Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What a Little Kindness Can Do

Being of the generation that came of age around the time that Black Power did, I confess to a lingering conviction that white leftists should leave African Americans alone to comment on and to criticize themselves. To be sure, commendable non-interference, based on humility and acceptance of black leadership, can turn into “benign neglect,” based on indifference. To be sure, there is no defensible reason, forty years after its inception, for only black voices to participate in the on-going reassessment of “black power” – especially now that it is clear, from the experience of many American cities, not just Newark and Detroit, that claims for the advantages of African-American mayors, police chiefs and city councilmen are, to say the least, overblown. But I will still leave it for others to engage in the debate on whether Barack Obama is black enough. Whether he is or not, he is certainly is “a person of color” who can pass for black if he tries. As such, there is every reason to expect African Americans to support him unless he gives them good reason not to. It could hardly be otherwise in a world that is anything but colorblind, where the legacy of slavery still reverberates, and where no person of color, certainly no African American, has ever been a serious contender for the Presidency. [Jesse Jackson was a constructive presence in the 1984 and 1998 primary campaigns, but it was clear, even at the time, that he never had a chance of winning the Democratic nomination, much less the general election.] At a policy level, Obama, at this point, fares poorly next to Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards. Unlike them, he has not made poverty, let alone black poverty, an issue. His strategy seems to be – start out being popular with everybody and then do nothing to jeopardize that popularity. This is cause for concern. But it is not – yet – a reason to oppose his candidacy.

In a similar vein, Hillary Clinton’s gender is a reason to support her candidacy; and it is understandable that feminist women and men would find this reason weighty. In her case, though, the countervailing considerations are far stronger than in Obama’s.

Given these countervailing considerations [discussed in countless earlier postings], it is remarkable that, according to all the polling data, Obama is in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton among African American voters. This can’t just be a consequence of Hillary’s personality or record. It must be that African Americans have an abiding affection for her husband and therefore support her candidacy out of loyalty to him. Unlike Obama’s blackness (or lack of it), I feel no inhibitions about commenting on this strange phenomenon. Moreover, I can do so without violating any norms about who has a right to say what, because African American support for Hillary is of a piece with a similar sensibility that pervaded and continues to flourish in the “identity group” to which I am assigned. What I have in mind, of course, is the unstinting fondness we Chosen folk have for FDR.

Needless to say, Bill Clinton is no FDR, just as Hillary is no Eleanor, even if she did once try to channel her (as urban legend has it). FDR’s legacy is complicated. On the one hand, he saved capitalism. He also put Harry Truman in office and therefore, indirectly, laid the groundwork for the Cold War and the national security state. [On recent efforts by leading Democrats associated with the Clinton administration to channel the spirit of Truman and the institutions his administration began, see “Fortress America,” June 24]. On the other hand, the New Deal helped many people – not many people “of color,” however – and there were elements of it that arguably were “counter-systemic” and that therefore looked beyond the horizons of capitalist society. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s legacy is comparatively uncomplicated. He completed “the Reagan Revolution,” laying the groundwork for Cheney and Bush, while presiding over an economic bubble that kept enough people happy to enable him to muddle through without doing much of anything constructive. Nevertheless these two Democratic Presidents do have something in common: they each won the hearts and minds of people belonging to groups they greatly harmed.

FDR did grave harm to the Jewish people by leaving European Jews to their fate under the Nazis when he could have done otherwise. He could have bombed the extermination camps, but didn’t; he could have let Jews into the United States in the years preceding the outbreak of war, but didn’t. That he didn’t was arguably good for Zionism, but it was certainly bad for Jews – a fact that fifty years of Zionist propaganda cannot obscure. The obvious parallel is with Bill Clinton’s failures to help Africans. But Clinton harmed African-Americans more directly, especially those who are working class or poor. He harmed them by pursuing neo-liberal economic programs that encouraged the deindustrialization of the cities where many African Americans live; he harmed them by weakening the labor unions that were their best hope for social and economic advancement. At the same time, he largely completed the dismantlement of our never more than feeble welfare state institutions. Thus he exacerbated poverty at the same time that he helped to undo available means for alleviating it.

[Clinton harmed the labor movement as much or more than he harmed the African American community. To the everlasting shame of many union leaders, he did so with unstinting labor support. The difference is that the labor rank-and-file never had any particular affection for Bill Clinton, even if many of them voted for him. Thus the two phenomena, though superficially similar and interrelated, are not quite the same. This is a story for another time.]

But just as FDR brought Jews into his government, took counsel from Jewish advisors, and evinced no overt signs of the anti-Semitism that was rampant in the social circles from which he came, Bill Clinton, a son of the South, was comfortable around black people and even became friends with a few. Roosevelt’s detractors claimed FDR secretly was a Jew – Rosenfeld. It’s doubtful that anyone took this seriously, but everyone understood why the charge (in those days, it was a charge) fit. It’s less clear what could have possessed Toni Morrison to claim, as she did in 1998 in The New Yorker, that Bill Clinton was our “first black President.” It’s a welcome sign of the times that, coming from her at least, this was taken as praise. In the 1930s, no Jew would have dared say anything like this about FDR. But, at some level, a few might have harbored the thought. Both Roosevelt and Clinton were charmers; they had the gift for establishing a rapport. Evidently, among people who have been down for so long, a little rapport can work wonders. It can even make victims love their executioners.

Still, Hillary Clinton’s support among African Americans is remarkable. No matter how unblack Obama is, Hillary is less. No matter how vague and unformed his policy statements are – not just compared to what they could be, but compared to Kucinich’s and Edwards’ -- Hillary’s are worse. Still, she vies with him for African-American voters. One can only marvel at what a little kindness can do, and also worry about how gullible and easily taken in people are. We have been told countless times since the sixties that the experience of oppression is a source of insight. No doubt, it is. But this is a glaring exception.

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