Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Sorry, I just can't let this go. Yesterday I gave an American Spectator blogger named John Tabin a hard time for asserting that the will.i.am Obama "Yes We Can" remix video seemed fascist. Roy Edroso of Alicublog also rang in.

Tabin subsequently responded to Roy and me:

...No, I don't mean that I smell liberal fascism in "everything inspiring" or "any show of enthusiasm by fifty or more liberals for anything or anyone whatsoever." I mean that a bunch of people beatifying a politician by reciting, in unison, a speech of his that climaxes with the words

We are one people, we are one nation, and together we will begin the next great chapther in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea: Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can

is a message devoid of any content beyond a call to unity of the collective as an end unto itself, complete with a very deliberate aesthetic embodiment of that message. If that doesn't strike you as even a little bit fascistic, I guess I can't help you....

"The collective"?? Does this kid have any cultural reference points that don't come from Ayn Rand novels?

Beyond the fact that we express hero-worship of politicians all the time in this country without veering into fascism, and the fact that calls to unity in campaign season are utterly within the American democratic grain, and the fact that, well, the remix is just a cover version, and these performers are no more turning Obama into their fascist overlord than, say, Kanye West is turning Daft Punk into his by recording "Stronger," it should be obvious to Tabin that "yes we can" (or "yes I can") is a message of endurance and self-confidence in the face of adversity that has African-American roots and is especially tied to the civil rights era.

Well, Tabin's a lot younger than I am. Even in my largely segregated '60s/'70s childhood, this phrase penetrated via pop culture: Sammy Davis Jr., who worked not only with Sinatra but with Dr. King, called his autobiography Yes I Can; the phrase showed in the lyrics of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star"; and Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans songwriter, wrote a song for fellow New Orleanian Lee Dorsey called "Yes We Can Can" ("I know we can make it, I know that we can/I know darn well we can work it out/Yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can..."), which Dorsey recorded in 1970 and the Pointer Sisters put on the charts a few years later.

At that time, even to a white kid, even in upbeat pop songs, it was clear that the meaning of the phrase "yes we can" was "yes, we can do things we're not supposed to be capable of" -- or "yes, we can overcome." At a bad moment in our history, I'd say Obama's trying to give this phrase to the whole country, all accrued meanings attached, as a gift of sorts. If Tabin finds that fascist, well, I guess I can't help him.


BONUS FASCISM: An MP3 of Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can Can" is here; YouTube has the Pointer Sisters, before they went synth-pop, singing it live in 1974.


AND: Roy Edroso also responds to the response, reminding us that Reagan wasn't above inspiring a bit of call-and-response himself. (Roy also does a better job than I've done of matching up the Obama kids to their alleged Nazi counterparts; me, I'm just titling my posts by ear, strictly on what sounds most absurd, inspired by Woody Allen's reference to "chicken Himmler.") Best line from Roy:

In the Jonah Goldberg era, allusions to the Third Reich are the new "no fair."


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