Many thanks to everyone for keeping up the passion and interest in American politics and the upcoming election in this time of autumn melancoly and désoeuvrement.
In response to that article by Jeff Sharlet on the supposed failure of Obama to live up to the liberational theology modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream," I feel like something was missed in measuring Obama against the criteria of the Civil Rights movement only. As someone interested in the history of black radical thought, I feel like Obama has many more compatriots to whom he can be equally contextualized. I am thinking in particular of the early W. E. B. Dubois (before he started entertaining the idea of a separate black existence in white America as the condition of the genuine advancement of blacks). Obama resembles Dubois not only in his background (black-white métisse, raised by white mother) and life experiences (stellar student who made a splash in a mainly white elite university, socially involved in black communities and interested in promoting grass-root forms of self-embetterment). I don't know if Obama has the culture of a Dubois (in ancient philosophy, Shakespearean sonnets, Negro spirituals, German music, etc.), but I do find that his philosophy bears many resemblances to Dubois's vision of a black elite, particularly in the essay "Of the Training of Black Men." In this essay, Dubois makes clear his distaste for the (white) notion that black folks should mainly be trained for vocational purposes and not be expected to attain the lofty ideals of higher eduction. Dubois recognizes that the idea that black students ought not read Aristotle and instead should concentrate a technical eduction is deeply racist. As someone who had graciously received "the gift of New England to the freed Negro," which was not money "but character," he could not tolerate the idea that blacks should be excluded the rights of all human beings with spiritual aspirations and be urged to content with being "an ignorant, turbulent proletariat."
When Dubois demands for the right of black folks to ask, like all dignified human beings, "Is not life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?" he is recognizing that "liberation" from material depravity MUST be accompanied by an inner, psychological, spiritual sense of self-worth. The emancipation of the Negro must be understood as both material as well as spiritual, and this cannot be done without a projectile, as it were. That is to say, there needs to be some kind of materializatio (incarnation) of a spiritual ideal, not of what is but what is possible. Here I quote Dubois:
"Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground. Thus it was no accident that gave birth to universities centuries before the common schools, that made fair Harvard the first flower of our wilderness."
Is this elitist? No, I think it is realistic and historically accurate. It is not in any way contradictory to the egalitarian ideal of Christianity, since we all know from the history of Christianity itself that the idea of absolute equality of men and women, slaves and masters, whores and emperors had to stick around for more than 2,000 years before we ever saw something resembling like an institutionalized form of that equality in modern democracy. This goes to show that ideal is important, because it paves the blue-print for future change. There is nothing un-American nor un-Christian about the notion of a responsible elite: in fact, we in this country even have a rather glorious tradition of patrician philanthropy. I am getting off-track, but I just don't agree with the view of Obama as a failed or compromised liberationist. I believe Obama to be a true American, a re-incarnation of the possibility of material and spiritual liberation of not only the black folk but all folks. In that sense, he is also a true Christian, despite the fact that he might not practice the form of Christianity that I myself identify with.