Friday, December 18, 2009

How white America's existential crisis is fuelling hatred of Obama

I want to draw your attention to an excellent piece I read over at the Broadsnark blog. It is perhaps the best article I have found attempting to explain the hysterical level of opposition to Barack Obama's presidency from largely white conservative segments of the US population. (Obviously, right-wingers are always going to oppose a Democrat, but Obama has many carrying on as if the world is about to end, in contrast with many progressives who claim he hasn't really done anything, good or bad.) Its writer Mel refrains from any simplistic accusations of racism, and instead takes a more nuanced look at how a coloured, urbane president is a challenge to the mythology that fuels much of America's identity.
Here is an excerpt from Mel's article - you can read the whole thing here.

There is a certain segment of the American population that really believes in the American foundational myths. They identify with them. They believe that America was built by a handful of white, Christian, men with exceptional morals. Their America is the country that showed the world democracy, saved the Jews in World War II, and tore down the Berlin wall.

These people have always fought changes to their mythology. They have always resented those of us who pushed to complicate those myths with the realities of slavery, Native American genocide, imperial war in the Philippines, invasions of Latin American countries, and secret arms deals.


When Americans vote for a president, they want to see that heroic version of themselves looking back at them. They want to see that free cowboy of the mythology. No matter how poor or exploited white people were, they could always take subconscious comfort in the fact that, when they looked at the highest power in the land, they saw an idealized version of themselves.

And then came Barack Obama.


It’s a powerful thing to be able to identify with the people who are your leaders, to feel like they are one of you. It’s a feeling that many people in the United States felt for the first time when Barack Obama was elected. It’s equally powerful when your elected leaders are clearly not like you, when the fact that they do not represent you is glaringly obvious.

I had my whole life to get used to the idea that the government was never made to really represent my interests. Many of these angry people are the very white, Christian, men that this country was supposedly built by and for. And this is the first time the myth of America has been unmasked for them.

Undoubtedly, there are some bigots out there who are just angry that they have a black president. Clearly, even for those who don’t feel motivated by personal bigotry, there is a healthy dose of racism underlying the fact that it took a black president for them to realize that their government is as dysfunctional as it is. But I doubt the people we are talking about have an understanding of the difference between bigotry and racism.

And I don’t believe it is just blackness that makes Barack Obama different and symbolic. It is also his intellectual cosmopolitanism. He is a symbol of the privilege that is replacing whiteness – the educated professional/managerial class. And there is a significant amount of animosity directed towards those people who justify their privilege by virtue of their intellect.

And so these people who have lost their foundational myths are out in the streets. They are using all the synonyms for “bad” that our pathetic school system and media have taught them – communist, fascist, totalitarian, socialist, nazi. All the words are interchangeable. They all mean not American. They all mean not them.

Here's why I think this article really hits home: The things that are different about Obama are also the same things that make him appealing to so many people, particularly around the world. His educated and cosmopolitan nature appeals to elites. His coolness (by politican's standards, anyway) appeals to young voters. His multicultural identity and upbringing has strong appeal for nonwhites, who feel like finally they can have a president who understands them. His work as a community organiser can hold sway with poorer voters. But while almost everyone can find a bit of themselves in Obama if they look, they can also find something to fear if they look. Foreign-ness. Elitism. Blackness. Alleged Muslim-ness. Alleged socialism.

To some he is a personification of their dreams and aspirations. To others he is the boogie-man, all their darkest fears rolled into one.

Some of my own takes on this phenomenon here, here, here, here and here.

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