HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 10, 2008
From Liberty Street

Transformation

John Turner


On Book TV yesterday, I listened to Shelby Steele discuss his book, A Bound Man, in which he explains why he doesn't think Barack Obama can win the presidency.

He said it's because Obama is a classic -- and highly skilled -- bargainer, that is, a black person who strikes an implicit deal with whites based on giving the latter the benefit of the doubt. The bargainer will say to white people, "I assume you're not racists" and the whites, desperate to escape their responsibility for a miserable past of racial oppression, will feel grateful and love him for it.

That's good as far as it goes but it has a price. The bargainer can't really say what he thinks. As soon as he opens up and reveals his actual opinions, he loses the aura of a friendly bargainer, always granting people the benefit of the doubt, and becomes just another man, who will charm some people with his opinions and alienate others.

This, Steele says, Obama cannot afford to do. But, under the stress of a general election a candidate is pressured to show who he actually is. If he doesn't, he fades to a kind of invisible man.

Obama supporters in Steele's audience acknowledged that this may have been true in the past, but that we are now entering a new era, with a new politics. In the future, members of racial minorities will no longer be forced to wear masks. They can step forward, address the public as individuals, and be accepted as who they genuinely are.

Steele responded that he wished it were so, but he doesn't think it is. Obama's problem is not only that revealing specific interests will hurt him but, also, that he has played the role of bargainer for so long he may not be psychologically capable of dispensing with it.

So, there's the issue. Are we moving into a new political era in which the rules of the past can be set aside?

It would be pleasant to think we are. But, along with Shelby Steele, I have a hard time believing it. And here's why. To have a new politics, we require new people, people who simply don't think as people in the past did. Such a reformation of thought requires deep questioning, deeper than I have been able to find evidence for.

Where in the major media is there any questioning of the tribal-like nationalism that drives our politics? Where is there any comprehension of the truth that if we send armed forces abroad to kill people who pose no threat to us, those forces will not be viewed as noble heroes? Where is there recognition that American economic policies, backed by American tax dollars and American military pressure, are causing hardship in other regions of the world? Where is there a genuine understanding that our habits of consumption, which we expect not only to maintain but to extend, are making the natural environment less hospitable to human life?

Does Barack Obama, or any other national political figure contending for an office of power, dare to raise any of those questions in a serious way? If he can't -- if they can't -- then there is no new politics. There may be a slight difference in surface tone, but there is not a new politics. And if there's nothing really new, what option does Obama have other than to continue to play the bargainer's game?

Shelby Steele doesn't think he can play it artfully enough to carry him into the White House. I don't know whether he can, or not. It seems to me to be a possibility. But supposing he does, what then? Is he going to cast off the mantle of the bargainer and say to the nation, "We've got to surrender some of our self-congratulatory delusions and start thinking really hard about how to be responsible, adult citizens of the world community?"

Perhaps the possibility that he might is enough reason to support him. We know that neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain will attempt to transform the thinking of the American people. Neither of them can imagine what that might mean. John McCain will try to make them happy by feeding them military glory. Hillary Clinton will try to make their day-by-day lives better by insisting that the government work to ease their burdens. What will Barack Obama do? We don't know.

And I confess I don't know whether we should ever expect a political figure to confront the heart of the nation or whether, in politics, we should simply work for practical, incremental gains.


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