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Transcendental vs. Old-School Politics

Barack Obama’s speech on race, whose honesty and nuance are all too rare in American politics, deserves to be read or watched in full. For the first time, I’m persuaded that Obama is a unique politician. He may be opportunistic like the rest, but his horizons are broader. He doesn’t accept the rules as written. He educates, broadens the debate.

We could quibble and say that Obama delivered this speech because he had to, after being forced into a corner by controversy over the words of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But what matters to me is that he seized the moment, transforming a corrosive political dispute into a teaching opportunity about what divides us in America.

Far from sugar-coating our differences as politicians tend to do, he proclaimed that black anger and white anger are both real, and have a legitimate source. Both blacks and whites have seen their dreams evaporate over the past generation. Powerful interests stir that anger, dividing us against each other, when in fact our problems are much the same. America is turning into a nation where the privileges of a few take priority over the common good. Rather than being divided by race, we should unite to overcome this crisis which is hurting everyone.

This is a fairly radical idea in American politics, and I’m not suprised that most commentators have passed over it in silence. Here is the core of Obama’s argument. Judge for yourself.

    A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family… all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us. … For all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it—those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. …. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. …
    In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … As far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away…. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments… have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. …
    Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. … This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. …
    We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. … If we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. …
    Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools…. This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care…. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

Here’s the tone-deaf response by Nixon speechwriter, anti-immigrant crusader, and right-wing dinosaur Patrick Buchanan. It’s such a perfect example of white paternalism that it parodies itself. I remember hearing this sort of talk growing up, but I thought it was gone.

    First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships… reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known. …
    Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s… to bring the African-American community into the mainstream. …
    We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

What’s ironic is that Buchanan’s constituency of working-class whites, many of them second- or third-generation immigrants, are the very people Obama is trying to enlist in a common cause. Whether Obama becomes president, and America takes a step away from its legacy of division, depends in large part on whether disillusioned whites are able to hear Obama’s words, or whether they respond only to Buchanan’s us-versus-them rhetoric of the past.


Comment from Bill Vroom
Time: March 22, 2008, 18:20

Obama will fix your computer – and more! Check out

Comment from eatbees
Time: March 22, 2008, 19:41

@Bill — Somehow I don’t think you’re taking this change thing very seriously….

Comment from Mounir
Time: March 24, 2008, 12:11

Excuse the long comment, but here is an article that I published in a Moroccan newspaper:

The American Elections and Us

In 2001, I wrote an open letter with Professor Mehdi Elahrizi titled “The United States Cannot Change Our Situation” that was published on the Manara website ( where we examined the delicate relationship between the American elections and the reality we are living in the Arab-Muslim world. In this article, which came four months after the human tragedy in New York due to the September 11, 2001 attacks, we tackled our real relationship with the United States both before and after that event.

The American political reality is based on the self-interested competition of pressure groups and lobbies, and American history has legitimized their existence, considering them as one of the bases of the federal system. Before September 11, 2001, Arabs and Muslims were a minority without great influence in America. Advocacy groups for our immigrants were just being established, and had limited influence compared to other lobbies such as the Israeli lobby, the military-industrial lobby, or powerful interest groups that control the political and media apparatus.

The terrorist attacks took the lives of thousands of American civilians, and so reinforced the negative image of Muslims and Arabs. It provided an excuse for implementing predetermined programs under the pretext of protecting and securing the Americans, such as invading Iraq, colonializing Afghanistan, and degrading the Palestinians. We asked ourselves naively why we were powerless to influence the foreign policies of the United States, posing many questions such as, “Why don’t our oil and our dollars have a positive influence on our interests? Why can’t our immigrants find a distinguished place in political life? Why aren’t we able to influence American politics from within (or frankly, from the outside either)?”

We tried to answer these questions, and others, based on historical observations and social and political data. Then we chose to divide these responses into two categories, the American internal dimension and the Arab-Muslim internal dimension.

The American Internal Dimension

The New World is made up of vast waves of immigration, especially from England and Ireland. Those for whom life became intolerable because they were living in harsh conditions left in search of a vast new world full of resources and with plenty of land, and in this way, from the 18th century on, the United States became the preferred destination for those in search for prosperity. On the other hand, Arab immigration to the United States began only at the beginning of the 20th century, with groups of intellecuals, especially Lebanese and Palestinian, followed by groups of Arab immigrants, scholars and scientific researchers. As opposed to our immigrants to Europe during the last century, who were mostly laborers with a limited education, and who participated in the construction of Europe after the two World Wars, the immigrants to the United States were intellectuals and elites who left to gain knowlege, or participate in universities and businesses, or who were fleeing the limited possibilities of creative expression in our native lands.

Due to the immensity of the United States, the small number of immigrants, and even more so for sociological reasons (many immigrants consider their existence in United States to be temporary, with a limited objective) our immigrants didn’t organize themselves into associations until recently (for example the Arab American Institute, the Moroccan American Center for Policy). They weren’t able to find a foothold that allowed them to influence, in some form or another, the new world or the stereotypical image that the media were spreading about them and their nations of origin. On this level, despite all the sculptures in Washington of historic figures (there are around 5000 statues in the city, everywhere at intersections, in scientific and cultural organizations, and in universities and institutes) there is only one of an Arab, Khalil Gibran. The groups that advocate for our immigrants have many problems, among them weak roots:

1) Most of these organizations are new, as well as their influence and their roots in society, and their ability to convince others remains limited, if not weak.

2) Weak representation: These organizations suffer from weak membership and limited participation of immigrants in their intiatives, either through a lack of understanding of their importance, or through exporting the systematic conflicts of their native lands.

3) Lack of support from their native lands.

This last point leads us to dicuss the second dimension of our analysis, namely the Arab-Islamic dimension in its internal progression in relation to America and its political actions.

The Arab Internal Dimension

Despite their age, our relations with America are mired in contradiction: America is our ally and our political rival. In the popular imagination, it is the paradise our young people hope for, and at the same time an enemy gifted in devastating the Palestinians and the Iraqis. Each time our countries need support, they don’t give our immigrant organizations their proper value, they address themselves only to more effective pressure groups. Despite the strong criticisms we can hear from people about America, we find ourselves behind long waiting lines to have a visa or green card.

The era of enthusiasm and demagogic speeches is already over. The style of our thinking is different from what is known in America. The whole world is changing, even the nations we take as a model (such as England, France, Italy…) who were persuaded to adopt strategies internationally and inside America to guarantee themselves a place among the influential nations. Even as we think of the American elections as just a media spectacle, we cry over our bad luck as usual, and arm ourselves with the theory of a conspiracy in the politics of that nation.

We invest ourselves in lost causes, and we also waste a lot of energy in pointless systematic conflicts rather than reinforcing our postion in America. And perhaps the lack of democracy has a large influence on our delicate relationship with the United States. We have leaders who have wasted lots of money and closed their eyes to its insane politics through fear of being confronted themselves with the question of democracy. Obama, Clinton, McCain… what is the difference if we don’t know them and they know us, precisely in this moment before the elections?

We’ve been saying these same words for seven years, and it’s sure that other people better informed than us have already said them, both before and after us, but it’s our destiny to be a nation that speaks without asking, and a nation that repeats its mistakes without learning.

Mounir Bensalah
Attihad al-Ashtiraki (Socialist Union)
February 5, 2008

Comment from eatbees
Time: March 27, 2008, 18:51

@Mounir — Thanks! For the benefit of my readers, I asked a friend to help me translate the original Arabic into English.

Comment from yunir
Time: March 31, 2008, 12:27

Babel Fish needs to include Arabic to English and English to Arabic :p

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