[Marxism] Obama and His Discontents

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 28 07:26:07 MDT 2011

(A remarkable piece by someone who took part in a debate with Doug 
Henwood over Obama's candidacy, urging support. As far as I know, 
Coates would probably support Obama again in 2012 but this does 
not prevent him from writing a very astute take-down of the 

NY Times op-ed July 27, 2011
Obama and His Discontents

The administration of President Obama has never held much regard 
for its left flank. Admonished by the vice president to “stop 
whining,” inveighed against by the president himself for “griping 
and groaning,” the liberal critics have been generally viewed by 
the White House as petulant children. “The Professional Left,” 
former press secretary Robert Gibbs dubbed them, a gang of 
nettlesome romantics who “ought to be drug-tested,” and would not 
be happy until “we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated 
the Pentagon.”

Keeping up the theme, the administration recently released a video 
of Mr. Obama waxing scornfully at the expense of his softheaded 
allies. The audience was an ideological cross-section of college 
students, no doubt picked to emphasize Mr. Obama’s ever open mind. 
The president invoked Abraham Lincoln, noting that the 
Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise that freed only the 
slaves in rebel territory. “Can you imagine how The Huffington 
Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. 
Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ”

Rendering the hallowed Proclamation as a seminal act of 
hippy-punching is understandably attractive to the Very Serious 
People of Washington. But, in Mr. Obama’s case, it also evinces a 
narrow politicocentric view of democracy that holds that the first 
duty of a loyal opposition is to stay on message and fall in line.

In fact, many of Lincoln’s most vociferous critics welcomed the 
Proclamation. Wendell Phillips, who once derided Lincoln as “the 
slave-hound of Illinois,” claimed the Proclamation as “the 
people’s triumph.” Frederick Douglass, who helped wage a primary 
campaign against the president in 1864 and once charged that 
Lincoln was “a genuine representative of American prejudice and 
negro hatred,” hailed the Proclamation as “the greatest event of 
our nation’s history.”

Douglass was not delusional. With a wave of his pen, Lincoln freed 
tens of thousands of slaves and opened the Army to blacks, an act 
that Lincoln himself once derided. “Never before had so large a 
number of slaves been declared free,” writes historian Eric Foner 
in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Fiery Trial.”

“The proclamation altered the nature of the Civil War, the 
relationship of the federal government to slavery, and the course 
of American history. It liquidated the largest concentration of 
property in the United States. ... Henceforth, freedom would 
follow the American flag.”

In sum, it’s true that the Proclamation was a compromise. But 
hailing it merely as such is akin to hailing “Moby-Dick” for being 
a book — technically correct, if painfully thickwitted.

Likewise, a pedantic focus on the document itself conveniently 
omits the work of abolitionists and radicals whose tactics, 
encompassing jailbreaks, treason and shootouts, far outstripped 
anything ever concocted by MoveOn.org. But Lincoln understood 
their relationship to the larger cause. “They are nearer to me 
than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly 
hostile personally,” he once said of the Radicals. “They are 
utterly lawless — the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with 
— but after all their faces are set Zionward.”

Obama, too, stands atop the work of a coalition of unhandy devils. 
In the fall of 2002, Chicago’s own professional left organized a 
rally to oppose the Iraq War and invited Mr. Obama to join them. 
He accepted, and the first unwitting steps to the White House were 
taken. It is considerably harder to imagine Mr. Obama’s path 
through the Democratic primary had he been just another pro-war 
Democrat insisting that the base activists stop whining.

Mr. Obama, of course, is not an activist but a politician held 
accountable by a broad national electorate. He is thus charged 
with the admittedly difficult task of nudging the country forward, 
even as he reflects it. That mission necessitates appreciating the 
art of compromise, but not fetishizing it. Mr. Obama need only 
look to his hero for an object lesson. Parcel to emancipation, 
Abraham Lincoln, against the howls of radicals and black leaders, 
pushed for the colonization of blacks in Africa or the Caribbean, 
as middle ground between full equality and slavery. The scheme 
ended in embarrassment; Lincoln’s point man was exposed as a con 
artist who attempted to effectively re-enslave the blacks he was 
charged with leading. A Congressional investigation soon followed. 
It was a fiasco — and it was a compromise.

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his 
opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, 
comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who 
have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk 
of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” 
seriously. In that business, Obama would do well to understand 
that while democracy depends on intelligent compromise, it also 
depends on the ill-tempered gripers and groaners out in the street.

The Party of Lincoln, whatever its present designs, has not 
forgotten this.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a guest 

More information about the Marxism mailing list