A referendum on America
Forum with Andrew Arato, Benjamin Barber and Jim Sleeper
Immigration, the race issue, elitism and patriotism. These are the subjects discussed in Part One of the forum on the coming American elections organised by Resetdoc.org. According to Jim Sleeper, “Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate to embody two fundamental American myths, involving race and immigration”. This is also why Benjamin Barber describes him as “the first multicultural candidate”. Andrew Arato reflects on the accusations of being elitists addressed at Obama, and counterattacks saying that “The Americans have a bizarre definition of élite. Because there is McCain, who of course comes from a really élite military family, his father was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, and this is the real élite, right?”.
The text is a transcription of a debate held on June 4th in Istanbul, during the Istanbul Seminars organised by Resetdoc. Andrew Arato is a Dorothy Hirshon Professor in Political and Social Theory at the Graduate Faculty, New School University, and also the editor of Constellations. Benjamin Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at University of Maryland, a former advisor to President Clinton and author of “Jihad vs. McWorld” and “Consumed”. Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of “Liberal Racism”. The forum was coordinated by Daniele Castellani Perelli, Online Editor for Resetdoc.org.
Daniele Castellani Perelli: What do you think the main issues of the presidential campaign will be, those both sides will try to use?
Jim Sleeper: Let me start with a powerful issue. I think that two myths converge in Obama’s campaign which make it very fateful for the United States, they involve race and immigration. The first myth is the famous American self-conception that we are a nation of immigrants and of course he embodies it by the fact of his birth. The second myth that converges in him is one that he actively chose, specifically wishing to make it converge, and that is of course the fact of race. In America, unlike all the other countries that make universal claims, we abducted and plunged into our midst these millions of Africans and ex nihilo they had to create an identity. The only reason I mention these things is because I do think he is the first presidential candidate to both embody and choose to enact some kind of convergence or resolution of those myths. Usually, a nation of immigrants consisted in white people uniting against you-know-who, and blacks were not immigrants. Here he is, having chosen actively to re-engage the black community that he was not part of, he is not descended from abducted slaves.
Of course I think this is worth mentioning depending on the audience, because here he now goes carrying this into the general campaign, and I think we all know – and that is the last thing I will say on this subject – that the enduring and unresolved racism in America makes me believe that his victory, if he wins, will be a close call. I am one of those who does not believe in polls, what will happen nobody knows, and more than anything it just depends on what will be the endurance and obduracy of the racism that is not going where he is trying to take us. I think that is pretty fateful because of how well he has done in trying in his own life, and in his messages, to re-enact this and he has obviously done that beautifully for a large segment of Americans, and commanded a lot of respect. But as we know, it is going to be tough. So that is my one observation about him versus McCain, is that that is a fateful and will see.
Benjamin Barber: Let me comment on that, because I think Jim was right to say that obviously race will be at the very centre of this campaign, although always as a nominal background issue. That is to say that nobody is going to talk too directly about it, but in fact that is the issue. Let me put it a little differently. We want to remember something people often forget, and Jim just said that very clearly: Obama is strictly speaking not a black candidate in the model of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, or any of the blacks who have run. And many have run, some of them actually have been on the national ballot. People often forget that. People like Shirley Chisholm a long time ago, who when she ran interestingly said it was harder to be a woman than black.
Actually I would call him the first multicultural candidate we have had. You know, we are talking about a son of Africa and Kansas, who also spent three years in Indonesia, so we have generally a reflection of America’s new multicultural status more than what has seemed more obvious, that we had a black American. But on the other hand he is black and African-American.
As for the second thesis, I want to come back to the Reverend Wright argument, because that captures, I think, the fundamental distinction between indigenous children of the slaves, the heirs of slavery, who I think on the whole agree with Reverend Wright. A lot of all the rest of us agree with the Reverend Wright that for black Americans who have descended from slavery much of what Wright says if in a very polemical, overstated, way represents a kind of truth for a country that is still racist. The fact that you are fundamentally disadvantaged if you are born with black skin and the opportunities are not there, that no male black man can never ascend to the highest reaches of power, and Obama, is in effect contesting that and saying ‘No, in a certain way that is over, it is done, we are in a new era, we are in a era in that we can finally put that behind us’.
And one reason I think Obama was so disturbed by Reverend Wright is not that reverend Wright was dead wrong on what he said, but that the Reverend Wright was advancing the old and well-established notion of American politics in which race is absolutely central and a barrier to victory for blacks above a certain place. Obama’s entire campaign rested on his belief that we are in a place where we can perhaps move beyond that. In that sense, interestingly, the election itself is a referendum on not Reverend Wright but on Reverend Wright’s view of America: if Obama loses, presumably that proves Wright is right and correct in saying that we are not beyond it yet and that this race, finally, in the secrecy of the balloting room becomes a crucial issue, and there are people who instead say ‘Yes, he would be a good president’ vote against him.
If he wins, Obama will actually make the case successfully that we are beyond the Reverend Wright’s view of America, so in that sense I think Jim was exactly right to put his finger where he does and this will be a background issue and might be the most important issue, because a victory will mean Obama’s vision is right. A defeat will mean probably not that Obama is wrong, but the Reverend Wright, who everybody is condemning, actually continues to have a better grip on the American reality than Obama himself.
Andrew Arato: But there are two questions about whether Obama is a post-race candidate or whether race is no longer that kind of issue in America. I think the first issue, the first claim unfortunately turns out to be wrong, even though he advanced himself initially as a candidate beyond race, beyond that kind of division. The way the campaign developed, in a way surprisingly, made him black...
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