Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Obama as Icon
What does it mean to be ‘visible’, and how could we quantify it? Is it merely a question of how many pictures of something there are in the world? Or is it a question of historical, that is to say social, cultural and political impact, a certain quality of reception that includes the ability of an image to ‘have legs’, to spawn copies and mutations, and to circulate across numerous geographical and media borderlines where it installs itself in human memory and imagination? And should we take ‘visibility’ literally or figuratively? Is it not the case that the emergence of Barack Hussein Obama as a highly visible ‘cultural icon’ is not merely a phenomenon of visual culture, but of auditory, aural culture as well. This is not merely a question of the masterful oratorical style that made his first impression on popular awareness. As Obama himself noted early on in his campaign, he is a ‘skinny Black guy with big ears’ as well as a ‘funny name’. If we do as Theodore Adorno recommended, and ‘think with our ears’, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the auditory image of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ is a kind of composite sound-image, combining echoes of the arch-enemies of the United States during the period preceding his election to the presidency – Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. If human history is heard as well as seen, an audio-visual record of events and processes, then Obama’s election is, at this level, a revolutionary event, not merely in the quantity but the quality of what we can call his ‘visibility’. It is certainly a less than revolutionary event at the level of actual policies, and one of the central issues with Obama’s presidency will be measuring the distance between his audio-visual image – what he says and stages – and what he is able to do. Obama is unquestionably the most visible US president to date, and this is partly an effect of his striking identity as an icon of racial difference, and partly the personal beauty of himself and his family, his sculpted facial features, his body image especially in motions that reveal his athleticism. His hyper-visibility is also a result of his unprecedented mastery of new media. Obama is not just the first Black president; he is the first wired president. And he is wired, not only into the internet, but also into what might be thought of as its exact opposite, namely the face to face encounter. Facebook, YouTube and his Blackberry, along with an amazing variety of online fundraising organizations famously contributed an enormous grass-roots financial basis for his campaign that overwhelmed the Clinton base of fat-cat donors. But that was only half the story. The other half is signaled by the first, crucial turning point of the campaign, namely the Iowa caucuses. Obama swept every caucus state in the primaries because they are the last bastion of direct, town-hall democracy in which communities manifest themselves in real time and real places to engage in actual embodied political conversations. And then of course there is the ‘third thing’, the zone in between the mediated time-spaces of the internet and the immediate sites of direct democracy, namely the spectacular gatherings of masses of people. The mass rallies Obama gathered, from Berlin to Denver to Chicago to inauguration day in Washington DC, are the synthetic convergence of his mediated and
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immediate appeal. Millions of people endured considerable inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of ‘being there’ at these occasions. And even more millions watched the spectacle of mass gathering on television, as much to see the tremendous popular gathering as to see Obama himself. This sense of both actual and virtual gathering is what gave Obama’s campaign the aura of a social movement being born. In my lifetime, only Jack Kennedy, who briefly mobilized the generational activism of the 60s and Ronald Reagan, who energized the long-festering neoconservative reaction against the 60s, have had this feeling of leading an emergent social movement. Bill Clinton had a bit of this aura as the ‘Baby Boomer’ avatar, but quickly squandered it in policy triangulations and compromises. Obama came in to office on the crest of a wave of popular feeling that he helped to create, but that largely pre-dated his candidacy. It is crucial that we not forget how improbable Obama’s election was. No one predicted his amazing victory, including most of the people who finally came around to supporting him. He was not the first choice of left liberals who tended to favor John Edwards or (further left) Dennis Kucinich. The Black community tended to support Hillary Clinton and, one year before his election, he was widely regarded as the least likely of the candidates in the upper tier to survive the primary season; the smart money was all on Clinton. What we had not counted on was the emergence of the Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan of politics, a figure of such superior talent, discipline and vision who could meld the diverse movements of anti-war and environmental interests, economic and social justice, and participatory democracy into a unified movement. And we also must not forget that even with all this going for him, Obama had the most spectacular run of good luck that has ever blessed a candidate for the presidency. He was lucky to run against an elderly curmudgeon who was unpopular with the base of his own party (who would evidently have preferred someone like Sarah Palin) and – defined by Obama as ‘McBush’ – was identified with the most unpopular president since Herbert Hoover. Obama’s good luck began, in fact, to take on overtones of the uncanny when he managed to provide perfect weather for the most visible mass gatherings of his campaign, the 70,000 who gathered in Denver, and the 200,000 on a balmy November night in Chicago. And the final, and perhaps most necessary stroke of good luck: if the crash of the American economy in October of 2008 had taken place two months later, the election very possibly could have gone the other way. When we analyze the effect of Obama as a ‘cultural icon’, then, enumerating the innumerable commodifications of his image, it is important to recognize the extent to which his image is, before any positive content of, say, visible racial marking, a highly ambiguous blank slate on which popular fantasy could be projected. Obama noted this himself in numerous speeches, calling himself a receptacle for the projection of hope and insisting that his meteoric rise was ‘not about me, but about you’. He made himself a mirror for an international community of frustrated desire for peace, hope and change.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
So the key to Obama’s iconicity resides not in determinacy but ambiguity, not in identity but differential hybridity. From the outset, he was dismissed as ‘too black’ to be supported by whites, and ‘not black enough’ to be supported by blacks. And in fact he emphasized, not just his fusion of binary contradictions, but his multiple, plural determinations: African, American, Hawaiian, Indonesian, Christian, Muslim and (like every other American politician) Irish on St Patrick’s Day. He could have been called an incarnation of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Rainbow Coalition’, except that his contrast to the Reverend Jackson in oratorical style was so dramatic. Obama had mastered the soaring, sublime oratory of the Black pulpit, but he modulated it carefully with the cool, reasoned professorial tones of a historian. In a speech in Milwaukee, he told the story of a young woman who whispered to him a confession that, although she was a Republican, she was going to vote for him and join the ranks of the ‘Obamicans’, a reversal of the flow associated with the ‘Reagan Democrats’ in the 1980s. Obama delivered this story in a hushed tone in front of a mass gathering of thousands of people, concluding it by saying that he just had one question for the Republican woman: ‘Why are we whispering?’ It is this fusion of opposites, of sublime eloquence and quiet, thoughtful questioning, that makes Obama such a compelling figure. At the level of the visual image, in addition to his bi-racial identity, he is a figure of both intimacy and monumentality, accessibility and reserve, enormous energy and casual relaxation. I have had the good fortune to meet him in person (he lives two blocks from me in Hyde Park), and in fact my earliest recollection of meeting him is at the home of my next-door neighbor and dear friend, William Ayers, who hosted a neighborhood party that helped to launch Obama’s political career. (Yes, this is the same Ayers vilified as a ‘terrorist’ by the media throughout the campaign.) Up close and personal, Obama strikes me as the same person one encounters at the level of media and public spectacle: thoughtful, eloquent, and given to listening carefully before he opens his mouth. For me, the enduring icon of his election will not be any of the famous moments, but an image snatched from the BBC World Service on the morning of 4 November 2008, when my wife and I had the good luck to be at the polls in the tiny elementary school across the street from our house at the same time that the Obamas came to vote. There he is, about to give my wife a hug and kiss, and me a handshake (Figures 1 and 2). Marshall McLuhan would have been hard-pressed to say whether Obama is a hot or cool medium for the expression of political feeling since he is so clearly capable of modulating his temperature to fit the moment. But his dominant mode is clearly on the side of cool, especially in the sense that ‘coolness’ involves maximum involvement on the side of the audience. This is nowhere more clearly manifested than in the image that has emerged as his most visible icon, the Shepard Fairey ‘HOPE’ poster. Aside from the obvious overtones of Soviet Constructivist posters, most notably Lenin, the most important thing about this image is that it was not produced by the Obama campaign. Like the ‘Yes We Can’ and ‘Obama Girl’ videos on YouTube, the most notable, memorable images of Obama were produced by members of the movement he catalyzed, not by his professional image-makers.
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Figure 1 Voting, Chicago, 4th November 2008. So Obama is what Walter Benjamin would have called the ‘dialectical image’ of our time, only that he does not capture (as Benjamin put it) ‘history at a standstill’, but in its actual motion towards an open, indeterminate and ambiguous future. The image-event of the campaign that most clearly illustrates this point is the famous New Yorker cover of July 2008, which portrayed Obama in Muslim drag and Michelle as an Angela Davis-type revolutionary, burning the American flag in their fire-place, and giving each other a ‘terrorist fist-pump’. At the time, this cover was severely criticized by my friends on the left for its reinforcement of right-wing propaganda images that were trying to caricature Obama as a secret Muslim. The fist-pump (seen every day as a sign of athletic solidarity in American basketball) was interpreted as a terrorist sign, of course, by Fox News. My own reaction was to defend the cover on the grounds that it exposed to view in a manifestly ridiculous tableau the insidious whispering campaign that was being waged in the right-wing media. As Blake would have said, it ‘gave Error a form so that it could be cast out’. The response of my leftist colleagues was that ‘the American people will not understand’ the subtlety of the satire, and will take this literally, as a revelation of the Obama’s secret subversiveness. To me, the joke was on people stupid enough to take the image literally, and on those leftists who outsmart themselves by underestimating the intelligence of everyone west of the Hudson River. We have providence or uncanny good luck to thank that my reading turned out to be correct. We also have to thank George W Bush, who in every . conceivable way set the conditions for Obama’s emergence as his opposite number – Obama as the icon of anti-or non-Bushiness. Just to tabulate the
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Figure 2 Voting, Chicago, 4th November 2008. obvious contrasts between Obama and Bush: smart versus stupid, eloquent versus inarticulate, flexible versus rigid, modest versus arrogant, a mulatto cosmopolitan versus a white Texas cowboy, subtle and complex versus simplistic and reductive; confident in reason and science versus a faith-based science and foreign policy based on ‘gut feelings’. The United States suffered a historic plague of bad luck in having George W Bush as President at the . moment of 9/11. Now we must hope that, in the midst of the deep calamity of global recession brought on by conservative economic policies, Obama’s luck will hold. For the moment, he is the icon, the talisman as it were, of that possibility. W.J.T. Mitchell University of Chicago, USA [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Barack Obama is not only the first black American President; just as notably, he is the first biracial American President. Almost unique among public figures of mixed racial ancestry in the history of the United States, Obama has maintained his ‘white half ’ in the media framing of his person and life. I would like to examine Obama’s racialization, and specifically the racialization
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of his whiteness, in order to explore the current status of race and racism in the United States. In doing so, I hope to preserve the collective triumph of the nation in electing its first African American President. The fact of Obama’s blackness has significantly transfigured a long legacy of American racism. The fact of his whiteness, and the representation of that whiteness, however, holds a more ambiguous grip on the American imagination. During the presidential campaign, ‘Daily Show’ comedian Samantha Bee proclaimed that ‘Barack Obama is already what all of us wish we were: Half black. Half white. Half Comanche. Half Viking. Half wolf.’1 In a send-up of America’s romance with Obama’s racial ‘exoticism’, Bee also satirized the American obsession with racial quanta. Americans have long been intent on categorizing and quantifying ‘color’. Since the infamous one-drop laws of the late 19th century, the precise proportions of one’s racial ancestry have been accorded profound meaning and consequences. Historically, blackness has always trumped whiteness; at the turn of the century, having one great great grandparent of African or African American descent legally defined an individual as ‘black’. Established to maintain a white supremacist fantasy of racial purity, such laws policed the bounds of whiteness, and deemed any racial mixture a negation of whiteness. Historically, one could never be ‘half white’ – or even ‘15/16ths white’. If one had any African or African American ancestry at all, one was simply black. Obama’s ‘white half ’ remained eerily salient throughout the campaign. As David Hollinger (2008) has noted: Press accounts of Obama’s life, as well as Obama’s own autobiographical writings, render Obama’s whiteness hard to miss . . . Obama’s white ancestry is right there in the open, visible in the form of the white woman who, as a single mother, raised Obama. (p. 1034) As the election approached, I heard people quip: ‘Just vote for the white half.’ And Obama himself joked about his ‘white half ’. On the ‘Daily Show’ the night before the election, when John Stewart asked Obama if he was afraid his ‘white half ’ might try to sabotage him in the voting booth, the Democratic candidate good-humoredly performed a Dr. Strangelove parody in which he tried to prevent his ‘white hand’ from casting a vote for the white Republican candidate John McCain. Both the comedian and the presidential hopeful played on cultural anxieties that ‘racial loyalty’ would secretly assert itself in the privacy of the voting booth, leading white Americans to cast their votes for whiteness. In the long lead-up to the election, Obama’s racial ‘parts’ were visually represented in varied ways. The December 2007 cover of the Atlantic presented a creepy amalgam in which a ghostly image of Obama’s face emerged through a grid of small images sampling some of America’s most fervently divided political leaders.2 The composite that becomes Obama’s face includes such polarizing figures as Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Keith Olbermann, Jesse Jackson, Mike
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Morris, Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, Rudi Giuliani, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Karl Rove, George Bush, Oliver North and Ann Coulter. Obama’s apparition appears where those smaller images have been lightened; it is as if the component portraits of America’s contentious politicos are fading into the whitened outlines of Obama’s face. Overlaid on top of this complicated image is the title of the cover story by Andrew Sullivan (2007: 46): ‘Why Obama Matters’. Sullivan suggests that Obama, born in 1961, at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, is not part of the generation that has remained bitterly divided since the Vietnam War over myriad cultural issues, not least among them race and racism. In an otherwise considered and thoughtful essay, Sullivan asks, ‘What does he [Obama] offer? First and foremost: His face.’ The Atlantic cover image seems to highlight the uniting force of Obama’s face, dissolving fractious figures in Obama’s whitened countenance. Much media attention has been devoted to Obama’s face. Magazine covers of the Democratic candidate, President-elect, and President have often focused closely on his visage. TIME magazine made Obama’s face the center of its disturbing 20 October 2008 cover, in which it literally whitened half of the candidate’s face.3 Here Obama’s head floats disembodied on a stark background that is divided down the middle into black and white halves. His face is similarly divided down the middle – half brown and half chalky white. The right half is presented ‘in color’ – Obama’s naturally brown skin against a white background. The left half is presented in high contrast ‘black and white’ – his face bright white against a black background. This ‘campaign special’ issue includes a ‘special report’ about ‘why people vote the way they do’ and an article about ‘how worried white voters are turning toward Obama’. In bold red letters that cover Obama’s whitened forehead, the issue promises to explain ‘why the economy is trumping race’. This complicated combination of image and text seeks to express a post-racial dynamic at play in the election. It juxtaposes Obama’s ‘color’ to a stark black and white binary, suggesting that ‘color’ – Obama’s ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ – may no longer be a ‘black and white’ issue. However, the image could just as well be heightening a racial binary as surpassing one, underscoring racial binaries with its starkly contrasting halves. The 17 November 2008 TIME commemorative issue following the election presents on its cover a tightly cropped portrait of the President-elect, framed according to the dictates of monumental respectability.4 Shot from below, at a two-thirds angle, Obama looks loftily outside the frame, his eyes and forehead shining in the light from above. This is the face of leadership. The small white text on the black background of the cover quotes the Presidentelect – ‘“Change has come to America”’ – and image and text together suggest that Obama’s face is the change that has materialized. The back cover of TIME’s commemorative issue provides an intriguing partner to its front cover. It presents a photograph of Tiger Woods, also shot from the side, but turning to look directly out at viewers. The image is an advertisement for the Swiss watch company TAGHeuer, and its text asks:
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‘What are you made of?’ Woods is a famously ‘post-racial figure’ (Sullivan, 2007: 54) whose race has nevertheless been the subject of careful delineation. For those who want to know what Tiger Woods ‘is made of ’, Wikipedia carefully outlines the racial heritage of Woods’s parents by percentages, and concludes: ‘This makes Woods himself one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and oneeighth Dutch’.5 The striking pairing of Obama’s portrait with Woods’s advertisement on opposing covers of the TIME commemorative issue underscores the idea that what the President ‘is made of ’ has transformed America. What Americans are made of was the subject of one of TIME magazine’s most infamous special issues on multiculturalism and racial mixing in the United States. On the cover of the 18 November 1993 special issue, a tightly framed image of a computer-generated woman’s face was presented as ‘The New Face of America’.6 This ‘new Eve’ was a composite portrait made up of racial parts: ‘15% Anglo-Saxon, 17.5% Middle Eastern, 17.5% African, 7.5% Asian, 35% Southern European and 7.5% Hispanic’ (Time, 1993: 2). As I have argued elsewhere (Smith, 1999: 222–5), TIME’s new Eve was indebted to racial and visual logics established in the 19th century, in the sciences of phrenology, physiognomy, biological racialism and eugenics, and dramatically emblematized in Francis Galton’s composite photographs.7 In accord with those logics, the ‘new Eve’s’ ‘mixed’ visual parts were carefully measured and maintained. In other words, the preservation of racial categories and quanta in this mix was the result of eugenicist thinking, which always sought to shore up Anglo-Saxon identity. TIME presented the face of its ‘new Eve’ as an emblem of the future of race in the United States. Fifteen years later, the mass media has similarly strained to frame and tame Obama’s face. If, on the one hand, the discourses surrounding Obama’s whiteness suggest that one-drop racial logics have finally been overturned, on the other hand those same discourses also re-energize a trenchant eugenicist logic in which racial categories are never dissolved or resolved through racial mixing. TIME offered its 1993 visual experiment in racial mixing with articles that expressed anxiety about demographic changes in the United States. The editorial (Time, 1993: 5) that introduced the special issue discussed ‘America’s Immigrant Challenge’ and declared: ‘Sometime during the second half of the 21st century the descendants of white Europeans, the arbiters of the core national culture for most of its existence, are likely to slip into minority status.’ Its cover image was the imagined face of a future America in which whites would be a minority. In August of the 2008 election year, census reports proclaimed that ‘non-Hispanic’ whites would be a minority in the United States by 2042, confirming the predictions espoused by TIME magazine in 1993.8 Obama’s race has also been represented in relation to immigration. As Hollinger (2008) has emphasized: ‘Obama’s black ancestry is immigrant rather than U.S.-born’ (p. 1037), and ‘in the long run, the fact that Obama is the son of an immigrant may prove to be almost as important as the fact that
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
he is the son of a black man and a white mother.’ Obama is a key transitional figure between the racially divided generation of the Baby Boomers and the future generations that will see the decline of a white majority in the United States through immigration. Perhaps this is why his whiteness seems to matter so much. If, as the son of an immigrant Kenyan man, Obama represents a new kind of blackness, perhaps he also represents a new kind of whiteness – a mixed whiteness to be sure, but for now a whiteness that is tentatively maintaining its hold on an anxious American imagination (or at least its ‘white half ’). Notes
1. I am paraphrasing from memory here. I think Bee’s formulation was actually more extensive, and more humorous. 2. http://www.reobama.com/MagazinesUS.htm 3. http://www.reobama.com/MagazinesUS.htm 4. http://www.reobama.com/MagazinesUS.htm 5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_Woods 6. http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19931118,00.html 7. Many other scholars also assessed this famous image (see Berlant, 1997: 200–9; Burgin, 1996: 258–64; Haraway, 1997: 259–65). 8. http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/ 012496.html.
Berlant, Lauren (1997) The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. Burgin, Victor (1996) In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. Haraway, Donna (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_ OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge. Hollinger, David. A. (2008) ‘Obama, the Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future’, Callaloo 31(4): 1033–7. Smith, Shawn Michelle (1999) American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Sullivan, Andrew (2007) ‘Why Obama Matters’, The Atlantic, December: 40–54. TIME (1993) Special issue, fall, 142(21).
Shawn Michelle Smith Department of Visual and Critical Studies School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA [email: email@example.com]
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Just Joking? Chimps, Obama and Racial Stereotype
We are decidedly not in a ‘post-racial’ America, whatever that may look like; indeed, many have been made more uneasy by the election of a black president and the accompanying euphoria, evoking a concomitant racial backlash in the form of allegedly satirical visual imagery. Such imagery attempts to dispel anxieties about race and ‘blackness’ by reifying the old racial stereotypes that suggest African Americans are really culturally and intellectually inferior and therefore not to be feared, that the threat of blackness can be neutralized or subverted through caricature and mockery. When the perpetrators and promulgators of such imagery are caught in the light of national media and accused of racial bias, whether blatant or implied, they always resort to the same ideological escape hatch: it was only ‘a joke’. There has been no shortage of such visual racist jokes attending the candidacy and election of Barack Obama, most of them recycled from the archive of stereotyped racist images that filled American print culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and spawned a still lively market in blackface memorabilia. In the internet age, however, the public response to forays in racist humor has been swift, turning cartoons in private emails from a Republican politician to constituents or locally printed images by a Republican group into instant national controversies. Most contentious in the Obama-related spate of images is a New York Post political cartoon published on 18 February 2009, which lampooned Obama’s stimulus bill on its op-ed page, immediately causing a major public outcry. The now infamous chimp cartoon by Sean Delonas depicts a dead and bleeding chimp lying face-up on a sidewalk with three bullet holes in its chest. Looming over the dead animal, one cop says to another, whose gun is still smoking: ‘They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus plan’1 Those who defend the image as legitimate political critique with no racist overtones or intent argue that the image merely suggests that the bill is so bad it could have been written by a chimp, or that the chimp represents the white Democrats in Congress who authored the bill. Those who find the image racist counter these arguments by pointing out that the bill is identified with President Obama and that the caricature of a black man through the image of a chimp is a resurgence of one of the oldest racist images in the United States. The cartoon was produced on the heels of an actual shooting of a chimp to which Col Allan, editor-in-chief of the conservative Post, referred in a statement to the press (Hines, 2009) wherein he defended the work as broadly satirical: The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Allan referred to the 200-pound chimp known as Travis, kept as a pet by a woman in Connecticut, who severely mauled another woman who was a friend of the chimp’s owner. Travis was in turn shot and killed by police when his owner called them to the scene. News accounts suggested that Travis might have been reacting to drugs given to him by his owner, while others observed the general fact that full-grown chimps cannot be regarded as safe pets and treated like humans. Allan also referred to comments in the press made by Al Sharpton in which Sharpton described the Post cartoon as ‘troubling at best, given the historic racist attacks of African Americans as being synonymous with monkeys’ (Hines, 2009). Sharpton also noted: Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder: Are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill? Though he has sometimes been perceived as a demagogue in the past, the attempt to dismiss Sharpton as a publicity hound met with little sympathy in this case; nor was Sharpton alone in condemning this cartoon. Filmmaker Spike Lee echoed Sharpton’s outrage, as did civil rights leaders, New York state politicians, angry Post readers, and members of the public. Barbara Clara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists asserted: ‘To compare the nation’s first African American commander-in-chief to a dead chimpanzee is nothing short of racist drivel’ (Hines, 2009). State Senator Eric Adams called it a throwback to the days when black men were lynched. Protesters picketed the tabloid’s offices, demanding an apology and calling for a boycott. Some observers worried about the implicit reference to assassination (Fantz, 2009). On the cartoon ‘danger scale’ of 1 to 10, Dilbert creator Scott Adams gave it a 9. ‘He’s got everything he shouldn’t have,’ said Adams. ‘Gunfire, that’s the one thing you cannot get away with. And then he’s got violence against animals, also a pretty big no.’ Spelman College history professor Jelani Cobb told CNN that the image made him nervous about the safety of a black president in a historically racist country: ‘When I looked at it, there was no getting around the implications of it. Clearly anyone with an iota of sense knows the close association of black and the primate imagery’ (Fantz, 2009). To most observers, this cartoon had nothing to do with the flap caused by the New Yorker cover by Barry Britt (21 July 2008), which satirized the archconservative view of the Obamas as Muslim terrorists. Cartoonists were reluctant to condemn one of their own, however. Despite the high score Adams gave the cartoon on the ‘danger scale’, Adams said he still liked the cartoon, and Ted Rall, President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, said the cartoonist owed no one an apology: He was trying to jam two stories together, and unfortunately, this is what a lot of lame editors like. The comparison he had in mind: The guy
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who wrote the package wasn’t Obama; it was a bunch of white economic advisors, and he [Delonas] wasn’t thinking about Obama. (Fantz, 2009) Rall suggests that the problem lay with the incompetence of the editor, who should have understood, where Delonas himself did not, that this chimp would not be understood as representing ‘a bunch of white economic advisors’, but Obama himself. The intent of the cartoonist (and his editor) was the primary defense proffered by the Post. In a statement on its website, the Post said the cartoon was meant to mock an ‘ineptly written’ stimulus bill: But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This was most certainly not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize. (Hines, 2009) The statement then suggests, however, that some have attacked the Post opportunistically and ‘to them, no apology is due. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon – even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.’ Despite the apology, this statement wheels around to assert that those who regard the cartoon as racist are misreading it and ‘sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon’. Even a blogger on the liberal Huffington Post insisted: The democratic leadership (Pelosi, Frank, etc.) inserted many items that BHO did not pitch in his campaign. All the satirist is trying to depict is that a rabid monkey could have just as well written the stimulus document. (‘New York Post Chimp Cartoon . . .’, 2009) The Post and observers such as this one argue for a careful sifting of the facts and discernment of intent, as if that were the basis for political cartoons in general, or this political cartoon in particular, which refers to the first major piece of legislation promoted by, identified with, and signed by a newly elected black president. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Post, issued a statement the week after the cartoon appeared in which he more or less reiterated the apology the editorial board first published, along with its veiled retraction: Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted. Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you – without a doubt – that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such. (Otterman, 2009)
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Neither Murdoch nor the newspaper’s editors, this statement suggests, understood the historic racist significance of the chimp as a caricature. And since the apologies rest on the question of intent, they implicitly raise the question: Can the cartoon be racist if the cartoonist and editors didn’t ‘intend’ it to be? Sean Delonas is well known for his vile cartoons, particularly anti-gay cartoons. Among other things, he has compared homosexuality to bestiality. He also likes to represent foreigners as surrounded by flies, to ridicule Rosie O’Donnell and Michael Moore as hugely obese, Heather Mills for having only one leg, Madonna for growing older, and New York Governor David Patterson for being blind. Delonas mocks women, gays, lesbians, transgenders, Latinos, blacks, foreigners, fat people, the aging and the disabled. How could this be anything other than a racist cartoon? But it must be understood that intention is a false argument in such cases, even when made in good faith, since racism can be so internalized and normalized as to efface itself quite effectively. The argument of ‘intent’ could exonerate nearly every racist tract and image that has ever been produced as a ‘joke’ or ‘misreading’. As many theorists have argued, meaning is not anchored to intent; instead it is produced by the discourses that surround the image in the arenas in which it circulates. This makes intent secondary at best, especially for a political cartoon whose explicit purpose is to resonate with familiar cultural meanings. Indeed, political cartoons are based on caricature and caricature depends on the immediate recognition of the object being caricatured. As Roger A. Fischer, author of Them Damned Pictures: Explorations in American Cartoon Art, observes, the success of a political cartoon rests in its ability ‘to influence public opinion through its use of widely and instantly understood symbols, slogans, referents, and allusions’ (Backer, 1996, emphasis in original). So why the continued belligerence, the non-apologetic apology? The Post clearly opposes the stimulus plan, which a majority of the country regards as necessary, if problematic, and addresses its critique toward a conservative audience it assumes will be sympathetic. The argument over the racist implications of the cartoon, in the eyes of the Post, are a displacement of the larger argument over the priorities of the country that many regard as teetering dangerously on the brink of a major depression. Murdoch, Delonas and the Post editors obdurately align themselves with Herbert Hoover, who as President in 1929 was unable or unwilling to take any steps toward alleviating the economic crisis and became infamous for turning a deaf ear and blind eye to those most in need, even tear gassing and burning down the tents of war veterans who camped out on the lawn of the White House to demand their benefits. This helped lead to Hoover’s defeat and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, who immediately put in place his own version of a stimulus package, thereby heading off a revolutionary threat from the left. Nonetheless, conservatives roundly denounced Roosevelt. The Post and its Republican supporters today are still making this head-in-thesand argument, which depends on the market ‘correcting itself ’.
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The chimp cartoon is only the latest provocation in a series of provocative events that have made national news in the last few years. In 2002, Trent Lott’s veiled endorsement of segregation in remarks related to the presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond in 1948 caused an immediate uproar that forced him to step down as incoming Senate Majority Leader, despite the week-long attempt by then-President George Bush to gloss over it and Lott’s own apology. In 2005, former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett suggested on his syndicated national radio show that, hypothetically, aborting black babies could reduce crime. Although the remark caused a furor, Bennett remained unapologetic and retained his show. In 2007, radio host Don Imus called the African American Rutgers University women’s basketball team ‘nappy-headed hos’ on his nationally syndicated program. Although Imus apologized, he was fired from the radio program. Each of these nationally prominent figures defended their remarks on the basis of intent, whether they ultimately apologized or not. During the presidential election campaign in 2007, David Ehrenstein wrote a thoughtful article in the Los Angeles Times about Barack Obama and the figure of the ‘magic Negro’, which Ehrenstein described as a primarily noble cinematic figure, best personified by Sidney Poitier, who appears to save the white protagonist while representing no threat to white masculinity. The ‘magic Negro’ exudes what Ehrenstein calls ‘curative black benevolence’. Ehrenstein writes: He’s there to assuage white ‘guilt’ (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest. We might regard the kindly, servile, and asexual ‘Uncle Ben’ and ‘Aunt Jemima’ as forbears of the magic Negro. A few months after Ehrenstein’s article appeared, right-wing Republican talk show host Rush Limbaugh played ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ to the tune of ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ on his syndicated radio program. Following that, a candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship, Chip Saltsman from Tennessee, sent a CD to committee members for Christmas that included a song titled ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ (there are now many versions on YouTube). Saltsman told CNN (Sinderbrand, 2008) that the CD was a joke, meant to satirize the Los Angeles Times article. ‘I think most people recognize political satire when they see it,’ he said. ‘I think RNC members understand that.’ Not all RNC members did, however. RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, recognizing a public relations disaster when he saw one, rejected the satirical gambit in no uncertain terms. Perhaps alluding to the bruising losses by Republicans in the 2008 elections and the pervasive perception of the Republican Party as a shrunken southern regional party of old white men, Duncan said, ‘I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate, as it clearly does not move us in the right direction’ (Sinderbrand, 2008).
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Saltsman lost his bid to become the next RNC chairman, as did Katon Dawson from South Carolina, who was a member of an all-white country club for 12 years and resigned just before announcing his run for RNC chairman when he learned that his membership was about to be reported in the press; instead the politically inexperienced Michael Steele from Maryland, the figure who gave us ‘Drill, baby, drill’, referring to Alaskan oil, at the Republican National Convention, became the first black chairman of the RNC. Steele ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2006, and was implicated in a possible swindle involving campaign funds being funneled to his sister’s defunct company, which never performed any services; he was also implicated in campaign literature meant to mislead people into believing he was a Democrat(!)2 Following his election as RNC Chairman, Steele publicly criticized Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric as ‘incendiary’ and ‘ugly’ and suggested that abortion should be a woman’s choice, but immediately backed down and apologized for both positions when criticized by the Republican Party. Steele, who talked about ‘hip hop’ appeal and ‘taking it off the hook’ appears buffoonish compared to the preternaturally calm and thoughtful Obama. In different ways, both represent the ‘magic Negro’, or just a more popular face for the Democratic and Republican parties, both of which defend the interests of a privileged class. The RNC election came in the wake of a newsletter sent out by a Republican women’s group in California during the election campaign that featured an ‘Obama Bucks’ ten dollar ‘food stamp’ with barbecued ribs, watermelon, lemonade, and a bucket of fried chicken, labeled ‘United States Food Stamps.’ In the center was the face of Barack Obama on a donkey (Figure 1). The newsletter by the Chaffey Community Republican Women prompted outrage among members of its own group, which included African American women. Diane Fidele, the group’s president, explained that she wasn’t thinking in racist terms; she was merely offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race by suggesting during the campaign that he ‘didn’t look like other Presidents’ on dollar bills. ‘I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,’ Fidele said (DeArmand, 2008). ‘It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else’. She was offended that he referred, in this oblique way, to his ‘blackness’? It was ‘just food’? What makes taboo the mention of race? Clearly, it is seen as a threat that must be ridiculed with ribs and chicken in order to be diminished? By trotting out these racist associations, culminating with the face of Obama on the political symbol of the donkey, Fidele maps demeaning racial stereotype onto the Democratic
Figure 1 ‘Obama Bucks’, pictured in Chaffey Community Republican Women newsletter, California, October 2008.
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Party itself. The image visualizes Obama’s difference from the long line of white presidents represented on the dollar bill by suggesting that he will only represent the interests of poor blacks and will turn the US into a ‘welfare state’. Before stepping down as head of the Republican women’s group as a result of the controversy, Fidele admitted that she was trying to criticize Obama’s welfare policies with the illustration (‘Obama Bucks Distributor Resigns’, 2008). In yet another incident, Dean Grose, mayor of Los Alamitos, California, sent out an email with an image featuring the White House lawn planted with watermelons under the title, ‘No Easter Egg Hunt This Year’ (Figure 2). One of its recipients was Keyanus Price, a black businesswoman who told the Orange County Register, ‘What I’m concerned about is how can this person send an e-mail out like this and think it is OK?’ (Lynn Fletcher, 2009). But the mayor said he was unaware of the connection between African Americans and watermelons. Really? What, then, would have made this cartoon ‘funny’? When Price emailed the mayor about the inappropriateness of the image, he replied by saying: ‘In these economic times, you just have to laugh now and then.’ It was this failure to understand the implications of the ‘joke’ that infuriated Price and led her to make the image public. In February 2009, following a firestorm of criticism, the mayor resigned, undoubtedly without realizing that those rows of watermelons that led to his downfall occupied the same site as the veterans’ ‘Hoovervilles’ of three generations earlier.3
Figure 2 ‘No Easter Egg Hunt This Year’: picture sent out in mass email from personal account of Dean Grose, mayor of Los Alamitos, California, February 2009. In a chilling article, Phillip Goff and Jennifer Eberhardt (2009), two social psychologists at UCLA and Stanford, demonstrate that even among whites who are not racially prejudiced there is a strong tendency to associate black faces with apes. They write: In multiple studies on ape and African American associations, using different experimental approaches with white and nonwhite subjects, we have found that the link persists and can be triggered in the most egalitarian of people. Our research also suggests a particularly disturbing consequence: When the association was called to mind, even in the absence of conscious awareness, participants in our laboratory experiments were more likely to endorse violence against African Americans.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
They note that this was true in relation to the 1992 beating of Rodney King, when LAPD Officer Laurence Powell referred to a black couple as ‘something right out of Gorillas in the Mist’ just moments before becoming involved in the King beating. Goff and Eberhardt ascribe this tendency to ‘a lifetime of conditioning, rooted in historical representations of blacks as less than human’. Given the national coverage and debate over such images, Sean Delonas and the Post editors would have had to be culturally blind and deaf indeed, as well as historically unaware – hardly the qualifications for successful political cartooning. If they were sensitive to the implications of dragging out this racist imagery – in this case opportunistically using the cultural referent of an actual out of control chimp as a pretext – the cartoon can only be meant to delegitimize the moral, intellectual and political authority of a black man in government in order to preserve a brittle, racist, and collapsing capitalist economic system that cannot support the majority of the population it is meant to serve, regardless of race or ethnicity. If they were actually unaware of the implications of the imagery they were using, that is even more frightening, for it indicates an association between African Americans, apes, and the condoning of violence that is so deeply embedded as to be unrecognizable. J. Stanley Lemons (1977) suggests that blacks became the butt of national ‘jokes’ at moments of heightened social tensions in the 19th century, when slavery began to be seriously questioned and following the failure of Reconstruction. Similarly, the election of a popular African American President and the installation of a black family in the White House also has evoked a conservative backlash, including a rise in hate groups, and brought out the racist jokes – but the massive national refusal to find them harmless, much less ‘funny’, suggests that the ideological naturalization of blackness as subhuman and threatening is finding stronger resistance. Notes
1. The New York Post will not authorize copyright permission to reproduce this cartoon because it created such a political stir. It can be viewed online at http://www.nypost.com/delonas/delonas.htm. 2. See http://centerblue.org/2006/09/23/md-sen-republicans-anonymous-steelecampaigns-as-a-democrat/ 3. As we go to press, I’ve learned about boxes of waffle mix sold at the conservative Values Voters Summit held during the election campaign, which manage to construct Obama as subservient Negro, Muslim terrorist, and Mexican ‘illegal alien’ all at once. The boxes picture a racist caricature of Obama in place of ‘Aunt Jemima’ on the front, Obama with a simulated Muslim headdress on the top flap, and, on the back, a picture of Obama in stereotypical Mexican dress and sombrero above a recipe for ‘Open Border Fiesta Waffles’ that can serve ‘4 or more illegal aliens’. The recipe includes this tip: ‘While waiting for these zesty treats to invade your home, why not learn a foreign language?’ Republicans Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were among the speakers at this forum, which drew over 2,000 activists from 44 states (see Lowy, 2008). I thank John Peffer for bringing this to my attention.
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Atiba Goff, Phillip and Eberhardt, Jennifer L. (2009) ‘Race and the Ape Image’, Los Angeles Times, 28 February. Backer, Dan (1996) ‘A Brief History of Political Cartoons’. URL (consulted 18 March 2009): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/PUCK/part1.html DeArmand, Michelle (2008) ‘Inland GOP Mailing Depicts Obama’s Face on Food Stamp’, The Press-Enterprise, 16 October. Ehrenstein, David (2007) ‘Obama the “Magic Negro”’, Los Angeles Times, 19 March. Fantz, Ashley (2009) ‘Racism Row Over Chimp Cartoon Sparks Debate’, CNN.com, 19 February. Hines, Nico (2009) ‘Protesters Picket New York Post Over Chimp Cartoon’, Times Online, 19 February. Lemons, J. Stanley (1977) ‘Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880–1920’, American Quarterly 29(1), Spring: pp. 102–16, 104. Lowy, Joan (2008) ‘Conservative Values Forum Sells Racist “Obama Waffles”’, 13 September. URL (consulted 26 May 2009): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/ 09/13/conservative-political-fo_n_126243.html Lynn Fletcher, Jaimee (2009) ‘Did the Mayor Do the Right Thing in Watermelon Uproar?’, Orange County Register, 27 February. ‘New York Post Chimp Cartoon Compares Stimulus Author to Dead Primate’ (2009), 18 February. URL (consulted 16 March 2009): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ 2009/02/18/new-york-post-chimp-cat_n_167841.html ‘Obama Bucks Distributor Resigns’, KTLA News, 23 October. URL (consulted 27 March 2009): http://www.ktla.com/landing_news/?Newsletter-of-Obama-withWatermelon-Spar=1&blockID=81317&feedID=171 Otterman, Sharton (2009) ‘Murdoch Apologizes for Chimp Cartoon’, NYTimes.com, 24 February. Sinderbrand, Rebecca (2008) ‘RNC Chairman Candidate Defends “Barack the Magic Negro” Song’, CNN.com, 26 December.
Dora Apel Department of Art and Art History Wayne State University, USA [firstname.lastname@example.org]
I Believe In Miracles
We Can Sing Now I see no changes, all I see is racist faces Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races We under, I wonder what it takes to make this one better place, let’s erase the wasted [. . .]
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
And although it seems heaven sent We ain’t ready, to see a black President, uhh It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks But some things will never change (Tupac Shakur, Changes on Greatest Hits. Jive, 2001.1) I remember first hearing that Barack Hussein Obama II would be running for president of the United States, and things felt different all of a sudden. It was as if there was a chance to engage with ‘Mission Impossible’ in real life, and would that simply not be great. It was a chance to see if the world was ready to see a black president. That he was a black man was of great importance to me (and I know or have heard all the arguments why this should not matter, but it does.) I wanted him to win (even though I could not vote in the election), and eventually, for the first time, I stayed up all night to watch the United States’ election (along with many others in the United Kingdom, I later found). The presence of Obama in the public sphere in Britain complicated the visual space of politics for me. It made demands I knew I had to address. Barack Obama had become a phenomenon, he had changed the way race and the public sphere would be dealt with. I was sent a photograph of Obama shaking the hand of a police officer outside Number 10 Downing Street. This time he functions as President of the United States, and this act of greeting became news. It would appear that all Obama says and does takes on new dimensions, stepping outside the political realm, there seems a desire to see him as the human face of an inhuman system. The photograph came with the caption: ‘This is the most powerful photo in the series. The two brothers couldn’t resist the historic moment. Nice. This is just fly!!!’ I probably would have not noticed the police officer was black, Police officers recede behind their uniforms for me, but the caption claims that Obama saw beyond the dark blue to the dark skin, and sought solidarity. This act of public politeness underpins the impact/narrative of a black man in the white house. I resented being continually reminded that Barack Obama would be the first black man in the White House, or even the more shocking idea of a black family in the white house. (This seemed to be the case on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, but then I realised the presenters were performing their own prejudices as much as I was performing mine. The difference I felt was that I could accept the normality of a black or white man in the White House.) But then he is a black man, and this is why there is such a fuss around his representation, and almost instantaneous iconic status. (And Shepard Fairey doing for Obama what Andy Warhol did for a lot of others should not be discounted.) Of course there have been international icons, JFK has become iconic (His initials alone are enough to denote presence, even if all the screenprints in the world have not made JFK as
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ubiquitous as Obama), but that was before my time and the insistent global media machine that now includes Africa, the Americas, and Asia. And these places are increasingly important, if only because their opinion now matters, they too have a say in the fate of the world (as against them being spoken for). It is not the same in the West any more, where it was de rigueur to act as if only they formulated estimations. Obama’s presence has made this assumption difficult to sustain, and made every black person on the planet feel, viscerally, they had a say in what happened to their world and lives. It is not as if there have not been, or are black leaders to point to, the problem has been the historical realities which have sidelined these men and women. There have been a goodly number of reasons made for the iconographic position Obama has come to have in the popular imagination, one of them being the man’s sheer ability to convince strangers he really cares for them, and all that is dear to them. However this is not unique to Obama, and alone does not warrant the level of image reproduction and reification. The colour of a man Toni Morrison set up an argument, when eleven years ago she called Bill Clinton the first black president. She set about addressing skin colouration while he was being carpeted for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Morrison wrote in The New Yorker (Comment, 05 October 1998): African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.2 Thankfully her children’s lifetime has witnessed a black family in The White House not defined by poverty, musical ability, and poor diet. Angie Stone too lists black leaders in My People. Sardonically and pessimistically she reminded us of the then impossibility of imagining a black man in the White House. After exhorting forbearance and determination (the mainstay of these narratives), she, like Morrison, ends with Bill Clinton; the imagined last man standing, as the closest thing to ‘the’ ‘black leader’ in the United States. The question now is how this position will be revised in the face of Barack Obama’s ascendancy to office. My people, hold your head up My people, don’t get fed up My people rise, my people fight My people do alright My people walk with pride and We’re marchin’ side by side and
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
My people laugh, my people cry My people ride and die [...] Mariam Makeba, Susan Taylor Soul II Soul, Tom Bail Antwan Fuqua, Damien Marley Trevor McDonald, The Black Stars Angie Stone, Count Basie Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson Bill Clinton, that’s right I said it Y’all know that was the first black man in the White House (Angie Stone, My People on The Art of Love & War. Universal Classics, 20073) It seems self evident to discuss two images in particular: both are advertising campaigns for broadsheet newspapers apparently pointing to their ability to capture the zeitgeist. At Camden Road train station I saw a poster that turned out to be a teaser campaign for The Times. It showed Barack Obama waving from in front of what is supposed to be 10 Downing Street. I do not know if this was a real incident or a pastiche, what I do know is that the pose implied Obama could be the new beneficent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. I took a photograph of it on my phone, relishing the promise the poster offered. The Times advertisement offered Obama to the nation both as a statesman and a fantasy. His statesmanship is hinted at as he stands waving
Figure 1 Obama waving. Advertisement for The Times, Camden Road, London. Photo: Raimi Gbadamosi.
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Figure 2 Advertisement for The Telegraph, London Underground. Photo: Raimi Gbadamosi. in front of Number 10 (The British audience of the campaign can only assume this is number 10 Downing Street), a stance reserved for British Prime Ministers. The image asks ‘what if ’ Obama were the British Prime Minister, what would this mean for the nation, and its identity. But this is a fiction, a construction of desirous impossibility that advertising is best at. The Telegraph campaign shows a colour photograph of Barack Obama’s ‘first’ workplace, a Baskin Robbins Ice Cream parlour. This photograph is flanked to the right by a black and white photograph of Richard Branson’s ‘first’ Virgin Records, and to the left a colour photograph of Café Wha?, the site of Jimi Hendix’s ‘first’ gig. The images calmly link Obama to music, populism, and popularity, there is slight discomfort at this relationship, the questions of race and place of blackness and historical assumptions of blackness. After all Clinton’s interest in music partly led to him being called the first AfricanAmerican president. Jimmy Hendrix to one side, Branson to the other, and Obama in-between. The celebration of humble beginnings, determination, and hard work is a reading available to the advertisement, but that would be far too easy to present. The exhortation to their readers, is to carry on with their dreams of grandeur, to buy their Telegraph daily, to associate themselves with greatness, ultimately achieving the ‘impossible’. All of a sudden their readers’ economic and social predicaments are things that can, and will, be surmounted in the long run. If Obama can make it to be President of the United States, Branson become a business magnate, and Hendrix the inspiration and voice of a generation, then all readers of the Telegraph can make it too (especially with the implications of privilege the Telegraph is supposed to bestow on its readers). But the corporate message must not be dismissed, Obama makes it as the Telegraph’s icon for his link to enterprise and success, but this is still mediated by those he is linked to. He is not linked to other leaders, he is associated with mass entertainment.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
What is significant though at this moment, is how almost anything can come to represent Obama. Even the frontage of a Baskin Robbins is imbued with grandeur. He has managed, in a very short period, to supersede his own representation in the public realm. He has become the object himself, simply signifying Obama-ness, he has become both the symbol and reality of a black man in the White House, of possibility, of the generosity of a liberal white electorate able to embrace him. Obama offers this cohort redemption, he allows them space to re-establish their credentials, the possibility of representing themselves to the world as ‘good people’ which further fuels the image incorporation frenzy. Complications in reading the use of Obama by The Times and the Telegraph in Britain stem from feelings of achievement for both ‘white’ and ‘black’ constituencies. A ‘white mainstream’ can pride itself at being able to accept a black man in the White House, and a black collective are pleased that a black man has finally arrived in the White House. So newspapers can put Obama to use, he is undoubtedly an international figure, but remains an anomaly. His currency as a novelty remains on the unstated realisation that he is ‘not supposed’ to be the President of the United States. The fact remains that Obama is not simply the first black national leader of the United States; he is the first black leader of any ‘Western’ state, and this has made a lot of people nervous in its ramifications for change. The challenge of Obama as icon is being able to address him as more than a liberal triumph, the implication of skin colour is not lost on anyone. This fear of change and difference, is well put by George Clinton in Paint The White House Black: Colours don’t clash, for good. Colour me happy, next to you. Oh, just like it should, There goes the neighborhood That’s what they’d have us believe. Paint the white house black Brown Paint the white house [. . .] Paint the white house black, brown Paint the white house black, brown (no matter what creed or what colour.) Paint the white house (with God by our side we gonna change this power) Paint the white house black, brown Paint the white house. Picture this, paint a picture picture perfect, paint a perfect picture, paint a picture.
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There goes the neighborhood. (Clinton, George. Paint The White House Black on Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger. Warner Music, 1993.4) The Obama Experience What is the experience of Obama for most British people beyond the innumerable representations of a smiling man convincing the American people to elect him, and the subsequent call for the world to follow his lead. The purported messianic quality of Obama has made him irresistible as religious icon, there is more mileage to him because he is the unexpected. The counter-statement of Obama being the Anti-Christ is also worth consideration, if only because it reinforces the religious weight to his popular acceptance. There is reason to celebrate Obama’s presence in the public visual plane, and the public self-congratulations will carry on for a while yet. However when the use of black people for publicity is considered, we are forced to recognise the anomaly (or perhaps the normality) in his hypervisibility. The anomaly lies in his blackness, the normality is his fame, suddenly he is viable as an icon. It makes me recall the celebrations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, amidst all the lauding I was forced to ask myself whether the question here was that a brilliant book had been written, or that a black man had written a brilliant book. I sometimes feel this is symptomatic of the Obama experience: Is it his brilliance as a man and a politician that causes the shifts in the reading of his presence, or that he is a black man successful in confounding the expectations laid onto him. (And these will be the expectations laid onto any black man.) Obama now has a level of general public acceptance able to make him an ‘everyman’. One of the hallmarks of transforming a black person into ‘everyman’ is a process of deracialisation, allowing the subject of scrutiny to be treated as if they do not have a race, whilst simultaneously relying on the perceived race to activate the subject’s ability to function as visible focus. It is not that there are no other national leaders that are black, or male. It is the understanding that the United States is a ‘white’ nation, and those nations that collectively see themselves as ‘Western’, also consider themselves white, to have a black man at the helm is to cause a reassessment of this unstable collective self. The political icon is therefore akin to the religious icon: they are there to make the voter or devotee whole. Complications are now arising because the devotee needs to own or wants to own part of the icon to define and determine themselves, but now the icon does not look like them. This is reminiscent of the furore that still surrounds images of The Black Madonna, not to mention the cries of blasphemy at Jesus not being a white man.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
Outlawz we got our own race, culture, religion Rebellin against the system, commence to lynchin The President ain’t even listenin to the pain of the youth We make music for eternity, forever the truth Political prisoner, the two choices that they givin us Ride or die, for life they sentence us Oh Black Jesus, please watch over my brother Shawn Soon as the sky get bright, it’s just another storm Brothers gone, now labeled a statistic Ain’t no love for us ghetto kids, they call us nigglets History repeats itself, nuttin new In school I knew, e’rything I read wasn’t true Black Jesus (Shakur, Tupac Black Jesuz on Still I Rise. Polydor Group, 2001.5) It/He Goes Everywhere with Me I do not know Obama, I only know him as image, but through his ubiquity I have come to feel I know him as person. Like the efficacy of the icon, this is an illusion. But even the illusion has a hold of me, why else would I feel sadness at seeing a chimpanzee shot dead in a cartoon? (Taylor, 2009) Notes
1. Changes is one of Tupac Shakur’s best known songs, It dealt with the injustices Tupac saw around him. It appropriately samples Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is, another polemic on social injustice. Tupac did not live to see Obama, but he knew it would be a struggle. Musicians’ prescience in their addressing the possibility of a ‘black’ president is racially coded, I have not found one white singer that calls for a ‘black’ president. 2. Toni Morrison. ‘Comment’ The New Yorker 05 October 1998. 3. Angie Stone’s My People lists Black achievers worldwide, and even already lists Barack Obama as one of her people, but this is rounded off by a return to pessimism unable to envision the present presidential manifestation. 4. George Clinton’s Paint the White House Black is a relentless call for change. Released in 1993, its beat buttresses the demand that the very face of politics in The United States needed ratification. Even the presence of the honorary ‘black’ Clinton in the White House was not enough for Dr. Dre, with Bill Clinton’s leanings towards genteel denials, and the implied consequences this had on what ‘otherness’ stood for in life and politics. Repeating the refrain to paint the White House is important in its realisation that desired change will need to be reinforced, and maybe then it will happen. 5. The realisation that an advocate needs to understand viscerally those for whom they intercede is the core of this song. It is no accident that the first track on the album is Letter to the President. The messianic readings of Obama show how close the desire for a representative president is, to have someone that can socially and racially identify with those to whom they make promises.
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Morrison, Toni (1998) Comment, The New Yorker, 5 October. Taylor, Joel (2009) ‘Chimp Shooting Cartoon is Racist Slur on Obama’. Metro, 20 February, p.23.
Raimi Gbadamosi Slade School of Fine Art, London, UK [email: email@example.com]
Recognizing Obama: Image and Beyond?
The visibility of Obama is the visibility of the President and the visibility of the President is the visibility of a success story. This African American, dare we say diasporic candidate, with roots in more than one national culture and an improbable middle name that makes people suspect that perhaps he is after all Islamic, won the election, became President. What did the candidate Obama stand for? Was he mainstream, all American; or was he ethnic, special interest, a divisive American? What could be the relationship between his particular electoral perspective and its relationship to the so-called nonideological all America? With winning comes a certain normative plenitude and, correspondingly, with winning disappears a certain partisanship, a certain perspectival contingency. When the candidate wins and becomes President, he or she becomes the figure of the nation and cannot be valorized any more as perspectival. The assumption is that the clamor and clash of perspectives has reached home in the figure of the nation. The fact that the nation itself is an imperfect and far from coherent patchwork of heterogeneous and contradictory sub-national constituencies has to be suppressed in order for the new President to speak for the nation. We cannot forget the moment when Senator McCain, in the name of Joe the white plumber, was attempting to interpellate all America and in the process discredit and criminalize Obama as a predatory socialist re-distributor of national wealth. Everybody knows that America is real and all over the place: contradictory, irreducibly heterogeneous, multi-lateral, driven by multiple and mutually irreconcilable interests; and yet, the paranoid question will arise: Where and which is the Real America? Is six-pack Joe in all his invisible whiteness, more exemplary and typical of America than any other American? When the President speaks in the name of America the One, in whose name should he be speaking: some mystical and transcendent Oneness, or an indivisibility that is forever in process by way of contradictions, conflicting interests, competing constituencies, incommensurable visions? Visibility, and by that I mean the production of certain authentic seeming images through the dispositif of visuality, has a problem with double-ness and double-consciousness. I use these terms, anomalous and anachronistic
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
as it may sound to some, intentionally to refract Du Bois into the Obama imaginary as constructed by the media. I understand that Obama is no race man in the conventional sense of the term and that his understanding of race is not reducible to Du Bois’ classic formulation in The Souls of Black Folk; and yet, whether we study Obama’s memorable speech on Race, or his diplomatic interpretation and defense of his then Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, or his genealogical American understanding of the anger and ressentiment behind the Reverend Wright’s speeches, what is visible is a different President who is not afraid to complicate the truths of the present moment in the name of history and its various trajectories. In this context, Obama reminds me of the Reverend Jesse Jackson of the 1984 Rainbow Coalition who reminded his fellow Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis that, even though they were both here in the same ship, they had come here on different boats. Jackson was offering Dukakis a lesson on ‘Identity in Difference’ and ‘Difference in Identity’, within the aegis of the national platform and national solidarity. Clearly, Obama invokes history and the burden of history in ways that exceed the instant readability of images. The visibility of President Obama has everything to do with the visibility of America itself. When we see Obama over and over again on TV in the special , NBC show on life in the White House, on T-shirts and coffee mugs, what representative connections do we behold between his image as President and the image of America as such? I see at least two motifs that constitute President Obama’s visibility: the ‘Yes we can’ motif along with the reality of unprecedented crisis: local, global, national, transnational, moral, economic, financial, governmental, political, institutional, infrastructural. The ‘Yes we can’ motif is in some sense a continuation of the Martin Luther King ‘dream’ theme as well as an extension of the Jesse Jackson exhortations: ‘I am somebody’ and ‘Keep hope alive’. The difference of course is that in the history of Obama’s present, the very meaning of the category ‘political’ has changed drastically. Today, politics is supposed to be post-ideological, postpartisan, just plain human. Obama’s own responses to the history of Race and racism, the era of Civil Rights have been carefully modulated. Even as he acknowledges a double conscious awareness of the very constitution of America, he is concerned that the reality of where each one of us comes from should not stand in the way of a broader and more inclusive participation in the life of the American nation. If in the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign for Democratic Presidential nomination, the driving force was that of the ‘rainbow coalition’ with an equal stress on ‘difference in identity’ as well as ‘identity in difference’, both in Obama’s campaign as well as in his presidential rhetoric, it is the identity of the nation as the ultimate holder, reconciler, as well as neutralizer of differences and heterogeneities that holds hegemonic center-stage. The ‘Yes we can’, and all the attendant images of school children in classrooms expressing the hope that they too can become Presidents now that Obama is President, comes across sometimes as ‘authentic’, and at other times as a well-rehearsed cliché. The ‘Yes we can’ affirmation could be read as a timeless and a-contextual affirmation of possibilities of becoming and being, or as a specific affirmation during a
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specific time period. Are African American children expected to empathize more with the success of Obama than non African American children? We are talking about the election of an African American, and not a feminist, or a woman, or a gay/lesbian, a Latina or a Chicano President. The ethico-political resonance of the ‘Yes we can’ and its slogan-like repeatability is both representational and post-representational: for the specific one as well for the striving ‘one’ in us all, irrespective of differences. Precisely because Obama has become President during times of crisis, there is a mutually constitutive relationship between the intelligibility/readability of Obama and the intelligibility/readability of the crisis. The figure of Obama is both the visual image of the crisis as well as an attempt to understand, represent and find a way beyond the crisis. It is interesting to see how Obama is doing all he can to use the visible moment not just to be seen but also to be heard as he explains to the nation. Even as he is dwelling visually in the regime of the symptom, we can hear Obama, through narrative, explanation and exposition, seeking to go beyond the ephemeral image and its mode of signification into the realm of remedy and answer. Yes indeed, as the cliché goes, seeing is believing, but seeing does not necessarily mean that in the act of seeing we also critically understand what seeing is or, for that matter, what seeing precludes, mystifies and occludes. In town hall meeting after town hall meeting, what we see is Obama’s charismatic visibility, but it is also a talkative and eloquent visibility. Not only is Obama seen reaching to every kind of average American citizen and sharing the visual frame with that person for that instant, but he is also holding forth, explaining and elucidating the nature of the crisis, and justifying the correctness of his presidential response to the crisis with facts, figures, moral, political and philosophical arguments, and positions. It is interesting to see that many recent poll studies make the distinction between Obama’s popularity as a person and his acceptance rate on the basis of his policies and measures. Obama is human, American, President, problem solver, politician, Democrat, friend of the auto industry, the bringer of accountability to Wall Street, provider of jobs and health insurance to all, partisan of Main Street America, ally of the have-nots, promoter of the haves, family man, affectionate husband, charming dad, passionate basketball fan and player. Can all these different frames, each with its own implied temporality, be spliced together and synchronized seamlessly within a single frame that in its all inclusiveness does not even look like a frame? Who is Obama: one or many, a congeries of images, or a basic substance, essence, or possibility refracted differentially through multiple images? The understanding seems to be, both from the point of view of the image-makers and Obama the image user, that the non-denominational generality of Obama’s American-humanity will serve to appease and unify the ideological clamor among the many divided by interests, and reconcile the stuff of the human with the possibilities of the American. In a strange trompe l’oeil effect, the Obama image combines both the instant aura of the Real as well as the meaning of the Real as produced through
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
processes of perspectival representation. Unlike any of the earlier Presidencies, Americans now are looking at Obama both to recognize him and be recognized by him: there is an intriguing imaginary mirroring going on here that, when it works, seems to bracket the troublesome realm of the symbolic with its uncomfortable question: ‘in the name of what?’ In the name of what self-evident or a priori interest or anchorage are Americans looking at Obama in the reciprocal hope that he too would look at them in quite the same way? There is the post-political expectation, which can also be unpacked into the post-racial, post-class, post-gender, post-partisan that, even though strictly speaking, Obama cannot be every one’s ally, particularly during times of crisis, somehow in a transcendentally human way, he will be there for each and every American. The Obama image has become the ultimate Rorschach that will unite us all as Americans in crisis: he will be my Obama, and yours, and his and hers, and theirs and ours. To put it differently, the media have built around the Obama image a psychological verisimilitude that does not really have to be backed by ideological or political coherence. The psychological verity that the Rorschach means something to us all is more important than the reality that our different readings of the same blot may well pit us against one another. To invoke Walter Benjamin briefly, does the reproduction of Obama through images confer on him an aura, thus creating the distance of authority and mystique between him and the masses; or is the aura of the President challenged and de-celebrated so that he may be brought in closer proximity to the people, and the masses find his Presidency usable in their name? My tentative answer is that the media is trying to have it both ways: have the aura put to work multi-laterally and multi-directionally in the name of the people. Finally, on race and visibility: now that Obama is the President of the USA, do we see race differently? Is race still anchored epidermally on bodies? Are we now in a position to thoroughly de-semanticize race, discredit its erstwhile ‘truths’ as nothing but the history of a lie, and inaugurate the production of post-racial truths and realities? Are we in a position to say that the election of Obama as President is not just a random positive incident within the longue durée of the regime of racism, but a revolutionary paradigm-changing event? Are we there yet where we can affirm with confidence, à la Lani Guinier, ‘Like minds, not like bodies?’ The scenario that I am invoking is that of a counter-mnemonic break with a past whose historical meaning is inseparable with the semiotics of race. To go back to the Sotomayor incident, the postracial truth is that a white man can indeed be as wise as a Latina in his decisions, but the important thing to understand is that the post-racial is not a spontaneous occurrence. There is nothing called a Latina or a white man’s point of view in isolation from processes of history, with racialization being one such process that has implicated all of humanity differentially, unequally. Neither the white man, whatever that designation means, nor the Latina, whatever that designation means, is privy to his or her truth on the basis of a native or inherent identity. It is indeed appropriate that, in his intervention in the Sotomayor controversy, Obama appealed to the category, ‘experiences’, and here again, experiences are in the final analysis nothing more or less
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than just plain human; but the unfortunate reality, both for the white man and the Latina, is that we have lived in a world where the human has been racialized. In a situation where human ontology, as Fanon would plangently cry out, has been so perverted and mis-recognized by the so-called ‘meaning of race’, i.e. the meaning of a lie, the way out of and beyond race cannot be a neutral or non-partisan transformation. Both the white and the non-white experiences have been formed by the history of racism, and any appeal to human experiences that trivializes the semantic damage done by racism is necessarily complicit in the economy of racism. Let me put it this way. If Senator McCain had been elected, we would not have talked about the election of a ‘white’ president. It is the same logic that has made white a non-color that has made black and brown and yellow visible. Once we acknowledge that the grammar of visibility is itself the result of a binary mechanism anchored in an asymmetrical chromatism, then it follows that the magnificent vision of ‘like minds, not like bodies’ has to be honored not as though it always already existed as an a priori, but as the hard-fought result of history. An America that is truly dedicated to post-racial equality has the obligation to pursue the ideal not as a post-partisan but as a profoundly partisan project. The visual script of the post-racial has to be a palimpsest, and not a blank slate, and in the visibility of Obama, traces of the past all the way back to images of lynching need to remain starkly visible, in the counter-mnemonic name of one and all. Acknowledgement
I would like to thank Asha Radhakrishnan for her critical help in the formulation of some of the ideas that shape this brief essay.
R ajagopalan Radhakrishnan University of California, Irvine, USA [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
My Green Crush
I Got a Crush . . . on Obama – (youtube.com/watch?v=wKsoXHYICqU) ‘Obama has more feminine allure than Hillary’ – New York Observer (Doonan, 2007) Election night 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009 seemed to encapsulate a national and international crush on Barack Obama, didn’t they? He equaled Bill Clinton’s intellect; surpassed his sophistication, sex appeal and psephological impact; and transcended his political ethics. Policy and passion joined as one, without the cheesy Lincoln Bedroom nights or sexed-up cigar interludes. And Obama was the recto verso of the ridiculous person who
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
bisected their Presidencies. Such was his redemptive power that it even brought Tommy Smith, John Carlos and their wives together after decades of ill feeling. And he inspired a cultural-politics journal such as this to create a questionnaire about him. That shows something is afoot in academics’ responses to this man beyond the usual domains of politics and sociology. I’ll consider what his advent means for intellectuals and the Administration, then the implications for what is referred to by cybertarians as ‘citizen’s media’. As everybody knows, high-level think tanks in DC operate as governments in waiting, depending on who is in power. When Democrats rule, groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and others provide ‘ideas’ to the Republican opposition. The Democrats’ equivalents are the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the like. Once power is restored, as it were, they roar back into town – or rather, they move from one part of Washington to another, from coin-operated think tanks to government offices. The same thing happens with universities, except they are almost always inwaiting in that they are dominated by Democrats. Very few intellectuals are Republicans – about 6 percent of scientists supported the last Administration, so brazen and crazed was its politicization of their advice. Only business and engineering schools are laden with Republicans, along with avowedly evangelical colleges. So when Democrats gain power, many more jobs and much more influence come to and from mainstream, secular universities because qualifications for office and for counsel are measured in terms of applicable academic knowledge rather than wealth and religion. Of course, this does not mean that the state operates for all. Democratic governments in the US, like Republican ones, are beholden to sectional interests, but they represent different fractions of the country: trial lawyers, culture industries, unions, feminists, cities and racial minorities (Miller, 2008b). But Obama’s advent means that scientists will be listened to rather than gagged or discredited, policy wonks will be rewarded, and the store will basically be minded by people who are trained in what they do. So despite the budget cuts facing public universities and the endowment havoc experienced by private ones, this bodes well for a new era in which intellect is sovereign and ignorance is in exile. The coin-operated intellectuals will at least be qualified in their fields. So that’s the expertise part. Now what of the populist element? Obama has bought into our fantasies about civil society, electronics and personhood, blending in the folksy notion of ‘citizen’s media’. His use and desire for the internet during the 2007–8 campaign and lamentations for his Blackberry post-January 2009 were perfectly cybertarian: a brand new world of communications would make consumers into producers, free the disabled from confinement, encourage new subjectivities, reward intellect and competitiveness, link people across cultures, and allow billions of flowers to bloom in a post-political cornucopia. The fantasy was a kind of Marxist/ Godardian wet dream, where people fish, film, fuck, frolic and fund from morning to midnight; where wonking meets wanking.
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More specifically, Obama’s electoral triumph has been lauded for its use of the internet, its openness to innovative, multi-point political communication as opposed to the putatively outmoded world of advertising. The principal US Presidential candidates in 2008 each had a YouTube channel. By midSeptember, John McCain’s had been watched 14.5 million times and Obama’s 61.8 million times. In February, Will.i.am’s ‘Yes We Can’ was launched. Within six months, nine million people had seen it. The McCain people released a YouTube advertisement that likened Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. His celebrity standing was equated with theirs; his depth and seriousness as well. Within two weeks, it had been viewed two million times. Hilton issued a spirited riposte in which she sardonically greeted ‘the whitehaired dude’; the Obama people produced a counter-text via the ‘Low Road Express’ website; and other media over-reported the controversy, even as they under-reported McCain’s dubious business dealings, unquestioning devotion to US imperialism and corporate capital, and callous disregard for his first wife. During the election season, by far the most-watched video was an anti-Obama, militaristic rant by a soldier. That was highly unusual in that YouTube is mostly viewed by people to watch excerpts from US TV not , amateur productions (inelegantly euphemized as ‘user-generated content’) (‘Flickring Here’, 2008; Donohue, 2009; Kruitbosch and Nack, 2008; Pace, 2008). Despite the rhetoric, was this really a triumph of citizen’s media? Let’s look at the realities of political communication in the era of the world wide web. During the 2004 US Presidential election, 78 percent of the population followed the campaign on television, up from 70 percent in 2000 (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2005; Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2005). Political operatives pay heed to this. Between the 2002 and 2006 mid-term elections, and across that 2004 campaign, TV expenditure on political advertising grew from US$995.5 million to US$1.7 billion – at a time of minimal inflation. That amounted to 80 percent of the growth in broadcasters’ revenue in 2003–4 (Vanden Heuvel, 2008: 34). The 2002 election saw US$947 million spent on TV election advertising; 2004 US$1.55 billion; and 2006 US$1.72 billion. The correlative numbers for the internet were US$5 million in 2002; US$29 million in 2004; and US$40 million in 2006 (Gueorguieva, 2007). The vast majority of electronic electoral advertising takes place on local TV – 95 percent in 2007 (Bachman, 2007; TNS Media Intelligence, 2007). In keeping with this tendency, the Obama campaign spent the vast majority of its energy and money on old-school visual culture – television. The internet was basically there to raise funds and communicate with supporters. The US Presidency cycles with the summer Olympics, broadcast by NBC, but few candidates commit funds to commercials in prime-time during this epic of capitalist excess because more powerful homologues of competition vie for screen time – athletes and corporations. Obama, however, took a multimillion dollar package across the stations owned by one of the world’s leading polluters and arms manufacturers, General Electric: NBC (Anglo broadcast), CNBC (business-leech cable), MSNBC (news cable), USA (entertainment
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
cable), Oxygen (women’s cable) and Telemundo (Spanish broadcast) (Betts, 2006; Cray, 2001; Teinowitz, 2008). TV was on the march, not in retreat: during the 2008 campaign, US$2.2 billion was spent on television and less than half a billion on radio, newspapers, magazines and the internet combined. On election night, CNN gained 109 percent more viewers than the equivalent evening four years earlier. And the internet-enabled ‘citizen’s democracy’ heralded after Obama’s victory? The first three months after his inauguration saw more money spent on television advertising by left and right lobby groups (US$270 million) than had ever been the case in non-election years until the Fall. Why? His reform agenda stimulated commercials addressing energy, labor, the environment and health. Everyone knew where real public influence lay – on TV (Atkinson, 2008; Gough, 2008; Vogel, 2009). A lot of hot, cybertarian air is spoken about Obama and the new media. That global warming conceals the biggest cybertarian secret – the immensely destructive impact of the media on our natural environment and on health in the Global South, through harmful components in computers and cell phones that affect the people who make and dispose of them (Maxwell and Miller, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d; Miller, 2008a). And so the element of Obama’s discourse of the new media that most appeals to me is his critique of their appalling environmental despoliation. Just prior to the election, he insisted that we ‘challenge manufacturers of computers, printers and other electronic equipment to more effectively take back these products when they are discarded so that their components can be reused rather than shipped to landfills’ (quoted in Harbert, 2009). That aspect of the digital sublime may turn out to be the most innovative thing Obama says about ‘citizens’ media’. Now if we can just get him to make the same point about the way the New International Division of Cultural Labor exploits the people who manufacture these items. Then his allure would really speak to me. I’d have a green crush. References
Atkinson, Claire (2008) ‘2008 Political Ads Worth $2.5 Billion to $2.7 Billion’, Broadcasting & Cable, 2 December. Bachman, Katy ( 2007) ‘Candidates Still Favoring Local TV Ads’, MediaWeek, 15 October. Betts, Kellyn S. (2006) ‘PBDEs and PCBs in Computers, Cars, and Homes’, Science News, 1 November. Cray, Charlie (2001) ‘Toxics on the Hudson: The Saga of GE, PCBs and the Hudson River’, Multinational Monitor 22(7–8), July/August. Donohue, Steve (2009) ‘YouTube Still Trying to Monetize Content’, Contentinople.com, 18 March. Doonan, Simon (2007) ‘Transmanhattan! Guys, Gals Whirl in Big Gender Blender’, New York Observer, 8 January. ‘Flickring Here, Twittering There’ (2008) Economist, 16 August: 30–1. Gough, Paul (2008) ‘In ‘08, Big Headlines for Everybody’, Hollywood Reporter, 30 December. Gueorguieva, Vassia (2007) ‘Voters, MySpace, and YouTube: The Impact of Alternative Communication Channels on the 2006 Election Cycle and Beyond’, Social Science Computer Review 26(3): 288–300.
journal of visual culture 8(2) Harbert, Tam (2009) ‘Obama and the Environment’, Electronic Business, 26 January. Kruitbosch, Gijs and Nack, Frank (2008) ‘Broadcast Yourself on YouTube – Really?’, Human Centered Computing ‘08 – Association for Computing Machinery. Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008a) ‘Ecological Ethics and Media Technology’, International Journal of Communication 2: Feature 331–53. URL: http://ijoc.org/ ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/320/151 Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008b) ‘Green Smokestacks?’ Feminist Media Studies 8(3): 324–9. Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008c) ‘Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?’, Urban China 33: 122. URL: http://orgnets.net/urban_china/maxwell_miller Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008d) ‘E-Waste: Elephant in the Living Room’, Flow 9, no. 3. URL: http://flowtv.org/?p=2194 Miller, Toby (2008a) ‘La mano visible: Apuntes sobre la incorporación del impacto ambiental de las tecnologías mediaticas en la investigación sobre medios y globalización’, in José Carlos Lozano Rendeeón (ed.) Comunicacieón, pp. 121–5. Monterrey: Fondo Editorial de Nuevo León. Miller, Toby (2008b) ‘The First Tuesday in November’, Campus Review, 18 November: 8. Pace, Stefano (2008) ‘YouTube: An Opportunity for Consumer Narrative Analysis?’, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 11(2): 213–26. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (2005) The Internet and Campaign 2004. Project for Excellence in Journalism (2005) The State of the News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism. Teinowitz, Ira (2008) ‘Olympic Deal Sealed: Obama Makes $5 Million Buy’, Advertising Age, 23 July. TNS Media Intelligence (2007) An Analysis of 2007 and 2008 Political, Issue and Advocacy Advertising. Vanden Heuvel, Katrina (2008) ‘Just Democracy’, The Nation, 21–8 July: 31–40. Vogel, Kenneth P (2009) ‘Avalanche! Agenda Fuels Ad Landslide’, Politico.com, 12 . April.
Toby Miller University of California, Riverside, USA [email: email@example.com]
Impact of Grassroots Activism
Looking back to the stranglehold of the 12 years of the Reagan/Bush era of 1980–92, before the profusion of the new electronic media of the internet with its instant messaging, blogs and other nefarious ways for information to flow outward, the response to the query of whether Barack Obama is the most ‘visible’ United States President to date is complex. Certainly, the moment is historic and the attributes of the person currently holding the office are outstanding. However, the euphoria of the times also emphasizes the continuing failures of mainstream media and its catastrophic lack of coverage and analyses of the traumatic reigns of Reagan/Bush 1 and the ignominy and embarrassment of Bush 2.
Questionnaire on Barack Obama
These are the same media personnel who, until recently, canonized Ronald Reagan. For a long time there was speculation that the face of Reagan would be the next on Mount Rushmore, alongside the figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. And, for a time, the 1991 invasion of Iraq appeared to herald the second term of George H.W . Bush. Furthermore, for all the obvious inadequacies of George W Bush, there . was no media scrutiny or holding his misdeeds to accountability. Toward the end of the second Bush’s presidency, however, (and predictably) mainstream media organizations finally echoed the sentiments (and outrage) of the majority of Americans and the rest of the world and began their thrashing of an already vanquished president. Previous to this, the only mainstream media person to severely criticize George W Bush was cable network MSNBC . anchor Keith Olbermann who voiced the outrage of many ordinary people about the Bush administration’s appropriating the tragedy of September 11, 2001 for its own gains. It is important to remember the courage of law professor Anita Hill and her testimony before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Earlier, the first President Bush had nominated Clarence Thomas as Associate Justice for the United States Supreme Court. Even though Thomas’s credentials for the position were sorely inadequate, the scorn toward Black people and the integrity of the rule of law was even more pronounced in that Thomas, if confirmed to the position, would fill the seat formerly held by the esteemed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the revered former civil rights activist. Anita Hill was called to testify before the Judiciary Committee about the charges of sexual harassment against Thomas that occurred when she worked with him at the Department of Education and while he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill was excoriated, both in the press and before the Committee. As significant as the remarkable presence and composure displayed by Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, equally important was the grassroots movement countering her treatment by mainstream media. On November 17, 1991, a full-page advertisement appeared in the Sunday New York Times. The ad was paid for by a coalition of Black women (and committed others) to proclaim that the sponsoring group, African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves, did indeed believe Anita Hill, and the group was mobilizing in defense of Hill and in resistance against the attacks on the ‘collective character’ of Black women in general. The ad contained the signatures of 1,603 Black women who continued protests and other resistance actions. In the wake of Hill’s treatment, by the press and the Republican establishment, especially the scorched earth machinations of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (who has recently converted to and was welcomed as a Democrat), grassroots outrage and activism in support of Hill and against the way she was treated altered the political landscape. More females were elected to national public office and the firm grip of the Republicans on the presidency was loosened.
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As much as mainstream media failed its responsibility in scrutinizing the administrations of Ronald Reagan (remember when catsup was proclaimed a vegetable sufficient for the dietary requirements of poor children) and George H.W Bush demonstrated his scorn for the American public in . selecting Dan Quayle (twice) as his running mate, then ensuring that Clarence Thomas was in position for life to undermine the rights of oppressed people, the supposed Fourth Estate relinquished its integrity in its hands off response to the actions of the administration of George W Bush. . More than anything, as early as 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and currently, mainstream media have worked against the interests of everyday people and grassroots activists. Media’s impediments for progressives are even more apparent in its attempt to position the significance of Barack Obama. The media’s deification (with, of course, the notable exception of Fox News) of Obama blunts the aspirations and hopes of people at the grassroots level for this presentation is the equivalent of what civil rights revolutionary Ella Baker spoke against. Understandably, there is a profound difference between the politics of running for high office and the pragmatics of everyday resistance at the grassroots level. However, mainstream media’s positioning of Obama works to conflate that difference so that there is the potential for the media Obama to be perceived as that of what Ella Baker characterized as the ‘charismatic leader’. Baker stated eloquently: I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed people to depend largely on a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means that the media made him and the media may undo him. (Baker, 1973: 351) The danger, as Baker forecast, was that if disenfranchised people relied on what was presented as a leader, then individual and collective initiative was thwarted. When Black ‘celebrities’ can declare that the election of Barack Obama has erased the inequities in society, it undermines what Baker has identified as participatory democracy, or group-centered leadership. This participation of masses of people created the conditions that allowed for the change from a repressive political establishment to one that has the potential for drastic change. As happened in 1991 through the grassroots efforts mounted in defense of the rights of Anita Hill through the voter registration drives in the wake of the two contested elections of George W Bush, . everyday, ordinary people seized the initiative and fought for difference. Reference
Baker, Ella (1973) ‘Developing Community Leadership’, in Gerda Lerner (ed.) Black Women in White America. New York: Vintage.
Jacqueline Bobo Department of Feminist Studies University of California, Santa Barbara, USA [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]