The 44th Month
IN SIXTEEN DAYS, Barack Hussein Obama moves into the White House as the 44th president of the United States. The reference by full name, a custom most newspapers adopt in declaring the presidential election winner, is made to give the occasion gravitas, overbearing though it may be. But in the case of Obama—replacing as he does a president who epitomized privileged whiteness and whose administration has staged two invasions ostensibly to capture an Osama and topple a Hussein while simultaneously harassing thousands of Americans who share with the current president elect a foreign-sounding name suggestive of Africa or the Middle East—those three words, when followed by “44th president of the United States,” are astonishing, even invigorating.
Obama has proven to be, as Colin Powell called him, a “transformational figure” and he will likely continue to be perceived that way as president. But it will almost certainly not be in the progressive ways that his fan base anticipates. In this sense, his Cabinet selections were no surprise. The grassroots enthusiasm that he inspires is not primarily due to his policies, which under all the oratory are centrist Democrat, but to his eloquence, youthfulness, charisma, thoughtfulness, poise, intelligence and, yes, his skin color, which gives a resonant strength and legitimacy to his talk of change by situating him within the tradition of great black civil rights leaders despite his abstention from all so-called divisive race rhetoric.
The election of Obama is no doubt a victory over racism. In a country where the living can still remember strange fruit swinging in the southern breeze and see the ghosts of slavery ships on the horizon, there is more than just hullabaloo to the fact that a black family is moving in to the White House. But when the self-congratulation on how we have once again proven to be a bellwether of democracy and tolerance has at last come to an end, the real issue comes down to whether our politicians are judged not by the color of their skin, nor even by the content of their character, but by the substance of their policies.
It may be refreshing to have a president who does not privilege gut feelings over intelligence, but in the end what matters is how that intelligence is applied. It’s the actions—the policies—that count. Not that how one is perceived is insignificant. What makes Obama transformational is precisely that he is viewed around the world as an exception to politics as usual. Having said that, when you consider the kind of policies that have been consistently applied in a bipartisan manner—whether they involve bombing campaigns or sanctions on food and medicine—a diplomatic velvet glove over an iron policy doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, at least not to the victims.
Election campaigns have always been highly staged PR affairs—even more so since the advent of television—in which candidates play out scripts given to them by the production and directorial staff known as campaign managers, speechwriters, etc. Some of the candidates do participate in the scriptwriting, especially if they have a knack for it, and some of them take liberties and improvise their assigned roles, but on the whole they remain faithful to the script. It is no surprise that Hollywood, as Schwarzenegger and Reagan have demonstrated, can be as valuable a means into higher political office as Harvard Law or Yale Business.
The Obama campaign stood out because the groundswell of excitement overcame the staged feel of the election and gave his candidacy an aura of historical inevitability. The infectious nature of this excitement also gave the sense that this truly was the people’s candidate, which seemed to be corroborated by the euphoric celebrations that erupted the moment the polls closed on the West Coast and the media could finally announce what had been obvious for hours.
But while a grassroots movement may have helped bring Obama to power, that does not liken it, as is often claimed, to the “people power” movements of the sixties. Those movements relied upon a recognition that change comes from the bottom up; their efforts, as a result, depended upon marches and were directed against power. The Obama movement, on the other hand, was organized around a single principle: to elect Obama, who would then transform America into a global force for peace, prosperity and inclusiveness. Yes We Can really was just a euphemism for Yes You Can.
This might explain why, at least in my encounters, the most fanatical supporters of Obama are not, as is often claimed, twentysomethings (who while voting Obama are more pragmatic in their expectations) but rather the baby boomers who are now educated, liberal, well-off and nostalgic of those heady, albeit naïve, years. Obama allows a kind of return to the sixties in respectable form: you still have all of the enthusiasm and gooey sloganeering but instead of angry young idealists you have poised young pragmatists, instead of marches and demands you have the diplomacy of accommodation, instead of the class-conscious scenario of the poor versus the rich, you have the more soothing view of government by/for/of the people, instead of nudity you have suits and ties (alas, you can’t have everything). In short, it’s change you can believe in from the comfort of your living room.
This is no malign attempt to spoil the party. In fact, if the party is to go on, the messianic view of Obama must be rejected as dangerous and anti-democratic, unless of course one prefers government based on hero worship. The change that the Obama crew desires will only take place if they now jump ship. They must turn against their idol and begin making demands, not on behalf of him, but of him. It will not be easy for they have so lionized him that to them his victory refutes John Dewey’s description of government as “the shadow cast on society by big business” and H.L. Mencken’s assertion that “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” But if they do not bring pressure upon his administration, you can be sure that his victory will once again be for the investor class that supported him.
Obama enthusiasts need not feel discouraged about turning their activism upon him. In fact, they should take comfort in knowing that the Obama they believe in would want them to do precisely that, even though he can’t openly say it. Only a surge of marches, petitions, protests outside the White House, and the like will give him the justification (namely the need to avert a domestic crisis) to implement policies unacceptable to those financiers and oilmen who backed him because they were confident that their interests were safe in his hands. Perhaps this is what he alluded to in his acceptance speech when he said that change “cannot happen without you.” If Obama is the moral man of the people that his supporters believe him to be, then he will only be grateful for the domestic turbulence; if he isn’t that man, they lose only a comforting and dangerous illusion.
Since there is a change of administration, a new era, as we are told, and since I have called for a change of stance, I thought this would be the right time for an expansion of Fourth Night. In my first entry, which I posted 43 months ago, I pledged to write an essay on the fourth of every month. The fourth may have occasionally been postponed to the fifth or even the fourteenth, but at least all of the entries, excepting one piece of satirical fiction, were essays (assuming photo essays are fair game) or at least were essayish.
As of next month, the 44th month since the founding of Fourth Night, the writing will continue to be (allegedly) posted on the fourth but the website is going to molt into a new skin. The transformation may not all come in one month, or even one season, but I promise, my fellow readers, change is coming to Fourth Night. What began forty-three months ago in the swelter of summer must not end on this winter night. And I will need you for the task ahead, for this new era of Fourth Night. Should you be dissatisfied with the change, or with the lack thereof, then you should protest, march, revolt, or at the very least, post a comment. But if it is change you can believe in, then I will ask you when the time comes to join in the work of remaking this website through grassroots campaigning, through knocking on strangers’ doors, at the very least through forwarding the website to your email contacts. I will need your help, because as you will soon see, the change that is coming cannot happen without you.
- The Year of the Protester (Tahrir)
- Alexandrian Uprising
- The Cult of the President — Part 1: Shanghai
- The Bloodthirsty and the Barbarous