We ain't seen nothin' yet'

The battle between Clinton and Obama has been peculiarly unpleasant. Just wait, says our US editor,

You can't even take your dog for a walk in Georgetown without seeing them. The signs for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that sprout from immaculately manicured lawns are strikingly simple: the legend "Obama '08" stands out from a dark-blue background, topped by a symbolic sun rising from patriotic red-and-white rays. It's the same in similarly all-white, wealthy DC neighbourhoods such as Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase. But drive a few minutes into almost entirely black or Latino areas of the city, and there is nary an Obama sign to be seen.

Yes, this is a truly complicated election. We will come to the convoluted role race is playing in it in a moment. But it is positively surreal, meantime, to be told by normally rational and informed friends in Britain that America is in the midst of a glorious democratic uprising that is being led by this phenomenally messianic figure called Barack Obama.

Even Jack Straw seemed to have caught this fever when he breezed in to town a few days ago and gushed to a DC audience about "your enviable notion of civic duty". When I pressed him about what he meant by this admirable American trait, he replied: "For example, an obligation to take part in the democratic system." It would not have seemed kind (and I was shut up by the chairman, in any case) to bring Straw back down to earth by telling him that only 70-75 per cent of Americans even bother to register to vote, or that voter turnout averages 76 per cent in Britain and 54 per cent in the US.

Perhaps it will be higher this year. But you know Brits do not fully understand what is going on here when William Rees-Mogg thunders in the Times that it is now "hard to see" who can stop Obama from becoming the next president because, "like Kennedy, he is young and speaks for the new generation of American politics". Eh? Never mind that JFK had won four Second World War medals, served six years in the House of Representatives, eight in the Senate, almost three years as US president, and was dead and buried before he had even reached Obama's present age.

Before we go any further, however, a reality check. National polls indicate that the next president will be . . . John McCain, Obama, or Clinton (in that order, but none separated by more than 2.4 percentage points, and all thus within statistical margins of error). At the time of writing, while the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Hawaii and Wisconsin is not yet clear, the latest amalgamated national polls for the Democrats have Obama at 45.2 per cent and Clinton at 43.2 per cent. The winning candidate must land the crucial figure of 2,025 delegates; last Monday evening, Obama had 1,302 delegates and Clinton 1,235. But it is all wildly volatile.

Clinton's team has been beset by internal squabbling, departures and money problems, sure signs that a campaign is in trouble. But polls (and, yes, they may change) suggest that Clinton is ahead of Obama in the next two critical primaries, in Texas and Ohio on 4 March (which have 389 delegates between them); yet even if she wins both, the Clinton campaign expects her still to be trailing Obama.

Deadlock

But then there will be 12 more primaries or caucuses still to come, the last in Puerto Rico on 7 June. If deadlock remains, the Obama and Clinton campaigns will fight a furious battle over whether Democrats in Michigan and Florida (with 366 delegates between them) should go to the polls again - or whether the votes in those states on 15 and 29 January respectively, which Clinton won by 15.5 and 16.7 points, should stand (but which party rules forbid).

Finally, the decision could be delayed until the party convention in Denver in August and lie in the hands of the 795 "super-delegates" whom both sides are now frantically wooing.

Not least, alas, by financial inducements. The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics says that Obama has doled out $698,200 to the campaign funds of super-delegates (via his political action or campaign committees) since 2005; 43 per cent of those pledged to support him have been recipients of Obama funds. Clinton's team has handed over $205,500 to super-delegates, meanwhile, and received only 13 per cent of pledges from recipients.

Yet, ironically, the US media is waking up to some of the realities about Obama just as British enthusiasm is peaking. Jake Tapper of ABC likens Obama's supporters to Hare Krishna chanters. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times says that at first he was mesmerised by Obama's nonsensical lines ("We are the ones we've been waiting for"), but now talks about the "Cult of Obama" and "Obamaphilia". The reality of Obama, Stein concludes, is that he is a politician who is "not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one".

That is the point which so many commentators, both here and in the UK, have been missing. You have to have lived here for a decade or two before you fully understand why the evil legacy of slavery will be extant for generations to come. You just have to read the 1848 "Black Code" of Georgetown to begin to comprehend the sheer wickedness of what was happening in my own neighbourhood 150 years ago.

Crucially, however, Obama is not a descendant of slaves. He is a biracial, prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer whose upbringing in Hawaii was in effect white; his entire political career has been choreographed by David Axelrod, a political tactician described by the New York Times as "post-ideological", from the day they first met when Obama was just 30 (and four years before the publication of his first memoirs).

Fast-forward to the 2008 election. David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, who is at present writing a book about political spin, says of Obama that "no one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's", but that supporting Obama makes whites "feel good about themselves" and their country. "He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever," he says.

In contrast, Greenberg adds, the media barely noticed when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win a major-party primary. Exit-poll data bears out exactly the bias Greenberg detects. In Virginia - Virginia! - white men voted more for Obama than Clinton, as they also did in nine other states. Yet in racial melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York, it was Clinton who won; it is the whitest states that are the wildest about Obama (such as Idaho, which the latest census figures show to be 96.8 per cent white, where he beat Clinton 79-17 per cent).

Those earning less than $50,000 a year are consistently voting for Clinton, while Obama is scoring resoundingly with the so-called "millennium generation" earning over $150,000; the journalists who have been so starry-eyed about Obama fit neatly into the latter demographic bracket themselves, and seem to have avoided scrutinising Obama's record lest they be accused of racism. Michelle Obama, too, is still being afforded constant favourable exposure. In contrast, it is open season on both Clintons, the most scrutinised couple in history; for Hillary's candidature, Bill and the prospect of his being back in the White House have become her biggest liabilities.

Perversely, therefore, the brilliance of the Axelrod strategy has meant that Obama has become the beneficiary of America's racist history, while Clinton has been the victim of its sexism. The Obama team's deft use of race has also worked magic. Hillary Clinton said on 7 January that Martin Luther King's dream needed to be realised in concert with Lyndon B Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, and on the same day her husband dismissed Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the Iraq War as "a fairy tale"; an Obama press aide seized the moment and put out a four-page memo that somehow accused the couple of using racist tactics against Obama.

A thorough swiftboating

That label has stuck ever since (although, char acteristically, Obama and Axelrod subsequently disowned the memo); and the African-American vote, which was once solidly Clinton's, swung dramatically to Obama. In what may have been a sign that he has lost his old touch, Bill Clinton later made the fatal mistake of likening Obama's victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1988 - a comparison Jackson himself nonetheless thought perfectly reasonable - and the "racist" smear by Obama's camp had stuck for posterity.

Whether McCain's opponent is Obama or Clinton, however, either can expect a thorough swiftboating by the Republicans in the run-up to the 4 November election, just as the characters of Al Gore and John Kerry were torn to shreds in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be slain for his inexperience and for making things up in his memoirs; Clinton for being a "strident" woman (a sexist code word if ever there was one) who stayed inexplicably married to the biggest monster of all time, Bill.

The Republicans held their first 2008 electoral war conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel over the 16-18 February holiday weekend, and Axelrod's nemesis, Karl Rove, was in attendance. This year's battle between the Democrats is already peculiarly unpleasant. But, in the words of the legendary Old Gipper, whose name will be endlessly evoked by every Republican for the next nine months, we ain't seen nothing yet.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

Getty
Show Hide image

When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn