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?


Anonymous said...

CD, they need a hero. MLK was one for his age. Malcolm X was one for his age. Both, took considerable risks with their lives by stepping up to the plate even under threat. Where is the hero for our age? If, President Obama is the product of the establishment, there is no, representative of some one who works outside of the establishment and is willing to do what is right no matter what.  If there are, they have little to no range. 

The last election it took various celebrities willing to lend their names to the Obama effort, that pushed him over the edge for the youth vote. Obama distanced himself after being elected. ACORN, OWS, these were primarily made up of those same young voters. Plus, with the efforts of Republicans to disemfranchise out-of-state college students by implementing ID requirements, with some colleges colluding to prevent voter drives.  Unless they see some hope it, isn't going to happen in the same way, unless celebrities can define the direness of the situation to them, again.

chaunceydevega said...

@Sabrina: Ironic then isn't it, that before the Internet--which should facilitate struggle and organization--and when the forces opposing folks were far more naked and transparent with their brutality, people got out and struggled. Maybe, that is the genius of the system? People are tired, their leadership class co-optated, and the masses distracted by pretty shiny things.

CNu said...

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.

Those "certain interests" do not coincide with the greatest good for the greatest number of American citizens. Why then should a majority of the voting citizen electorate cast their votes for this obvious fraud?

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.

Au contraire..., the American middle class is being hollowed out at a breakneck pace, systematically replaced by a globalized middle class which constitutes a pure meritocracy of capability, but is as far removed from a unitary political block as humanly possible. Obama is a deft manager in the burgeoning field of globalized human livestock management.

Resistance to changes that the formerly rorschachian Obamamandius is ushering in can be miscast as racist. Romney, OTOH, enjoys no such mimetic shielding, and can attacked straight up, simple, and plain as a plutocratic tool for continuing American Haitianization.

I'd much rather have Romney in office as a target for resistance, rather than the much more emotionally challenging target which TPTB cleverly developed and installed with the Obamamandian persona.

Adam GH said...

To answer your question about motivating youth: I think it is all too common for young people to throw the baby out with the bath water, when disillusionment comes to fruition. Ok, Obama is a politician invested in 'the system', and has no real interest in radical change. It seems then that we really need to be asking the question of why does the presidency matter anyways? Or, perhaps more importantly, what bad can a president do? I know an American Muslim activist who has a surprisingly compromising view of this. He tells young people and expatriates this: "Every president is going to be running around killing Muslims in one way or another. The question is which president will kill less of them." Islamically that one life can hold can carry "the weight of humanity".

My slogan for disaffected youth: "If you can save a single life with your vote/action, then do so".

I suppose you can also spice that up in economic terms.

fred c said...

Your point about how the Internet should assist organization caught my interest. It should, but it doesn't, but why?

You are old enough, I think, to clearly remember a world without the 'Net, and I think that it's likely that you developed a love of libraries while they were the only show in town. Me, I loved libraries, with their mysterious, marvelous card catalogs, which made browsing so easy. The point is that libraries required an inquiring mind, a more positive approach to one's interest, or research. The 'Net provides a more passive experience. People sought knowledge in a library; people receive knowledge from the 'Net.

I say knowledge, although I know that much of what passes for knowledge on the 'Net was written by a twelve-year-old boy in the Ukraine posing as a PhD.

Young people think that everything that we geezers find important is the sheerest crapola. They, and in fact most people these days, labor under the delusion that they are very well informed. Convincing them that our concerns are real, and that they don't know everything, will not be easy.

This is an interlocking directorate of difficult problems. It'll take a while to chew on it sufficiently.

fred c said...


Your point about the new Global Middle Class is well considered, and I couldn't agree more, but it's not a pure meritocracy by any means.

In most countries, entry to this class has a lot to do with the massive, pervasive corruption that informs all political and financial activities; then there's the nepotism/classism/cronyism; don't forget the local racism variants; etc.

That's where the prosperity's going though. My back yard, actually (look for the good!).

CNu said...

Good one Fred.

Having suffered through a summer in New Delhi and Mumbai, one of the things I recall most clearly were the frequent and quite bitter news stories and editorials harping on the nepotism/classism/cronyism you mention. As for racism - ain't nobody in America ever seen nothing until and unless they witness the phenotypical effects of a dozen centuries of racism backed by superstition!

India is a BEAST!!!

I just assumed responsibility for an enterprise microsoft volume licensing agreement and sure enough, ANY call going into Redmond WA ends up being answered by some screen reading human automaton in Mumbai. The quality of service is t-t-t-t-t-turrible - but I'm sure the dual-shoring arrangement saves microsoft billions on salary, healthcare and benefits it would otherwise be expected to shell out on American call center support workers.

Just that many fewer complaining politically partisan Americans with education and resources that some American politician somewhere, some day will have to worry about appeasing...,

Anonymous said...

CD, that it is. The internet reaches more people but has less the effect than if it hadn't been invented. Scattered messages, distractions and every yahoo with an idea, tugging aand pulling. I guess it's no wonder that a would be leader is unable to take hold. So the how of it would still have to be placed on the only people that hold a majority the country's youth attention anyway. Celebrities.

CNu, Grrr, you make me go back and forth with my decision. A part of me would rather Obama not be the face included, when the results of the death of the democratic process becomes too evident to ignore. But, I can't shake the feeling that if, a republican is placed back in office so soon, then the conditions this country was in at the end of th Bush era will not only return but gather steam. Republicans wil work to push through their agenda, before even their own constituents wake up again, so fast that the Obama presidency will have looked like only a speed bump. It will be impossible for Americans to even raise their eyebrows the way they did at the end of the Bush term. The suffering will worsen and will continue until there is actually a revolution. It's difficult for me, who may actually become one of those sufferers, to welcome it. Even as much as I want to see the blame placed squarely on the architects of the structural collapse.

Dude N Plenty said...

Personally, I think we are better off with the civil liberty defenders holding back no punch in criticizing the government as it continues to expand it's own rights and demeaning ours. With Obama in power, and especially now while he is running for office, all those who hate GOP presidents (and do so as automatically as most of us do our jobs), quiet down and resist Romney with the false argument that has become our election day mantra, "Hold your nose, and vote for the lessar of two evils". Obama is not the lessar of two evils. He had a chance to be a lessar evil when he held true to his pledge of only using public money for his campaign. There will be no lessar evil until the plutocrats cease to control elections with their ability to buy them.