February 6, 2008
Obama and the Culture WarsBy J.R. Dunn
It's a truism that a presidential candidate acts as a vessel for the dreams and beliefs of his followers. We've seen this for years with Madame Hillary, and more recently with Mike Huckabee. But nowhere has it been more evident than in the case of Barack Obama.
With Obama it appears at least in part to be a matter of strategy. His campaign persona is so vague, and slogans such as "the audacity of hope" and "the politics of unity" so generic that they could mean anything, which is exactly what they've been taken to mean.
Commentators, pundits, and voters look at Obama and see what they want see -- a "healer", an "agent of change", the "new JFK" -- a new persona each week. It follows directly that everyone also believes that Obama's ideas on policy and the issues are the same as that of the beholder, that the issue dearest to the candidate's heart happens to be the one that's most important to the individual voter. No matter what the constituency or what their concern, no doubt exists that Obama will get straight to work on their particular issue as soon as his shoes hit the oval office carpet.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the claim that Obama will "end the culture wars". This mantra is widespread enough to have become something of a slogan for the Obama campaign effort. A cursory net search of outside commentary leads us to commentators who either skeptically or full-heartedly note the argument. Paul Waldman:
Steven T. Jones:
Even the Wall Street Journal's John Fund has fallen for this line, along with Andrew Sullivan, in a cover piece for the Atlantic.
A major peculiarity of all this is that it's based on next to nothing. The original source appears to be Obama's 2004 convention speech, where he pledged to work to "bring together" the Red and Blue states. Of course, the "Red and Blue" trope isn't cultural at all, it's political; a media construct -- mostly a bogus one -- derived from each state's majority voting patterns. So what Obama was actually saying is that he wants to bring Republicans and Democrats together. That's nice of him.
Apart from a few disconnected remarks in various recent campaign speeches, that's about it. We know nothing of how Obama plans to bridge the culture gap, how he feels about actual issues, or what his intentions are in dealing with them. In other words, it's political boilerplate. Obama would like to see the culture wars end the same way he'd like to see Osama captured, global warming ended, and a chicken in every pot.
But it obviously means a lot more than that to his constituency. They take it for something quite concrete and meaningful, one of the most critical elements of Obama's candidacy. Ending the culture wars is something deeply important to them, and Barack Obama's role is if anything even more so. To get some idea of what this might amount to, we need to take a look at what the "culture wars" actually comprise.
The culture wars are a long-term conflict between this country's traditionalists on one hand and left-wing cultural revolutionaries on the other. Since the 60s, the American left has followed a strategy set down by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theoretician. Gramsci contended that the proper method of taking over an established capitalist state is to undermine its "cultural hegemony" by infiltrating the institutions until at last only leftists remain. This is exactly what American leftists have been doing since the 70s as involves academia, law, the media, and a number of other fields. The center-right became aware of this program rather late -- in the mid-80s -- and immediately began opposing it. At that point it became a "culture war" and a matter for concern. Before that, it was evidently just business as usual.
Hillary Clinton is the most prominent product of the culture war. She rose from undergrad radical politics to the status of a presidential candidate using purely Gramscian techniques. She's the natural left-wing candidate, and until a few months ago, that's exactly the way she was viewed. Now they're all behind Obama. What explains this?
It happens that one of the major weapons of the American left is race. Tradition, you see, and the values embodied within it, are fundamentally racist. This does not require demonstration or argument. There's no need of that. The eras in which these values prevailed were also the eras of slavery and segregation. QED, tradition has to be racist. (The concept that racism might well have flourished in defiance of these values -- which is in fact the case -- easily eludes the left. As does the fact that American blacks, by and large, are the most traditional of American social groups, more religious, more socially conservative, more skeptical of change than any other.)
Apart from that, it's possible to put together a barely coherent picture of the conservative side of the cultural battlefield that appears to be directly descended from the old racist paradigm, derived using equal parts opposition to multiculturalism and The Bell Curve. By throwing out everything else -- morality, individual responsibility, religious belief, respect for the past -- you can present the culture wars as a case of dominant whites against the poor huddling minorities. Which is exactly what the left has done.
So we begin to see how a black president might fit into the left's strategy of cultural warfare. The very fact of a black man becoming president (And let's forget the fact that last year, with a white mother and a Kenyan father, he wasn't "black enough". They certainly have.) Will profoundly change the culture-war equation - and not by burying the specter of racism, as everyone seems to believe.
Racism is one of the major weapons in the left's cultural war arsenal. While claiming to be working against its lingering historical effects, the left has simply reversed spin on the ancient practice of racism and applied it to whites. White are born racists, utterly consumed by it, their every act tinged by racism. There is nothing they can do to overcome the fact. Blacks, on the other hand, are protected by their victim status. The oppressed, according the multicultural worldview, cannot harbor racist thoughts or impulses. They are absolved of any such sin by their status as victims.
Presented as a method of combating racism, multiculturalism has effectively perpetuated it by increasing tensions between blacks and other ethnic groups -- tensions that the left then uses to push its own agenda.
This defines the role that Obama, despite his own intentions, will be forced to take. Unless he repudiates the logic of leftist racial politics (as Clarence Thomas did in refusing to bow before a hostile Senate and Tiger Woods by his dismissal of identity politics), the simple fact of his being a black president will write his script for him. He will become a victim president, leader of a nation of obsessive racists, all of them congenitally opposed to him.
The left -- his own party's left, on whom he is in large banking to get him into the oval office -- can't have it any other way. Multiculturalism is a pillar of their ideology, racism one of their major weapons. They will see to it that Obama is defined by those terms and none other. Any opposition, no matter what it involves, no matter how principled, will become racist opposition. To question the most minor element of administration policy will brand you as a "racist", someone who wants to stymie President Obama not out of sincere disagreement, not because you might think he's wrong, not because you have a better idea, merely but because he's black.
As for anyone who entertains doubts about this -- your first encounter with modern liberalism remains yet to come.
An Obama presidency will not be not the final repudiation of racism, or the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream, but a multicultural Gotterdammerung. Total victory, on the terms of the far left. That's what they mean by "ending the culture wars".
There's very little that Barack Obama can do about it. This is one of those situations where he will be driven by his constituency. Obama has revealed time and again that he accepts liberalism pretty much as it stands, which means that he accepts the whole enchilada. That being the case, he will have to accept the ideological interpretation of the culture wars, no matter where it leads. Otherwise he will risk triggering a civil war within his own ranks. Can a first-term, inexperienced, and likely insecure president take that chance?
Obama will have no choice. He will be fated to be the black president as defined by liberal extremists whether he likes it or not. If elected, that will be his tragedy. And ours as well.
JR Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.