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Melissa Harris-Perry | The Nation

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Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

 Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.

Democratic Freedom Dreams After September 11

Not long after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Robin Kelley, the award-winning historian of race and labor in the United States, published a book titled Freedom Dreams. It is an intellectual history of the various political projects for achieving freedom and equality that dominated the American landscape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bulk of the manuscript was completed before September 11, but the concluding chapter is written in direct response to the events of that day.

In the final chapter, Kelley spins his own “freedom dream” of what might become of Ground Zero. He writes:

What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?

We don’t need another hall of finance, wealth and exclusivity, no more symbols of class, power, and privilege. We don’t need another gargantuan modern-day mill where some working people slave over mops and vacuum cleaners in the wee hours of the morning and others over computers and fax machines way past sundown. Yes, jobs are valuable and necessary in a world where everything—even food, shelter, and clothing—is a commodity. But now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imagination.

Kelley goes on to imagine Ground Zero as a park “filled with odd, beautiful, play structures intended to force people to engage each other.” I’ve thought a great deal about Kelley’s freedom dream this week. Like many Americans, I found the tenth anniversary of September 11 particularly hard to comprehend and to process emotionally. How could a decade have passed? How could we still be at war? Did anything other than cascades of violence, greed, and division rise from the ashes of ground zero? Were all those lives lost for nothing? As One World Trade ascends, it both asserts the resilience of American capital and mocks Kelley’s dream of a free space.

Now that it is September 13, instead of September 11, I encourage us to consider for a moment not the anniversary of the tragedy but the anniversary of the political choices that were made in its wake. On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Afghanistan. On October 26, 2001, the United States Congress, with overwhelming bipartisan agreement, passed the USA Patriot Act and it was signed into law by President Bush. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the UN claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The resulting war in Iraq was repeatedly defended by the Bush administration as a response to the events of 9/11. Many are critical of politicizing memories of September 11. But September 11 was and is a powerful tool of American and international politics that was seized by the right in the days immediately following the attack. Progressives have been far less adept at employing September 11 as a fulcrum to turn the political agenda toward public-supporting ends.

There is one interesting, though not entirely unproblematic, exception. In March 2003, Richard Daley, then mayor of Chicago used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to enact a public works project he’d long hoped to bring to fruition. For nearly a decade Mayor Daley battled to close Meigs Field, a small airstrip along the city’s lakefront and covert the land into a public park. In the middle of the night of March 31, 2003, Mayor Daley sent bulldozers to Meigs Field and gouged large Xs into the runways. He did not give the required notice to the FAA or the private aircraft owners. Daley’s actions were decried as evidence of his increasingly authoritarian style. He was sued and the city eventually returned about a million dollars in FAA funds. He was roundly and regularly criticized.

Mayor Daley defended the closure of Meigs Field, saying that the airstrip posed a potential terrorist threat to downtown Chicago. “I am not willing to wait for a tragedy, as some have asked me to do, to happen before making a very difficult and tough decision.” Given that he had long hoped to close Meigs Field, that there were no credible threats to Chicago and that the small aircraft that used the runways were little threat to downtown, it is pretty clear that protection from terrorism was not the real impetus for Daley’s choice.

What was Meigs Field is now Northerly Island. It boasts great fishing and birding, a state-of-the-art concert venue, walking paths, picnic space and play equipment. Daley exercised coercive government power, justified by the threat of terrorism to turn a private airfield into a public space. President Bush, along with Congressional Democrats and Republicans, used coercive government power and the justification of terrorism to drag America into two wars and to strip away basic civil liberties. Ends do not justify means, but today Northerly Island in Chicago is far closer to Robin Kelley’s imagined free space than is Ground Zero.

While not a model for progressive governing, it is at least an interesting counter-example of how our collective suffering might be turned toward ends that meet our collective needs, rather than used to justify even more suffering.

Thinking vs. Doing at GOP Debate

Post-mortem media coverage of last night’s Republican primary debate has focused on several key distinctions including the differing approaches to social security offered by Perry and Romney, the divergent constitutional interpretation articulated by Paul, and the contrasting approach to scientific knowledge on display by Huntsman.

But it was the refrain of an unreconciled dichotomy between “thinking” and “doing” that offers the best insight into the upcoming 2012 election match-up between President Obama and his GOP challenger. The clearest moment was when Governor Perry, discussing Social Security, declared, “You can either have reasons, or you can have results.” Even though Perry later discussed his own deliberations on the HPV vaccine law, lauded Texas’ “thoughtful” process of capital punishment, and cited Galileo as an example of scientific peer review processes, the dominant theme of the GOP debate was— it is time to do away with the useless endeavor of thinking and to move swiftly toward taking action.

This is a message likely to resonate with American voters across partisan and ideological lines.

America’s unrelenting economic distress and persistent international military entanglements cry out for redress. Observers on the left and the right are demanding that something be done—now. The free flowing criticism of the president’s as yet undelivered jobs speech is fueled by the sense that public pronouncements and private dialogue are a waste of time in this crisis. The demand for action is a bipartisan revolt against the professorial president.

Progressives ought be reticent to join this outcry against deliberate, thoughtful public airing of the ideas that undergird policy choices. Republican presidential candidates are not stupid. They are not action figures who posses supra-constitutional abilities to make things better. They are operating with guiding philosophies about how much inequality should be tolerated, grand visions of what a fair America should look like, and binding ideas about the role of government in advancing the cause of justice. Their actions will, undoubtedly, proceed from those thoughts. A fence on the border, the end of social security as a public trust, the repeal of basic environmental standards are all policy goals rooted in philosophical claims. Our economic and political circumstances demand that we know more than what these candidates propose to do. We need to listen to why they plan to do it.

And then we have to offer clear alternatives, not only to policy actions, but to underlying theories of economy and government that support these policies. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of the importance of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” Such an insurrection is critically needed in our public realm. Even as we seek action, we cannot discard thought.

Republicans Reject the Middle—Again

This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and fellow MSNBC contributor Clarence Page. Motivated by Monday night’s debate in New Hampshire, he and I discussed the current field of GOP candidates. I indicated my distress at hearing so many of them parrot the talking points of the Tea Party and my surprise that the new litmus test for being prolife required the candidates to reject a right to abortion even in the case of rape, incest and threat to the life of the woman. In response, Page reminded me of the 1964 Republican National Convention when Nelson Rockefeller was booed by Goldwater delegates. It was a useful reminder.

In 1964 the Republican Party was at war with itself and the convention highlighted the fronts of the battle. Rockefeller largely derailed his own opportunity for the nomination when he divorced his wife of three decades and married a much young woman. By 1964 standards this behavior violated the basic rules of ethical personal conduct expected of serious contenders for national office. But it was not his personal life that was booed by conservative convention delegates. They shouted at Rockefeller when he insisted on the need for “honest Republican liberalism that has kept this party abreast of human need” and warned that “the Republican Party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-finaced, highly disciplined majority.”

Republicans booed Rockefeller as the civil rights movement was marching toward greater equality for African-Americans. They booed Rockefeller as American women were challenging centuries of narrow, repressive social and economic practices. They booed Rockefeller as Americans rattled with fear over a Communist threat to American domestic security and international hegemony. They booed Rockefeller as the changing world evoked a heightened sense of vulnerability for those who had wielded power and privilege for so long. It is almost laughable that someone of the family legacy and monied heritage of Rockefeller could stand in as symbol of the changing world of 1964. But the very fact that he was interpreted as frighteningly left of the GOP center is an indication of how far right the party had moved. So in 1964 the GOP rejected Rockefeller Republicanism and embraced Goldwater extremism.

I couldn’t help but notice similar patterns of rejecting traditional conservatism in exchange for radical rightism in the GOP candidates on Monday night. They seemed intent on vaulting over most reasonable responses in a rush to position themselves as far to the right as the stage would allow.

The Republican extremism of 1964 was disastrous in the short term. Goldwater carried only six states and President Johnson secured the largest popular vote margin in modern presidential history. But I am not interested in comparing 2012 to 1964 to reassure Democrats that it is easy to beat extremists in the general election. Because while 1964 was a short-term loss, the conservative strategy has paid huge electoral dividends to Republican Party over the past fifty years.

Republicans secured their position as the national party of the South in 1964 and they have held it ever since. Recall that Nixon enthusiastically embraced Goldwater in 1964 and was shortly elected president himself. Nineteen sixty-four was also the conservative coming-out party for a young Ronald Reagan who was then elected governor of California two years later and went on to become the icon of the contemporary GOP. Interestingly though, the GOP rejection of Rockefeller ultimately sealed the fate of an ambitious, young moderate who could never again gain a significant following among Republicans: George Romney. It will be instructive to see if his son chooses to run to the right in order to secure the nomination his father could never obtain.

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Palin and the Memory of Literacy Tests

I first saw Sarah Palin’s description of Paul Revere last week during my appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Palin’s mangled, close-but-not-quite retelling of the famous patriot provoked me to hearty laughter, but also piqued my professorial impulse to urge on a clearly confused, but absolutely earnest student who is searching for the right answer. As I listened to her I thought, “come on… you’re on the right track… that’s almost it…. aw, no, now you’re just wrong.”

For the most part it seemed like a harmless Palinism. Good for an easy laugh, but certainly no indication of her ability to attract followers, compel listeners and command media attention. The more insidious implications of Palin’s casual relationship to American history didn’t occur to me until this week when I began to think of her Revere response in the context of voting restrictions being imposed in states throughout the South.

In anticipation of the 2012 elections, Southern legislators are turning back the clock on America’s expanding franchise by reducing early voting opportunities and imposing unprecedented identification card rules. The new policies are poised to have a disparate impact on young voters, voters of color, voters for whom English is a second language and voters who work shifts. Historically these are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. These new Southern efforts smack of Jim Crow era disenfranchisement.

Among the most pernicious Jim Crow restrictions was the literacy test. Literacy tests denied suffrage to black citizens by imposing ridiculously difficult and often politically irrelevant testing on those who hoped to register to vote. Not only were African-American men and women asked to recite long passages of the Declaration of Independence, interpret portions of the constitution with LSAT competence and recall obscure historical facts, they were also asked to determine important calculations like how many jelly beans were in the jar on the sheriff’s desk.

Many Palin supporters have complained that she is subjected to “gotcha journalism” when asked to reveal her knowledge of world events, political history or the names of newspapers she reads. Though I find her responses sometimes laughable and sometimes oddly endearing, I have a difficult time feeling a fully emphatic concern about her discomfort in these circumstances. I’m far more worried about current legislators reviving an institutional practice that revives the effects of a practice when thousands of grandmothers, sharecroppers, workers and students denied—sometimes violently—their basic right to cast a vote because they couldn’t pass the unfair literacy tests.

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Three Things I Love About Herman Cain's Campaign

I have watched the Herman Cain 2012 campaign video repeatedly. It is a four-minute glimpse into one of the least understood aspects of American political life: black conservatism. The initial impulse among many Democrats (and frankly most Republicans) is to dismiss Cain’s bid for the presidency as quixotic and a bit incomprehensible. I understand that impulse. I do not think Herman Cain will secure the GOP nomination for the US presidency. I understand why devoting media coverage to a unlikely campaign can seem wasteful and distracting, but the Cain campaign video, and potentially the campaign itself, is a bit Americana performance art worth understanding.

Here are just a few things I love about Herman Cain… and by love I mean that I find them fascinating and worthy of study.

(1) Cain’s campaign is a reminder that black political ideas are complex and multi-layered.

I became fascinated with the political history and contemporary manifestations of black conservatism while writing my first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. In it I argue that it is ahistiorical to dismiss black conservatives as race traitors laboring under self-serving, false ideology. Conservatism has deep roots among African-Americans. It appeals to self-help, views the state as overly intrusive, and believes free markets are non-discriminatory. Black conservatism stresses that political strategies are inferior to efforts for economic empowerment for addressing racial inequality. These tenets echo Tea Party rhetoric, but among black Americans this form of conservatism is typically, especially racial.

The core theme of black conservatism is a theory of racial self-uplift. Black conservatism, unlike its white counterpart does not ignore racial inequality or depend on racial animus. Black conservatism justifies itself as a strategy for creating racial equality by rejecting policies that create a perception of underserved benefits that diminish the honor of black people. Black conservatism acknowledges the existence of past discriminatory practices but argues that current inequalities result more from behavioral pathologies—such as unwed motherhood, drug addiction and hip-hop culture—than from acts of racism. Thus it concludes that African-Americans must fortify their moral and economic strength in order to compete in the United States.

Although only a tiny fraction (fewer than 10 percent) of black people identify with or cast votes for the Republican Party, these underlying tenets of conservatism are widely shared to varying degrees among African-Americans. And it is those aspects of conservatism that I see Cain tapping in his nascent, underdog campaign. These aspects of political reasoning are as important and as indigenous to black political cultural life as are black progressive demands for race-conscious, government-based strategies to address inequality. Indeed, I would argue that President Obama’s own strategic deployment of racial conservatism—in his father’s day speeches that demand black male accountability for example—are part of what boost his popularity among many black Democrats who nonetheless understand themselves as socially conservative.

I make this point about the indigenous nature of black conservatism, because I don't want us to miss that Herman Cain is making some interesting authenticity claims in his campaign.

(2) Cain’s campaign is “keeping it real.”

Log onto Herman Cain’s 2012 campaign website and you’ll find these words “Let’s Get Real.” Getting real has an interesting double meaning that reflects the Tea Party crowd but also draws on a now-dated black youth phraseology emphasizing the importance of racial authenticity. In Cain’s campaign video he reminds us that his grandparents were slaves and declares that he is now running for president: “Isn’t America great?!” Cain is doing two things here. He is extolling American triumphalism and suggesting that the nation has conquered its ugly, racist past. That’s for the Tea Party. But he is also reminding us that Barack Obama is not, after all, descended from American slaves. That’s for the black viewers.

I’ve seen this strategy before. In 2004 Republican candidate Alan Keyes was asked during a Senate debate with Barack Obama if he supported reparations for slavery. Stunning many, Keyes responded “yes.” Then he followed up, “And Mr. Obama will not be eligible for any because while I am descended from American slaves, he is not.” It was a weird moment that disrupted easy assumptions about racial authenticity. Keyes may have been the Republican. He may have been booed at the Southside Chicago Bud Billiken parade. He may have been called an Uncle Tom. But, he laid claim to a particular form of black “realness” unavailable to Obama.

Herman Cain’s “up from” story resonates with the familiar strains of heroic Booker T. Washington–ism. His staunch determination despite being dismissed as a laughably unlikely candidate appeals to a respected black tradition of political defiance. His personal trajectory from a slave past, a childhood in the rural South, through the esteemed Morehouse College, and onto entrepreneurial success is likely a familiar story to many African-Americans. One can disagree vehemently with Cain, but it is tough to claim that he is not authentically black.

I might argue that Cain's authenticity claims are ripe for a "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong" skit by Dave Chapelle, but they are not completely alien. Which leads me to a third point.

(3) Cain’s campaign reminds us of the danger of simplistic racial arguments.

Herman Cain’s candidacy is a cautionary tale against the simplistic racial reasoning that has dominated much of American political discourse in the past few years. In order to meaningfully confront Herman Cain’s use of racial authenticity claims and his insistence that his candidacy proves the Tea Party is not racist requires far more complex racial understandings than we have been offered in recent years.

I suggest that we do away with all blacker-than-thou arguments about who does and does not get to be “really black” or “black enough.” Engaging in these life-experience-authenticity-litmus tests allows us to imagine that biography determines political solidarity. Herman Cain is a reminder that it does not.

Further, we need to bury, once and for all, the idea that racism is primarily about saying mean or unflattering things about black people, and specifically saying mean or unflattering things about President Obama. We need to insist that discussions of American racism rest firmly in revealing and addressing the disparate impact of policies and practices that create or deepen racially unequal outcomes. Racial animus might have prompted the nasty signage about the president at anti–healthcare reform rallies, but who cares? The issues of racism in healthcare are the continuing racial health disparities that impact black Americans from infancy to old-age. When some whites refuse to vote for Barack Obama it might be caused by racism, but the voting racism I am much more interested in is the voting and registration regulations that state governments are imposing right now in ways that will likely disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of black voters.

If we allow white Democrats to believe that support for Barack Obama is sufficient to protect them from any racialized criticism then we will have to extend that same logic to Republican supporters of Cain. Both are ridiculous. The politically relevant question on race is not the willingness to support a candidate who shows up in a black body. Anti-racism is not about hugging the black guy running for president, it’s about embracing policies that reduce structural unfairness and eliminate continuing racial inequality.

Herman Cain will not be the president of the United States, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore him. Paying attention may be a wake up call we need.

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Cornel West v. Barack Obama

Professor Cornel West is President Obama’s silenced, disregarded, disrespected moral conscience, according to Chris Hedges’s recent Truthdig column, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West went Ballistic.” In a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.

West begins with a bit of historical revision. West suggests that the president discarded him without provocation after he offered the Obama for America campaign his loyal service and prayers. But anyone with a casual knowledge of this rift knows it began during the Democratic primary, not after the election. It began, not with a puffed-up president but when Cornel West’s “dear brother” Tavis Smiley threw a public tantrum because Senator Obama refused to attend Smiley’s annual State of Black America. Smiley repeatedly suggested that his forum was the necessary black vetting space for the Democratic nominees. He needed to ask Obama and Clinton tough questions so that black America could get the answers it needed. But black America was doing a fine job making up its own mind in the primaries and didn’t need Smiley’s blessing to determine their own electoral preferences. Indeed, when Smiley got a chance to hold candidate Clinton “accountable” he spent more time fawning over her than probing about her symbolic or substantive policy stances that impacted black communities. Fiercely loyal to his friend, Professor West chose sides and began to undermine candidate Obama is small and large ways. Candidate Obama ceased calling West back because he was in the middle of a fierce campaign and West’s loyalties were, at best, divided. I suspect candidate Obama did not trust his “dear brother” to keep the campaign secrets and strategies. I also suspect he was not inaccurate in his hesitancy.

West may have had principled, even prophetic reasons, for choosing this outsider position relative to Obama, but it is dishonest to later frame that choice as a betrayal on the part of the president. After what I had written about Senator Clinton during the campaign I wasn’t expecting an offer from the State Department.

Furthermore, West’s sense of betrayal is clearly more personal than ideological. In Hedges’s article West claims that a true progressive would always put love of the people above concern with the elite and privileged. Then he complains, “I couldn’t get a ticket [to the inauguration] with my mother and my brother. I said this is very strange. We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration…. We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” Let me get this straight—the tenured, Princeton professor who collects five figures for public lectures was relegated to a hotel television while an anonymous hotel worker got tickets to the inauguration! What kind of crazy, mixed-up class politics are these? Wait a minute…

What exactly is so irritating to West about inaugural ticket-gate? It can’t be a claim that the black, progressive intellectual community was unrepresented. Yale’s Elizabeth Alexander was the poet that cold morning. It can’t be that the “common man” was shut out because the Neighborhood Ball was reserved for the ordinary women and and men who worked to make Obama ’08 possible. It must be a simple matter of jealous indignation. While I appreciate the humanness in such a reaction, it hardly counts as a prophetic critique.

Since the inaugural snub, Professor West has made his personal animosity and political criticism of the president his main public talking point. There was that hilariously bad documentary with Tavis Smiley and the rest of the Soul Patrol in 2009. There is the tiresome repetitiveness with which West invokes the name of his erstwhile Harvard nemesis Lawrence Summers as indicative of President Obama’s failed economic vision. And just a few weeks ago there was the eminently watchable screaming match on MSNBC where love-the-people West called Rev. Al Sharpton a “mascot” for the Obama administration. Add to this three-year screed the current Hedges article and it looks more like a pissing match than prophecy.

Take for example West’s ad hominem attack on the president’s racial identity.

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men.… It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.”

This comment is utter hilarity coming from Cornel West who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Princeton, New Jersey. And it is hard to see his claim that Obama is “most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they” as anything other than a classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Harvard and Princeton are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men.

Let me be clear, being an Ivy League professor does not mean that one has no room to offer critical engagement on issues of race. Like Professor West, I too make my living at elite, predominantly white institutions. For the past five years we were on the same payroll at Princeton. Like Professor West I supplement my income by giving lectures about race, politics and history. Like West, I hope to influence policy, inspire individuals and intervene in public conversations about race. My criticism of West is his seeming unwillingness to acknowledge how our structural positions within the academy and in public intellectual life can be just as compromising to our position vis-à-vis black communities as is President Obama’s.

As tenured professors Cornel West and I are not meaningfully accountable, no matter what our love, commitment or self-delusions tell us. President Obama, as an elected official, can, in fact, be voted out of his job. We can’t. That is a difference that matters. As West derides the president’s economic policies he remains silent on his friend Tavis Smiley’s relationship with Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo and McDonald’s—all corporations whose invasive and predatory actions in poor and black communities have been the target of progressive organizing for decades. I have never heard him take Tavis Smiley to task for helping convince black Americans to enter into predatory mortgages. I’ve never heard him ask whether Tavis’s decision to publish R. Kelley’s memoirs might be a less than progressive decision. He doesn’t hold Tavis accountable because Tavis is his friend and he is loyal. I respect that, but I also know that if he were in elected office the could not get off so easily. Opposition research would point out the hypocrisy in his public positions in a way that would make him vulnerable come election time. As a media personality and professor he is safely ensconced in a system that can never vote him off the island. I think an honest critique of Obama has to begin by acknowledging his own privileges.

Instead, West seems determined to keep black politics tethered to a patronage model of politics. He tells Hedges:

“Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. Tavis [Smiley] and I have talked about ways of civil disobedience, beginning with ways for both of us to get arrested…”

God help us if Cornel West and Tavis Smiley getting arrested is our last chance at a democratic awakening.

I have many criticisms of the Obama administration. I wrote angrily about his choice of Rick Warren to deliver a prayer at the inauguration. I have spoken on television about my disagreement with drone attacks in Pakistan and been critical of the administration’s initial choice to prosecute DADT cases. I worked for more progressive health care reform legislation and supported organizations that resisted the reproductive rights “compromises” in the bill. I’ve been scathing in public remarks and writings about the President’s education policy. My husband leads a nonprofit that is suing HUD for its implementation of a discriminatory formula in the post-Katrina Road Home program. The president has never called me. I got my ticket to the inauguration from Canada! (Because Canadian Broadcast Television who gave me a chance to narrate the day’s events.) But I can tell the difference between a substantive criticism and a personal attack. It is clear to me that West’s ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.

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On the Political Possibilities of Holy Week

More than a year ago, I wrote here on TheNation.com that progressive opinion leaders should consider more seriously and consistently engaging in biblical and religious discussions as part of our political discourse. The goal is not to create half-hearted or cynically manipulative religious justifications for political or ideological positions but instead to take seriously the role of religion in the lives of so many Americans and to better understand how moral lessons gained from those religious traditions influence our political ideas.

Halfway through the holiest week in the Christian calendar, I am reminded again of the dangers and possibilities inherent in such a strategy.

Palm Sunday begins the Christian Holy Week with celebratory enthusiasm. As an adult I learned to love this Sunday best because it temporarily intervenes in the self-denial of Lent. Shaking off the mournful watchfulness of the month, it lets loose with joyful worship. It is a Sunday marked by Hosanna and Hallelujah! This year’s Palm Sunday was the first that I worshipped at my husband’s Catholic church in New Orleans where they observe the day with a brass band, enormous palms, a parade into the church and a spirit of enthusiastic reverence. There is no denying that Palm Sunday is fun.

But for all the excitement of the day, it is also the beginning of a speedy descent into the most meaningful, but also most painful, days of the Christian calendar. Christianity is all about this week that begins with remembering the enthusiastic crowds that welcomed and embraced Jesus of Nazareth and ends with the painful betrayal and bloody crucifixion of the same man. It is these seven days and the faith claims about what happens during these days and why it happened that defines Christian belief. Many lessons can be drawn from interpreting of the miracles, sermons and life of Jesus, but this week is the critical nexus of belief that defines the religion. So understanding how various Christian communities and individuals understand this week is central to understanding what the faith teaches about the world.

Which brings me back to the political possibilities of open, religious conversations.

Our country is in a precarious economic and political moment. News media tend to emphasize partisan divisions as pre-eminent concerns in political action: Republicans are pitted against Democrats in an epic battle taking the country to the brink of economic ruin and full shutdown. With our entrance into the Libyan conflict, it feels to many that we are deepening the attachment to international warfare into which we too hastily entered a decade ago. Neither the President nor the Congress inspires much confidence among most Americans. Neither the populist enthusiasm of the 2008 “Obama for America” campaign nor the 2010 Tea Party backlash appears sustainable. No one is singing “Hosanna” or waving palms for anybody in Washington these days, and it would be pretty tough to wring a “Hallelujah!” out of anyone making less than about $250,000 a year. How we understand our current political moment is informed by individual dispositions, by interpretations of political and economic history, by ideology and partisanship, but for some Americans it is also interpreted through the lens of their Christian beliefs.

Holy Week can be read as a justification for political quietism. For many, a faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus means that no political or social occurrences of this life are particularly important when compared with the focus on an eternal afterlife. This reading of the Christian story asks believers to simply meet their minimum obligations as citizens (pay taxes dutifully, follow the laws) but not to engage in politics because the only meaningful rewards are related to the eternal soul. Part of the challenge for political leaders is to overcome that quietism and encourage Americans not to disengage from the state in hopes that God will simply fix everything without human effort. In a crisis that might lead some to put down their voter registration cards and instead focus solely on other-worldly solutions, progressives would do well to acknowledge and address the interconnections between human action and concepts of salvation.

For others, this is a week of lessons suggesting that persecution is evidence of righteousness. The Gospels emphasize that Jesus was betrayed by a trusted ally, abandoned by most of his initial supporters and brutally beaten, publicly humiliated and viciously murdered by powerful leaders. Thus many Christians read into the current political moment a lesson that sustained attack on an individual is potentially evidence of that person’s inherent righteousness. The more outsized the attack on an individual, the more innocent that person may begin to appear. This is worth considering as the left shifts into high-gear attack of potential GOP presidential contenders.

For yet other Christians, Holy Week is a reminder to be optimistic even in the most hopeless of circumstances. For me, this is the lesson with the most exciting potential for our collective national lives. The daybreak of Easter is ever-present for Christians even as we descend from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the agony of Good Friday. One the most exciting elements of Christian theology is the idea that no defeat is necessarily permanent and that no suffering is without redemptive possibility. I suspect that harnessing the optimism of Easter is critically important to political progressives at this moment. In this story there is the possibility that with faith in something larger than ourselves, with willingness to forgive and with determination to hold together our community despite bitter defeat there is victory waiting just on the other side of suffering.

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We Can't Win the Fight if We Can't Tell the Story

The first impression that many Americans had of Barack Obama was that of a great storyteller. His 2004 DNC speech was memorable oratory that linked his complex, multiracial, international, bicoastal personal narrative to a broader national identity—one that he described saying, “in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible.” Four years later, the 2008 Obama for America campaign repeatedly made rhetorical history with the “Yes We Can” New Hampshire concession, the Philadelphia “More Perfect Union” race speech, the memorable DNC nomination acceptance and, of course, the extraordinary November speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Candidate Obama had an ability to tell a story of America that captured national striving, greatness, accomplishment, and triumph without ignoring struggles, disappointments, disagreement, and loss. Take, for example, the night he was elected president of the United States. Barack Obama told a story about an African-American woman, Ann Nixon Cooper. Cooper was 106 years old, lived in Georgia and vigorously supported his candidacy. She was born in 1902, a time that President-elect Obama described as “just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” During her life Cooper was a civil rights advocate, a community leader, a mother and a wife.

As he marked the moment of his historic victory, Barack Obama chose Cooper as the lens through which to tell the story of America. He tied her personal story both to the arc of the nation’s history and to the future embodied in his own African-American daughters. Never before had a president invited us to see our national history through the lens of a disenfranchised black woman, but in doing so Obama gave us a way of understanding our national story as one rooted in growing inclusiveness and active government action on behalf of equality.

Whatever one thinks of the foreign and domestic policy outcomes of the past two years, it is clear that the Obama administration has stumbled in its ability to tell a compelling story.

Many progressives kept waiting for the great storyteller to emerge throughout the summer of the health care reform debate. The Tea Party effectively rewrote American history as they equated efforts of an enthusiastically elected government to pass a popularly mandated reform with the founding struggle against an oppressive monarchy. But there were few effective, penetrating tales of Americans who needed, wanted and supported reform. The Democrats proved incapable of linking health reform to great American traditions of civic responsibility or care for the vulnerable.

Similar failures of narrative have been egregious during the current budget fight. Once again the extremist elements of the GOP have managed to tell the most legible and convincing stories. Republicans hammered home the idea that the national budget ought to mirror household budgets. “When the going gets rough,” the GOP says, “people have to tighten their budgets, the American government ought to do the same.” This is a compelling story. People hear this and think to themselves, “Yes, yes, I have cut my cable bill, cancelled my vacation, and started cutting coupons; the government should do the same.” This is a false equivalency.

 

Household budgets are not the same as national ones. In fact, this narrative obscures the reason that Americans are tightening their belts—because the failed, short-sighted fiscal policies of GOP-led governments brought our economy to the brink of disaster. By telling the story this way Republicans effectively dodge the main point that massive tax cuts redistributed wealth to the top 1 percent but failed to stoke job growth. They ignore that disinvestment in educational grants made college more expensive for Americans. They ignore that their deregulation of lending practices foreclosed on the American dream for millions. The government (under Republican direction) created a mess for American households and has an ethical obligation to address the mess it made. To ask poor, disabled and elderly citizens to sacrifice basic needs to underwrite the extravagant choices of their wealthier neighbors is profoundly un-American. In my house, when somebody makes a mess we clean it up. When somebody is sick, we care for them. When somebody needs a hand, we lend it. All of these basic realities are obscured by the good story about household budgets and fiscal responsibility.

And I can’t stand to linger on the most infectious narrative of all from the bards of the right wing: birtherism.

The Democratic Party has largely failed to counter these well-spun fictions. The Democrats’ poor story-telling is going to have long-term consequences. It is a mistake to think false storylines are easily forgotten or that they can be swiftly overturned by simple recitation of countervailing facts. Today’s observance of the Civil War is a perfect example. Reconstruction was a short-lived effort and Confederates were given leave to (re)write the story of the Civil War from their own perspective. Thus Southern states still fly the flag of traitors and school kids are still taught that it was the “War of Northern Aggression.”

So what are we to do? It is time to take back the narrative. Time to tell our stories.

One organization with a commitment to precisely this kind of effective, progressive story telling is The Opportunity Agenda. Just last week The Opportunity Agenda celebrated its fifth anniversary. Their work focuses on framing our pressing national issues in the language and narrative of shared American values and identity. The Opportunity Agenda’s Communication Institute works with nonprofit leaders to give them comprehensive training on a variety of communications skills, including framing and narrative development, using public opinion and media research, and persuasive writing. Community leaders have a keen understanding of our challenges and important ideas about how to solve these problems, but they sometimes lack the ability to convey this information in memorable, convincing stories. The Opportunity Agenda is working to build our capacity to challenge the false narratives of the right and to offer our meaningful, substantive and engaging stories of our own.

Theirs is one of the crucial efforts to take back public space and to tell our stories. We need many more.

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The Great Wells of Manning Marable

We have suffered a great loss in the passing of Professor Manning Marable. As my Nation colleague John Nichols wrote yesterday, the coming weeks will be filled with tributes to Manning’s life and work. He was, as John says, “one of America’s truest public intellectuals.”

Manning was an unflinching and breathtakingly prolific scholar whose commitments to racial, economic, gender, and international justice were unparalleled. In decades of weekly columns, hundreds of academic journal articles and a dozen books, Manning has already written his own legacy. But despite the fact that we all have “Manning Marable shelves” in our personal libraries, there are two generations of African-American scholars who will remember him as much for the mentor he was to us as for the research legacy he leaves.

It is still a surprisingly lonely endeavor to be an African-American academic pursuing research on black life. Despite the outward appearance of successful careers, many black social scientists, historians and humanists wage a daily battle for relevance and respect in our departments and on our campuses. The fight begins in graduate school and does not seem to abate even after we have published articles, written books, achieved tenure or garnered professional praise.

In our loneliness and struggle many of us reach out for mentors. It is relatively easy to find senior scholars who will offer encouraging words, well-rehearsed advice and general praise. But Manning managed to do so much more than that. To be a student or a junior faculty member in Manning’s office was to wait for the smile. He would listen intently and seriously as you told him about the project you envisioned, the finding you made or a conclusion you’d drawn. As you spoke, his face was a mask of stillness covering a never-resting intellect just below the surface. It was more than a little intimidating to present an idea to Manning. But if he liked what you were up to or thought you had uncovered a promising direction then his face would crack into a broad and compelling smile that made the whole nerve-wracking experience worth it. If you got the smile then you knew you could keep going.

This was only the most surface way that Manning mentored us. As a student of politics and history, he understood that young race scholars faced steep structural barriers and entrenched academic practices that no amount of well-intentioned professional cheerleading could erase. Instead of just telling us we could do it, Manning helped make “doing it” possible.

As founding director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Manning created a place where students could stretch their intellect in uncoventional ways. He encouraged students to study black life using methods and asking questions that typical disciplinary boundaries so often limit and discourage in our work. His institute was a gathering place for people from all over the world who insisted on critical connections between theory and practice. Through publication of his quarterly journal, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, Manning gave many race scholars their first academic publications. Those early publications were decisive in the careers of many of the best professors in the academy today. Through his regular column "Along the Color Line" Manning gave us permission to and a model for reaching beyond the walls of the academy. He reminded us that our work was about something other than our own profession and that we owed debts to the communities who were the source material of our academic writing.

Manning did more than encourage us. He made a way for us. He cleared brush. He extended his protections. He shared his resources with uncompromising generosity. And he did all of this without needing to turn us into his personal collection. He very rarely took credit for our successes, despite his important role in all that we were able to do.

Manning Marable’s 2002 book is titled The Great Wells of American Democracy. It is a biting and critical text that challenges simplistic heroic narratives of American history, but simultaneously retains profound optimism about the inherent possibilities of the American experiment. When I think of Manning himself it is as a great well—possessing reserves of energy, intellect and commitment I have never before witnessed.

I have a recurring, Descartes-inspired, dualist fantasy. I imagine how much I could accomplish if I were not hindered by the realities of being embodied. I have so many ideas and intentions. I see so many paths and possibilities. I want to explore so many connections and paths. Think of how much I could accomplish if I were only mind and will unfettered by eyes that grow wearing of reading, hands that become exhausted from typing, a back that aches from sitting at the desk and a body that must eat and rest.

To those of us he mentored, it seemed like Manning had achieved this feat. I wondered if he had somehow bent the rules of the physical world in order to accomplish an unthinkable amount of work in such short periods. He felt like pure energy. But our dearest Manning was in a body. He was in a body that was broken and struggling. It turns out that our beloved mentor was mortal after all. I cannot believe that he is gone. I cannot even believe it is possible that he could be gone.

That we will have his long-anticipated, great and final work even as he leaves us is so classically, tragically appropriate. Manning would never leave us without one more contribution, one more trail blazed, one more bar raised, one more possibility realized, one last drink from the great well of himself.

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Mike Huckabee: Wrong on Single Moms

Last week Mike Huckabee’s presidential ramp-up took a Quaylian detour when he denounced Oscar winner Natalie Portman for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Suggesting that Portman and other unmarried Hollywood stars glamorize single motherhood, he claimed, “Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care.”

This is the kind of story I would typically ignore, but I agreed to talk with Lawrence O’Donnell about it on Friday night because Huckabee’s recycled and inaccurate attack on single motherhood was personally irritating to me.

I know a bit about single parenting. Although my father was always a part of my life, my parents were not married and my mother was the primary caretaker and breadwinner. She managed this as a white woman raising an interracial child in the South in the 1970s. She rarely made a wage equal to her male counterparts and often had to navigate a difficult racial environment. It was not an easy task socially, financially, or emotionally. It was certainly not glamorous. I am sure my mom would have liked much more personal and financial support. My mother worked extremely hard, was always present, and never left my sister or me feeling deprived. I didn’t even know how economically marginal we truly were until I got to college and saw what wealth looked like for the first time.

My mom’s experiences were tough enough to convince me that I never wanted to be a single parent. So I followed all the rules: I dated a man for five years, got a PhD, then got married, then bought a house, then had a baby. I assumed all my “good choices” had protected me from the fate of single parenting. But my first husband left me before our daughter was two and I suddenly found myself shouldering all the financial and personal burdens of parenting. Although my education and income meant I never descended into poverty, the costs of single parenting were real. Despite our tough experiences I know that both my mother and I are good, loving parents and that neither of us, nor most other unmarried mothers, deserve to be scapegoats for social or fiscal problems facing America.

In fact, my lived experiences of single parenting are more representative of the unmarried mom experience than Huckabee’s fantasy of starving children fed by the state. Data from a 2009 report on unmarried parents show that 80% of custodial single mothers are gainfully employed and fewer than 10% are recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Poverty rates are certainly much higher among single parents. Nearly 27% live below the poverty line. But this number does not approach the “most” which Huckabee claims. These data show that although they are more often poor, most single mothers work despite the obvious difficulties of working while raising children without a spouse. They further show that our government actually does very little to support these women. These moms are hardly cash-sucking drains on national or state economies. Many of these women and their children could use more support, not less.

Maybe what Huckabee meant to designate was not single mothers, but teen mothers. Teen mothers do face far more difficult economic circumstances than do unmarried mothers more generally. Only about 50% of teens who become pregnant before graduating will ever finish high school.The children of teens have poorer health outcomes, which can have real and lasting social costs. But if Huckabee is concerned with glamorizing teen pregnancy he need look no farther than his own political party. The GOP's embrace of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy during the 2008 convention was a powerful endorsement by America’s “family values” Party for precisely the kind of pregnancy that often has the most difficult social outcomes for moms and kids: the pregnancy of an unmarried teen without a diploma.

Further, if Huckabee is concerned with decreasing the number of unmarried moms then I hope he plans to aggressively lobby the US Senate to turn back the House's attack on Planned Parenthood. The accurate, available, affordable and safe family planning counseling and contraceptive services of Planned Parenthood are the first line of defense against unintended pregnancies and are critically important to empowering women and all ages to make the healthiest reproductive choices they can. The GOPs efforts to defund Title X and to prosecute a war against choice will undoubtedly lead to more, not fewer, households led by single women with few economic resources.In my recent column I argued, that maybe that is precisely the outcome the GOP prefers.

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