Obama Stands His Ground

By speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.

But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.

It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner  from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.

The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.

Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.

 

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

 

On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.

A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he  is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.

Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”

Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.

It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.

By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.

Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.

This is where heroism could be found.

Founding Father’s DNA

One might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles? Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all.

James Watson has nothing really to do with this story except that he did discover DNA and probably knew the Founding Fathers personally

At the intersection of Fathers’ Day and Independence Day, aka Founding Fathers’ Day, consider how we got the way we are.

Revisit your biology course of yesteryear and recall the pre-Darwinian theory of inheriting acquired traits known as Lamarckism.  The French zoologist made the following observation: if a giraffe regularly stretches its neck to reach leaves, its children will be born with longer necks.  Origin of the Species concluded, to the contrary, that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection.  In the realm of pseudo-scientific causality, Lamarckism was filed away along with bad air as the cause of malaria.

Or so it seemed.  Turns out DNA predestination ain’t necessarily so.  While DNA shapes who we are, epigenetic mechanisms can shape DNA.  Epigenetics evaluates changes in gene activity.  The epigenome has been called software to the genome’s hardware. Good and bad behavior, it is now believed, can be passed along to successive generations.  Body builders who take steroids, for example, may bequeath their shrunken testicles.  It is as the Bible told us: iniquities of the father are visited upon the son. 

Last fall Forbes ran a cover story entitled “How Obama Thinks,” moshed from a book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza which deems that the President is channeling his absentee Kenyan father in Mau-Mauing American exceptionalism.  In Dreams from My Father, D’Souza contends, “Obama isn’t writing about his father’s dreams; he is writing about the dreams he received from his father….  To his son, the elder Obama represented a great and noble cause, the cause of anticolonialism….  Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America….  Colonialism today is a dead issue.  No one cares about it except the man in the White House.  He is the last anticolonial….  Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” 

I know a great deal about anticolonialism, because I am a native of Mumbai, India,” D’Souza contends.  Following the strand of D’Souza’s legacy DNA, reveals that his parents are Roman Catholic Brahmins from the small west coast state of Goa, which was colonized by the Portuguese.  Many Goan Christians were distressed when their state was decolonized and annexed by India in 1961, the year D’Souza was born.  Though converted three centuries earlier, Catholic Brahmins retained the Hindu caste system that discriminates against so-called “untouchables” even if they too were Catholic converts.  Indian bishops were rebuked by Pope John Paul II for these practices on his visit to Goa in 2003.  By D’Souza standards, Dinesh extends a family tradition of currying favor with the ruling class by wielding his poison pen for Forbes heir, Steve, whose self-professed, most traumatic life experience was the day big daddy Malcolm packed him off to boarding school.  Best not to delve too deeply into the way Forbes may be channeling the appetites of his old man.

Another intriguing trek down the legacy DNA strand leads to the forbearers of Rush Limbaugh. It might surprise “dittohead” followers of the arch-enemy of Big, Bad Federal government that there is a Limbaugh Federal Courthouse named for his grandfather in Ft. Girardeau, MO, Rush’s hometown on the Mason-Dixon line.  Less surprising, is that the Limbaugh family website cites six ancestors who fought in the Civil War, all for the Confederacy.  Lamarck might have observed that rednecks get more crimson through successive generations.  It provides a cause-and-effect for what one journalist characterizes as “the southernization of American politics.”  The South has risen again, ya’ll.  The conflict continues to course through the true blue veins of red-blooded America; today we call it culture wars.

The epigenomic source for our continental divide can be traced back to the Founding Fathers, Federalists v Anti-Federalists.  James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist Paper No. 10, sounds off like the anti-colonial caricature of Obama: “the most common and durable source of factions (read special interests) has been the various and unequal distribution of property….  The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”  Weighing in for the Antis, the pseudonymous, equally anti-colonial, Cato warned that, “In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation,” that can lead to a house divided against itself.  So factionalism proved out in the dirty presidential election of 1800, when Adams was branded a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Of more recent vintage one might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles?   Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all. 

In the lead-up to Fathers’ Day, I asked contemporaries what they learned about fathering from their fathers.  While some overhauled and others merely fine-tuned, all imparted the sense that fatherly influence is more art than science.  So it is with the dynamic legacy bequeathed us by the Founding Fathers.  Our nation is a work-in-progress, open to interpretation.  The Founding Fathers guaranteed the right to claim so-called ‘original intent’, but never etched it stone.

Politicians and Pundits

The revolving door of transparent allegiances in American media and politics is growing stranger and more ridiculous by the minute.

George Stephanopoulos is hosting Good Morning America and Sarah Palin is on Fox. The mayor of New York City owns several media outlets that bear his name and Tom Suozzi is consulting Cablevision regarding, um, high school sports.

46,990,000 more views than the guy that can get rid of poverty

The revolving door of transparent allegiances in American media and politics is growing stranger and more ridiculous by the minute. That’s not to say the line between elected officials and the fourth estate hasn’t always been blurred. In fact, it has. Almost every generation since the nation was founded has seen political strangleholds over journalism, and many were poorly kept secrets. The role of politician and newsman was, in the beginning, inexorably linked. Bloomberg joins names such as Hamilton, Franklin and Hearst in recognizing the value of owning a bully pulpit such as a newspaper.

But the glut of information in the new-media age and the difficulty breaking through it to proffer your message to the mass public has changed the way we communicate. It’s about how fast you can get your message across when the host cuts to six heads on a split screen and whether yours is the sound bite that sticks. The seasoned politician-cum-pundit thus has a greater ability to navigate this terrain. 

These days, one’s ability to be glib outweighs the capacity to navigate complex situations and explain them to the public.

 The inherent problem is that louder wins, ridiculous rules and shocking carries the day in an age where “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday has been viewed nearly 47 million times on YouTube and Good Magazine’s “End of Poverty” interview with Jeffrey Sachs has been viewed less than 10,000. (Full disclosure: I have watched “Chocolate Rain” 17 times and the Sachs interview only once.)

Tuning out these sources takes a muscle that needs to be exercised, because bad information abounds and is easy to absorb. E-mail chains, perhaps the most insidious form of propaganda, should be avoided at all costs. But if you’re on one of those mass e-mail lists frantically forwarded by “that” friend of yours with subject lines like “Important—This one is for real—Revelations proves Obama is the Anti-Christ!!!!!” and you insist on opening them, do yourself a favor and check out www.factcheck.org.

 By the time this column is published, the president will have given his State of the Union Address and the blogosphere will be jammed with nonsensical comments and responses to every single line of the speech. Some outlets will characterize him as grave and sincere, back on his game and (my favorite) “presidential.” Others will skewer him for double talk, insincerity and call him (another gem) “unfit” to hold office. The intelligent viewer will watch the address on C-SPAN and make up his or her own mind.

 As for the modern political talk show host, let Glenn Beck howl and Keith Olbermann scream. Let Rush Limbaugh make his racist statements and Jon Stewart outsmart them all. And when all is said and said and said, let silence prevail. Silence allows thoughts to come through, and thoughts can be a powerful thing when logically applied to problems, issues and obstacles. And if you insist on listening to the politician turned pundit, make sure you’re listening in stereo, because a mono feed won’t pick up the words coming from both sides of their mouths.