Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Obama, MLK and Hegemony (A Departure From My Ongoing Series)

Chris Bowers posted a very important frontpage story at MyDD last night, “The Two Obamas and Me, Part One”. In it, he drew a distinction between the Obama who first attracted widespread, enthusiastic netroots and grassroots progressive support, and post-Senate election Obama who has often reiterated rightwing stereotypes of the left, in order to position himself more favorably.

In the course of the comments, some counter-arguments were raise, many knee-jerk and fatuous, but some serious, and deserving of serious replies. Chris himself has said he will have more to say, and so I make no attempt to speak for him, or answer all the serious objections raised. Instead, what I want to do is add a perspective to reinforce where Chris is coming from, as I understand him, which is the same place I'm coming from on this. That perspective is the subject of an ongoing series I'm doing on hegemony, a complex concept that is nontheless deftly summarized as "a dominant ideology in drag as common sense."

In my view, the concept of hegemony is most useful in clarifying where Obama stands, and what he stands for. He is, in my view, a hegemonic figure in drag as a counter-hegemonic figure. Jump to the flip if you're interested in why.

Prologue: Why Is He Being So Mean?

I started my series on hegemony because I wanted to talk about the issue of political realignment, which I wanted to talk about as a way of framing the last election and the next. The history of political realignments (Jackson's election in 1824, Lincoln's in 1860, McKinnley's in 1896, FDR's in 1932) is a history of changing political discourse. But it's hardly the be-all and end-all of that phenomena, which is why I took up the series.

How does this relate to Obama, and the issues Chris raised? Simple: realignments, as I showed in “What A Dem Landslide Could Mean”, come about as a result of two consecutive wave elections in the House. But they culminate in a Presidential election. In most cases, the President involved is a charismatic, epoch-defining figure: Jackson, Lincoln, FDR. McKinnley was definitely the odd man out. Obviously, Obama has the potential to be such a figure as well. And his critics, such as Chis and I, are every bit as aware of that (perhaps even moreso) as his enthusiastic supporters.

The criticism I'm offering here is in terms of hegemony, in terms of the common sense face of a dominant ideology, and it finds Obama clearly lacking. But that's hardly the end of the matter, on at least two counts. Before explaining, I need to flesh out the idea of hegemony a little. Here’s how Wikipedia introduces the concept:


Hegemony... is the dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that, for instance, the dominant party can dictate the terms of trade to its advantage; more broadly, cultural perspectives become skewed to favor the dominant group. The cultural control that hegemony asserts affects commonplace patterns of thought: hegemony controls the way new ideas are rejected or become naturalized in a process that subtly alters notions of common sense in a given society.

Hegemony results in the empowerment of certain cultural beliefs, values, and practices to the submersion and partial exclusion of others. Hegemony influences the perspective of mainstream history, as history is written by the victors for a congruent readership. The official history of Communism, re-writing history, erasing people's names and images from official state photos, provides a richly-exampled arena of cultural hegemony.
In America, the passage of different groups from despised outsiders into accepted parts of the whole is not a challenge to the core of hegemonic power. The basic logic of group hierarchy is rearranged, revised, and given new form, but not rejected. We’ve still had just one Catholic President. The first Muslim elected to Congress was openly challenged to prove he is not a terrorist sympathizer or enabler. Blacks still fill our prisons. Innocent unarmed blacks are still murdered by our police. New Orleans is still a wasteland, fifteen months after Katrina. This is what “normal” looks like. Hegemony is alive and well.

As I said, this post criticizes Obama for failing to challenge hegemony. But that's hardly the end of the matter, on at least two counts. The first, more broadly, is that no break in party systems has truly challenged the core of hegemony. Jackson's populism was deeply racist, even Lincoln ran merely on a platform of restraining slavery's expansion while preserving the union, McKinnley was a great leap backward, and FDR saved capitalism from itself. In short, these breaks have somewhat redefined the hegemonic discourse, rather than challenging its very core. It would be unrealistic to expect any Presidential candidate to do more.

The second, narrower point is that Presidents can evolve. Lincoln and FDR are the most dramatic examples. Lincoln in 1860 was not about freeing the slaves. In a few short years, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. FDR came into office pledging to balance budgets, and eager to work closely with big business, but big business walked away from him, labor came to the fore, and balancing budgets proved impossibe--the recession of 1937-38 was the final proof of that.

And so, this criticism of Obama is hardly meant as an attempt to consign him to the dustbin of history. Despite whatever I say here, he may still turn out to be a remarkably progressive President. My darkest fears may not be realized. And yet, no one knowledgeable doubts that Lincoln was a better President and a better man because of Frederick Douglass urging him on. No one doubts that Eleanor Roosevelt had a similar influence on FDR. One need not be a hostile critic of such figures to be ahead of them, and lead them farther in the ultimate direction that history remembers them most favorably for.

Neither Chris nor I have a close or privileged relationship. It falls to us to be blunt and straightforward. But those more favorably inclined toward Obama ought to think long and hard about what we say, because it ill serves him to be comfortable with what he is and what he has done so far. If Lincoln or FDR had been, and had remained comfortable with themselves as they were when elected, history would not remember either of them kindly today.

Of course, I want much more than for history to think kindly of President Obama. I want more than just another realignment—though that is the bare minimum I think we need to survive the challenges of the century ahead. I want more than mere survival. I want renewal, reawakening, rebirth. I want a true challenge to the hegemonic order. And Obama excites many people because he seems to promise that. But it’s a promise he does not fulfill.

The Close Up

Put simply, I see Obama posturing as two things: (1) a uniter who (2) stands outside the conventional discourse and tells it like it is. He is, in short, the black, Democratic John McCain. The examples Chris cites are evidence that Obama is only a uniter within the bounds of hegemonic discourse. He is not interested in uniting everyone, though he uses pseudo-univeralist language. Nor is he interested in criticizing the conventional discourse. He just wants to goose it a little bit, create a little buzz while defining the outer limits of what's acceptable.

Chris cites examples regarding Obama on the war and on the role of religion. More has been written about Obama and religion at Talk2Action, which has an entire category, “Demonizing ‘Secularism,’” which neatly frames the problem with Obama. For example, Frederick Clarkson’s article from last July, “Barack Obama Steps In It” begins:
Senator Barack Obama's big speech at an event sponsored by Call to Renewal, a group headed by Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Religious Right Gets it Wrong, and Why the Left Doesn't Get It -- has received very mixed reviews and is the buzz of the blogosphere. There is much in Obama's speech that hits the right notes regarding the role of religion in a democratic pluralist society, but the speech is indelibly marred by propagating one of the central frames of the religious right.

The Washington Post reported:
    Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

    "Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters," the Illinois Democrat said in remarks prepared for delivery to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty...

    At the same time, he said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."

    As a result, "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."
The problem here should be self-evident. Some of those responding to Chris’s post claimed that Obama was simply responding to a perception that was “out there” and that needed to be addressed. But here he is clearly propagating perceptions created by the theocratic right.

Furthermore, Obama did this at an event sponsored by Jim Wallis’s organization, and, as Wallis’s book title makes clear, his whole schtick is based on a triangulation strategy that assumes the basic truth of the rightwing frame.

Clarkson continued:
The controversy that has erupted in response to Senator Obama's speech has helped to catalyze some things Talk to Action colleague Bruce Wilson and I have discussed for some time. (He will undoubtedly have much to say about all this as well.)

Obama and Jim Wallis before him are wrong to scapegoat "secularists" for the problems mainstream Christians and others have had in finding their voices. They are also wrong to allege that non-religious people are somehow chasing religious expression from public life. It is long past time to call a halt to this nonsense. Let's start today.

But before we abandon, and begin to more formally oppose the frame, here is how it works: The religious right frames much of how they view politics in America as a struggle in America between Christianity and secular humanism; between faith and no faith; between religiosity and secularism. The words differ a bit depending on who is doing the talking, but the the frame is always the same. Indeed, it has been one of the central features of the religious right's rise to power for decades and has been articulated by every major leader from Jerry Falwell to Sun Myung Moon.
Naturally, this frame is false. There is no epochal political struggle between Christianity and secular humanism. The struggle is between rightwing theocrats, yearning for the good old days of the divine right of kings, when power flowed unambiguously from top down, and American secular democracy, based as it is on Locke’s social contract theory, in which legitimate power derives from the consent of the governed, and flows unambiguously from bottom up.

Next, Clarkson presents a long excerpt from one of the premier researchers into the religious right, and rightwing authoritarianism and conspiricism more generally. I quote it in full, together with a following remark by Clarkson. Together, these set up the discussion of hegemony:
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates writes that the conspiracy theory  alleging that Christianity is under attack by "secular humanists," goes back several decades.
    The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s. It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.

    A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in a series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values...

    [Evangelical scholar] George Marsden argues that this new focus on secular humanism "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory"... Two leading activists of the Christian right, Gary Bauer and James Dobson, called the battle pitting secular humanists against Christians over the moral foundation of America a "great Civil War of Values".

    The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations, including the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).

    By framing this set of claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan.

What is remarkable is that this basic frame has been internalized and propagated by many people who are unaffiliated with the religious right. Indeed it has been actively promoted by one of the leaders of the the revival of what is calling itself the religious left -- Jim Wallis.
That’s Hegemony In Action, Folks!

What Berlet has described is a longterm process of rightwing infrastructure-building and narrative propagation. What Clarkson has added is a comment about how this narrative has spread. Both can be understood in terms of the concept of hegemony, going beyond the introductory passage presented above. The chief theoretician of hegemony was Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini, whose Prison Notebooks contain the most penetrating elaboration of the idea of hegemony. The Wikipedia entry on Cultural Hegemony elaborates further:
The analysis of hegemony (or "rule") was formulated by Antonio Gramsci to explain why predicted communist revolutions had not occurred where they were most expected, in industrialized Europe...

Gramsci argued that the failure of the workers to make anti-capitalist revolution was due to the successful capture of the workers' ideology, self-understanding, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling) culture. In other words, the perspective of the ruling class had been absorbed by the masses of workers. In "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in "advanced" societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.

Gramsci therefore argued for a strategic distinction between a "war of position" and a "war of movement". The war of position is a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten class consciousness, teach revolutionary analysis and theory, and inspire revolutionary organization. Following the success of the war of position, communist leaders would be empowered to begin the war of movement, the actual insurrection against capitalism, with mass support....

Gramsci did not contend that hegemony was either monolithic or unified. Instead, hegemony was portrayed as a complex layering of social structures. Each of these structures have their own "mission" and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures. Yet, as with an army, each of these structures assumes the existence of other structures and by virtue of their differing missions, is able to coalesce and produce a larger structure that has a larger overall mission....

Influence of Gramsci

Although leftists may have been the primary users of this conceptual tool, the activities of organized conservative movements also draw upon the concept. This was seen, for instance, in evangelical Christian efforts to capture local school boards in the U.S. during the 1990s, and thus be able to dictate curriculum. Patrick Buchanan, in a widely discussed speech to the 1992 Republican Convention, used the term "culture war" to describe political and social struggle in the United States.
From the above, it should be clear that rightwing theocrats have been waging their own “war of position” against what they see as a secular hegemony.

However, if we go back further in time, we discover that these movements have roots in specific theological traditions, laced with strands of racism and heresy, at war with other more mainstream theological traditions. “Secular humanism” as their enemy was a rather late arrival on the scene. And, of course, Sun Myung Moon is about as anti-Christ a kind of guy you could ever wish for.

Whatever their self-understanding is, the GOP has long known better: these are forces to be used and controlled. They “have their own ‘mission’ and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures,” but in the end they’re all part of the larger army, which is decidedly oriented toward serving Mammon, “big time” which is the “larger overall mission” they serve knowingly or not.

The GOP could turn out wrong in the end. The servant could replace the master. Hegemonic orders can fragment, due to their own internal contradictions. But so far, that has not happened, and theocratic right is best understood as part of the existing hegemonic order, notwithstanding its fantasies to the contrary.

OTOH, “secular humanists” are true outsiders, challengers to the hegemonic order simply by virtue of their relative immunity to all manner of religiously-framed narratives. It makes no difference how respectful of others’ religious beliefs we may be, the mere fact that we stand apart, outside the spell of true belief, makes us a potential source of trouble, difficult to anticipate and counter. More importantly, because of our outsider status, we make extremely convenient scapegoats, onto which all manner of sins may safely be projected.

When Obama buys into the theocratic frame, he effectively buries all the contradictions within it. He endorses the notion that the real dividing line is not within the Christian community, between diverse, but honest religiously-motivated believers, and an extremist political fringe, and instead propagates the extremists’ line that the dividing line is between all people of faith, and an intolerant secular minority, whose identity and very existence he never even bothers to specify. (Note the parallels to McCarthy, with his blank “list of names.”)

This is one of the most powerful manifestations of hegemonic discourse—the shifting of lines, the projecting of conflict points, the burying of true disputes, and the elevation of red herrings and scapegoats. The fact that no specific offenders are named only makes matters worse, not better. For if someone specific could be named, then they could—in theory at least—fight back, and dispute what is being said. But, in fact, there are no such figures, or, more properly, no one who takes such a position has anything remotely close to the power to enforce it, beyond deleting comments on their blog.

We’re talking about bogeymen, folks.

Obama’s Words, Again—And A False Equivalence With History

With this background behind us, let’s turn again to Obama’s words and their significance. A number of commentators on Chris’s MyDD story tried some version of psychologizing the whole thing away. Chris was just being “thin-skinned.” Or he was misinterpreting Obama, who was simply stating these positions in order to refute them. Chris and others pointed out this is hardly the way to frame political rhetoric.
Don’t Think of An Elephant, and all that. Another tack critics took was to praise the fact that no one specific was being named as an offender—no harm, no foul, the reasoning goes. The comeback was simple: he’s undermining the brand, not just of “progressives” or “secular humanists,” but more broadly, of Democrats:

blogswarm hit it perfectly:
Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One
    It's not like he's naming any names.
Yes, he is naming and the name is Democrats. It isn't any one person, it is everyone else.

by blogswarm on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 01:47:41 AM EST
    Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One

    because we're all alike -- one formula. come one, get thicker skin.

    by Laurin from SC on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 01:55:10 AM EST
      Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One

      Obama is the one saying that we are all alike -- except for him. That is the problem with triangulation, that is why the DLC lost every single major primary in 2006.

      by blogswarm on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 02:05:48 AM EST
This is precisely how hegemony works. Instead of developing your own institutions, your own analysis, your language, you accept those that are imposed on you. And perpetuate fighting with enemies pre-selected for you—enemies who ought to be your allies.

Some claimed that this was really no different from Bush using the phrase “compassionate conservative.” Laurin from SC wrote:
Bush's theme of "compassionate conservatism" clearly implied that standard conservatism wasn't, in fact, compassionate. Why else would there be a reason to distinguish his particular brand of conservatism?

It's the same strawman technique is a slightly different form of delivery: obliquely communicate the stereotype and how the given candidate rises above that stereotype. I'll grant you that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" rhetoric better nested the conservative strawman than Obama's outright stenciling of the liberal strawman.

But the idea is the same.
However, it’s not the same—although it did rankle Dobson and some others at first. First, an implied criticism is not the same as an overt one. Corporations sell “New, Improved!” products all the time, untroubled by the concern that it implies their previous products were inferior and old-fashioned. They sell “Low-Fat,” “Low-Cal” and “Low-Carb” products, unconcerned that people will shun their standard product line.

But that’s only part of what’s wrong with this false equivalence. You can’t understand a phrase in isolation from purposes it was created for, especially when it’s part of a larger, carefully-crafted narrative. To get the full picture, we need to look beyond mere words themselves to the part they play in a larger hegemonic project—that of rewriting both secular history and the core of Christian religion.

The idea of “compassionate conservatism” came from Marvin Olasky, who peddled the idea that the impoverished rat-infested slum-dwelling masses of the late 1800s weren’t really poor, because their lives were filled with God, but then the welfare state came along, gave them food stamps, housing assistance and the like, and turned them into lost souls. It’s nonsense, of course. Private charity, much of it church-based, simply couldn’t cope with the magnitude of need in the late 1800s. That’s why state-level welfare services appeared in the early 1900s, followed by federal services during the Great Depression. What’s more, no level of government welfare service—federal, state or local, has ever prevented private charity from continuing.

More insidiously, however, Olasky’s claim amounts to this: the poor are poor because they lack Godliness. The wealthy and middle-classes are more Godly than the poor, and they can help the poor by sharing a bit of their Godliness with them. It’s hard to imagine a more insulting, anti-Christian belief system. This is precisely what the Scribes and Pharisees believed. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. His mission was to the poor and the outcaste. They were the children of God. The wealthy and middle-class were the ones bereft of true Godliness—precisely the opposite of what Olasky claims.

The perversion of Christianity into its exact opposite (“Who would Jesus bomb?”) is a sure sign of hegemony at work. So, too, is the recasting of wretched 1890s slum-dwellers into happy Holy campers, and the New Deal into a wholesale attack on the poor. It’s not enough to just look at single phrases in isolation, one has to examine the whole narrative project of which they are a part.

Of course, most folks have never heard of Olasky’s work. Why should they? Once his work had laid the foundations, Bush’s money-fueled political machine soon left Olasky in the dust. The media never even questions where the idea of “compassionate conservatism” came from, much less what it means. But there was no way to tell in advance that this sort of super-marketing campaign would take over. Hegemonic narrative rewriting goes on all the time, never knowing when one effort will get a tremendous boost, a boost that may even make most of the original work involved utterly superflous. Still, a very large core of activist true believes have heard of Olasky, have accepted his grotesque fairy tales as gospel, and have mobilized to take advantage of all the faith-based pork that Bush could manage to send their way.

Indeed, the fact that commentators at MyDD are ignorant of all this history only goes to show how effective the machinery of hegemony is. If the folks at MyDD don’t know this, then who in the world does? Not very many people, you can bet on it. Even fewer know the cultural logic that connects “compassionate conservatism” to authoritarianism, as outlined by Ira Chenus in the article “‘Faith-based initiatives’ Signal Authoritarian Trend”, which draws parallels back to 1820’s America, when the old established lines of social authority came to be increasingly difficult to discern.

In contrast to the obscure backstory of “compassionate conservatism,” how many people have heard the secular-bashing memes that Barack Obama repeats? And how much backstory do they need? This is one of the essential functions of hegemony: to bury its own contradictions, and advance manufactured ones it can pin on rouge elements, external enemies and internal corrupters. Call it “the blame game.” Hegemonic discourse plays it all the time. Except, of course, for those rare occasions where blame-shifting just won’t work. That’s when you get the post-Katrina vapors over “playing the blame game.” Any other time, it’s job one.

King vs. Obama

Amongst other things, Obama said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." But who ever did such a thing? Quite the opposite. What we’d like is for believers to bring their religion into their politics, rather than bring their politics into their religion. And no one illustrates this point better than Martin Luther King, a true counter-hegemonic exemplar who could teach Barack Obama lessons till the cows come home. Consider, for example, what King had to say about the Vietnam War, and about God’s judgement:
Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be. A sort of the policeman of the world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems like I can hear God saying to America, “you [America] are too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power and…place it in the hands of a nation that does not even know my name, be still and know, that I’m God.

And it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, some times, it means you walk the streets, with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means loosing a job, it means being abused, and scarred. It may mean having a 7-8 year old child ask,” Daddy why do yo have to go to jail so much?” I’ have… learned that being a follower of Jesus Christ, means taking up the cross. My Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. For the crown we wear there is a cross that we must bear. Let us bear it, Bear it for truth. Bear it for Justice. Bear it for Peace.
That’s what real God-talk and real progressive talk, and real counter-hegemonic discourse sounds like.

And I haven’t heard anything remotely resembling that from Barack Obama. Have you?

What Would Real Transformation Look Like?

It may seem terribly unfair to hold Barack Obama up to the example of Martin Luther King. But he asked for it. He’s the one who doesn’t want to be judged by the standards of mere mortal politicians, who muck around getting bills passed, and pursuing other time-wasting tasks. King did not adapt himself to the hegemonic discourse of his day. And it wasn’t just about Civil Rights. His commitment to non-violence was even more out-of-step. After all, even the Eisenhower State Department knew that segregation was a loser in the Cold War struggle for Third World credibility. Civil Rights was the way to go. But non-violence? Sure, it was a great relief, tactically. But King actually took it seriously. And eventually that meant coming out against the Vietnam War. The longer you look at the examples of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, the less and less you see in common between the two—at least since Obama joined the US Senate.

I don’t expect Obama to be Martin Luther King, but a few lessons could surely be learned. Such as:

(1) Don’t accept your adversaries’ terms of debate. (See, for example, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”)
(2) Don’t hesitate to explain your thinking in detail. (Again, see, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”) If people take you seriously as a leader, they should want to walk a mile in your shoes. They should be eager for it. Giving them pablum instead is a grave disservice to yourself as well as them.
(3) Don’t be afraid to reach unpopular conclusions. You gain far more enduring, substantial support by going where reason, conscience, and spiritual guidance take you than by worrying about what others will say. Be in it for the long haul, and you will haul others along.

To be honest, I don’t expect Obama to come anywhere near these lessons. But those who are supporters of his ought to think long and hard if it isn’t very much in his interests, their interests, and the interests of America’s future for him to be confronted with these lessons in a way that he is willing to hear. Real transformation would be a politician willing to take a long, hard look at how he’s fallen short—after all, we’ve all fallen short—and what he can do to redress it.


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