Thursday, May 15, 2008

The end of the American Civil War?

A few years ago, during a course I was taking about the construction of the past, the topic of American Civil War re-enactments came up. These are hugely popular events, and they have attracted scholarly attention as well. We were reviewing some of the scholarship, and I recall that the professor asked us why we thought that these re-enactments persisted. "Because the Civil War isn't over," I said. And to this day I believe that I was on to something.

The US today continues to be shaped by its on-going Civil War. It's no longer strictly North vs. South, of course: the fronts have proliferated, just as an invasion of Poland became WWII. But it's the same war. Now it's the blue states vs. the red states, modernism vs. pre-modern magic thinking, industrial vs. agricultural, metropolitan vs. rural, future-building vs. nostalgia. And it's all summed up in the perennial struggles around that pernicious construct, that evil invention called "race."

Like the Civil War battles nearly a century and a half ago, these battles have their familiar names:
Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Ole Miss, Loving v. Virginia, and in more recent memory Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Yusef Hawkins, Clarence Thomas, Katrina, and the Jena Six. "Race" is a central (if by no means the only) defining characteristic of American society.

Racializing produces the racialized; and the racialized construct identity politics, that mirror-image of oppressive practices and categories, depending for its very existence upon the oppressor. Gayatri Spivak once called for a "strategic essentialism" to move the agenda of oppressed people forward; but essentialism of that kind will always undermine its own project. To practice "racial" identity politics, the subaltern must accept the oppressor's category of "race" as a given.

And now we are at a pivotal moment. Barring the usual excesses, and Clinton's desperate last-minute racializing of the Democratic contest, Obama is getting support across "racial" boundaries and has a real shot at the presidency.

I really don't care about Obama's politics that much. The American political system is all about shutting off options and corralling opinion; it's a strongbox from which it is probably impossible to escape. The mildest of new ideas are considered dangerous: it's pitifully easy to scare Americans, or to bamboozle them. Democrats and Republicans are one party with two faces. Republicans often sound like Democrats; Democrats just as often sound like Republicans. Obama is a product of that system, and securely locked into it. Those of us in progressive ranks shouldn't expect any radical departures from American business as usual, domestic or foreign. But, with the luxury of not having to vote or campaign in a US contest, I would like him to win.


Because these political contests are never about "the issues." They are about symbols and signs. Obama stands for hope, for the future, for solidarity across the "racial" divide. John McCain stands for the same old, same old: eternal warfare, "family values," hateful religious fundamentalism, and that most quintessential American political characteristic, hypocrisy.

Were Barack Hussein Obama to become the President of the United States, the American people would have demonstrated that "race," a bankrupt category if ever there was one, no longer matters. What does matter is change, possibility, a break with the past. Despite its diet of hard drugs--the media, the grey, unchallenging political discourse, the flag-waving automatism--perhaps the American people will at last summon up the will to stagger, bleary-eyed, for the door, and change their country's sociocultural course. However tentative, a decision to vote for Obama marks a break from the straitjacket of America's imagined past. The Civil War will be over: reconstruction, finally, has at least a chance to get under way.

Leon Trotsky once famously wrote, "In the third year of soviet rule in America, you will no longer chew gum!" In the third year of Barack's presidency, will Civil War re-enactments come to an end?

No comments: