Hand up preferable by far to a handout


2009 September, 24

Back in those days the Boss had been blundering and groping his unwitting way toward the discovery of himself, of his great gift, nursing some blind and undefined compulsion within him like fate or a disease. -Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men (New English Classics, 1946)

The audacious idea of a Barack Obama presidency emerged when the first-term African-American senator from Illinois was invited by John Kerry to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. From a gatecrasher without a pass at the previous convention in Los Angeles four years earlier, Obama's exceptional charisma, navigated by a (politically) precise moral compass, led to the fortuitous invitation from Team Kerry. Good for Obama, maybe not so good for Kerry. It must have been akin to asking a before-he-was-famous Bill Clinton to introduce the paler, less gifted candidate. Like sending Jesus before John the Baptist.

From his star turn in Boston, Obama stirred the American imagination with the prospect of its first black presidency, and in a flash his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press), was reprinted and in the bookstores. The beautiful writing promised to live up to the blurb, and with anticipation I read of Obama's work as an organiser in the projects of Chicago, hoping it would reveal deep insights into how extreme social dysfunction and deprivation might be tackled.

Alas, the insights were lean and the rhetorical wind soon failed to sustain its ambitious sails.

I well understand Joe Klein's assessment in his Newsweek cover story: Obama is a bit thin on the ideas, a fact that charisma and mesmerising oratory cannot completely disguise. He is no wonk in the Bill, Hillary, Tony (and Kevin) class, but policy paucity is no disqualification for the world's highest office. It is his native lack of proximity to power: a dummy born to power can rule, but outsiders need more than extraordinary talents. They must, among other things, be capable of extreme ruthlessness when it is required. Will Obama be prepared to do the equivalent of refusing clemency to a (black) mentally retarded convict on death row on the eve of the primaries? Hillary and Bill were outsiders with cold steel veins; it remains to be seen whether Obama is prepared to have blood on his hands when called for. Hillary Clinton's blood in a bowl, courtesy of the (nice) tall, dark, handsome man, is probably what the US will need if the Rubicon to a black presidency is to be crossed.

Obama's application for his 2008 candidature is set out in last year's bestseller The Audacity of Hope (Crown), in which he boldly sets out his "thoughts on reclaiming the American dream". It is an impressive statement of beliefs, characterised by intelligent analysis, a candour that may not be completely calculated and a carefully calibrated self-deprecation. It is counter-weighed by an understandable, but nevertheless disturbing, absence of doubt about whether the contradictions of America can really be resolved: the over-promise of leadership. Obama attributes the audacity of hope to the salt-of-the-earth characters he parades throughout his book, but there is no doubt it is really the audacity of his own ambitions that he has in mind.

Obama's great talent is that of Bill Clinton: a keen public moral compass that can provide persuasive direction through the dialectical thickets of modern conundrums, and a near-peerless capacity for summoning "the better angels of our natures", even as the Republican Party's Lee Atwater and Karl Rove brought electoral politics in the US (and therefore the world that follows) to a pitiless nadir where devils are casually conjured from the body politic in pursuit of power.

My concern with Obama is to ask whether he represents the radical centre of the great dialectical tension in black leadership philosophy in the US, between the omnipresent legacies of black American leaders Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963). Washington exhorted black Americans to work their way up from the bottom of society. He argued that moral self-improvement, vocational training and securing the trust and co-operation of white Americans and government were necessary first steps, not confronting discriminatory laws. Washington fought discrimination behind the scenes, but DuBois emerged as the public face of black protest. DuBois argued that higher education and removal of discrimination should be more aggressively pursued, and he offered structural and social explanations for black crime, arguing that crime diminished as blacks' social status improved.

The history of the Washington-DuBois dialectic continues to be the prism through which policies for the alleviation of oppression (what we, perhaps euphemistically, call disadvantage in this country) may best be understood. If Jesse Jackson is DuBois's heir and Condoleezza Rice heir to the Washingtonian tradition, then Obama may be the closest thing there is to a synthesis: the radical centre. Black Americans have mostly been subscribers to the DuBoisian tradition, the tradition in which Martin Luther King Jr stood and Rosa Parks sat: it is the predominant model of black advocacy for uplift. Washington's disciples, on the other hand, have been mostly silent, living ordered and industrious lives, valuing education and enterprise. When the doors of citizenship opened and Jim Crow was outlawed, these families quickly emerged as the nascent black middle class. Today they are a minority, but they are not small and their achievements are far from mean: five chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and two successive secretaries of state of the world's only superpower attest to this.

If Obama ("I've never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe") does transcend the DuBois-Washington paradigm, then his capacity to defy the enormous gravitational pull of the DuBois orthodoxy probably stems from his unique biography: the son of a white American mother and an absent Kenyan father (now both deceased), with an Indonesian sister from his mother's second marriage.

Obama is an African-American, but not part of the long history that began with slavery. The stigma associated with the Washingtonian legacy - the allegedly Uncle Tom-ish belief that American opportunity will reward discipline and responsibility - does not shackle Obama.

My only reservation about the capacity of Obama to transcend the Washington-DuBois paradigm is that while his rhetoric is capable of embracing the validity of the Washingtonian responsibility thesis, he is by background, education, work experience (a civil rights lawyer and community organiser) and temper a liberal whose starting point is the DuBoisian rights thesis. He moves from DuBois to Washington, and not the other way around. Are the economic power and individual responsibility (and the limits of government) parts of Obama's philosophy just rhetorical genuflections and not innate conviction?

Let me explain my reservation with reference to Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd's critique of what he describes as the neo-liberal fundamentalism of the Howard Government: "Modern Labor argues that human beings are both self-regarding and other-regarding. By contrast, modern Liberals argue that human beings are almost exclusively self-regarding." Rudd concedes that the self-regarding values of security, liberty and property are necessary for economic growth. He argues that the other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability must be added in order to make the market economy function effectively, and in order to protect human values such as family life from being crushed by market forces.

My reservation about this analysis is that it is mainly concerned with those who are not deeply disadvantaged in a cultural and intergenerational way. Rudd's father was a sharefarmer and his untimely death brought hardship to his widow and children. But hard work and appreciation of education were passed on to Rudd from his parents. Rudd's ideological manifesto is concerned with the effects of neo-liberal policies on people who may have less bargaining power than the most sought-after professionals, but who are nonetheless firmly integrated into the real economy, not only because they have jobs but because they are culturally and socially committed to a life of responsibility and work. I welcome the debate Rudd sought to revitalise about the long-term effects on most working people of neo-liberal policies: what will the effects be on family life, on people's sense of security and purpose, on social cohesion? How great is the risk that families among the lower strata of the real economy will descend into the underclass?

These are real issues, but the important question from an African-American or Aboriginal Australian perspective is: What is the correct analysis of self-regard and other-regard in the context for those already disengaged from the real economy? Disengagement is the problem in Cape York Peninsula and in dysfunctional African-American communities.

The moderate Left, as represented by Rudd, would probably argue that neo-liberal dominance increases the number of disengaged people and the difficulties of returning them to the working mainstream. This may well be true. However, disadvantage can develop and become self-perpetuating even without neo-liberal government policy. In Australia, Aboriginal disadvantage became entrenched during decades when social democrats, small-l liberals and conservatives influenced policy; many policies for indigenous Australians have been liberal and progressive.

The insight that informs our work in Cape York Peninsula is that disengagement and disadvantage have self-perpetuating and cultural qualities: problems not covered by Rudd's analysis. These are the problems of the underclass, people who are psychologically and culturally disadvantaged. Rudd does not spend time thinking about the underclass. In the scramble for the political middle, who does? His is an analysis of the prospects of the upper 80 or 90 or 95 per cent of society: how it will fare under social democratic or neo-liberal regimes. If Rudd's analysis was extended to the truly disengaged, his model would probably be interpreted like this: some people are successful and, as well as being self-regarding, they should be other-regarding. And then there are the disadvantaged.

The problem is that it is assumed that the life chances of the disadvantaged depend on the other-regard of the successful: either a precarious dependency in the absence of state institutions or an institutionalised dependency which my people have come to know as passive welfare. In reality, what is needed is an increase of self-regard among the disadvantaged, rather than strengthening their belief that the foundation for their uplift is the welfare state and the other-regard of the successful. This, I think, is a deeply Washingtonian view.

Edited extract from Noel Pearson's essay White Guilt, Victimhood and the Quest for a Radical Centre in Griffith Review16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books)

Hand up preferable by far to a handout