July 22, 2008; Page A19
A few weeks ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson made something of a fool of himself. There he was -- a historical figure in his own right -- threatening the castration of Barack Obama. It was sad to see.
If I have often criticized Mr. Jackson, I have also, reservedly, admired him. He is a late 20th century outcropping of a profoundly American archetype: the self-invented man who comes from nothing and, out of sheer force of personality, imposes himself on the American consciousness. If he never reached the greatness to which he aspired, he nevertheless did honor to the enduring American tradition of bold and unapologetic opportunism.
But now -- not looking old so much as a bit lost within the new Obama aura -- it is clear that Jesse Jackson has come to a kind of dénouement. Some force that once buoyed him up now seems spent.
Mr. Jackson was always a challenger. He confronted American institutions (especially wealthy corporations) with the shame of America's racist past and demanded redress. He could have taken up the mantle of the early Martin Luther King (he famously smeared himself with the great man's blood after King was shot), and argued for equality out of a faith in the imagination and drive of his own people. Instead -- and tragically -- he and the entire civil rights establishment pursued equality through the manipulation of white guilt.
Their faith was in the easy moral leverage over white America that the civil rights victories of the 1960s had suddenly bestowed on them. So Mr. Jackson and his generation of black leaders made keeping whites "on the hook" the most sacred article of the post-'60s black identity.
They ushered in an extortionist era of civil rights, in which they said to American institutions: Your shame must now become our advantage. To argue differently -- that black development, for example, might be a more enduring road to black equality -- took whites "off the hook" and was therefore an unpardonable heresy. For this generation, an Uncle Tom was not a black who betrayed his race; it was a black who betrayed the group's bounty of moral leverage over whites. And now comes Mr. Obama, who became the first viable black presidential candidate precisely by giving up his moral leverage over whites.
Mr. Obama's great political ingenuity was very simple: to trade moral leverage for gratitude. Give up moral leverage over whites, refuse to shame them with America's racist past, and the gratitude they show you will constitute a new form of black power. They will love you for the faith you show in them.
So it is not hard to see why Mr. Jackson might have experienced Mr. Obama's emergence as something of a stiletto in the heart. Mr. Obama is a white "race card" -- moral leverage that whites can use against the moral leverage black leaders have wielded against them for decades. He is the nullification of Jesse Jackson -- the anti-Jackson.
And Mr. Obama is so successful at winning gratitude from whites precisely because Mr. Jackson was so successful at inflaming and exploiting white guilt. Mr. Jackson must now see his own oblivion in the very features of Mr. Obama's face. Thus the on-camera threat of castration, followed by the little jab of his fist as if to deliver a stiletto of his own.
And then Mr. Obama took it further by going to the NAACP with a message of black responsibility -- this after his speech on the need for black fathers to take responsibility for the children they sire. "Talking down to black people," Mr. Jackson mumbled.
Normally, "black responsibility" is a forbidden phrase for a black leader -- not because blacks reject responsibility, but because even the idea of black responsibility weakens moral leverage over whites. When Mr. Obama uses this language, whites of course are thankful. Black leaders seethe.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama's sacrifice of black leverage has given him a chance to actually become the president. He has captured the devotion of millions of whites in ways that black leveragers never could. And the great masses of blacks -- blacks outside today's sclerotic black leadership -- see this very clearly. Until Mr. Obama, any black with a message of black responsibility would be called a "black conservative" and thereby marginalized. After Obama's NAACP speech, blacks flooded into the hotel lobby thanking him for "reminding" them of their responsibility.
Thomas Sowell, among many others, has articulated the power of individual responsibility as an antidote to black poverty for over 40 years. Black thinkers as far back as Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington have done the same. Why then, all of a sudden, are blacks willing to openly embrace this truth -- and in the full knowledge that it will weaken their leverage with whites?
I think the answer is that Mr. Obama potentially offers them something far more profound than mere moral leverage. If only symbolically, he offers nothing less than an end to black inferiority. This has been an insidious spiritual torment for blacks because reality itself keeps mockingly proving the original lie. Barack Obama in the Oval Office -- a black man governing a largely white nation -- would offer blacks an undreamed-of spiritual solace far more meaningful than the petty self-importance to be gained from moral leverage.
But white Americans have also been tormented by their stigmatization as moral inferiors, as racists. An Obama presidency would give them considerable moral leverage against this stigma.
So it has to be acknowledged that, on the level of cultural and historical symbolism, an Obama presidency might nudge the culture forward a bit -- presuming of course that he would be at least a competent president. (A less-than-competent black president would likely be a step backwards.) It would be a good thing were blacks to be more open to the power of individual responsibility. And it would surely help us all if whites were less cowed by the political correctness on black issues that protects their racial innocence at the expense of the very principles that made America great. We Americans are hungry for such a cultural shift.
This, no doubt, is what Barack Obama means by "change." He promises to reconfigure our exhausted cultural arrangement.
But here lies his essential contradiction: His campaign is more cultural than political. He sells himself more as a cultural breakthrough than as a candidate for office. To be a projection screen for the cultural aspirations of both blacks and whites one must be an invisible man politically. Real world politics, in their mundanity, interrupt cultural projections. And so Mr. Obama's political invisibility -- a charm that can only derive from a lack of deep political convictions -- may well serve his cultural appeal, but it also makes him something of a political mess.
Already he has flip-flopped on campaign financing, wire-tapping, gun control, faith-based initiatives, and the terms of withdrawal from Iraq. Those enamored of his cultural potential may say these reversals are an indication of thoughtfulness, or even open-mindedness. But could it be that this is a man who trusted so much in his cultural appeal that the struggles of principle and conscience never seemed quite real to him? His flip-flops belie an almost existential callowness toward principle, as if the very idea of permanent truth is passé, a form of bad taste.
John McCain is simply a man of considerable character, poor guy. He is utterly bereft of cultural cachet. Against an animating message of cultural "change," he is retrogression itself. Worse, Mr. Obama's trick is to take politics off the table by moving so politically close to his opponent that only culture is left to separate them. And, unencumbered as he is by deep attachment to principle, he can be both far-left and center-right. He can steal much of Mr. McCain's territory.
Mr. Obama has already won a cultural mandate to the American presidency. And politically, he is now essentially in a contest with himself. His challenge is not Mr. McCain; it is the establishment of his own patriotism, trustworthiness and gravitas. He has to channel a little Colin Powell, and he no doubt hopes his trip to the Middle East and Europe will reflect him back to America with something of Mr. Powell's stature. He wants even Middle America to feel comfortable as the mantle they bestow on him settles upon his shoulders.
Mr. Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win" (Free Press, 2007).
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