Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Barack Obama and the 1960s

Barack Obama, for the most part, has a wonderful gift for cutting the Gordian knot of the political rhetoric that has dominated our nation for some 35 years. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek did an interview with Barack Obama and here's a section that caught my interest:
[Barack Obama:]Our politics has very much been grounded in debates over the '60s. There's the '60s, the backlash against the '60s, the counter-backlash within the Democratic Party against the '60s. We've been effectively talking about Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement for a generation now, and it doesn't adequately describe the challenges we face today. My peer group, I think, finds many of those divisions unproductive. We see many of these problems differently, on race, faith, the economy, foreign policy and the role of the military.

Part of the reason the next generation can see things differently is because of the battles that the previous generation fought. But the next generation is to some degree liberated from what I call the either/or arguments around these issues. So on race, the classic '60s formulation was, "Is it society and institutional racism that's causing black poverty or is it black pathology and a culture of poverty?" And you couldn't choose "All of the above." It looks to me like both. [The younger generation] is much less caught up in these neatly packaged orthodoxies.

To some extent, these are wise words and yet I worry that Barack Obama is chasing something of a chimera. First of all, much of the 1960s over the last thirty-five years have been defined by an increasingly conservative media; and ultraconservatives have quite literally spent millions on creating a black and white image of the 1960s. There is no easy way to define the 60s and I'm not going to do so here except to say the range of ideas and politics and efforts extended over a very wide range of issues across the political spectrum and consequently no group from that era—or this one, for that matter—should ever be used as a broad brushstroke to define another group. We still see this with major protest demonstrations: fifty thousand people can peacefully show up for a protest but the media will define them by a few dozen violent people with their own agenda and the broad audience at home is often none the wiser.

Obama also yields to a myth that those who were part of the 60s are stuck in that era. Some are, though I would argue most of them are on the right. Most people who were concerned about the issues of the 60s moved on and many developed a much more nuanced view of the world (Bush doesn't like the word 'nuanced' which is equivalent to saying he's not a pragmatist and has no interest in the broad issues of the real world and prefers the rigid ideological black/white framing that gets everyone into trouble whether on the far right or the far left). One thing that evolved out of the 60s over the years was a style of politics summarized by the phrase, 'politics is local.' Barack Obama, as a community activist for church groups early in his career, exemplified that very thing.

Again, I appreciate Barack Obama reframing how we look at things and I appreciate his attempt to get people more focused on what we have in common and focused on a whole new range of problems that need to be dealt with in the terms of this era. But in an attempt to define a new agenda, one can get caught up in a fuzzy breeziness and forget to focus accurately on the lessons of the past; George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are proof of that—none of the three learned a damn thing from Vietnam or the 1960s and the fiasco in Iraq is the result.

All I would say to Barack Obama is keep up the good work, but keep it real.

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Blogger The Ripper said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Tom Hilton said...

Very interesting post. I too resist the broad-brush approach, but I do think Obama is on to something here, for one very good reason: the polarization over 'the '60s' (whether manufactured or genuine) has worked entirely to the benefit of the rightists, who have been running (successfully, for the most part) against the chimerical 'dirty hippies' ever since. If Obama can succeed in neutralizing that weapon even a little bit, more power to him.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Geoff in San Jose said...

I enjoyed the post and comments. I think Obama's comments about the 60's resonate with Americans because of what happened in 2004. Instead of 21st Century policy debates, we got lots of coverage of Kerry in Vietnam, and Bush in the Air National Guard. And then Kerry got "swiftboated." I'm a gen-Xer, and was repelled by the uselessness of it all. I'm for Obama because if he drives the debate, we can avoid that morass the next time around.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Tom and Geoff, thanks for your comments. If Barack Obama can neutralize the tired conventional rhetoric about the 60s, I say that's great and I just hope he keeps it fresh and real.

The right wingers know what has worked in the past and in 2008 they're likely to roll out the canard that opponents of the war killed any chance of winning in Iraq (Bush has already tried a version of this by excusing his incompetence by saying the next time a Hurricane Katrina comes, he wants the 'authority' to bring out the military). I can already hear the beginnings of a Vietnam-style revisionism regarding Iraq and the Democrats need to be ready to take it on.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Ripper, I hate deleting comments but this was the fourth time and you're just spamming. You're always free to leave a real comment with your link though. Hope you do so next time!

8:58 PM  

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