Note: This article has been condensed for clarity. Section headings have been added to organize the discussion.
RACE AND OBAMA
ER: One of the more obvious issues is that people are saying “Oh, well, Obama is the post-everything candidate, he’s post-race, this is this new turning point in American culture were we don’t have to consider that anymore,” and the question is whether that’s really the case, that the civil rights struggle has been won because there’s a man of black heritage in the White House and where because of his mixed heritage that there doesn’t need to be a sense of community based around race. But I think a lot of people disagree and it’s a conversation that needs to be had at this point in the political narrative.
LB: One of the challenges about talking about what the Obama movement means for race or for anything else, any other symbolic or identity-related cultural factor, is that so many narratives are being put forth as the self-evident ones–that is, “He’s the first black president,” and we’re saying at the same time that he is the first president who transcends race. These are just two of the apparent contradictions. Neither is untrue, but it indicates that there is more to talk about.
MM: Yeah, I’m interested in what the term “post-race” means, because what’s the “pre”? Some people do talk bizarrely about how any sort of racial stuff is over and racism’s dead, but I think people are saying that the post-race thing is more to do with the evolution of the civil rights movement to this point. Who are going to be the heirs of this movement? How do they operate in society? How do they talk about race? It’s a very different way than say Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. It’s a very different leadership.
LB: How would you characterize it?
MM: When the movement first comes about, you have a sense of it as a movement, you know, this is something that’s happening and you’re fighting for specific, discrete rights and then out of those rights some sort of cultural revolution is supposed to flow forth as well.
LB: That’s what some people are trying to claim that Obama’s figure represents, and I’m not sure it does represent that.
MM: There is almost a gap period where the early civil rights movement just sort of awkwardly trailed off. That supposed dignity and larger cultural revolution that was going to follow after the securing of discrete rights–appearing on TV, being “there”… it didn’t come as naturally as you might suppose. The leaders who were there were still the leaders who had done the civil rights movement proper and were not well-suited to the task.
OR: I think the colloquial way that people have talked about the Obama breakthrough is not wrong, but it’s imprecise. What’s so much a sea change about Obama’s victory is not that a black man became president, though that is very significant in its own way, but that a man became president who was from a racial minority, but was elected as an individual and not as a member of the minority. This was not Jesse Jackson. He didn’t run as black man; he ran as Barack Obama. That is the true fulfillment of the American dream that was achieved here, because our goal was to be a nation of laws and of individuals, not of tribes. And so to have an individual personality trump tribal affiliation: that to me is the real breakthrough. I mean, it’s hugely significant that for historical reasons this group got a representative in, but the reason I think it’s every American’s victory is for the larger reason.
MM: I think it’s very clear that this is in some measure about him being a black president. I think that’s clear from the reactions, and even if it’s just reactions, that’s a lot of what makes up the feeling of the moment. There’s a sense that this is a physical marker…This is part of the black narrative. It doesn’t matter if you just came over here from Kenya, and it doesn’t matter if your family has been here for three generations. I think that the idea is that once you get here on this soil, what you are is a black person, and now you have to buy into the black narrative.
OBAMA AND MUSLIMS
LB: I think racism played a much smaller role in the election than we expected it to.
OR: Yeah, it’s more fear of the other. It would have been a much different election if it were just a black guy named Barry.
There’s [also] a very Arab chord being struck here, because the Kenyans were essentially colonized by Arabs and there’s a whole separate colonial experience in East Africa.
MM: I think this is a distinct–if not failure, well–something’s not right with the Muslims after this election. It’s not good for them, this whole election cycle. The whole question was about how “You’re Muslim!” “No I’m not!” That’s not an insult, that’s just a category! There is something wrong with being a Muslim in America right now, and we’re all accepting it.
OR: The significance of having him win is partially that someone who is literally black is now the face of the presidency, but also that he’s someone whose middle name is “Hussein.” There’s this sort of Arab immigrant sense as well.
MM: But you have to be careful to separate which of these parts are triumphant, and which parts are totally tragic. That’s a denial now, it’s a parlor joke, that his middle name is “Hussein.”
OR: That was a short-term thing to win, but now I think it’s a victory for American Muslims.
MM: Really? I could not see that.
ER: He’s not even repudiating the anti-Muslim slurs.
MM: I think it’s actually worse. Let’s say that in some fantastical world Bill Clinton is Jewish, and that his middle name is “Lederman,” and he’s not saying it. and people keep on bringing it up and he’s like “Okay, ‘Lederman,’ whatever.” Would it actually be good to have someone in the Oval Office who is Jewish, but doesn’t want to have that Jewish ‘thing’ attached to him? To have someone who is actively distancing [his political identity] from that part of his self–that’s worse. He has a political stake in separating himself, and that manifests itself in ways that are now part of the election story.
I just don’t see how [this is a positive] in a tangible sense for Muslim-Americans, having someone who, just as he’s being aggressively identified as a progressive, is leaving you out of that movement–and it’s being sanctioned. If I were a Muslim-American I’d feel like I was being left behind in a certain sense.
OBAMA AND THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA
OR: What’s really dangerous here is that one of the things that made the last eight years so disastrous was the collusion of the media and the unwillingness of the media to do its job and ask probing questions. So as much as I am an Obama fan, the last thing you need is a media that’s going to roll over.
MM: They couldn’t even handle having a president who was just doing things that were completely bad. They couldn’t even handle asking ‘hardball’ questions that were just “What is going on?” The deterioration of the mainstream media in the past decade is one of the most frightening things in American culture right now. Almost as interesting as the moment of Obama getting elected on Tuesday, and as important historically, is that for anyone who was watching CNN, you also have the moment of Wolf Blitzer talking to a fucking hologram for who knows what reason. The media has become a zoo and there’s absolutely nothing to control it. How do you get it back to a point where it actually does its job? The point of the media is not to compete with MTV, but now they are. So what are we supposed to do about it?
OR: But I think it’s too easy to posit a time when the media ever worked and try to get it back to that time. Can you identify the point when it stopped working? Media has always been subject to market forces.
LB: It certainly has. But up until very recently journalism brought with it very specific ethical standards–like Walter Kronkite never voted in elections, which is remarkable. What’s happened now is that those standards, which are supposed to be the backbone of the American media, have been laughed off or turned into shallow rhetoric. They prevent elections from being about anything but the cosmic melodrama that they stage.
MM: There’s a sense that in watching the news now, it’s become like a preceptorial. You have a bunch of people whose opinions on this we never said we trusted, and now we’re forced to listen to the likes of Blitzer and Cooper sit and hash out issues as if this were a parlor room instead of CNN.
OR: Are we basically blaming it on 24-hour news? Is that the standard explanation? Are we satisfied with that?
MM: I’m not satisfied with that, because they sit for 24 hours and they talk about shit a lot of the time. I think that you can easily just turn over to BBC, and it’s not like they’re the best thing ever, but when I watch that I feel like I’m a little more informed about everything.
ER: Some of that might be because the BBC is still the preeminent news institution, the preeminent broadcasting institution, and people turn to the BBC. My understanding is that Britain doesn’t have cable to the extent that we do here. It could be to do with the proliferation of channels here.
OR: I think it’s also because it’s state-owned. It’s like NPR. It’s the commercial market imperatives that drive the supposed corruption.
LS: Do you think that this needs to be curbed or shaped in some way?
ER: It’s not like there’s not a place for talk shows. There’s a place for talk shows, but there needs to be unbiased and factual and good reporting as well. We don’t have to stop Wolf Blitzer or whoever to reinstate actual news.
OR: One of the problems with our country is that we have a commitment to democratic ideals, and sadly, aesthetically, our tastes are not often democratic, even though our politics are. At a certain point, turning the media over to the market means that it’s going to represent the market.
RACE & SEXUALITY
OR: [The supposed conflict between black and gay people over Proposition 8] is the obvious story, because the harmony is boring, so this one jarring thing is fascinating. It’s really not that much of a story, but the media is so programmed to hear the jarring note and jump on that, and is so excited to turn it into an ugly street fight and goad people into yelling epithets at each other and screaming at each other when it’s not. It’s important, but it’s not that important.
MM: There can be something sinister about the media pitting two minorities against each other, but the one thing that is true is that if you take it out of the whole media melee, it’s interesting and a little bit frightening to me the way that the black community has this sort of strange relationship with other minorities.
LB: This reaction makes sense, because I find it troubling that minority groups have styled themselves around the paradigm so successfully and so enduringly constructed by the black civil rights movement. It makes it seem as though other groups with special interests are marginalized in precisely the same way as black people, which simply isn’t true, and which I think causes as many problems for those groups, if only creating them and imposing an image on them. I’m not even sure what a gay community or a gay minority means. The people who appoint themselves to represent it are … it’s almost anachronistic. They tend to be sex-obsessed radicals from the 1970s.
MM: Not unlike Al Sharpton. Which is precisely why people would acknowledge that racism is not over, but would still call Obama a post-race leader. It’s kind of a departure. He doesn’t have the bent of an Al Sharpton.
OR: There has to be a black culture in a way that there isn’t a gay culture.
ER: If there is a black culture, then you can’t say necessarily that there isn’t a gay culture.
LB: There is historical need and genealogy for a black culture in America, whereas there is no parallel for a gay culture. In fact, I think it’s been kind of assembled, cobbled together, in a misrepresentative way.
MM: In a sense it became emergent as an underground thing, and for that reason doesn’t have as long of a track as the development of black culture, but music in the ‘70s and in the ‘80s, a lot of the countercultural rock music, had a strong cultural root in the gay community.
OR: But that’s a gay aesthetic. There is no gay culture. There are no gay families. There’s no mechanism for the propagation of values. That is what culture is.
ER: Culture doesn’t have to be propagated within a nuclear family. Culture can be propagated on the level of society. Culture is the sum of its parts.
OR: Every gay person is raised in his own family, so there’s a constant discontinuity that’s different from every other culture.
ER: But many gay people seek out gay community in a sense of sharing cultural values and cultural experiences and cultural references.
OR: And that’s interesting, but it only starts at maybe 15, whereas so much of the way that you develop is post-natal, is the first ten years.
ER: I don’t think that disqualifies it as a culture. Maybe we’re having a semantic argument about what “culture” is.
OR: It doesn’t disqualify it, but it makes it essentially different in kind.
LB: I would go so far as to say that it’s a bad thing that we call this a culture and that it’s perceived this way. Anyone who’s black can expect to have the same kind of experience in some basic way in America because of the way they look. Gay community is founded upon the opposite principle–that is, it takes something that is very important to some people, and that to others is a very private thing that doesn’t cross their mind except when they’re with the person they have sex with, and makes it the most important thing about them, and does so especially in a way so as to make adolescent sexuality the defining phenomenon of a person’s development and life and political identity. I think this has happened, I think it’s happening more and more, and I think it’s bad and it’s misrepresentative.
OR: I would call it at most a community.
LB: If Obama represents getting over taking race as the most important thing about a person, as the person’s defining trait, and if that impulse to render insignificant the mark of a historical legacy is the direction we want to head in in terms of the progress of culture, why, then, posit an unnecessary and unhistorical minority, if what we want to do is get past the historical legacy of minorities?
ER: I see it as less of an artificial construct.
MM: There is obviously a negative legacy that is attached to being a minority: very discrete disenfranchisements, discrimination, and all that jazz. But as a position in society, I don’t think that’s anything that anyone should want to escape. I don’t think it would ever be good for a society to construct itself as if it didn’t have a minority or a marginalized group. I think that minorities are the only class who are able to straddle the line of being a full member of a society but also being apart, and therefore able to act critically upon it and therefore bring it some sort of progress. There are certainly ways that forming a black identity has been extremely destructive to anyone who falls under that as a naturally arising state. It can be very oppressive, but at the same time it can be good for the society-at-large.