Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele on Barack Obama’s Election
Two respected Black intellectuals would question two of my, our assumptions regarding the significance of Barack Obama's election. This is not so surprising in that Whites, even those most against the country's choice of Obama, have been forced to take a back seat to the general and world-wide post election euphoria. Whites to avoid being labeled small minded, of being unable to grasp the obvious importance of what has happened, if not going along with the euphoria of Barack's triumph, have been forced to at least adopt a wait and see attitude.
Blacks, however, are even freer than before this election to say what they think. Freer because one of their own is now at the top. Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, both op-ed writers and senior fellows at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, California, have questioned the very two perceptions, or assumptions, that for me, and probably for many, made this election so significant.
One assumption, that Obama is a thinking man, an intellectual, and that his election represents a significant victory for our country's thinking or intellectual classes in their perennial battle to gain leadership positions in the country, if not the presidency. Not to mention that it would mean better governance for us all.
The thinking man's candidates since World War II, nearly, although not all democrats, have been all too frequent losers in presidential campaigns. Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1958, Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (to his fellow democrat, Hubert Humphrey), George McGovern in 1972, perhaps Walter Mondale in 1984 (although Richard Nixon was no less a thinking man), Michael Dukakis in 1988, and certainly Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004.
These candidates lost to men who, if not men of action, were closer to the American cultural mainstream. They lost to General Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and yes the Bushes, father and son. And Barack Obama found himself up against just such a "man of action," one not infected by the thinking virus as he himself so clearly was. And actually because of this, not only because of his blackness, we feared for his election.
But lo and behold in this election the thinking man, and the black man, won. And we ask, did this represent a real change in the country, that a man so clearly able to reason, to respond thoughtfully to his questioners, would be elected to our highest office? I wanted to think so, just as I wanted to think that the racial barrier had been overcome.
Then I read Steele and Sowell, first Thomas Sowell who was writing in response to an op ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Obama and the War on Brains. Kristof saw an Obama administration as ending "the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life."
But Sowell doesn't at all go along with Kristof. For example, he doesn't allow Kristof's, and our take on Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, he informs us, could go for months or years without picking up a book. In short, Stevenson had all the airs of an intellectual but not the substance. And because of this, because intellectuals are often not what they would seem to be, intellectuals in our country are not taken as seriously by the rest of us as they take themselves.
Just to further undermine our respect for the intellectual Sowell points out that the presidents often labeled unintellectual were in fact the most intellectual of all. Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman, often put down for their low-brow status, given their real knowledge of the classics and other languages, were stellar examples.
According to Sowell "the intellectual levels of politicians are just one of the many things that intellectuals have grossly misjudged for years on end." He points out how our history, especially during the 1930s when our thinking elites failed to recognize the true meaning of Hitler and Stalin, "fully vindicates William Buckley's view that he would rather be ruled by people represented by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard."
All of this to suggest that it may not be such a great thing for the country, to have placed with the election of Obama, a thinking man, an intellectual in the White House. For in the past intellectuals have often been wrong "by thinking that because they are knowledgeable — or even expert — within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation."
What about my second perception, that this election has put race behind us, that we have entered a feel good post racial period, and that once again we will be the envy of the world, not for our wealth, but for our moral leadership? Well Shelby Steele has put this second perception, one shared by huge majorities throughout the country and the world, in doubt.
Steele tells us that Obama's "talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America — and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency." And people, most people, want to be decent.
Furthermore, on the level of public policy Obama was quite unremarkable. By him what was for anyone else, policy boilerplate, "was freshened up — given an air of 'change' — by the dreamy post-racial and post-ideological kitsch he dressed it in."
Prior to the present moment Americans were by and large held to be racist. Obama, according to Steele, offered them a way out from under this label. By voting for and electing him to the presidency the racial stigma Americans had forever been saddled with could be removed. And with a sigh of relief we could move on to a post-racial country. Europeans today are giving us credit for having done this.
In other words Obama's election removed the burden of race from us. Whites, Steele says, wanted Obama in the White House most of all "as evidence, certification and recognition" of their new-found racial innocence.
But if to get beyond race is the principal reason to elect Obama, as Steele implies, and not for his policies, white electors "unwittingly thereby embrace race as their primary motivation." They are in fact thinking racially, not post-racially.
A real post racialist "would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally…. But true reform, like the civil rights victories of the '60s, never happens until people become exhausted with their suffering. Then they don't care who the president is." As during the time of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Under Obama will real reform take place? Steele reminds us that our "post racial" country still has all of its pre-racial problems, especially those of the Blacks in our inner cities. Here new policies, not our new found racial innocence, will be all important. And it's true as Steele says we don't yet know much about Obama's policy intentions.
These two black intellectuals rightly force us to realize that the election of the first Black as the country's president doesn't by itself do much of anything. And that the election of a thinking man doesn't at all guarantee us good governance and good policies emanating from the White House.
What Obama's election will mean for the country is still anyone's guess.Explore posts in the same categories: Current Affairs