Friday, January 23, 2009

Choosing Conflict and Discord

I understand finding something to get excited about in the idea of Barack Obama being president (I don't share it, but I can see where it comes from). I cannot understand anyone with any progressive tendancies not being appalled by his speech. The first commentary I read on the speech which made sense was Louis Proyect's:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

[Yes, they wrote books about that. They are called Horatio Alger stories and they are bullshit. Bill Gates got where he is by being born into one of Seattle's richest families and by exploiting technology that had hitherto been common property.]

The Daily Show also did pretty well

I don't have time (or interest) to pick apart the whole speech, but there was one section that really stuck out to me*:
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.

I'm going to ignore the reference to Vietnam because that's a whole nother rant, which I'm going to assume that the reader can supply themselves. I will quickly draw attention to the fact that this narrative of US history ignores anyone who was living there before European colonisation.

But my point is something quite different. People did toil in sweatshops, endure the lash of the whip and plow the hard earth. But they didn't do these things because they wanted to create the world that exists now, they did it because the alternative was starvation or death.

Millions of people worked in sweatshops, were held as slave and farmed in difficult conditions. They did so with varying degrees of control and consent. To say they did these things to bring about the world that currently exists is obscene. Millions of people have millions of different dreams, struggles and views of the purposes of their lives. Maybe some people were aiming to create the world that currently exists. But I know that some slaves, workers and farmers had a different idea of the worlds that they wanted to create. I know, because I've read about them, that some dreamed of worlds much like the world I fight for.

To claim generations of people were struggled and were exploited because so they could help create the world that we live in now is both ignorant and arrogant

* Although can I just say his view of the unselfish worker who gives up his hours so his friend will keep his job made was despicable boss pandering. How about both those workers go on strike to keep everyone's job and reclaim some profits from the bosses. I'm not saying I expect anything else from the president of the united states. I'm just saying that I don't see how anyone could have seen Barack Obama's inauguration address as doing anything but choosing sides with the rich and powerful


  1. Anonymous2:58 pm

    What about the millions who were press ganged into 'helping' to build socialism in Russia and China and then worked to death for their troubles?

  2. Rather than accept that I have no progressive tendencies whatsoever, perhaps I could comment on why I was not "appalled" by the speech. I will, following your example, confine myself primarily to the one section.

    You "quickly draw attention to the fact that this narrative of US history ignores anyone who was living there before European colonisation", which is indeed correct. I was struck that somebody who has chosen (well before his presidential campaign) to align himself with the African-American experience invoked many myths which exclude that experience. I choose to see this as a conscious choice to embrace those who would not embrace him, rather than a raw accomodation to power.

    Obama styles himself as bringing change, but to enact that scope of change requires support from many who risk loss through it. African-Americans already had much to celebrate, but while he gained significant Native American support I don't sense they got the same lift and they didn't seem to get any airtime. There is certainly a degree of accomodation to the reality of who he has to draw into consensus with him, but that is the reality, and he seems to be working to build unusually wide consensus (imho).

    Your main point, however was that people didn't "toil in sweatshops, endure the lash of the whip and plow the hard earth" "because they wanted to create the world that exists now". I would agree with you there, but don't believe that this sets me at odds with the speech.

    Looking first to the context, we see that this section falls between the words quoted in your excerpt from Proyect and a call to rebuild the economy. The promise to invest in infrastructure seems like a trivial response to the powerful mythologies invoked, suggesting that the key point is the 'work to be done' - particularly the 'hard choices' from the first paragraph after the courtesies.

    I understand the first and third paragraphs you quoted as invoking matching myths--the immigrant and the soldier undertaking distasteful labour with a view to their descendants enjoying a "better world". Although these mythologies are routinely used to validate the present regime, they are primarily focussed on "hope", which happens to be somebody's big campaign theme--hope for "us" to be in a better place than "them", without requiring that the journey is already complete. Indeed, his listeners are being invited to rejoin the journey (which they have neglected for an orgy of self-indulgence).

    That middle paragraph, which really troubled you, seems slightly off kilter. Sweatshops and hard soil are part and parcel of the immigrant myth, eurocentric-American style. "The lash of the whip" evokes images of slavery, breaking the picture of suffering undertaken voluntarily for future gain. The only sense of agency lies in the word "endure", contrasted presumably with despair, succumbing quickly, and perhaps even suicide. This seems awkward written down, but in the flow of the speech I think it served to connect the driving myths with daily work, and thus the hard work he was calling for.

    In summary then, I don't think that Obama claimed that "the world which currently exists" is the end people suffered for. He does claim, however, that it is closer to that end. He wants his listeners to buy into further, difficult change, in the same hope which their ancestors had, because metaphorically they face the same "alternative [of] starvation or death."

    [ps. Thanks for your series on prisons. I am finding it very thought provoking.]