Obamarama: Making the lessons plain
November 3, 2008
The latest of the downpour of superlatives and adulation about Barack Obama comes from Dennie Quill.. In his most recent column, he laid out what he sees as the lessons that Jamaicans can learn about the election campaign. I am not going to respond to every point he made, but, suffice it to say that his commentary reflects the ways in which the “love affair” is being cultivated here, and not always to our benefit. I focus on the first three points.
1. “there can be tough, rigorous campaigning without political violence.”
True. Except, Dennie misses the point that we do not – and may not ever have – believe in “tough, rigorous campaigning.” For one thing, that would mean that there was actual discernible substance to what any of the candidates were talking about, and we were not being constantly subjected to the saccharine froth of the latest political personalities. No, even with all the manifestos and whatnot from this most recent campaign, it was still really about style and the cult of personality. In my opinion, neither Portia nor Bruce were able to successfully convey any of the substance of their campaign platforms in ways that were meaningful to the population. They spent more time talking to their own party constituents, giving nuff big chat and badmouthing the other candidate, but they never really spoke to Jamaican people as a whole. We went with how we perceived them as being, based on their history and party affiliations. We did not actually evaluate them according to how well or adequately they stood on any issue. We certainly never made it nearly impossible for them to weasel out of explaining the various scandals, votes, etc. We simply didn’t care a lick about their legislative records! Instead, we allowed them to define the issues that mattered, and then to tell us what they thought, when they clearly had not done adequate research to give substantive answers to anything. We also did not ask, nor did we have an opportunity to ask, about issues that were important to many of us.
So, maybe what Jamaicans can learn is about what it means and takes to have well-organized, principled campaigns; why it matters that people pay attention to the histories of the candidates, and what is being said; why it matters to create myriad opportunities to participate in the campaign; why it matters that candidates ought not to be able to tell bald-face lies, make up information,cuss and carry on, and to get away with such behaviour; why it matters that the media convey the core ideas of the candidates in the clearest most intelligible language possible; why it matters that the media be open to identifying and promoting public debate and discussion about the issues.
At this point in time, I really don’t think that we Jamaicans at home really know or understand the level of sophistication of the American political system, and certainly not how and why Barack is such a phenomenon when it comes to organizing this campaign for presidency. Why? For one thing, what is reported in our media is a reflection/hodgepodge of the viewpoints present in mainstream American news. If we were really as supportive and invested, I suspect that we would look beyond CNN, FOX and MSNBC to alternative media sources to find out what and how Americans of all stripes, have gone about building some amazing political alliances to make Obama’s campaign what it is.
Over the past two months, I have come to learn that there is no area of social life – I mean, NONE – that is not touched by political organizing in a season like this one. Many aspects of the Obama’s grassroots campaign have already been tried and found successful by the Republicans and the religious right; what is wonderful and simply astounding to many white liberals and totally heartening to myself, frankly, is that this time, its being done by a progressive candidate! That’s part of the subtext of Obama’s “wow” factor that is pissing off the neocons. Mind you, I already have a sense of the power of the religious right to mobilize its people so I’m not going to call the election for Obama. It’s possible, but believe you me, the things American rightwing folks can do and say to get their people to the polls will just astound you. If there is anything that we take from the mediastorm and the Obama phenomenon in the past few months, it is that what people have to say about this particular candidate can be immediately verified, supported and repudiated, because of how savvy the Obama and McCain campaigns have been about using and disseminating information. Technology has certainly helped, but that’s not the be-all and end-all. The traditional modes – talking to people, editorials in newspapers, listening to radio programs where people talk about why they feel the way they do about a candidate, as well as engage others that they often disagree with – are still important, and are a reflection of the human aspects of campaigns. Its why blatant lies about Obama being a Muslim etc. can spread so far and so fast. But its also why the facts as they exist and are established by the Obama campaign can also take root and work to reject [the implicit racism in] those false claims.
As for we in Jamaica, we have spent at least the last two generations unlearning and demonizing some critical skills for building public consensus from the ground up: the importance of pounding the pavement, connecting with people from every walk of life, listening to them, offering them concrete information, and having a framework that says that the lives of ordinary people matter and can tell us something about what our visions for change should look like.
Everytime I hear our people complaining about the “problem” and “inconvenience” of public protest, I want to cry. Those people want us to turn to our politicians as the problem-solvers, at least when they are at work or not involved in corrupt dealings. The methodology that undergirds how both McCain and Obama have worked is related to rethinking every aspect of politics in public life, and understanding the importance of making their arguments by reaching out to each person who just might be swayed by their positions; even the spectacle of people coming out in numbers to show their support or displeasure on an issue is a way of getting people to be more involved in the democratic process. When you see so many people standing for an issue, you want to know what it is that they are so passionate about, and thus you might stop and listen. Stopping to listen offers a moment for conversion. In order for Obama’s campaign to be even remotely intelligible to us, we need to know, understand and even believe in some basic tenets of democratic participation – working with each other to build consensus on an issue, approach etc. – and we are not even close to being there yet. So, Dennie, that lesson is still a way off from being learned.
2. “in electioneering, money matters”
I am not surprised that Quill would see this as a “lesson”. What is not conveyed in his column are the specific ways in which money has been, and remains, a problem in the campaign system, and what Barack’s position on this is. Instead, Quill glams onto to the raw dollar signs: Barack raised more than McCain; he raised it from likkle people rather than from the big man. Why? Well, Quill offers the explanation that is most convenient for him: “[Barack] did not look to big business because he understands that when payback time comes these donors want their pound of flesh. So donations came from small people, $20 at a time.” This is a classic example of how these media personalities in Jamaica will distort and misrepresent what happens in America in self-serving ways. What Quill says is patently false and misleading.
Obama made a choice about who he wants to pay back his “pound of flesh” to. He has chosen to side with ordinary people, not big business. He could have raised that amount of money, and possibly more, from big business. But to do so would compromise his political agenda and the basic principles that have guided his work. Every $20 from regular folks is a buy-in, a signal that the campaign is being heavily greased and driven by a populist agenda. Every $1 million from a group of regular folks who are working their networks to raise money is a buy-in. He chose to weight these kinds of buy-in over many others.
So, the lesson here is not [simply] that money matters. Its about how one’s principles matter and determine to whom you will pay allegiance, and what you are willing to do to demonstrate that. But since we don’t care too much about principles – don’t look too closely at either Bruce or Portia now – that lesson is probably lost on us for now.
3. “Racism is alive in America”
So what is the lesson exactly? Are Jamaicans going to stop thinking that African Americans are “oversensitive” about racism? Does that mean that Jamaicans, in our profound commitment to ignoring racism in our own midst, will now be more committed to the notion that racism definitely exists over there in America, but thank god, not here in Jamaica? That we elect black people all the time, and nobody ever try to kill them because they are black? So, if Obama wins, then we can all get ready fi get nuff visa fi go a farrin because now the Department of Homeland Security will see the error of their ways and won’t want to keep out all those hardworking black Jamaicans who have always believed that they are better than the American black people, and now that Obama looks like how we think everyone should see us, well then, we should be rewarded for it (just keep dem wutless black people from showing dem face and mekkin’ we look bad). I mean, what does he mean by this is a lesson?
How exactly does using the examples of the threats to kill Obama and the “a black man did it” scare tactics help Jamaicans understand American racism today? The answer is, it doesn’t. All of those drumming up the love affair have totally missed the nuanced critiques of racism that Obama has offered through his policies, as well as the responses of political journalists, bloggers et al. to all the madness that has come Barack’s way. If I may say so, the campaign’s success lies partly in how many campaign “centres” have been created. Activists and supporters are everywhere all at once, and do not waste time in pointing out the problematic arguments as they emerge.
Quill states that “Obama’s bold advocacy, his articulate plans for fixing the economy, his calm manner, intelligence and political savvy appear to be breaking down the colour barrier.” I really don’t think he finished his thought. “Bold advocacy” about what? “Breaking down the colour barrier” where? To understand, and be able to communicate the nature of American racism to Jamaicans, and how it matters in relation to Obama and racism means that Dennie and the rest of our local cheering squad needs to take a break from watching CNN and start doing some reading. Better yet, they might want to engage in real, informed conversations with more than the random Jamaicans that reporters unearth in America to show that Jamaicans here and abroad do and should support Obama. They might bother to read any of the many blogs and alternative news sources that are focused on understanding how, where and why racism is expressed in ways that are far subtler than an Aryan Nation-style execution plan. In fact, if they did so, we might learn than contemporary American racism looks a lot like what we practice here in Jamaica, where we use things like racial pedigree, facility with language, etc. to express our opinions about leadership styles. Furthermore, social scientists (not including Orville Taylor) who study US racism have been pointing to how the most common and meaningful expressions of racist sentiments are not at all like what Dennie chose to highlight in his column. It just seems to me that if we insist on caricaturing the US political landscape in these ways, we cannot even begin to understand the subtext of the policies and debates that we are drawn into. Nor can we make any sense of the experiences of Jamaicans abroad. Too busy looking for nooses, many of us in the land of Lincoln just smile and get giddy when someone tells us how ‘articulate’, ‘well-spoken’ and ‘different’ we are, and what hard workers we are, forgetting that these remarks are part of a broader cultural arsenal that we gladly deploy if it somehow protects us from American racism. And when all else fails, we run back home replete with stories of how racist America is, while perpetrating some of the same practices right here at home. Well, even without the nooses, death threats, etc., there is much else to contend with regarding racism, and Obama’s candidacy as well as likely win will not change those aspects, at home or in the U.S.
That’s it for now. I’m exhausted from writing this post.