We recently returned from a week cruise in the Caribbean, something I'll write about once I have some photos assembled, but on our way home from the cruise terminal parking lot, between Ft. Lauderdale and our home, a message was flashing on I95 about a traffic alert. I checked Google Maps, and there didn't seem to be any delays but a few minutes later, on an overpass, there was a terribly disorganized "protest" with few protesters in attendance (I guess the authorities thought this would tie up traffic), holding signs for the motorists passing underneath, reading "Obama is a Muslim"). How sad, I thought, wasn't this yesterday's "news" or are these zombies conditioned by the Tea Party media, condemned to be the walking dead for their propaganda?
But it is something deeper, sadder than that, and especially on this Martin Luther King Day it is propitious to be reminded of the racially charged roots of such "protests" (and the "existential illegitimacy" of Obama's presidency). In this regard, Sunday's New York Times carried an especially insightful article by Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, Obama, Melville and the Tea Party. Melville, you ask? Ironically, one of the books on my "reread" pile is Benito Cereno, a short novella that I had mostly forgotten (as I had read it in college ages ago) and Grandin makes the association between Melville's classic and Obama's ongoing problem as a black in a Christian white man's world: "Benito Cereno" is based on a true historical incident, which I started researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.
No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy. In order to succeed as a politician, Mr. Obama had to cultivate what many have described as an almost preternatural dominion over his inner self. He had to become a “blank screen,” as Mr. Obama himself has put it, on which others could project their ideals..... Yet this intense self-control seems to be what drives the president’s more feverish detractors into a frenzy; they fill that screen with hatreds drawn deep from America’s historical subconscious.
Indeed. One of my blog articles, written in May 2008 as the presidential elections were gearing up, was an "Open Letter" to the then Senator Obama, in which I said Today is not too far removed from then. [The "then" I was referring to was the 1970s] Our economic difficulties of mounting national debt and a declining dollar, a decaying infrastructure, and the lack of better healthcare for our sick and better education for our young can be traced to a needless war, and to being hostage, once again, to oil producing nations. Racial and religious divisiveness still erodes the fabric of our society. The view of America abroad has undermined our ability to effectively deal with terrorism and to address global environmental issues. Politics again slithers along a slippery Machiavellian slope.
Since then, I've had my problems with Obama's presidential style, his academic standoffishness (perhaps Governor Christie could have given him a few pointers in good old fashioned strong-arm politics). But, looking back, even with the brinksmanship of Tea Party politics he's had to contend with, there has been progress. The economy is one, unemployment still too high, but slowly declining. And soon after Obama was elected, the Dow dropped a few hundred points and the conservative press was immediately crying, SEE! For months, it was all Obama's fault (although he had nothing to do with it) and now, years later, with everyone's 401Ks flush with gains from a rising market, and real estate making a recovery, not a peep about his being responsible (which I would only attribute indirectly anyhow). And even now that Osama bin Laden has been killed and al Qaeda in disarray (although, admittedly, not entirely eliminated -- almost an impossibility due to its decentralized organizational structure), little credit is given to Obama, but only just imagine that if bin Laden was still at large, you'd never hear the end of it from the Tea Party. And Obama supporting the efforts of NSA surveillance to minimize terrorist threats -- how many conservatives would have jumped on board that train until they discovered Obama was at the wheel? Meanwhile, hydraulic fracturing has made us more energy independent, something Obama has supported in spite of certain aspects being under assault from environmental organizations.
Obama's signature piece of legislation has been the Affordable Care Act, and the conservative press was delighted at the very poorly planned launch via the government web site. But as a cynic about many aspects of government, I can only attribute that to the "a camel is a horse designed by a committee" syndrome, not to mention the inherent complexity of the entire program. But it is a start. For a wonderful tongue-in-cheek "news report" on the program, read The Onion's Nation Recalls Simpler Time When Health Care System Was Broken Beyond Repair
Are things perfect, or as far along as we would like? No. In the absence of sound fiscal policy from a dysfunctional Congress, the Federal Reserve has had to use monetary policy to stabilize the economy -- even to bring us from the brink of a depression (although deflationary clouds still gather). We've substituted soaring public debt for private debt and a banking system gone wild (remember the days of unregulated CMOs?). And another Sword of Damocles hanging over the nation is its inability to balance the legitimate spirit of the Second Amendment -- the right to bear arms -- and the demands of the NRA. (I say "legitimate spirit" as the weaponry when the Second Amendment was drafted was nothing like today's.)
There have been twenty mass shootings since Obama became president and he is helpless to do anything about it without the complete cooperation of Congress. After the shooting in Newton, Connecticut, only a few miles from where we lived for twenty plus years, there was a ground swell (verbal only) in Congress to do something to control the sale of certain automatic weapons, but by the time the NRA got finished with their lobbying campaign, that effort was AK47ed to death. Explain that failure to the parents of the children slaughtered.
So if Obama's presidency is finally judged as mediocre at best, read Benito Cereno to understand the historic etiology of his predicament. As Grandin says, it represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another's absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.