Palin & Obama as Symbols of Change

Roxie mentioned this article by George Lakoff in her post, which I’ve excerpted below.  I’m going to give you a bit of it:

But the Palin nomination changes the game. The initial response has been to try to keep the focus on external realities, the “issues,” and differences on the issues. But the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call “issues,” but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind — the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes. The Republicans can’t win on realities. Her job is to speak the language of conservatism, activate the conservative view of the world, and use the advantages that conservatives have in dominating political discourse.

I’m not sure that it’s the choice of Palin that’s changed the game.  I think Barack Obama himself changed the game.  This time last year, I’m pretty sure that most people would have agreed that Hillary Clinton was the heir apparent to the US Presidency and, for months into the nomination campaign, until the Iowa primary.  As an outsider, it was difficult to determine what policies differentiated the two candidates at the top.

After Iowa, where Obama proved he could carry the votes of white folks, the campaign shifted to a campaign of appearances and personality and the question became, who can best represent a message of hope and change?  Hillary Clinton wasn’t running on a platform that delibarately accencuated her gender and the way the election of a woman would represent something revolutionary.  Obama’s race quickly came to stand in for change itself and his inexperience in Washington was proof of his credibility as much as a deficit.  Little attention was paid to policy issues which, as between Obama and Clinton, were very similar, with Clinton coming out on the more “liberal” side, at least when it came to universal health care.  It really wasn’t until her concession speech that Clinton called attention to the symbolic meaning of her run for presidential office.

My thought at the moment is that if the majority of Americans can get “change” with the Republicans, they’re likely to go for it.  If Sarah Palin and even John McCain can capture people with that “maverick” meme, it may make for a comfortable result.  Since the American Revolution and a brief outburst that by no means involved the entire nation in the ’60s, Americans haven’t exactly impressed me with their “revolutionary” politics.  Particularly since 9/11, Americans seem much more interested in the safety and security of their own lives, families and country than in political issues and that security has been more a matter of “appearance” than reality.  So I’d say that the race between Obama and Clinton wasn’t about “external realities” either.

Barack Obama is a symbol in this representational election.  Now it will depend on whether he is a more compelling – and reassuring – symbol than Sarah Palin.  Listening to the news today, it seems like Palin is running against Obama rather than Biden.  That can only be good news for the Reprobates.

Obama Responsible

Obama’s African-American “personal responsibility” insult – from an African American perspective:

There was nothing new in Barack Obama’s riff on the black personal responsibility meme. That is, there was nothing new other than the spectacle of it being spread, with studiously “black” cadence, by a person with African ancestry who is the leading candidate for president of the United States.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan initiated the contemporary tradition of public focus on “the tangle of pathology” in black family life. High-profile African-Americans have since gone on to air their own variations. See, for example, Louis Farrakhan, with a self-help message that underscored the Million Man March, and Bill Cosby, with mocking rants about the ways of the ghetto poor.

Enter Obama, with his Father’s Day speech about the need for African-American men to be present, active fathers for their children. Sadly, Jesse Jackson freighted his response with gratuitous vulgarity. But Jackson’s criticism – that Obama, in “talking down” to blacks, is ignoring broader issues of society’s collective responsibility – was on the right track.

Obama, as an African-American who does not have African-American ancestry and who had marginal connection to African-Americans during his formative years, lacks special standing to breathe new life into the black personal responsibility meme – assuming that blacks were his audience. Of course, blacks were not his real audience.

The truth is that Obama was indulging in a Clintonesque Sister Souljah game: talking past African-Americans in an effort to distance himself enough from them to give comfort to non-black voters. Simply put, Obama used the black personal responsibility meme for political gain. Even more simply put, he was signifying to white folks.

Taking greater personal responsibility is obviously a good thing for anyone to do. This point becomes offensive and absurd, however, when directed specifically to African-Americans in the context of political discourse. Increasingly we have been told that race no longer matters much in the US. Yet this conventional wisdom is routinely breached, given the hint of a respectable pretence for criticising black folks as a group.

There are many matters of great importance that would support black family life – matters that politicians could do a great deal more about than moralise. Here is a partial list. Old-school discrimination in employment and housing – regularly documented through studies revealing disparate outcomes for equally qualified (and presentable) whites and blacks. The mass criminalisation and incarceration of black men – largely for nonviolent drug crimes. The plain lack of jobs – let alone reasonably good ones – in black urban areas. The historically-driven “wealth gap” between whites and blacks – which has profound ramifications even for middle-class African-Americans.

Obama’s Father’s Day speech was, in certain respects, the flipside of his A More Perfect Union speech, with its call for an honest dialogue about race. The Perfect Union speech had the effect of moving many Americans nearly to tears – and of controlling the damage of the overblown controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

But Obama’s call for dialogue about race is largely empty and naïve. The enduring problem of the colour line in the US will not be substantially eased through a talking cure. After all, white Americans have always had their say about race, and African-Americans have more or less openly had their say about racial justice for roughly the last 50 years.

The majority of the country has already and resoundingly spoken about the future: African-Americans cannot expect the meagre initiatives aimed at improving their social and economic lot to continue. A few grossly belated apologies will soon be all that is on offer. So there is no need to worry about the ridiculous notion that Obama’s individual success might somehow prove that voluntary school desegregation, affirmative action and the like are no longer necessary (as if the people making such claims have otherwise supported such programmes).

Still, the spectacle of Obama signifying about racial issues has already become tedious, if hardly unexpected. This is not to deny that he possesses charisma, intelligence and general decency. These traits render him an incomparably more appealing candidate for president than the Republican alternative, especially in a time of US foreign policy
disaster and domestic economic crisis – even if he might not do much for

Lionel McPherson at Comment is Free

African Americans & American Prisons

Glenn C. Loury: “Why Are So Many Americans In Prison?: Race and the transformation of criminal justice“:


In the 1970s, the sociologist David Garland argues, the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there. Felons are no longer persons to be supported, but risks to be dealt with. And the way to deal with the risks is to keep them locked up. As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980); 24 states had introduced three-strikes laws (up from zero); and 40 states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990s, as crime rates fell.

This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases-in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent-get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws-such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders-and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.

Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring than it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why?

The question has no simple answer, but the racial composition of prisons is a good place to start. The punitive turn in the nation’s social policy-intimately connected with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order-can be fully grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of America’s often ugly and violent racial history: there is a reason why our inclination toward forgiveness and the extension of a second chance to those who have violated our behavioral strictures is so stunted, and why our mainstream political discourses are so bereft of self-examination and searching social criticism. This historical resonance between the stigma of race and the stigma of imprisonment serves to keep alive in our public culture the subordinating social meanings that have always been associated with blackness. Race helps to explain why the United States is exceptional among the democratic industrial societies in the severity and extent of its punitive policy and in the paucity of its social-welfare institutions. 


So consider the nearly 60 percent of black male high-school dropouts born in the late 1960s who are imprisoned before their 40th year. While locked up, these felons are stigmatized-they are regarded as fit subjects for shaming. Their links to family are disrupted; their opportunities for work are diminished; their voting rights may be permanently revoked. They suffer civic excommunication. Our zeal for social discipline consigns these men to a permanent nether caste. And yet, since these men-whatever their shortcomings-have emotional and sexual and family needs, including the need to be fathers and lovers and husbands, we are creating a situation where the children of this nether caste are likely to join a new generation of untouchables. This cycle will continue so long as incarceration is viewed as the primary path to social hygiene.  [more]

Harper’s Vision & New liberal Glasses

Would someone give Susan Riley’s article to Jack and Stephane please?

If Liberals (or the liberal-left generally) want to disable the Tory machine, they will have to reframe the national debate – starting, perhaps, by substituting optimism, scrupulous fairness and tolerance of other views for the strident, fear-based, divisive dialogue Harper has used so effectively. This means, in part, not reacting to unrelenting, often unfair, attacks from Harper’s caucus picadors. Instead, “progressives” need to dismiss the yapping dogs and vigorously promote a green, prosperous, generous vision of our collective future.

But this transformation involves more than a change in strategy on the part of New Democrats (who have recently shelved their green agenda in favour of lower gas prices), or a fresh batch of talking points for Stéphane Dion, or a place at the next leaders’ debate for Elizabeth May. It means non-Conservatives have to reclaim the language of political discourse. California academic George Lakoff, in his pithy primer for demoralized progressives, don’t think of an elephant!, writes: “Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame — and it won’t be the frame you want.”

Lakoff uses “tax relief,” which emerged early in the Bush years, as an example. It suggests ordinary people are oppressed by a greedy state, hostile to their interests. (Harper himself has said “there are no good taxes,” although where else will he find the $50-odd billion he wants for the military in coming years?) While no one likes taxes, they also pay for vital public services. They support innovation that strengthen exports, help the disadvantaged, and, in the case of a “carbon tax,” reward sustainable behavior.

As Lakoff notes, conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere have spent years and much money manipulating meanings and refining strategy. By contrast, the liberal-left has been distracted, divided or complacent. It may be expecting too much of the Liberals, for instance, to successfully sell a carbon tax at a time of economic uncertainty — an anxiety loudly expressed in caucus this week. But to set aside the fight against global warming due to inconvenient timing, as both Hillary Clinton and Layton appear to have done, is to lose before they begin, because they will no longer offer a values-based alternative.

more here