I raised you for this” (I know, his mother is white & his father was gone. But still…)

What Obama represents is that the catalog of career choices that is available to the black middle class is much broader after Brown v. Board & the great civil rights movement. The Movement accomplished very little for the poor; voting rights in the South comes to mind, but even that is often compromised & severely discouraged as in Florida & Ohio in 2000. Obama highlights the class nature of modern racism. Not that bigots don’t often fail to distinguish between the classes of color, but the suppression of the urban poor, still the majority of us in many places, is the primary mode of racism in contemporary America, & this society will not become post-racial until they are free.


Note to the reader: This is my second posting, so I’m new to this blog thing. I’m told that blog readers expect new material from writers almost daily, at least weekly. But I’m going to try to write essays that I have put a fair amount of thought & research into, & I can’t produce those every day or every week. I’m going for every two weeks, though sometimes it might take longer. If you have enjoyed these first two, please be patient with me & don’t give up if you check back in a few days & don’t find anything new.

A. B. Spellman