Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Obama: "a stake in this order..."

Searching for the lost moral oder?
L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire
Camille Flammarion, 1888
(Image from Wikipedia)

Readers will recall this entry from several days ago:
I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man's court, ... by the white man's rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, ... wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn't. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn't even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self -- the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass -- had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger. (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, page 85)
In a comment, Hathor asked: "Why do you think he moved from that logic?"

Well, Obama eventually gives a hint, along with other details about how things can go wrong. In the following passage, he first describes how things began to get worse for young inner-city African-Americans:
[S]omething different was going on with the children of the South Side that spring of 1987 ... an invisible line had been crossed, a blind and ugly corner turned.

There was nothing definite I could point to, no hard statistics. The drive-by shootings, the ambulance sirens, the night sounds of neighborhoods abandoned to drugs and gang war and phantom automobiles, wherre police or press rarely ventured until after the body was found on the pavement, blood spreading in a glistening, uneven pool -- none of this was new. In places like Altgeld, prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation; during my very first days in Chicago I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to T-shirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unraveled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.

No, it was more a change of atmosphere, like the electricity of an approaching storm. I felt it when, driving home one evening, I saw four tall boys walking down a tree-lined block idly snapping a row of young saplings that an older couple had just finished planting in front of their house. I felt it whenever I looked into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairrs that had started appearing on the streets that spring, boys crippled before their prime, their eyes without a trace of self-pity, eyes so composed, already so hardened, that they served to frighten rather than to inspire.

That's what it was: the arrival of a new equilibrium between hope and fear; the sense, shared by adults and youth alike, that some, if not most, of our boys were slipping beyond rescue. Even lifelong South Siders like Johnnie noticed the change. "I ain't never seen it like this, Barack," he would tell me one day as we sat in his apartment sipping beer. "I mean, things were tough when I was coming up, but there were limits. We'd get high, get into fights. But out in public, at home, if an adult saw you getting loud or wild, they would say something. And most of us would listen, you know what I'm saying?

Now, with the drugs, the guns -- all that's disappeared. Don't take a whole lot of kids carrying a gun. Just one or two. Somebody says something to one of 'em, and -- pow! -- kid just wastes him. Folks hear stories like that, they just stop trying to talk to these young cats out here. We start generalizing about 'em just like the white folks do. We see 'em hanging out, we head the other way. After a while, even the good kid starts realizing ain't nobody out here gonna look out for him. So he figures he's gonna have to look after himself. Bottom line, you got twelve-year-olds making their own damn rules."

Johnnie took a sip of his beer, the foam collecting on his mustache. "I don't know, Barack. Sometimes, I'm afraid of 'em. You got to be afraid of somebody who just doesn't care. Don't matter how young they are." (pages 252-253)
Hathor had a post back on January 13, 2007 in which she talks about Lost Boys, or one in particular, a boyfriend from junior high who got lost growing up:
Beginning high school was such an adventure, that I soon forgot him. Several years later I ran into a mutual friend, I ask about him. I was told he was in prison for fatally shooting his best friend. I never knew why, although I did see him later, I never asked. That last time I had seen him he was high and his appearance disheveled. We just made small talk. I walked away thinking what had happened to that good looking black boy. He never really became a man, because murder and drugs had usurped that. What is sad, is that there are so many stories like this one. That was almost fifty years ago.
That would have been nearly 30 years before what Obama saw in 1987. Hathor saw the isolated case way back during the early 60s, but in Obama's time, entire generations of young men -- even young boys -- were being lost to the streets.

In the late 80s, I was living in Berkeley but just on the border to Oakland, along Alcatraz Avenue, and I used to lie awake at night and listen to the crack wars being fought over the control of turf. I've already blogged on one violent experience from the fall of 1987, but there were more than one. Like Obama, I used to see crippled young African-American men, or even boys, hobbling along and using canes to support themselves -- casualties of the crack wars, I guess, or of the crack itself.

Like Johnnie, I found the scene frightening.

Even Obama begins to worry one night when he get out of bed to ask some teenage boys in a car to move on:
"Listen, people are trying to sleep around here. Why don't y'all take it someplace else."

The four boys inside say nothing, don't even move. The wind whips away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed, standing in a pair of shorts on the sidewalk in the middle of the night.... (page 269)
Obama remembers being a young boy like them ... but not quite like them:
I'm thinking that while these boys may be weaker or stronger than I was at their age, the only difference that matters is this: The world in which I spent those difficult times was far more forgiving. These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can't admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt. Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man's injured pride. Their anger won't be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy's lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it willl not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order -- indeed any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. (page 270)
Here, I think that Obama hints at what helped him exit from the "maddening logic" of his youth -- logic telling him that since everything was already governed "by the white man's rules," the only alternatives were withdrawing totally into oneself or violently lashing out against everybody. Or even choosing both alternatives simultaneously, as the youth of 1987 seemed to be doing. The way out of this logic opened up for Obama when he came to see that he had a stake in a rule-governed order that transcended race even if the specific, existing system didn't treat every group alike.

But I'm speculating a bit, for I see from this last passage that Obama has left out some details of his teenage years and given us a mere shading, allusions to things that might have passed...

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At 8:11 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

In this city, where an effort in the 70's to disband the gangs was successful; a few years passed and the drug, crack, came in and filled the violence. Even though there was violence from the drug dealing, it was not as intense as has it been in the last three years. Murder has become the solution to resolve conflict for the young and not so young. It is an exercise in power in a nihilistic world. Dent in car, bike rider wont get out of the way, parking space, shooting in the air to threaten, someone in a club pissed you off and many other inane reasons, have totaled 217 murders so far this year.

The craps so deep now, there will have to be someone extraordinary creative to change this. If Obama's transformation is as you say, then he will have to sound as a revolutionary and get people's attention, because he would have to inspire many institutions to change; starting with kindergarten. The bully pulpit would have to effective. There has to be some way for those young men and women to think they are not inferior and power can be manifested in some other way. I don't think legislation on the federal level can do this.

This would not be the way to run for political office.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Obama was never close to nihilistic in his youth, so I do wonder if he has the street cred for influence with the young.

I remember reading that Martin Luther King had to go around to the pool halls and bars to persuade the tough young African-Americans to help with the bus boycott, but those young men weren't nihilistic. It'd be a lot harder today, even for someone like King.

But Obama's a special individual, it seems, and he's the first serious presidential contender among African-Americans (if we don't count Jesse Jackson). Even if he fails this time, he's still got a political career ahead of him and thus the potential to change things.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:32 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Jeffery, I'm finding this series of posts on Obama's memoir fascinating.

Maybe I haven't been reading carefully enough, but what -- according to Obama -- accounts for the current nihilism? Is it soley racist institutions?

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, I don't think that Obama points to just one thing. He notes a lot of interrelated problems -- racism and racist institutions being part, certainly a large part, but definitely exacerbated by other things.

Such as ... fatherless families, single teenage mothers, learned dependency, gangs, drugs, guns ... all sorts of things.

I'll let you know more when I've finished the book. He's just now in Kenya and will, presumably, learn something about himself.

I know that somewhere along the way, he joins a church, which -- I'm assuming -- he sees as an institution that can supply a moral order, and he has already spoken about the role of African-American churches in providing the moral order needed to face an often chaotic world.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

KM, I wouldn't count on a politician having the answers as to what caused what he saw happening in his community. Check out a scholar's views, instead. Like Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. And then maybe move on to Affirmative Action Around the World.

At 6:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for these comments, I wish I had a little time on the side to read one of Obama's books..I'm looking forward to hearing him articulate his positions in the coming months.

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks for the recommendations, CIV. I'm not saying I'd find Obama's answers convincing; I'd just be interested to hear what he thinks the main problems are and how he proposes to address them.

He sounds -- by Jeffery's account at least -- smart, committed to public service, ambitious, and charming. That doesn't mean I'm going to vote for him. I'm going to vote for whoever the Republican candidate is, obviously.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, I think that there's a role for politics. The state can have a stabilizing role, providing order so that a civil society can develop, but there's so much that a state cannot do.

Churches seem to be able to do a lot in encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives, even while providing support when people fail, but churches can only do so if other conditions allow.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daniel, if you're like me, you probably don't have much time for watching videos, but if you go to Wikipedia and check the Obama entry, you can click on his homepage, read his positions, and watch videos of him speaking.

I only had time for a short clip, and I saw that he spoke well. Also, he has that special something called "charisma," which successful politicians need to get elected. Moreover, he gives the impression of having far more personal integrity and moral depth than Bill Clinton seems to have had.

Not that one need be a good person to be an effective politician -- look at Rudy Giuliani!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, I also don't know if I'd vote for him.

I grew up an Ozark Democrat in a long line of Democrats who've stuck to the Democratic party and never even thought of turning Dixiecrat ... but in many respects, it seems to me, the Democrats seem to have lost their way.

Even these days when I vote in local elections via absentee ballot, I vote solid Democrat (they're usually friends and family), but on the state level and in federal elections ... who knows?

I'm a bit like Victor Davis Hanson, I suppose, who happens to be a registered Democrat.

The world is full of surprises...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:29 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Oops, I missed your last comment, Jeffery.

I understand what you mean about the Democrats losing their way, Jeffery. The same can be said about the Republicans, on some issues at least.

It's funny. I tend to be insufferable about the importance of personal virtue in politicians, and yet I'm preparing to vote for Rudy Giuliani. I'm still conflicted about who to vote for in a primary, though. I lean toward Romney).

Anyway, if you and Victor Davis Hanson were the face of the Democrat party, *I'd* consider becoming a Democrat.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


I agree that the state can be a stabilizing force, but I tend to the view that the state is most successful in that regard when it provides stability/order/security for a civil society whose origin is essentially *prior to* the state. It is much harder, in my opinion, for the state to create the conditions out of which a civil society can arise (and I realize that that's a criticism that can be, and has been, applied as plausibly to our foreign policy as to our domestic policy). Ultimately, I think it's more likely that the more "statist" one's policy positions, the more potentially damaging those positions will be to civil society. Of course, I'm just spouting off without any real evidence, but that's what I love about blogging -- it's a safe haven for spouters-off like me. And I haven't defined my terms, but I assume we're working with roughly the same distinction between state and civil society.

Speaking of charisma, this book about charisma by Philip Rieff looks interesting, though I haven't read it. I have read "My Life Among the Deathworks,' which can be rough going, prose-wise, but is also very interesting and often brilliant.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, I agree that the state can do little substantively to create a civil society, for a civil society depends upon an active populace that doesn't wait upon the state to organize things.

Too often, the state destroys civil society by attempting to organize it -- and sometimes actively intends to destroy it!

But I do think that the state can provide the order necessary for a civil society to develop.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Chicken Head Jon, I've deleted your condescending email for such remarks as this to Kate Marie:

"Don't fret your pretty little head over who to pick."

If you want to express a political opinion, do so without making personal remarks about me or other commentators. Otherwise, stay away.

Or start your own blog, and write whatever you please.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Darn! I never saw Chicken Head Jon's original comment. Oh, well, I won't fret my pretty little head about it...

At 12:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Hodges,

Somebody told me irritating posts had been written under "Chicken Head Jon".

This is not me... but it does explain why you have been telling everyone that I am Silly Sally.

Please keep in mind that I only have posted on Lost Nomad and ROK Drop where I can reach a USFK-related audience. I have never posted on your blog before... nor do I have reason to.

Further, while I certainly can be irritating, I write in a specific and consistent style on a limited number of themes... mostly corruption/incompetence in USFK... which should be hard to mistake for anyone else.

While I have not seen the posts you are referring to I would be surprised if they are a convincing copy of my ideas or style of which numerous examples exist on Nomad/ROK.

As for the anonymous Silly Sally, our tactics in presenting information are quite different. I am not Silly Sally.

Further, I am hardly anonymous and I never been shy about speaking my mind under my own identifiable name. I have NEVER posted under a name other than ChickenHead.

I hope this clears things up. I may be an asshole... but I'm not this type of asshole.

If you have any questions,


At 5:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

J!, thanks for the comment. Yes, I had concluded that Silly Sally was a sock puppet for ChickenHead, but not because Silly Sally had explicitly identified as such here on my blog. Rather, some comments at Nomad and ROK Drop led me and others to think that Silly Sally was really ChickenHead.

From Googling just now, I see that on July 11, 2007, you posted a denial at ROK Drop that you are Silly Sally, so I see that you've tried to deal with this problem of confused identities.

I'll un-conclude that you're Silly Sally (your style here does sound different) and return to not knowing who Silly Sally is.

I'm sorry for the misunderstanding.

Jeffery Hodges

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