Tag Archives: obama

McWhorter on Antiracism as Religion, and Beyond

28 Jul

Yesterday I published a post at 3 Quarks Daily in which I quoted a July 21 remarks between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury to the effect that antiracism has become something like a religion. In particular, they focused on the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. McWhorter has now published a piece in The Daily Beast, Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.

Religion vs. Practical Action

In view of that piece I’d like to continue the discussion. First, here’s a bit of the Loury/McWhorter discussion I didn’t quote. This is McWhorter at about 35 minutes in:

What we’re talking about as not worthy, what you see as condescending, David Brookes pretending to think that he has no right to question something that somebody wrote just because they’re black and they have a way with a pen, none of that has anything to do with being concerned with black uplift. And black uplift has to take place separately from that. It has nothing to do with Charles Blow and his artful prose. So all those people are going to be doing the Bible. That’s what they’re doing, I think of it these days. It’s religion and I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, but it will have nothing to do with changing poor black people’s lives.

So, the religion of antiracism is one thing while political and social action that will improve black lives is something different. One of McWhorter’s concerns, obviously enough, is that the religion will distract attention and action away from concrete action.

Here’s a passage from McWhorter’s new article:

Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.

The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.

Here is a passage from Coates’ piece that gives some idea of what he’s looking for:

A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Coates had earlier noted that Conyers has been introducing his reparations bill, HR 40, annually for the last quarter century and had gotten nowhere with it, and all it called for was to study the issue. That is, all that Coates is calling for is a grand ‘conversation on race’ inscribed within the conditions of HR 40, whatever they may be. It is not a call to action. It is, to use a word that Loury had introduced into his conversation with McWhorter, an expressive act.

McWhorter continues:

Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

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@3QD: Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy, Ta-Nehisi Coates as “Priest”, Laudato Si’

27 Jul

The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.

Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.

And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.

As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.

Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?

As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.

And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I place my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Here’s the Blogginheads.tv conversation:

http://bloggingheads.tv/embed-fallback.php/36141/00:00/68:50 Continue reading

Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace

16 Jul

Make no mistake, it was a remarkable performance. Nominally a eulogy, very much a eulogy. But also a sermon on the past and future of race relations in America.

Though Rev. Pinckney’s funeral was held on June 26, and I heard of Obama’s eulogy shortly thereafter, and heard about it again, and again, I didn’t bother to watch it until a couple of days ago when I was reflecting on some remarks the economist Glenn Loury and linguist John McWhorter made about the ‘authenticity’ of Obama’s performance. After all, Obama wasn’t raised in the church. And yet he chose to don the vestments of a black preacher, the rhetorical and oratorical style, to deliver his eulogy.

I’ll get around to Loury and McWhorter in a later post. In this one I want to look at the eulogy itself, which pretty much took the form of a sermon addressed to the nation. In my preliminary analysis that sermon has five basic parts as follows:

1. Prologue: Address to his audience, quoting of a passage from the Bible.

2. Phase 1: Moves from the Clementa Pinckney’s life to the significance of the black church in history.

3. Phase 2: The murder itself and presence of God’s grace.

4. Phase 3: Looks to the nation, the role racism has played, and the need to move beyond it.

5. Closing: Amazing Grace.

In the course of this analysis I will be referring to specific paragraphs by number. I have appended the entire text to this post and have numbered the paragraphs. Furthermore, I have uploaded an analytical table I am using as I think about the text. Each paragraph appears in the table along with comments here and there. You may view or download this document here: https://www.academia.edu/14123971/President_Obama_s_Eulogy_for_Clemente_Pinckney_an_Analytic_Table

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I want to begin by quoting from an article Michiko Kakutani published on July 4, Obama’s Eulogy, Which Found Its Place in History:

A draft of the Charleston eulogy was given to the president around 5 p.m. on June 25 and, according to Mr. Keenan, Mr. Obama spent some five hours revising it that evening, not merely jotting notes in the margins, but whipping out the yellow legal pads he likes to write on — only the second time he’s done so for a speech in the last two years. He would rewrite large swaths of the text.

Mr. Obama expanded on a short riff in the draft about the idea of grace, and made it the central theme of the eulogy: the grace family members of the shooting victims embodied in the forgiveness they expressed toward the killer; the grace the city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina manifested in coming together in the wake of the massacre; the grace God bestowed in transforming a tragedy into an occasion for renewal, sorrow into hope.

First, I would love to be able to compare Keenan’s draft with the eulogy that Obama delivered. Did that draft open with “Giving all praise and honor to God”? Did it quote Scripture at the beginning (Hebrews 11:13), as is typical of sermons? That is to say, did Keenan know he was drafting a sermon, or did that happen as Obama devoted five hours and who knows how many pieces of 8.5 by 14 lined yellow paper to the rewrite? Continue reading

A Politics of Love | The Nation

7 Oct

We need to embrace the direct-action spirit of the Occupy movement, and we need to broaden that spirit by offering the millions of people who are hurting ways to connect and participate. We should claim the significant voter protection, registration and mobilization work that was done to promote democratic participation in this election cycle. We can embrace the many ways in which people are coming together already to support one another and meet their communities’ growing needs.

We need to engage in massive efforts to change the culture, both within and beyond our movements. We need to engage in politics from a place of love and care; we must challenge the tendency toward individualism and self-interest that has dominated our politics for several decades. We need to reaffirm our humanity and spirit, emphasizing the importance of building emotional connections between people in local communities and identifying where interests overlap across constituencies.

via A Politics of Love | The Nation.

Too Much Power for a President – NYTimes.com

15 Jun

The Times article points out, however, that the Defense Department is currently killing suspects in Yemen without knowing their names, using criteria that have never been made public. The administration is counting all military-age males killed by drone fire as combatants without knowing that for certain, assuming they are up to no good if they are in the area. That has allowed Mr. Brennan to claim an extraordinarily low civilian death rate that smells more of expediency than morality.

via Too Much Power for a President – NYTimes.com.

Economic stagnation: Obama’s white flight problem | The Economist

14 Jun

Hmmm. . . I sure is hard to have faith in a political system that keeps throwing up lousy choices.

The “framed choice” strategy is basically this: Everyone knows that pensions (Social Security) and health care (Medicare, Medicaid, child health programmes) are going to bankrupt the nation unless they are “right-sized” to revenue and existing debt. Whoever is elected president in 2012 will have to “right-size” these programmes over the course of the next four years. The framed choice for the white voters who will decide this election is this: Who do you think will better protect the interests of working-class and middle-class families when the inevitable cuts are packaged? Who do you want negotiating for you when it comes down to who gets hurt and who doesn’t? Do you really want Mitt Romney and a bunch of right-wing congressmen making these decisions?

Andrew Sullivan agrees that the framed-choice (and not the negative, scorched-earth) strategy is Mr Obama’s best bet, and that it may be. But how good a bet is it, really? We all know that incumbents don’t often survive poor economic conditions, and that Mr Obama, who inherited a financial crisis and a deep recession, was dealt a crap hand. But if recession raises the stakes of zero-sum distributive politics, and if that, in turn, heightens the extent to which distributive politics is simply identity politics, Mr Obama’s crap hand may be worse than we thought. If, as Mr Friedman argues, economic stagnation brings out the worst in us, that suggests a bad economy will penalise a black incumbent more than it will penalise a white incumbent.

via Economic stagnation: Obama’s white flight problem | The Economist.

International – Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Kill List – The Atlantic

31 May

The US Presidency is governed by a logic that swallows Presidents and spits them out. We are becoming the rogue nation we fear in other states.

The Obama administration considers any military-age male in the vicinity of a bombing to  be a combatant. That is an amazing standard that shares an ugly synergy with the sort of broad-swath logic that we see employed in Stop and Frisk,  with NYPD national spy network, with the killer of Trayvon Martin.

Policy is informed by the morality of a country. I think the repercussions of this unending era of death by silver bird will be profound.

via International – Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Kill List – The Atlantic.

International – Robert Wright – Do Obama’s Drone Strikes Imperil America? – The Atlantic

31 May

Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence until May of 2010, gave the Times a simple analysis of Obama’s penchant for drone strikes: “It is the politically advantageous thing to do–low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Tuesday night’s Frontline episode on Al Qaeda in Yemen didn’t add much substance to the Times-Post analysis, but it lent a visual dimension, showing us the craters left by lethal drones and the al Qaeda forces who are energized and expanded by the strikes. ‘We’re at war with America and it’s allies,” says an al Qaeda footsoldier.

via International – Robert Wright – Do Obama’s Drone Strikes Imperil America? – The Atlantic.

Obama and Romney Vie for Mayor Bloomberg’s Endorsement – NYTimes.com

2 May

This pretty much says it all: These days, plutocrats rule!

In an election year when partisanship has burned white hot and the economy has sputtered, two presidential candidates who agree on very little, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, have reached a rare consensus: they are both determined to score the endorsement of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, whose name is all but synonymous with Wall Street clout and nonpartisan politics.

Now, their pursuit of the billionaire mayor is headed into overdrive, with both campaigns making the kind of conspicuous ring-kissing gestures that are reserved for their most sought-after political allies, even though the candidates publicly disagree with the mayor on a range of issues.

via Obama and Romney Vie for Mayor Bloomberg’s Endorsement – NYTimes.com.

Ex-CIA Interrogator: Obama’s War on Terror Is Less Ethical Than Bush’s – Global – The Atlantic Wire

1 May

The former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez says President Obama is waging the nation’s war against radical Islam in a far more brutal manner than his predecessor President George W. Bush.

“We don’t capture anybody any more,” Rodriguez told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl on Sunday. “Their default option of this Administration has been to … take no prisoners … How could it be more ethical to kill people rather than capture them? I never understood that one.”

via Ex-CIA Interrogator: Obama's War on Terror Is Less Ethical Than Bush's – Global – The Atlantic Wire.