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Works and Days

A Postmodern Presidency

April 4th, 2010 - 2:24 pm

Mean Speech for Thee, But not for Me

Look at supposed hate speech.  An empiricist would ignore Obama’s recent warnings about the new wave of right-wing tough talk from Limbaugh and Beck, and determine instead whether the president remembers the novel Checkpoint, or the award-winning film about killing George Bush, or the venom of a Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann.

That is, a traditional inquirer would weigh the furor of the right against left, in ascertaining whether hate speech is at all partisan or simply politics of all stripes. And he would remind the president that it was Barack Obama himself who asked of his supporters to “get in their face”and bragged “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” and who used graphic examples in damning his opponents (cf. the taunt to Hannity (“he’ll tear him up”).

But you see, all this is not so. The postmodernist constructs a different reality. A person of color who is striving to level the playing field against oppressive interests speaks the “truth” to power. Of course, from time to time he draws on emotive language to drive home his points — quite unlike the cool, detached, and deliberate attack narratives of those seeking to protect corporate or entrenched interests.

When Obama attacks Beck, or Hannity, or calls for someone to bring a gun to a fight, or has Rahm Emanuel curse a fence-sitting representative, these protocols seem extreme only to those whose economic interests are threatened. Poor children in Detroit or in the barrios of El Paso don’t get the opportunity for tit-for-tat score-keeping, as if millionaires “think” they are entitled to the same “fair” treatment as their victims. When Limbaugh rails, it is to protect his Gulfstream 550; when Obama “distorts,” it is the expediency needed to wring from the wealthy salvation for the voiceless.

Racialism — no such thing!

Race is the same. A person of color can hardly, given the history of oppression accorded to non-whites, himself be guilty of dividing people by race.

So if Obama says “typical white person,” or entitles his book from the sloganeering of a racist preacher he courted for 20 years, or stereotypes rural Pennsylvanians, or dubs police as acting “stupidly” in matters of supposed racial confrontation, or has an attorney general who damns the country as “cowards” on race, or appoints a Supreme Court judge who thinks a “wise Latina” by virtue of race and gender has superior wisdom, or recruits a Van Jones who characterizes everyone from polluters to mass murderers by race (I could go on), well, all this is not at all racial stereotyping with an intent to deprecate.

Why? Because constructs of language, expression, and reality hinge on status and class. Obama is seeking to dethrone traditional nexuses of power. So when he, from time to time, muses on real racial inequality, reactionaries retreat to “objective” “standards” of reciprocity to thwart his proposed changes.

Take-overs — what Take-overs?

And those “take-overs”? Take-over from what to what?

An outraged managerial and capital laden class feigns victimhood when working folks at last have a say in how the nation’s profits are derived and enjoyed, originating from their own labor in banking, insurance, and auto production. All these retreats to “private” income, “my property,” “liberty,” “The Founders,” and the “Constitution” simply can be deconstructed to “don’t dismantle a system that is weighted in my favor!”

No wonder “they” construct all sort of scary “narratives” about the Postal Service, Amtrak, Social Security, Medicare, and other shared collective enterprises that are branded “insolvent” and “unsustainable,” despite serving the people — the economic gobbledygook talk from those who really mean they are not willing to transfer their own unfairly obtained capital to more deserving working folks through legitimate “redistributive change.”

The Voices of the Oppressed

Finally, examine foreign policy. Now many of us are upset that we court enemies and shun friends, and seem to be reaching out to the most authoritarian regimes imaginable, whether Putin’s Russia, or Iran, or Venezuela. Well, once again, that is only because you construct reality on the norms predicated upon your own comfortable globalized privilege — that, in fact, as Obama thankfully grasps, is a result of thousands of daily oppressions, both here and abroad, of which you are not even aware.

Consider the trumped-up crisis with Iran. We hold Ahmadinejad to our artificially constructed standards of “civil” discourse and “fair” play — forgetting (but not Obama) the 1953 Western-inspired coup, the profit-mongering of the global oil companies, and the neo-imperialist role of the United States in the Gulf. We hide all that with constructs like “the mullahs,” the “theocrats,” “Islamofascism” and other demonization rooted in class, gender, race, and religion.

If Iran had been behind a past U.S. coup, if Iranian warships were off the coast of California, if an Iranian coal company were buying and selling our national energy production, then we too might sound somewhat unhinged as we sought to employ language to offset our oppressor’s ill-gotten material advantages.

In an American constructed world order, we artificially adjudicate Iran a rogue would-be nuclear menace for wishing five or six small nuclear weapons to protect its vulnerable borders (American troops now abut them); we have thousands of such devices, and have used them, and yet are deemed “responsible” and “peaceful,” we of all people, who, as the president once reminded us, have alone used them on real people.

So what Obama has done is “contextualized” the world, and “located,” as it were, the seemingly hostile anti-American rhetoric of “enemies” into a proper race/class/gender narrative.

And what he has found is that nationalism and the construct of the state have fooled us into thinking that there are “allies” and “enemies,” when, in fact, these are mere labels used by the privileged to “exaggerate” “difference” that only enhances Western entrenched economic, racial, cultural and political hegemonies.

Once, thanks to Obama, we “unpack” that “reality,” then we can see that most Americans have much in common with Venezuelans, Russians, Iranians, Syrians and others who likewise struggle against the same enemies that brought us the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and now oppose health care reform, cap and trade, amnesty, and the take over of the automobile, banking, and insurance industries.

So a postmodernist looks at the Falklands and does not rely on archaic notions of “sovereignty” or a “history” of a prior war. Instead, one sees a postcolonial power once more claiming “ownership” of a far distant island, proximate to a Latin American people, with long experience with European and American economic and political exploitation. Presto — we are now “neutral,” which means we don’t see anything intrinsically convincing in Britain’s claims to the Falklands.

Note Israel. What are we to make of the Netanyahu humiliating smack down, the seeming indifference over the Iranian nuclear program, the nominations and appointments on the Middle East front of a Freeman or Power, the reach out to Syria and Iran, the interview with al Arabiya and the Cairo speech, the bow to a Saudi royal, the ritual trashing of George Bush juxtaposed to the praise of a Saudi king, the strange past outbursts of Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski about hypothetically shooting down Israeli planes on their way to Iran, the ranting about Jews from the former spiritual advisor Wright, etc.

In short, the answer is that Israel is a construct of Western privilege — its democratic, capitalist, and Western customs hinge on the oppression of a vast “other” that is far more egalitarian, socialist, and antithetical to Western consumer-capitalism with all of its pathologies of race, class, and gender exploitation.

In that context, in archaic fashion, we struggle to damn any effort to end such hegemony and empower the voices of the oppressed. We are not, in fact, “allied” to Israel, but properly speaking instead should be to the underprivileged in the Gaza slums, to those without health care on the West Bank, and, yes, to the progressive Israelis of noble spirit who are trying to battle the reactionary Likudniks and instead do something about the tentacles of their own discriminatory state, whose capital is derived from exploited labor and resources of a silenced other.

Standards of What?

I could go on, but you get the picture of our first postmodern presidency. For 14 months we have tried to use abstract benchmarks like “did Obama contradict himself?,” “did Obama break another promise?,” “did Obama really think borrowing another $2 trillion won’t help to bankrupt us?,” “did Obama indeed think another entitlement ‘saves’ money?,” “did Obama snub another ally and court another enemy?,” “did Obama apologize again?” — when, in fact, such linear thinking, such artificially constructed “norms,” such “facts” are nothing of the sort at all. To Obama, our first postmodern president, such facts and truth are mere signatures of privilege, and so he is offering us another — a postmodern — way of looking at the world.

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