In 1988 I started the Cornell University PhD program in English literature along with Rayfield Waller and a few other graduate students of color. I fled academia in 1992, but Ray finished his PhD and is now a professor, and vice-president of his union, at Wayne State University in Detroit. He keeps a blog called Olde School and the title of this post is the title of his latest post which makes me feel a hell of a lot better about supporting Barack Obama.
My enthusiasm for Obama was short lived. I posted about him hopefully about a month ago and even volunteered at his Chicago headquarters for a few hours, but have since felt increasing disappointment and discouragement about the kind of candidate he seems to be. A colleague who blogs at Musings and Migraines has knocked the candidate down to (smaller than) size repeatedly and these criticisms, combined with Obama's centrism and lack of a truly leftist vision, have made me mourn again the end of John Edwards' candidacy, which was my last hope after the end of Dennis Kucinich's. I've felt kind of depressed about it.
Ray Waller's post has been my remedy. In it, Ray addresses the vagueness of Barack Obama's speeches, the phrases that could be conservative codes and the lack of a truly progressive direction in his campaign. Ray expresses his own skepticism about the Obama bandwagon and the candidate's unproven record as an advocate of the left. Ray examines Obama's public language and gives the reasons he just couldn't support him.
But then Ray reveals his realization that although Obama might be a centrist who's heading towards another bitterly disappointing presidency for leftists like us, there are still compelling reasons to back him. Ray references an exchange between himself and Professor Kofi Natambu of Oakland, California, who points out to Ray that the long-term, historical significance of an Obama presidential campaign isn't about the cult of Obama or what he can do in the White House. It's about the mass mobilization that's happening. It's about the widespread grassroots network that is being put in place, a network that will be capable of producing its own change, regardless of what Obama turns out to be about (or what Clinton turns out to be about, although a lot of us pretty much have that part figured out).
Ray quotes Grace Lee Boggs, who he describes as a veteran left activist and theorist:
...we had charistmatic leaders in the 60's and they all got gunned down. And if we depend so much on charismatic leaders, not only are they in danger, but we do not exercise our capacities in relationship to our situations to create the world anew. And that's where we are. What I'm trying to do is encourage the capacities, the energy, the creativity, the imagination, that exists in people at the grassroots to redefine and rebuild our society. If we want to live in freedom from terror, we have to begin looking at ourselves, redefining who we are, redefining who this country is and reassessing what is within our capacity to do.
I feel so much better after reading Ray's post. I think I even have the focus now to take on someone who, like me, has grave doubts about an opportunistic, vaguely-promising, centrist who is going for the support of the Right as well as the Left and might be willing to exploit anything in his background (or anyone else's) to do it. I can say that supporting Clinton because Obama looks like a jerk and a slimeball is extremely short-sighted. Obama might or might not turn out to be worth a $10 campaign contribution, but a Clinton run for the White House will never turn out the Democratic vote as Obama already has and will. Clinton just doesn't have Obama's ability to mobilize the broad range of political consituencies that are currently organizing in a historically significant way and are ready to resume actively working on issues such as free speech, women's rights, gay rights and electoral reform. Clinton's got the Clinton machine, but Obama has people taking political action (like registering to vote) who haven't done so in decades. There's a groundswell and whether or not Obama can deliver on a promise to wear a gray tie, there will be a broad-range, grassroots, YOUTH-infused base in place at the end of his campaign that was not there a year ago.
And Hillary Clinton just can't do that. Indeed, she hasn't. So there.