Friday, October 31, 2008

Shelby Steele on Saturday Extra

This Saturday 7:30am
Radio National

Geraldine Doogue:
However, I'll be taking that up with one of the acknowledged luminaries in the field, Professor Shelby Steele, a leading African-American intellectual. Noel Pearson wrote a terrific review in The Monthly earlier this year of Steele's provocative book: "A Bound man: Why We're Excited About Barack Obama And Why He Can't Win". Steele's is a dense, fascinating analysis, which defies easy summary. Essentially, he (like Pearson) sees insidious dangers in individuals identifying as constant victims---Afro-Americans and Aboriginal people victimised by white colonial misdeeds---and seems to believe there is no easy, linear route to acceptance. We have been pursuing the very busy Professor Steele for many, many weeks and are absolutely thrilled that he's agreed to be interviewed the Saturday before the Presidential vote. At this stage, I don't know whether he abides by that verdict of his. Steele is a conservative by nature but I will be keen to test whether over the course of this gruelling campaign, which has of course included the financial meltdown, his views have shifted. If anyone has a particular question they'd like posed, please let me know by Friday. All perspectives, especially of those who've lived in the midst of the American melting-pot, most appreciated.
Noel Pearson's article about Steele's analysis of Obama, from May, is now online

update 1st November: If you missed the Radio National program or live overseas then it is available as an mp3 at the Saturday Extra Latest Programs page

I'm still too busy to comment properly on this but Steele's contention that Obama has yet to clearly define himself, either personally or politically, seems correct to me


Bill Kerr said...

hi tom,

I think the issues raised by Pearson and Steele about history, race, challengers, bargainers, "white guilt" etc. are more fundamental than your comment seems to suggest.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill. I assume you know, but Obama won by a healthy margin. A lot of people are ecstatic here (and apparently around the world, based on the press coverage) that we've elected a black president for the first time. I'm happy for them, really. It is a historic moment. I for one have not been in doubt for the last ten years that we could elect a black person president. Some years back there was breathless speculation that Gen. Colin Powell might run as a Republican candidate for president, before George W. Bush ran the first time. People were looking forward to it, but he put those rumors to rest. His wife feared racist attempts on his life if he ran. So bowing to her wishes he didn't run.

We've heard here and there over the course of the campaign that there have been threats on Obama's life. A plot by a couple of neo-Nazis was stopped last week. Security is going to be a real concern for him, just as it will be for Bush for years to come. You can bet there are plenty of jihadists who would love to off him once he leaves office.

I wish I could join in the celebration of Obama's election, but I have serious concerns about his ability to govern, and what he will do while in office. I know there are people who think they know the answer to this, but I think they're being pollyannish. He put forward policy positions, but they were hazy, modified on a moment's notice. He strikes me as an elusive character. You never really know who he is. There is so little to evaluate him on, re: his history because his resume is so thin. I learned in a recent Frontline documentary that this was part of the strategy. Obama was elected to the Senate in 2005. A Democratic senator told him a couple years ago, "Run for president now while you don't have a record. That way you won't have to explain your votes." It worked just as expected, though hardly anyone can remember the last time a president had such a thin record. Biden, Obama's running mate, had to go back to Abraham Lincoln, elected president in 1860, to find an analogy. Of course Lincoln is revered, so that's supposed to make it okay. We'll just have to wait and see.

I told you earlier about that series "The Century of the Self", about the history of PR. I think what we saw here was a full on PR campaign that took the practice to its logical conclusion. Obama created what I can only call a mass delusion that a lot of people bought into, and they voted on emotion, not so much on thought. This hasn't been unusual in the last several presidential campaigns, but I have never seen it like this. People older than me say that the closest analogy to what this was like was when JFK ran for president in 1960, though the excitement and hysteria then didn't match what we've seen with the Obama campaign. That's a good part of what has me worried. I think a lot of people got caught up in the emotion of the campaign and didn't apply any critical thought to their decision. If the situation had been different and the outcome had been the same I could say that the country has merely shifted left of center, kind of a normal ebb and flow of politics. This time I'm not so sure.

BTW, I liked the article. I think the author evaluated Obama pretty accurately.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I'd agree that it's an "historic moment" - the completion of a long struggle against racism from slavery, the american civil war, to the american civil rights movement.

I suppose a number of factors are contributing to the euphoria:

- "the historic moment"
- profound relief from many at the end of Bush
- the need for change as in "change we can believe in"
- triumph for the Democrats and liberalism
- triumph of youth over age
- defeat for the one dimensional, anti scientific view of the Republican Christian evangelical base as represented by Sarah Palin

However, it's very noticeable that the mood has quickly changed from euphoria to reality check with concerns about whether Obama can manage two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a collapsing economy

For how many years into the future will liberals go on blaming Bush for problems that Obama can't or won't solve?

Like you, I just can't see anything particularly remarkable about Obama despite all the hype. At the policy level he seems ordinary to me. The positive things that have been said about him are that he is "very intelligent", that he is a grassroots community organiser and that he ran an innovative website and fund raising campaign. I can accept all of that but it's not grounds for euphoria. Shelby Steele said that people project their dreams onto Obama and that he can't possibly live up to that.

My guess is that the American economy has taken a hit from which it will not recover (it's "america in decline" more obviously) and that the war in Afghanistan will be stepped up. How will Obama's support base respond if that happens?

I don't think we'll be hearing much more of this slogan from now on -> "change we can believe in"

Anonymous said...


Re: cause of the euphoria

I'll give Obama this. He is eloquent, and he can give a rousing speech. That ad of his I referred you to a while back ("Yes we can!") even made me feel inspired and a bit in awe of him. I realized the disconnect early on when I watched a town hall meeting he held in Iowa before the caucuses there. I didn't hear anything innovative or even hopeful. He put forward a typical liberal spending agenda, and was very good at winning supporters who felt negatively affected or scared of Bush's agenda by agreeing with what they already thought of him, even if that view was distorted. That, and when I saw him pick up a considerable number of delegates on Super Tuesday, let me know that he was going to be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton.

Obama used narrative to great effect. In his first public speeches he evoked the history of this country, and put it in a very positive light. He invoked history to suggest to people that this was a historic moment. He didn't say "my candidacy is history in the making" really. People just picked up on it, which I'm sure is what he intended. I can't remember where I read this, maybe it was in the article you referenced, but David Axelrod used pieces of Obama's life story to try to establish Obama's bona fides as a leader in the minds of the public, even though his actual resume is not impressive when stacked up against past presidents. His campaign was aware of this deficit and used this narrative to compensate for it.

Some other things about his background are not encouraging. I've heard a little about what Obama wrote in his two books, "Dreams of My Father", and "The Audacity of Hope". It sounds like he has racist tendencies towards whites. The most striking quote I heard was his belief that the feelings between a man and a woman in an interracial couple "can never be pure." He said, "Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien and apart." This really conveys a sense of *hopelessness* on his part. I wonder if interracial couples were to hear this whether they would agree with him. It also shows that he is not the transformational figure that people make him out to be. I think his election represents a greater transformation on *our part* than on his.

Though the media largely ignored his associations they are of concern to me. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor of 20 years, has made racially tinged remarks for years, as part of his "black liberation theology". In his sermon called "The Audacity of Hope", the one Obama named his book after, Wright said, "It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere... That's the world on which hope sits!"

A local talk show host, and civil attorney, wrote an article called "The Obama Tapes", based on Obama's two books. He includes a lot of excerpted quotes. To add authenticity he included audio clips in Obama's own voice of him saying the quotes.

Since I care about education, another Obama association concerned me. William Ayers is a professor of education who believes that teachers should be political activists not only in their private lives, but also in the classroom. They should inculcate in their students, and by extension parents as well, a sense of political activism. He's not talking about just civics teachers, but in every subject possible. He believes that students should be taught "the true nature" (my words) of "America's hegemony", how evil it is, and that they should work to overthrow it. One of Obama's first jobs out of law school was to administer an education grant that Ayers had acquired for the Chicago school system, from the Annenberg Foundation. Ayers set the agenda for it, which was to invite political activist groups into schools to "radicalize students" (that's a direct quote). One of the groups brought in was ACORN, which was a group with whom Obama did his community organizing.

When Obama ran for his first political office, state senate in Illinois, he began his campaign, and held his first fundraiser in Ayers's living room. So Ayers and Obama were chummy for a while.

The few media outlets that did cover Ayers focused on his domestic terrorist activities when he founded the Weather Underground some 40 years ago. Their goal at the time was to overthrow the U.S. government, regardless of whether their goals were realistic. From what I've heard it doesn't sound the group was that big. They bombed the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and a New York City police station. Along the way they managed to kill several people. Ayers hasn't committed any violent acts since that time, but he's kept his world view. A prosecution was attempted back then, but it was botched by the prosecutor, and so the case was dropped.

Obama has said repeatedly that he thought what Ayers did during his Underground days was despicable, and does not endorse those acts in any way. The thing is I can't help but think that he supported Ayers's view of education, at least at the time. I haven't heard him comment on that aspect, because no one's asked him.

Since his work with Obama back in the 1990s Ayers has risen up in the ranks, and has become a "highly respected" professor in his field, so I hear.

I have seen the effect of the sort of teacher education Ayers espouses. A few years ago I heard of a case of a high school geography teacher discussing the merits (or "demerits") of capitalism, that it was "at odds with humanity", and asked his class if Bush should be compared to Hitler. The only reason I know this is one of the students brought in a digital recorder to get this stuff, and then played it on a radio station he was a guest on. He said he brought in the recorder because a lot of the class sessions with this teacher were like this, and he needed evidence because most people, even his parents, couldn't believe it. Sadly nothing was really done with the teacher. He was investigated, but in the end the school district conceded that his teaching was largely within the bounds of the curriculum he had submitted and they had approved. I think they admonished him to "stay on topic" though, but the whole thing was really a slap on the wrist.

Re: Sarah Palin

I agree with you about the base of support she energized in the Republican Party. I also see them as one-dimensional and narrow-minded, but I saw Palin differently. She spoke to their values but I listened closely to what she said, because I was concerned about her views on abortion. She was nuanced about it. She said her views of abortion were just hers, but that she didn't want to impose her views on the country. She took a position that I've seen other Christian conservative candidates take in the last 10 years or so. They'll say that they will campaign for societal change on the issue, via persuasion, not legislation. They'll say they hope they can achieve a consensus in the country about the mores of abortion, and from that legislation would naturally follow. To me this is a less threatening proposition, because it puts the onus on them to convince us that they are really on the right side of the issue. If they can't, then abortion policy just goes its natural course. It also indicates that we can disagree with them, and be agreeable about that.

What's worried liberals and moderates for a long time about Christian conservatives is that they'll try to impose theocratically-based legislation without trying to persuade first, and they'll just ram it down our throats. Liberals have used this fear for years to try to keep their base from switching sides.

Re: For how many years will liberals blame Bush for problems?

That's an interesting question. I think in the near term they have an excuse to blame some things on Bush. For example, the economy, and the war in Afghanistan. They were part of these messes, too, but Bush can be blamed as the decision maker who approved of some things that caused these problems.

I think in this instance there's good reason to blame government (Bush and the congress--Democrats and Republicans) for the state of the economy because they played a significant role in creating this mess, along with Wall Street.

I think there's a legitimate argument that can be made now that the Bush Admin. was too ambitious with the goals it wanted to accomplish in the world. It became so engrossed with the "War on Terror" and Iraq that it neglected the financial crisis that was looming. There's clear evidence though that Bush tried to address some of the causes of this problem back in 2003, and since then. Bush tried many times to increase regulatory oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two institutions whose collapse was the trigger for the wider economic collapse. Every time his efforts were blocked by the Democrats, because of fears that it would block their efforts to create more affordable housing. An area I'm not clear on is what role subprime mortgages played in it. Fannie and Freddie participated in subprime mortgages, but it's unclear what role they played in their collapse. Apparently most of the subprimes were not connected to Fannie and Freddie in any way. They were just created by certain banks, but Fannie and Freddie didn't buy all of them. I'm unclear on parts of what went on. According to the Democrats Bush was opposed to regulating subprimes in specific. I'm not sure why. A gaping hole was the lack of regulation of Credit Default Swaps (CDSes), created by Wall Street investment banks, which magnified the mortgage mess. CDSes were an unregulated form of investment insurance. Regulated forms of insurance are available, but they require cash reserves on the part of the insurer. CDSes had little or no cash reserves. What would often happen is investors who bought securitized mortgages would buy CDSes as insurance, because it was understood that the mortgages carried some risk with them. CDSes or investment insurance were there to lessen the risk to the buyer.

Anyway, once we get into the third year of Obama's first term I think the public will expect him to take on the full blame (or credit) for conditions of the country and our foreign policy.

A concern that's been recognized very quickly is that Obama may fall prey to congressional Democrats. This has happened to the last two Democratic administrations: Carter and Clinton. In both cases they were sworn in with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. In both cases congressional Democrats leaned heavily on the Democratic president to do their bidding, not his own. Congressional Democrats typically represent powerful interest groups. In this case labor/teachers unions, anti-war activists, and environmentalists. They typically like higher taxes on the wealthy and higher public spending for labor benefits, educational institutions, and "green" causes like alternative energy projects. A lot of these groups want to end involvement in Iraq because they want to direct the money that would be spent on it to their causes. In most cases it's as simple as that. It's not about the morality of the war or whether it's good policy. They just want the money for what they see as a worthier cause.

The overreaching of the Democratic congress has had one of two effects. Either the president is seen as ineffective in addressing the country's needs and so he only lasts one term (ie. Carter, followed by Reagan), or the Democrats lose their majority in the House and eventually the Senate in the subsequent congressional elections, which is what happened to Clinton. In Clinton's case I suppose he was a little more free to govern as he saw fit once the Democrats in congress lost power. Historically Americans have tended to prefer "mixed government", one party controlling congress, and one controlling the Executive branch. If one party takes total control they tend to have their way with the government, feeling they have no constraints. The way in which Bush was able to increase Republican majorities in the House and Senate from 2002-2004 is unusual.

Democratic administrations from Carter on have tended to have an anti-military bias. Not that they're unwilling to use it. They tend to keep funding for it to a minimum, and use it in small scale humanitarian projects, like the mission in Somalia in the early 1990s.

My read on them is they see things very strongly from a cultural POV, not from an economic or structural POV. I think they see the military as a bad cultural influence on the country and the world, and so seek to reform it, to put it to more humanitarian purposes with less of an emphasis on combat.

They place high value on diplomacy and consider their efforts a success if they feel like the U.S. is getting along well with most foreign countries, and if the U.S. is well liked by others. This can seem all well and good, but historically it can create security problems for us. For example Osama bin Laden escaped our reach many times during the Clinton Admin. because we treated the problem of radical Islam being at war with the U.S. as an international criminal problem rather than an actual war. We captured and prosecuted some terrorists that we could catch, but the process was very slow and inefficient. Al Qaeda gained strength and confidence through that whole period.

Re: People project their dreams onto Obama

From what I've heard Obama is very aware of this. He used his "blank slate" status to his advantage, because he had seen that people would project whatever they wanted onto him. This is not the first time that "blank slate" candidates have run for the presidency. They were a "blank slate" because they were not well known to the public, but the difference was they had a record that people could research. When it was found, the opposition could dig for dirt and it would stick when it was thrown at them. So a powerful opposition candidate could define the "blank slate" to be whatever they wanted. Obama doesn't really have a record, so it was impossible for the opposition to do this. The best they could do was point to associations, which surprisingly didn't stick too well, probably because the media ignored them for the most part. The media really fell down on the job in this election. NBC in particular might as well have been an arm of the Obama campaign. They've actually dropped any pretense of objectivity. It seems the media is going back to what it was in the 19th century. That isn't an exaggeration. Early American media used to be highly partisan. I think some newspapers were even owned by one political party or another.

Associations used to matter, particularly with Republican candidates. If a racist group endorsed them, or they had a relationship with someone who said something untoward about blacks, that put their candidacy at serious risk, even if they tried to distance themselves from them.

This race has revealed some things about our society. One of them is that we view racism as the greater sin than sexism. All sorts of sexist jabs were made at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin by the media, no less. Some women complained but the main feminist groups here didn't step up to defend either of them. When Hillary herself complained about it she was tagged as "weak" and unpresidential. She was expected to just take it. Racist remarks targetted at a black candidate would've been treated with a lot more shame and scorn by all concerned.

Re: problems vs. "change we can believe in"

I agree. I think eventually the image will wear off. A defense Obama has used, so far successfully, is he has tried to set expectations. Biden did this a week or two before the election. He said to a group of donors, "Mark my words. If there's nothing else you remember that I say here today, remember this. There will be a crisis. A crisis will be manufactured by (some world leaders) within the first 6 months to test the mettle of this guy." A lot of pundits took this as unsettling. Why would we elect someone who some leader out there would feel comfortable testing like this? The Obama campaign said later that what he meant was no matter who wins, they will be tested. Nice spin. In any case, if and when that crisis arises people will refer back to Biden's statement and say, "Oh yeah. See? He said this would happen." It gives an illusion that Obama is ready for this, and so most people will probably not get too worried, thinking he has things well in hand.

The real sense I have of Obama is he and his campaign operation, more than any other candidate I've seen, has successfully been able to paint a convincing idealized image of himself in the eyes of the public that is a fantasy. Some of his supporters had a good idea of who he was, because they had read his books. So I'm not saying he pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. In my view his public persona and his real life are very much at odds. That's not my main concern. Just saying.