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In a recent article, Jim Sleeper rightly and righteously reminds his fellow Americans that while Obama is doing his thing; "it's up to the rest of us to find our civic-republican selves and start building a better politics with others who are doing that, too." This is the final sentence in Sleeper's article, and this is an interesting fact to note, because it's not the end of his argumentative direction. Sleeper is certainly on the right track to expounding a basic tenet of civic living, but he never reaches the necessary conclusion, which is: politics is up to all of us, at all times, regardless of existing political structures and conditions; and, what's more: it always has been.

The clues to understanding why Sleeper never reaches this conclusion lie in the rest of his article, and in particular the following statement, with which he leads in to his final sentence; "Obama has failed to find his inner Lincoln. But someone else will." So, per Sleeper, politics is (1) up to those of us who are not Presidents and politicians, and (2) up to those of us who are Presidents and politicians. This may appear to make sense, as it can easily be interpreted to say little more than politics is up to all of us. That however is not what has been said. What has been said is (1) there exists a natural separation between politicians and "the rest of us," and (2) political Lincoln-types occur, and in between the occurence of Lincoln-types "it's up to the rest of us to find our civic-republican selves and start building a better politics."

We have to ask: which is it? Either politics is up to "the rest of us" -- that is, all of us (at all times, regardless of existing political structures and conditions) -- or else "the rest of us" must sit back and not interfere in politics, because that's the only definite way to ensure those politicians with inner Lincolns are given the necessary social, political, and economic latitude to find their "inner Lincoln."

This idea, Sleeper's "inner Lincoln," might appeal to some, but what does it mean, exactly? Do we all have an inner Lincoln? Only some of us? If only some of us, how do we know which ones? How do those with an inner Lincoln find it? Some may be tempted to let Sleeper off the hook for waxing romantic about inner Lincolns, by pointing out it was nothing more than a rhetorical device; an allusion meant to highlight what some feel the incumbent could have done while in power, but manifestly did not do. That response however would also be waxing romantic, and worse, would answer nothing. If the discussion at hand is important, then it's important to be exact, and what I asked was: what is Sleeper saying, exactly?

To state "Obama has failed to find his inner Lincoln," and "someone else will," and "in the meantime it's up to the rest of us to find our civic-republican selves" is to presume that at some stage, under some sociopolitical conditions it's both feasible and acceptable for "the rest of us" not to develop "our civic-republican selves," and merely watch as Lincoln-types go about ruling civic life -- for "the rest of us."

Either civic life is up to all of us, and we all share in the costs and rewards, or civic life is up to elites who are permitted to develop themselves and society as they see fit regardless of the desires of non-elites, and thus elites determine the distribution of costs and rewards. These notions are mutually exclusive, and this is not a matter of degree, because these two conditions can not exist together except by way of paradox-condoning apologetics; if political elites exist, be they Lincoln-types or not, then those elites make civic decisions that by definition discount the input of non-elites, and hence the civic life of non-elites is not under their own control. So what is it other than paradox-condoning apologetics to pronounce; "Obama has failed to find his inner Lincoln. But someone else will, and in the meantime it's up to the rest of us to find our civic-republican selves and start building a better politics with others who are doing that, too"? Let's not overlook the fact that what Sleeper has done is to choose one elite as an exemplar, and then recommend to another elite that he model himself after Sleeper's chosen exemplar elite, an act which in itself is contradictory.

Considering these contradictions, it's interesting to note that Sleeper opens his article with a statement about reasonability in politics, claiming; "Hannah Arendt characterized politics as a realm of 'speech-acts,' in which words are close enough to deeds so that the words aren't evasive or empty and the deeds aren't mindless or brutal." Now, this is my first exposure to the writings of Jim Sleeper, and I have to be sure to make it known I have no idea where he stands on the questions of Neo-Liberal power politics. However, the issue here is what Sleeper has said in this article, and with Sleeper's reference to Arendt in hand, I must also note that Sleeper himself makes at least one claim within this article that is both mindless and brutal.

Near the beginning of his article (at the beginning of his fifth paragraph), Sleeper states; "I credit Obama with elevating racial politics." Is this reduction not mindless and brutal, in its discounting of the generations of civil and social activism undertaken by the nameless masses throughout American history? Did Obama elevate racial politics? Of course not. Obama the individual did not single-handedly direct "the rest of us" towards an elevated racial politics. If anything, Obama tapped into the popular currents and undercurrents of his era and prior eras, and has perhaps been able to work with countless others in a socially progressive direction on some issues, including racial politics. Even the previous sentence as I've composed it does not, and indeed can not do justice to the tens of millions of people who have worked for, died for, and supported civil rights; but the previous sentence, as I've composed it, is a far more just characterization of reality than the absurd Great Man reduction; "I credit Obama with elevating racial politics," which does mindless brutality to all those not included in the statement.

Sleeper does go on to discuss Martin Luther King and his followers, but again, Sleeper seems to apportion an inordinate share of credit to King, by excluding adequate mention of King's supporters, without whom King could have done nothing, a fact that King himself well understood and referred to constantly. Was King a unique individual? Yes. Did King elevate racial politics? Not without the rest of us he didn't.

Connecting this to Lincoln-types and Lincoln: did Lincoln elevate racial politics with all other Americans in absentia? Of course not. Just like Obama, he tapped into the popular currents and undercurrents of his era and prior eras, and was able to work with countless others in a socially progressive direction on some issues, including racial politics. The question is: did Obama and Lincoln regulate, or even control the politics of their era? Did they come to govern because their political philosophies and abilities were independently superior to popular and widely possessed political philosophies and abilities? Or, might Obama and Lincoln have attached themselves to the popular currents and undercurrents of their era in order to obtain popular support for themselves towards the end of obtaining personal political power, thus disclosing the fact that the elevation of racial politics occurred primarily not because of Lincoln-types, but because of sociopolitical trends that had power regardless of Lincoln-types?

Obama and Lincoln (and King) may stand out as political actors, but that is categorically because they were a part of something that was already happening without them.

"Every human being at every stage of history or pre-history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society. The language which he speaks is not an individual inheritance, but a social acquisition from the group in which he grows up. Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. As has been well said, the individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless."

Similarly; every human being at every stage of history or pre-history is born into a society and from their earliest years their achievements are both framed and permitted by that society. The heights a person attains are not of individual creation, but rest atop social and historical acquisitions from the groups to which that person has been exposed. Both language and environment help to determine the reach, depth, and originality of a person's thought; which is to say, a preponderance of our ideas originate outside of us. The individual attempting to advance civic culture while working apart from society itself would be both hopeless and fruitless.

Keeping society, the individual, and civic culture in mind, let's think about the basic premise of Sleeper's claim; "I credit Obama with elevating racial politics." Have racial politics actually been elevated by Obama since his entrance in to the White House? If so, then how, and for who? If we're serious about discussing racial politics, then at the very least we have to discuss (1) the incarceration of minorities, and (2) income inequality.

Looking first at the incarceration of minorities, is it not the case that the racially centred observations of Angela Davis' book Are Prisons Obsolete? are just as true today as they were in 2003, after almost three years of Obama in government? Davis observes -- not argues, observes -- that during her "career as an antiprison activist" she has "seen the population of U.S. prisons increase with such rapidity that many people in black, Latino, and Native American communities now have a far greater chance of going to prison than of getting a decent education." Has that situation been elevated since Obama entered the White House? No. Quite to the contrary.

So, if racial politics have been elevated, how and for who have they been elevated? Here again, we require exactness. Looking at the matter economically, one might say racial politics have been elevated for the upper and middle classes. But what about other economic groups? In the matter of income inequalities, we discover that Obama is the president of a government whose economic, and therefore social policies harm precisely those groups that already had "a far greater chance of going to prison than of getting a decent education." Still today, even after Obama's supposed elevation of racial politics, "A new study of U.S. census data reveals that wealth gaps between whites and minorities in the United States have grown to their widest levels since the U.S. government began tracking them a quarter-century ago."

Considering the points outlined above, who cares if a person that made $60,000 a year can now make $70,000, or worse $75,000? (Yes "worse," for all those who make less, regardless of ethnicity or background.) Perhaps Obama's "speech" has punctuated racial politics more than the previous president's, but on balance have the results of Obama's "speech-acts" contributed to eradicating the wealth gap or fixing the distorted relationship between black, Latino, and Native American communities and the prison-industrial complex? Clearly the answer is no. Is it then responsible to "credit Obama with elevating racial politics"? No, it is not responsible, and to intone otherwise is mindless and brutal.

Tying this back to my opening statement that Sleeper never reaches the necessary conclusion, that politics is up to all of us, then how should we take Jim Sleeper's Lincoln-types/the-rest-of-us dichotomy? It seems Sleeper would have "the rest of us" support and sustain elites as they attempt to find their "inner Lincoln," so that those elites can then guide us through a society in which even the most glaring contradictions are glossed over via paradoxical apologetics that credit an elite who "has failed to find his inner Lincoln" "with elevating racial politics" amidst raging race based political problems that have patently not been elevated by said elite. Is there any way to define such a society as one "in which words are close enough to deeds so that the words aren't evasive or empty and the deeds aren't mindless or brutal"?

This I leave you to decide for yourself, because politics is up to all of us, at all times, regardless of existing political structures and conditions; and, what's more: it always has been.


[ commentary :: history, politics ]

Last updated June 11, 2012