“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, December 13, 2015

On the Agency of the First Black President of the USA

Some people--it seems to be the same people each time--get a bit bent out of shape when I say something like “Obamacare,” or in a more recent case, mention Obama's successes at COP21.

To these people, this is attributing way too much credit to him.

It's pretty common, however, to use metonymy thus:

President Truman bombed Hiroshima.

President Kennedy created the Apollo space program. 

Kinda everyone knows what that means. It means loads of people and institutions worked to achieve task x, with the President at the helm in some sense.

And there's also what in Greek is called the deponent mood: you are having a house built, for instance. That means you spend money, issue instructions, delegate, and so on...

Moreover, I feel that in the cases of Obamacare and indeed of COP21, Obama's actual agency, the actual agency of the actual person, was more than simply as a figurehead. Apparently he had to interrupt a lot of meetings in Copenhagen, embarrassingly, because people were ignoring him. And this time around they weren't, so much.

Sure, it's not enough. It's just that like the guy says in his autobiography, there was this totally right and totally powerless dude in the Chicago community organizing sphere, and there was Obama, who did manage to get all the asbestos removed from that building. So maybe it doesn't look like anything to some people.

And I reckon Obamacare is a lot more his accomplishment than the following metonymy:

President Reagan brought down the Iron Curtain. 

I remember the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility telling me how she had to hold Reagan's hand in the basement of the White House as he had a spectacular blanking-out episode, and that was in the early 80s.

Does one have to namecheck everyone else in the case of Obama? And will Hillary suffer the same fate? I have a funny feeling that the first woman president will also seem to some not to be a suitable metonymy for all the other people and organizations involved.

In the case of COP21, naturally loads of other leaders will be able to tell their people that they accomplished something. That's sort of the point. Is it okay for Obama to say what he said? Yeah.

Imagine President Cruz and the kind of credit he'd want to take for the kind of action he'd want to execute. It's not so bad having Obama talking about having done something reasonably cool.

And no one's taking away from anyone else's input, from activists to diplomats.

I'm afraid I feel a bit strongly about the importance of using that kind of metonymy when it comes to Obama. I think it might be seen as a  bit racist to refuse to give him any credit whatsoever. Like, it's funny that we are pretty much okay, sixty years later, with talking about Truman bombing Hiroshima, but somehow, when the first black president does something, we forget that there is a middle voice, or deponent mood, like “I'm having this house built” or “Xerxes is invading Greece” or whatever, and we assume that Obama's getting way too much credit, and that I'm amplifying it by talking metonymically.

It doesn't help that he's pretty yin. Obama was always gonna be an appalling let down to some people, because as this really excellent hotel manager in New Orleans put it a few years ago, and having struggled like crazy in the Civil Rights movement he knew a thing or two about it, “They want him to be the supernegro.”

Either you fly faster than light around Earth to wind time back to before the Great Recession, or create national health care or bring down neoliberalism--or you are a total failure.


Anonymous said...

or one might say that Obama lived up to his promise of advancing the neoliberal world order with a more sympathetic face than his whiter confreres. Is it possible to say: Obama was responsible for advancing conformity with capital better than his predecessors? Was Obama's agency to conform more enthusiastically that Dole or Hillary? What troubles me: the investor state clause in the free trade treaties (TPP, TAFTA, etc.) include a structural disincentive to do anything -- including control carbon emissions to meet even COP21's too little too late (and bugger any macro policy initiative to reduce fossil carbon production as opposed to merely announcing COP21 consumption targets -- thanks Monbiot I knew we would agree somewhere)because the free trade treaties penalize any restriction upon capital arising from local or national member state law by allowing suits for speculative 'lost' profits. This includes environmental restrictions. In other words any members a state may have as many environmental laws as it wants but is liable to any corporation claiming it lost money through compliance or by being dissuaded from the construction of goods which were never produced.

Capital wants what it wants, conformity, and that is the only agency which matters. Obama did not save us from that.

Timothy Morton said...

I agree with a lot of this. I really appreciate how much work you put in here John!

Timothy Morton said...

But I do tend to think that the level we're talking about here is structural to our economic mode at present, rather than political in the epiphenomenal sense. In other words, no one who's president is ever going to be able to adjust this mode in a fundamental way. Some tweaks that didn't get shot down by the GOP would be nice...

Anonymous said...

Kennedy also almost blew up life on Earth on October 2nd, 1962, I believe; it's just that no one ever talked about that. The modern view of Obama (YOUR modern view, not mine, but it corresponds pretty well to the political standard) is identical with the 1960s standard view of Kennedy. I guess I also get a little angry at your tendency to aggravate rifts between yourself the people you claim are causing the rifts. Naomi Klein has more in common with you politically than she has differences, and the way you pathologize her is pretty astonishing. Citing someone's "puritan" heritage (she's Acadian and Jewish, actually) in some causal relationship with their politics is like how we used to blame Cold War Russian anti-Americanism on swaddling clothes, or how we say Islamic terrorists "hate our freedoms" today. And your last comment above excuses Obama on the same contextual grounds: he's a "president", so he's never "going to be able to adjust this mode..." Dude, he had TONS of chances to do better than he did, and the missed opportunities are glaring ones, situations where just a little push from the president would have made the difference. Should I blame the fact that you think this way on your Brtishness? Or your situation as a Houston-dwelling university professor? I thought you didn't like relationism.

Again, Graham's right: philosophy and politics are two different things.