The iPhone has a new application–a GPS navigational system called Loopt. If you’re out and about and you want to know if your friends are in the neighborhood, your phone can tell them where you are and theirs tells you where they are. You’re in the loop. With technology like this, it’s a wonder anyone has affairs anymore. Total information: constant contact, anytime, all the time. There’s almost literally nowhere left to hide.
What is true in our personal lives is increasingly true in our political culture. Jesse Jackson was caught whispering sour nothings about Barack Obama to a fellow guest on Fox News. "Barack’s been talking down to black people," Jackson said. "I wanna cut his nuts off."
He thought the mic was off. He should have known better. In 1984 in a conversation with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown." "Let’s talk black talk," he told Coleman, assuming that meant it would be off the record. When Coleman decided to publish it, Jackson at first denied it, then finally admitted it and apologized. This time there was no denial–there couldn’t have been. With blogs, webcams, Facebook and YouTube, there is always a mic somewhere and it is always on.
There is, in short, no such thing as a discreet conversation anymore. The personal, the private, the privileged and the confidential no longer really exist. The stories you may choose not to share are not yours to keep; the conversations you hope will go no further can just keep traveling. A remark may be off the cuff or off the top of your head–but nowadays you must always assume it’s on the record.
The fact that this discourages public figures from speaking their mind is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it deters open and honest intellectual engagement and development. People generally arrive at positions through discussion and debate and trial and error. But the days when they could think out loud are fast disappearing. A culture desperately in need of ideas is giving its political class no place to think. If you feel the mic is always on, you will always perform. Politicians have to forgo the right to be angry, exasperated, depressed or funny–or at least they reveal those emotions at great risk to their credibility. Their human qualities–the very thing we need more of–become a liability.
On the other hand, it can pry candor from the lips of the caged and the canny. It exposed Trent Lott’s nostalgia for segregation and Republican George Allen’s "macaca" moment that effectively derailed his Senate race in Virginia.
In Jackson’s case, it gave furtive voice to his ambivalence toward Obama. Not, as some claim, because Obama has usurped his mantle as leader of Black America but because Jackson is a radical and Obama is not. They emerge from the same city but different traditions and moments, so there is no reason that they should necessarily agree or even get along. Having endorsed Obama early on, Jackson rarely spoke out for him. This seemed to work well for both of them. So it’s not as though Jackson was caught saying something he didn’t really believe or that represents a distortion of his position. Quite the opposite. He was caught saying something he did feel but had no intention of sharing. Put bluntly, his problem was that he got caught.
Jackson’s ire had been provoked by a speech that Obama made on Father’s Day in which he called on all fathers, particularly black fathers, to play a greater role in the lives of their families. Fathers "have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it," he told the congregation of the Apostolic Church of God, in Chicago. "You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled–doubled–since we were children."
Obama was not saying something new or outlandish. Indeed, the theme of black masculine responsibility is as banal a conversation topic around the black dinner table as themes of Reverend Wright’s sermons on US foreign policy. Obama wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t being echoed in thousands of black churches around the country on the very same day.
So why was Jackson so bent out of shape? His issue was less the text–Obama also spent some time talking about the government’s role in assisting black families–than the context. Jackson understood how easily the speech could and would be misunderstood outside black churches in particular and the black community in general, in a culture that routinely pathologizes black men. In this prediction, at least, he was correct. Right-wing commentators could barely contain themselves with these new talking points, handed to them by a black presidential candidate.
But that doesn’t make Obama wrong. Racism is a serious impediment to intelligent public conversation about problems in the black community. Not talking about those problems, though, does not make them go away. This is not a new challenge. "Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side," W.E.B. Du Bois said at the turn of the last century. "In all sorts of ways, we are being hemmed in." But the conditions under which the challenge must be faced have changed dramatically. In a world where discreet conversations are no longer possible, the closed doors behind which embattled communities conducted internal debates have been thrown wide open by new technologies and new political realities. The days of "black talk" are over–at least for a viable presidential candidate who needs to appeal across racial lines. If we can just get enough white people to listen without prejudice, then what we lose in discretion we might gain in dialogue.