The Half Light: Obama and the End of Nonviolence

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Before we begin, I’d like to apologize in advance for getting political. I tried to avoid it, and failed miserably. But I am trying to be fair. Okay? Okay. Now then…

There’s an excellent essay by Thomas Frank in the September issue of Harper’s exploring President Obama’s tactics in his first term as President. Frank is an avowed liberal and the author of books like What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. You can tell by those titles where his allegiances lie—with the poor, the workers and the left wing. Which is why it came as a surprise to me that he attacked the President with both barrels in the Harper’s Essay, titled “Compromising Positions.” His main points can be summarized as follows:

1. Obama is committed, in policy as well as philosophy, to the idea of bipartisanship. The famous “reaching across the aisle.”

2. The Republicans opposing him in Congress are committed, in policy as well as in philosophy, to obstructing him at every turn. Even those members who may be predisposed to compromise are afraid of the consequences; being ostracized by their own party, losing access to re-election funds, and an ignominious loss in the next campaign season. It doesn’t pay, literally or figuratively, to cross the aisle.

3. Because Obama “longs so earnestly for consensus,” as Frank puts it, Republicans understand that by moving their own positions rightward, they can drag Obama with them. Per Frank: “That committing yourself heart and soul to a bipartisan approach might allow an opposing part to completely reconfigure the political spectrum is not, as far as I know, a part of accepted poli-sci game theory. And yet that is exactly what has happened over the last four years.”

4. Despite this undisguised and unshakable stance from his opponents, Obama remained committed to compromise. He made concessions on key policy issues—especially health-care reform and bank bailouts and tax cuts for the wealthy as part of his stimulus plan—that gave the final product the look and feel of a traditional Republican piece of legislation. Hence the constant rightward shift paid off.

5. Because politicians found out long ago that attacking a man at his strength is the best way to undermine him, Obama is painted as a socialist, even though he may be the most conservative Democratic president in a long time, to the point of selling out his party.

Now, is Frank right? It’s a very compelling argument, but like I said, I don’t want to get political. Yet I think we can agree, lefties and righties alike, that the last four years have produced minimal compromise and minimal legislative gains. I say that without blame, and besides, that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is the why. If common wisdom holds that cooperation and bipartisanship and the ability to reason with men who don’t like you or your politics is the key to implementing good policy, then why hasn’t someone like Obama become the next FDR? Isn’t he the master of turning the other cheek and working his charismatic magic under the big tent that excludes nobody?

Frank’s answer, of course, is that he faces an intransigent opposition and hasn’t been wise or tough enough to change strategy. But the whole conundrum brought to mind a book I recently finished called Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. The book is a companion to the TV series Eyes on the Prize, which aired in 1987 and 1990. I never saw the series, but the book is shocking in a way I didn’t expect. I knew, abstractly, that Civil Rights activists faced great hatred and racism as they campaigned for voting rights and desegregation and housing reform. But I didn’t quite know how violent and vicious the racists were; I didn’t know, for example, that a seething mob of enraged men fought their way past police officer and would have murdered nine Arkansas school children, male and female, age 15-18, when they integrated a high school in Little Rock. Only a daring escape from a basement parking lot saved the children. I didn’t realize how often activists were murdered or beaten near death, or had their houses bombed, or were jailed and subsequently abused for crimes like marching in the street or sitting at a lunch counter. I knew things were bad, but I didn’t know the degree.

Of course, I soon discovered that this awful and bloody reaction was, in a paradoxical way, the activists’ greatest strength. It’s why leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence, and why even more militant activists like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X stopped short of advocating full-on revolt. By turning the other cheek, they exposed the ugliness of the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk. Some people would get hurt and some would die, but they knew the racism would reach such a fever pitch that large swaths of the country would be disgusted and the federal government would be forced into action. By exposing themselves to abuse, they earned hard-won rights that had been denied to African-Americans, at least in some regions, throughout our country’s history.

But the nonviolent activism had its limits. During the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966, for instance, Mayor William Daley presented himself as a supporter of King and his followers, and spoke of resolving the problems they brought to his attention, especially neighborhood housing segregation. Some white citizens of Chicago demonstrated the ugliness of their brethren to the south, but the political institution was clever enough to say all the right things, agree to minor concessions, wait until the activists left town, and then drag their feet and let the momentum fade. The failure here proves a point. In an odd way, nonviolent protesters, from Jesus Christ to Gandhi to King, need a violent opposition to make their point and achieve their ends. When the overt oppositional violence ends, things start to get tricky.

Today, we’re shocked when we hear about a hate crime with racial motivations. We gasp and fret that people can still be so hateful, in the new millennium, to hurt someone else based on their skin color. This is how we, and by we I mean liberals, make ourselves feel better. And I think our intentions are good. But it’s nonsense. Anyone who opens their eyes to the world around them sees minor racism in every walk of life. Stereotypes persist, whether we like to admit it or not, and my experience has been that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of race, participate in racist dialogue or action on a semi-regular basis. If there’s a liberal bubble of post-racial thinking, and I know a lot of people would like to believe there is, it’s totally self-deluding. Our outrage is nothing but guilt, nothing but the real world forcing us to look at a reality we’d prefer to ignore.

And all of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, participate in a racist economy and a racist judicial and penal system. David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire, has been the greatest champion of this truth. To simplify the theory, poor people are denied economic opportunity, are all but forced to turn to the economics of drugs, and are then penalized either by lengthy jail sentences, the violence associated with any illegal enterprise, or the destructive nature of the drugs themselves. And when we say “poor people,” we’re being hypocritical if we don’t take the next step and admit that policies directed against the poor tend to affect minorities at a disproportionate rate. When Simon spoke in North Carolina last year, he encouraged us all to vote not guilty if we found ourselves on a jury for the trial of a non-violent drug offender, and the idea made a lot of sense. How can a country’s judicial system punish people for actions that its economic system has forced them into?

So, how does this all relate? Before I attempt to explain, let me pose a rhetorical question: What are Obama’s efforts to reach across the aisle, to a totally unreceptive party, if not a form of nonviolent protest? He’s not a stupid man, but I believe he expected the rest of us to see the intransigence of the other side, punish their cynicism and sweep the Democrats to power on a wave of populism.

But before we figure out Obama, the first question we have to ask is, why did nonviolence fail in certain aspects of the Civil Rights movement? The surface answer seems to be that politicians and their constituents became cleverer. Racism didn’t end when Jim Crow laws were abolished in the South; the better angel of our natures may have prevailed, but the darker angels stuck around. We’re humans, after all. And when the racist reactionaries stopped being violent and realized that discrimination could survive through economic and cultural oppression, the strategies changed. Today, cities are still segregated, minorities are punished by supposedly color-blind laws, and the fighting spirit we saw in the Civil Rights days has been drained. Think about it; when is the last time you heard someone of any race speak about the quest for racial justice?

And what about politics? What about Obama’s conciliatory nature, and the way it’s been warped by Republicans? Isn’t that same wider resignation at work? More and more, I see 2008 as a last gasp for progressive politics. Even then, our aims were vague; what did this hope and change signify, in realistic terms? Did the “great man” theory hold any water? Sure, Obama claimed not to be that great man, but we still expected him to blow up a corrupt system. Whatever we believed, it hasn’t come true, and I think I can safely speak for most liberals when I say that our enthusiasm for this election has nothing to do with Obama, and everything to do with our fear of Romney. We don’t believe in Obama anymore. Why should we?

But it’s not his fault. Because here’s the bottom line: When overt institutional violence dies out, nonviolent protest will automatically become less sensational. Which is fine, and logical. But that moment, when the other side discovers subtlety, is when citizens have to embolden themselves and hold systems accountable. Just because nobody is being lynched doesn’t mean that people aren’t dying. Just because fewer people shout racial slurs doesn’t mean racism has been obliterated. The fight continues.

But we have either stopped caring, or stopped believing that change is possible. And that, I’m sad to say, is a judgment on us.

If Obama truly hoped that his cordial, nonviolent protest would reveal the obstinate nature of the other side and bolster his party, and eventually give him the power to enact real change, he overestimated our attention span. The 2010 midterms were a disaster, because Americans are content to demand immediate solutions without understanding the nature of the problem. If no solutions emerge? Boot out the party in power, watch the new party fail, rinse, repeat. Just like the nation at the end of the Civil Rights movement, we’ve ceased to recognize the existence of an institutional problem. By our ignorance, we’ve failed the American political system that depends on us.

Obama will probably win re-election, but the old promises of change now ring hollow. In 2012, liberals will vote with fear instead of aspiration, and we’ll almost certainly let the problem fade from our minds after election night. We are, in some inherent way, hopeless. When people become hopeless, they become desperate, and that’s when bad things happen. When the nonviolence stopped working in the Civil Rights movement, and men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, it wasn’t long before the race riots began. This is a historical constant; we aren’t conditioned to live peacefully as creatures without hope. Over the next four years, the President may continue to take a forgiving approach, and if so he’ll only compromise his ideals. But deep down, it’s our fault, and we should be scared of what’s coming next. This country has always operated on a “for the people, by the people” approach, and the one guarantee is that the people will always get what they deserve.