Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The Wright issue has given Shelby Steele an excuse to write yet another op-ed, this one for The Wall Street Journal, flogging the premise of his non-bestselling book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win. Steele says Reverend Wright is a problem for Obama, but it doesn't matter, because Obama's presidential quest was hopeless no matter what, because it's manipulative, like all efforts by black politicians, even those who are stylistically the polar opposite of Obama:

...whatever [Geraldine Ferraro's] motives, she was right: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

...How to turn one's blackness to advantage?

The answer is that one "bargains." ... Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain....

And yet, in the end, Barack Obama's candidacy is not qualitatively different from Al Sharpton's or Jesse Jackson's. Like these more irascible of his forbearers, Mr. Obama's run at the presidency is based more on the manipulation of white guilt than on substance. Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson were "challengers," not bargainers....

So you can't win. Either way, this black intellectual tells us, you're an evil shifty black man, toying with white people. (The relative success of the two strategies in the realm of presidential politics is, apparently, irrelevant.)

I despise Steele's argument because it gives everything "bargainers" do a patina of deliberate fraud -- according to Steele, it's just not possible that Obama simply is who he is and is saying what he believes, and that that's just connecting with voters.

And if Obama's skin color is part of what makes that connection happen, well, so what? All kinds of politicians connect as a result of attributes that don't show up in their position papers. Clinton had a lip-biting aura of empathy. John F. Kennedy had Rat Pack cool. Both had youthful sex appeal -- and Kennedy had P.T. 109 to boot. In fact, the 1960 election had two candidates under fifty (people forget how young Nixon was), both of whom had had meteoric rises in politics fueled in large part by their status as veterans. If you think Obama is a manipulator because guilty white liberals respond to his race, were Kennedy and Nixon manipulators because voters who'd stayed stateside during World War II responded to their military service? And that applies now as much as it did then -- the major parties will have nominated nine people to run for president between 1988 and 2008, and nearly half (four out of nine -- Bush the Elder, Dole, Kerry, and McCain) will have reminded voters that they survived violent encounters with the enemy in wartime. Is that unacceptably manipulative?

One other point: If Obama is a "bargainer" and Sharpton and Jackson are "challengers," what is Shelby Steele? Well, how convenient for him -- he seems to be neither. Oh, I suppose one could argue that he's a "reassurer" -- someone who reassures white people that prominent blacks (or at least prominent nonconservative blacks) are all phony and overrated, and therefore it's perfectly OK for white people to dismiss them out of hand -- but that would be unfair, wouldn't it? No, I'm sure Shelby Steele exists entirely outside this system in which all blacks are defined by how whites receive what they say. I'm sure Shelby Steele is a truly free man.

No comments: