"These things are old":

Still the two Americas

posted by Nikhil Pal Singh


Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

“There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

Mark Twain, commenting upon the U.S.-Philippine War, 1901

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., commenting upon the U.S.-Vietnam War, 1967

As Barack Obama stood on the stage at Grant Park in Chicago on election night, my euphoria yielded to a strange unease in the pit of my stomach and all good feeling drained away. I soon realized what caused this sensation as I consciously registered the reflected image in the bulletproof glass that imperceptibly framed Obama’s face. Even as his mouth formed words that announced a new founding and the vindication of old foundations, the ghostly image conjured a recurrent, traumatic history of unfulfilled promises, unredeemed struggles and unaccounted losses, the many thousands gone.

Perhaps any victor that night would have been so protected. Nevertheless, that black existence and aspirations toward inclusion and equality in the U.S. readily associate with a history of legal and extra-legal violence deployed to produce and preserve racial distance and disparity is hardly surprising. However unseemly, the strongest prospective parallels between Obama and King drawn during the Democratic primary and Presidential campaign implicated the threat of premature death. In turn, Obama’s ostensible fulfillment of King’s dream arguably has less to do with substantive political connections between the two men than with the racial form and symbolism of one life and its associated promise repairing the violently truncated closure of another before its time.

Racism and violence, their past and their presence: the 2008 election season at times appeared to turn on exorcising the ghosts and demons of a still unfinished civil war. George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright were figures of the past made present by another massive military intervention built on distortion and lies, a storm that laid bare the immorality and catastrophe of a post-civil rights era of (not so) benign neglect, and a politician of hope and change who promised reconciliation and redemption from crimes too large to be named.

Exorcism and reparation: but at what price? As unmistakable as these subtexts are, in my view, Obama’s winning strategy was to accentuate the value of his campaign’s egalitarian racial appeal through disciplined and calculated non-reference. Invisible protective glass in this sense may be a suitable metaphor for the reigning orthodoxy of color-blindness cum post-racialism, whose architecture in politics and law becomes more durable and less assailable with every U.S. Supreme Court decision: a state sanctioned enclosure increasingly hard to perceive or identify between those who are protected from racially differentiated vulnerability and those who continue to bear its marks and suffer its consequences.

Obama’s call to “choose our better history” might be read productively in this light. First, it is worth recognizing how it constitutes a rejoinder to a preferred formulation of John McCain: “We face no enemy, no matter how cruel; and no challenge, no matter how daunting, greater than the courage, patriotism and determination of Americans. We are the makers of history, not its victims.” Although McCain eschewed the direct (even murderous) racist appeals of some of his supporters, he nonetheless tapped the exclusivist, supremacist kernel of the American political tradition—the racial nationalism often invisibly braided with purportedly civic appeals to true Americanism. History for McCain is a domain of friends and enemies. Make history, (my friends), he seems to say, or become its victims. How to know the difference? Real Americans understand that making history sometimes requires turning another people into victims.

The idea of our better history, by contrast, expressly adopts what Frederick Douglass called “the standpoint of the victims of American history.” This standpoint, however, is no endpoint, for it is through the struggles of the trammeled and dispossessed—slaves, women, workers, the segregated, all disfranchised and stigmatized—that “our better history” presumably has been realized. In other words, even as Obama evokes timeless values and solid foundations, his conception of history remains explicitly revisionist and revisionary in this sense. Thus, while it is accurate to say that he resists the prophetic and agonistic tones of black radicalism, he appears to have internalized one of its central claims: without struggle there is no progress.

In his “More Perfect Union” speech, and his arguably riskier 2004 preface to Dreams from my Father, Obama approvingly quotes Faulkner: “the past isn’t past; it isn’t even dead and buried.” Clear and certain lines of tribe and geography, time and syntax no longer separate victims and makers of history. Indeed, one might say victims become (and are continuously becoming) makers, through assertions of will and acts of remembrance and communication that transform old divisions and augur reconciliation, even as they may threaten new victimizations. The conflict between “worlds of plenty and worlds of want,” he writes arrestingly, “twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of the children on the South Side of Chicago.” Failing to grasp this dialectic, the powerful needlessly intensify a destructive spiral with their “dull complacency,” their “unthinking applications of force,” their “longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware.”

Bolstered by these thoughts, my exuberance was fully restored by the time of Obama’s Inauguration. Just a day had passed when I awoke to a New York Times headline announcing the new President’s first order for air strikes by unmanned predator drones in North and South Waziristan. The queasy disquiet from election night returned. Why had these disparate events produced the same uncanny sensation? It occurs to me that what links the episodes is how they encapsulate a constitutive paradox of Obama’s ascent. For as much as an Obama presidency reflects the undeniable culmination of the long, black-led struggle for genuine democracy in America, it is also captive to the violently truncated inheritance of this struggle that continues to constellate the present.

At its most profound and far-reaching, the black freedom movement proposed a general social transformation of the United States, one rooted in opposition to what King in his final hour called America’s interrelated flaws: “racism, materialism and militarism.” The conventionally bifurcated history of the movement we now inherit—with one part annexed to the teleology of liberal-democracy and its clichés of progress, and the other told as a tale of inner city decline and sectarian racialism—fails utterly to reckon with this aborted challenge and vision. A post-civil rights legacy that conscripts racial progress to state legitimacy and assigns social decay and pathology to increasingly isolated individuals and vulnerable communities once again renders imperceptible the technical and ethical infrastructure upon which U.S. imperial citizenship has long depended: the production and maintenance of substantive value-differentiations among human populations through the development and deployment of an institutional capacity and public willingness to kill and quarantine (and let die) from a distance.

Scorched by the images of Katrina, you may recall that the Bush administration dispatched Condoleezza Rice to the Gulf Coast where she proceeded to argue that the damage on view was little more than a “vestige of the Old South” and that the civil rights movement had helped the U.S. to finally “find its voice” as a champion of democracy overseas. These were odd and unconvincing statements, particularly in a context in which it was possible to mistake New Orleans and its people with ruined places and peoples occupied by U.S. military forces from Baghdad to Kabul. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that much of Obama’s reparative and restorative quality circles back to Rice’s claim. For even as visible and indisputable signs of racial division and neglect can now be used to discredit the governors, the promise of “transcending race” and its’ associated ills is a powerful legitimating tool of U.S. state purpose at home and abroad.

It seems undeniable to me that a fundamental aspect of Obama’s appeal was a promise to bridge the domestic and foreign discord of populations divided by race and war. His consistent hawkishness on Afghanistan in this context could be viewed as political cover for what is a more deeply held anti-war position. Obama would not only close Guantanamo and end the policy regimes of torture, rendition and rightlessness, he would also re-think, reduce the scope, if not end altogether, the “war on terror.”  Indeed, among the slew of correct moral and ethical positions that now give way to “realism,” the candidate Obama condemned the air war in Afghanistan as both immoral and politically self-defeating for the routine and entirely predictable “collateral damage” it yielded. His rapid and symbolically significant retreat from this position was just the first among a series of policy decisions that now ineluctably link the Obama and Bush administrations within the domain of “national security.”

Just who is entitled to freedom and security: or more precisely, to the freedom of an unlimited security and the security of an unlimited freedom? Apparently not the “tribal” peoples of the Pakistani frontier, among whom the shadowy operatives of Al-Qaeda have taken refuge.  Lahore’s News cites official figures of 687 civilians and 14 Al Qaeda leaders killed in some 60 U.S. drone strikes since January 2009, an approximately 50 to 1 ratio. As Sven Lindqvist shows in his magisterial work, The History of Bombing, the ever-increasing technological mastery and dread terror of air war was a fundamental prerequisite of modern, colonial power. Its simultaneously protective and destructive capacity enabled a double spatial and ethical displacement according to which liberal-democratic society separated the boundless violence it enacted from the boundless freedom it arrogated for itself. As much as Obama and McCain (or Bush) might be convenient foils for all those characteristic efforts to distinguish good from bad U.S. nationalism (that is, the civic from the racial, the horizontal from the vertical, the patriotic from the jingoistic, the democratic from the statist), one feature appears constant: to make (American) history, one still needs the will to declare enemies and the stomach to make victims.

My point is definitively not that there are not contradictory strands within U.S. political culture; there clearly are. The problem is that powerful, centralizing state institutions have been largely structured by a “bi-partisan” agreement over the boundaries and terms of their contention, especially in the domains of national security and so-called foreign policy. But we must ask: in what ethical universe can the eminently foreseeable destruction of civilian non-combatants, who must be bombed in order to be saved, be justified? Is this in fact “realism,” or a philosophical standpoint according to which some human lives are simply less valuable, and therefore expendable? I have no doubt that Barack Hussein Obama of Honolulu, Jakarta, Nairobi and Chicago’s South Side would categorically reject such a standpoint. At the same time, President Obama of the United States has become “part of the mechanism that recommends it.”

Being part of “the mechanism that recommends it” is how the recently deceased Robert McNamara described his own dire contribution to the history of U.S. air war, and at the same time belatedly acknowledged a deeply criminal complicity. Yet, somehow, the liberal belief that its forms of killing are not murder, and that force can be applied with thoughtful, prophylactic discretion, refuses to die. Afghanistan (like Vietnam) has always been the liberal’s (preferred) war. Unless it is rethought, I am afraid that an Obama presidency and the hopeful alternatives it recommends to the disastrous rightward drift of U.S. social, economic and foreign policy of the past thirty years, will come to very little, but rather, as King put it, once again “add cynicism to the process of death.” To prevent such an eventuality, a more insurgent and less teleological conception of our better history is required: the moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but power concedes nothing without a demand.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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4 Responses to “Still the two Americas”

  1. avatar Ali McKeigue says:

    America, like any other country, state, province, or group, has division among its members. As Singh suggests, America is still separated despite the progress we have made in creating justice and in our attempt to equalize power among the people. However, it seems naïve and unfair to disregard this growth, criticizing our systems, ideas, and culture, because, in comparison to so many other countries, we have a fairly stabilized political and social system. Many other countries do not allow their citizens to express their perspectives or to hold power. While yes, it is vital to recognize that America is in no way one-sided or in agreement about almost anything, it is also important to realize that this may be what makes America so unique. Maybe we should embrace an acceptance of dualism. While this makes it difficult to agree on some issues, it also allows individuals to hold their own opinions, which is also a special quality of the United States.

    Singh also introduces the idea that without any downfalls, there can be no progress, which I completely agree with. This seems true in any situation—lows often trigger highs. Similarly, those who were once victims often are the people who create the most dramatic, significant, or admirable change. And it is human nature to admire those who come from the lowest point and rise up. However, as Singh suggests, with this comes new victimization. For example, while it is clearly admirable and immense that minorities are treated equally (for the most part), there is now reverse discrimination. The whole process of dualism works in a cyclical, inevitable nature.

    For this reason, we must accept the idea that there will always be two sides to everything. It seems impossible and wasteful to try to create one single idea for something or to almost condemn our dualism, because I feel that no matter what, there is and will always be “still the two Americas.” Of course, there are things that must come to a definite conclusion, such as “the domains of national security and so-called foreign policy.” However, this is not something we should necessarily criticize. At least we have our core values that cannot be argued with, such as Obama’s emphasis on “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism,” unlike many other countries.

  2. avatar Samantha Shay says:

    There definitely are contradictory standards in U.S. political culture, as Singh states. This semester I have been learning a lot about American education in some of my other classes, so what immediately pops into my mind is the contradiction in U.S. public education: we are supposed to offer equal public education for everyone in America’s schools, yet our public school systems today are hugely unequal and face de facto segregation. Obama is trying to change some of these inequalities and contradictory standards (with his Race to the Top program for public education) but the bi-polar, contradictory political culture in the United States may never be eradicated completely.

    Another current event that came to mind when I was thinking of contradictory standards was the very recent immigration law passed in Arizona which makes it a crime to not carry immigration papers, and gives police the right to search anyone they suspect to be an illegal immigrant (with evidence based on as little as race or appearance). To me, this screams contradictory standards. How many Hispanic people are going to face a whole new wave of racism because of this new state law? Singh questions America’s foreign affairs and asks “in what ethical universe can the eminently foreseeable destruction of civilian non-combatants, who must be bombed in order to be saved, be justified?” I agree and would ask the same question. However, there are contradictory standards much closer to home that can also be questioned, such as the new immigration law in Arizona.

    Mark Twain claims there are “two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him…” Our history has definitely affirmed Twain’s statement. Obama’s campaign to reform public education causes me to hope for some of these contradictory standards to change during his presidential term, but I do agree that there will always be two Americas.

  3. avatar Nina Quinton says:

    Yes, the United States most definitely makes contradictions and hypocritical moves in the politics of our country. The first thing that comes to mind is religion in schools. I have been reading the book Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero, who argues that we are a nation of religious illiterates who know nothing about our own religions or the other world religions. He says that we are the most religious nation yet having religious faith does not necessarily mean we have religious knowledge. The question that arises from this is should religion be taught in schools? This is a major controversy today. Many believe no, because of the law declaring the separation of church and state. But then why is it acceptable that Obama referred to God in his inauguration speech? Why does every president have to swear on the Bible? Why is God mentioned in the beginning of every court case? Prothero argues that religion must be taught in schools because when it was in early America, we were a literate nation and knowledge meant religious knowledge. He believes that the basic teachings, core practices and key value of all major world religions should all be taught in public schools. There are clearly many opinions on this because others believe that religious teachings should only be taught by the family. There are laws against prayers, hymns and Bible readings in schools, and although those who are pro-teaching religion in public schools believe that all major religions should be taught, it seems to me that it would be difficult to not have a biased lesson considering we are a predominately Christian nation. I think many teachers would have difficulty promoting ideas that are against their own, especially religious ideas because they can be very personal. I hope that Obama can make the religious standards and expectations more clear so we will be less of a religiously confused and hypocritical nation.

  4. avatar Liza Carens says:

    Upon reading Singh’s piece, I believe he targets two very different part’s of Obama’s administration: his campaign strategy to limit racial discussions and his fear for America’s continued imperialistic attitude regarding foreign intervention. As the first black Presidential candidate to be in serious contention for the White House, Obama’s campaign needed to be a perfectly organized movement from the public rhetoric and family inquisition to opinions regarding race, etc. Federal elections are a compromise of pleasing constituents while maintaining a personal position. I believe Obama did a perfect job of this through his tight-lipped words regarding race in America, yet his acknowledgment that America needed a CHANGE (hence his campaign slogan). Idealistically, should Obama have let race play more into the discussion surrounding his presidential campaign? Yes, I would agree with Singh, but this was not a roundtable discussion. Rather, this was an election and he succeeded. I disagree with Singh that a “fundamental aspect of Obama’s appeal was a promise to bridge the domestic and foreign discord of populations divided by race and war.” As Americans, regardless of Obama, we see ourselves as virtuous beings of freedom and believe that all people should experience this as well. This “freedom” was cited by the past administration as a reason to support the American invasion of Iraq. Race was mostly irrelevant. Although, Obama does not make race a central issue regarding his persona, he relates race struggles to American life more so than foreign policy issues. As Obama approaches the halfway point for his first term, I do not see him drifting towards the right as Singh fears, but accepting the bipartisan world of government. He embraces these various perspectives and balances them through powerful rhetoric to accomplish major feats like the health care legislation. I look forward to seeing what is next.

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