Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Of Barack and Bell

Here's a major problem with the next Breitbart-collective's move to sully Obama by linking him to Derrick Bell: in order for people to be terrified about an association, the associate has to have been well known enough beforehand to count as a serious "threat" to whatever conservative vision of America is circulating. To put it another way, you want people to be able to work using quick enthymemes, especially given the fast nature of campaign cycles/twitter. That kind of cognitive/argumentative speed doesn't attach when you first A) circulate a video of Obama saying some kind words about a dude and then B) have to take time explaining just who that dude was and why he's bad news for America. Moreover, for an opposition figure to be a real threat they have to be somehow least Bill Ayers could fit neatly into a kind of "commie subversive" archetype that used to do a lot of work in America. Its unclear what Bell triggers other than just "being Black" which is, admittedly, a trigger for some brands of conservative politics but not exactly the sorts that will help you win median voters come November. Perversely, the success of a certain kind of neoliberalism in neutralizing race as a meaningful category for political contestation also means that bringing up race as an attempt to sully a political opponent is fundamentally less potent a threat than it was previously, since race is reduced to an almost accidental category of circumstance rather than the strongly ontological function it serves for a left-progressive coalition. Once one is conditioned to believe that race does not argue, one is simultaneously conditioned to believe that "race" warrants less rebuttal or merit then it once did.

This move reeks of desperation: the best "vetting" the Breitbart media consortium could come up with is Obama giving a kind and somewhat humorous introduction of a law professor 20 years or so ago? In general, these political strategies which hold someone's youthful self to be coterminus with their current self fail to even meet a laugh test: college certainly influences how people view the world but it does not determine in the last instance. Otherwise we'd have a lot more folks in their late thirties drinking a lot of Keystone Light. Moreover, attachment does not guarantee agreement: how many folks read Hegel or Marx in college and yet remained unpersuaded as to their merits? This incident underscores how conservative discourse about Obama vacillates between two poles: on one hand, it must understand Obama (and his followers) as guileless ideologues subject to being persuaded very quickly about any reductionist ideological thesis with which they are confronted (see: Wright, Jeremiah), but on the other hand, Obama has to be an incredibly sinister and sophisticated individual capable of separating his public persona (serious minded progressive/moderate) from his actual Marxist/"racist" roots in a nearly pathological manner.

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