Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Freedom Dreams: Paul Gilroy on The Age of Obama vs. The Age of Malcolm X
I occasionally bemoan how the Internet has taken the mystery out of geek and nerd culture. Like others, I too am worried about how social media and the democratization of information has encouraged a dysfunctional public discourse. Anyone can claim expertise with little vetting; opinion based news is now dominant; emotions and feelings are privileged as a type of evidence in lieu of empirical rigor and critical thinking.
However, there are times when the Internet and the digital revolution can aid learning as opposed to stifle it. This great panel discussion about the legacy of Malcolm X is one such example. In the near past, it would have taken months or years for a video or transcript of an event such as this one to circulate. Now, the public has ready access to these types of conversations. This is a net gain.
The featured panelists at the Legacy of Malcolm X conference held in February 2012 are a wonderful mix of thinkers. Paul Gilroy is a noted and highly accomplished philosopher who is best known for his foundational work The Black Atlantic. Tariq Ramadan is a scholar of Islamic Studies, a philosopher, and is frequently called upon to comment on the relationship between religion, secular ethics and law, and the future of a more cosmopolitan Islam. Zead Ramadan is Chairman of the Board for the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center, and was a family friend of the late Malcolm X.
Heroes are (almost by definition) myths. Some members of the public hold on to these fictions in order to find strength and inspiration. Others find these fictions troublesome and thus take great pleasure in disabusing people of silly thoughts and childish dreams.
As we have discussed here on a number of occasions, I like my heroes a bit rough around the edges. For me, the details of a person's shortcomings, complexities, and quirks makes them more accessible, and an object of more admiration as opposed to less. Martin Luther King Jr. may have been a womanizer and in many ways a hypocrite (and even a plagiarist). Muhammad Ali was a cruel trickster and provocateur who manipulated the country's ugly racial politics to his own ends.
Malcolm X may have had sex with a man (to some this is an unforgiveable possibility).
Moreover, despite how Brother Malcolm is lionized, he was not a perfect thinker, and much of the political ideology he channeled was not a good fit for confronting the practical political realities (and constraints) of Jim and Jane Crow America.
Their accomplishments are made no less great because of these facts.
Paul Gilroy's intervention about black masculinity and how we, black men in particular, invest ourselves in Brother Malcolm is one of the high points of this panel. But as we approach the 2012 Presidential Election, Gilroy's plain spoken realpolitik observations about Barack Obama as a man whose race is secondary to the institutional constraints placed upon him merits (re)emphasis. As he suggests, we can be a society where race is meaningless, but where racism and white supremacy are still a changing same which governs much of American political and social life.
For all of the talk in 2008 about post racial America, and the promise of a President who happened to be black, many in the public forgot that whoever is elected to the country's highest office is a cog in a bigger machine. To believe that you could have radical transformational change through institutional politics was a chimera and a joke. The system is designed to be sedentary, slow, and constrained by inertia. As such, the Age of Obama vs. the Age of Malcolm is a false comparison. The latter was a figure who worked outside of the system (and in fact created little actionable political change); the former is a product of a multicultural, elite class which is deeply invested in maintaining the status quo of the American as a passive consumer-citizen in a market democracy, and of protecting America as an empire.
Many first time, as well as young voters, did not understand this basic fact of American political life. Now, they are disenchanted and less likely to support Obama in the 2012 election. He is not a radical. He is not a "black" president. Obama is quite simply the President of the United States, and a figure who is part of a system which is beholden to certain interests above and beyond all others.
How do we reenergize these disaffected voters? Can we work with their newly gained political maturity in the interest of the Common Good in order to mobilize them against the plutocrats and the Ayn Rand Tea Party GOP? Or are they just disgusted and are going to sit this election out, thus letting Romney, the far worse of the alternatives, into the White House come November?