Barack Obama/TV Commentators

Cable TV news on the night Barack Obama becomes the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, June 3, 2008.

I’m still trying to decide: Which is it that better deserves the label of Capitol of Doublethink–the United States, or television in general? On the one hand, there’s the doublethink of a seeming victory undermined by the refusal of Barack Obama’s main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, to concede defeat—- apart from a dropped hint that she would accept the slot of Vice President on the Democratic slate, which also conceals the implicit threat that she might withdraw her support if he doesn’t offer her that position. Maureen Dowd in her NEW YORK TIMES column this morning catches at least part of the anomalous drift pretty well:

“But even as Obama was trying to savor, Hillary was refusing to sever. Ignoring the attempts of Obama and his surrogates to graciously say how `extraordinary’ she was as they showed her the exit, she and a self-pitying Bill continued to pull focus. Outside Baruch College, where she was to speak, her fierce feminist supporters screamed `Denver! Denver! Denver!’”

On the other hand, absolutely no one I saw on any of the cable TV news shows last night—-friend or foe, partisan or nonpartisan, on CNBC or CNN or Fox-—is willing to call Barack Obama anything except an Afro-American, racially speaking, despite the fact that his mother was white. The presumption of everyone is not only that he’s black and not white, but also that he’s obliged to be one or the other–and that the racist Jim Crow standard according to which part-black equals all-black must prevail without question or even debate. William Faulkner in LIGHT IN AUGUST understood this sticking point perfectly–the Joe Christmas dilemma. So it’s a strange sort of victory indeed. Everyone is calling this moment a historical turning point, but no one is admitting that we can’t even climb out of our own archaic back pages in order to declare it.

If Obama were the son of a black mother and a white father, would the standard operating procedure be any different? Perhaps just a little bit—-one can’t avoid the complication of race issues competing as well as interfacing with gender issues throughout the competition between the two Democratic contenders. But I suspect the slavery standard of racial definition would still hold: he would remain half-black and therefore all black by definition.

For a long time, one part of my support for Obama has been existential: the fact that through his existence alone, he can’t be subsumed under any racial stereotype—-meaning that if he’s neither “white” nor “black” in the usual sense, he can’t really be racially defined. But television demands many different kinds of over-simplification, ideological as well as existential. A Presidential candidate who is neither black nor white becomes unthinkable (and therefore unsellable), and because our slavery standard continues to function, the notion of a white Obama is still no less unthinkable and impossible to sell. So only one option remains: the “historical turning point” that everyone’s self-righteously crowing about relates to only half an Obama, not the whole man, and the “blacker” half at that. Save a more comprehensive and accurate definition for the future—or for a post-televisual culture. [6/4/2008]

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