Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who’s Smarter?

By Stefano Harney

What is a symbolic victory? What would it mean to say Barack Obama has scored a symbolic victory?

If Barack Obama wins the election for President of the United States of America I will be happy for my nephews, for my nieces, and for my god-daughters. They will finally see someone who looks like them in the White House, in something other than a
Hollywood disaster film. I will be happy for my mentor Professor Martin L. Kilson who spent his life in the struggle, and for all those like him who probably did not expect to live to see the day. It will be a symbolic victory.

But something will bother me about the term symbolic victory, a term that in common usage seems to signal something less than a real victory. I am not bothered by connotations of the term in one sense. When Barack Obama ran against
Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther and community activist, for a Congressional seat in Chicago, Obama said there was not much between him and Bobby Rush politically. The people of the district did not believe that, and they voted heavily against him. Bobby Rush still does not believe that, and he recently gave a poignant speech, after his bout with cancer, pleading with Obama to embrace the cause of national health care. Obama probably did not believe it either. In truth, there is not much between Obama and the Clintons, or John Kerry, or Al Gore politically. In fact, you would have to go back to Richard Nixon of all people to find any light between Obama and another President or Presidential nominee, and with Nixon, that light is to Obama’s Left!

So if a symbolic victory means that there will not be a change in the political direction of the country, just a change in image, this phrase doesn’t bother me. Don’t forget, Bill Clinton finished the Reagan-Bush agenda,
ended welfare, bombed Iraq and Sudan, and destroyed numerous civil liberties. And he never delivered on his promise of national health care. We can expect the Obama administration to finish much of the Bush agenda. There will be no national health care, no national child care, and no guaranteed annual income. The war on terror will continue. NATO will continue to expand. Free trade will continue without free movement.

This phrase symbolic victory bothers me nonetheless because I think it is also about the degradation of something important, of the visual, of feeling, and of sound, at the hands of policy, rational choices, and sound judgements. And with this degradation there is a message about regulation. Think about the two narratives that run below this election. The first is that everyone ought to move past image to policy. In this narrative both Obama and Hillary Clinton have symbolic value but what is really important is that they are smarter than George Bush. So the point of race or gender is to prove that you can see past it in order to see who is really in command of policy. This is connected to the feeling of embarrassment among some parts of the educated classes in the United States that George Bush was not smart enough to represent them globally.

The second narrative is about those who cannot see past the symbolic. Now this narrative is usually directed at white folks in West Virginia. But it is also directed at supporters of Obama who are said to be enthralled by his image, regardless of his qualifications. Here too there is a source of embarrassment for parts of the educated classes in the United States, but the divisions of race show up in this embarrassment with white people being embarrassed about other white people and black people being embarrassed about other black people. If only people would see past race or gender to focus on policy, and on who is smarter. In this logic of the embarrassed, Obama deserves white folks vote because he is very smart, but he also deserves black folks vote for the same reason, not because he is black. Getting past the symbolic is about a kind of national maturity, a giving over to the rationalities of regulation. And it is also about who should run things, the smart ones.

But how dumb is it to realize nothing changes in United States Presidential elections but the symbols? And conversely how smart is it to become a policy wonk in a country where nothing changes? Whose smarter here, the embarrassed or the embarrassing?

More importantly who has a hold of the materialism of the symbolic here, of its real effects in the world? Who can grasp it in its own right? Those who ask us to get past it and focus on policy, on who is smarter, and who is less embarrassing? Or those who feel a power in the symbolic, those who know that the problem with Obama is not that he has called for change, but that he has linked this to policy, to being smarter? If only Obama’s leadership were actually inspirational, like Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s leadership, but it is tied to policy, which is to say finally it is tied to reminding people about who is smart and who is dumb, who will make policy, and who will be policed. It is tied to regulation by the smart ones.

On the other hand, a leadership that served as a way to make legible all the self-organising, all the resistances, all the flights of the embarrassing would be a truly symbolic leadership, and it is the kind of leadership the embarrassing keep hoping for. And they hope for in Obama, or even, because of their racism in some cases, they hoped for it in Hillary Clinton. But instead comes the injunction: recognize my right to regulate you!

Hope is something to feel. In these matters a symbolic victory is one I can only hope for.

Biog: Stefano Harney teaches at Queen Mary, University of London.

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