Widgets Magazine


Nu-Progressivism in the Age of Nu-Obama

“If [people] believe that Obama was the best choice, they shouldn’t just leave it to Obama to carry out any kind of progressive agenda,” Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Research Institute said to me in a post-election interview last Tuesday.

Carson’s words stemmed from a conversation we’d had in our Modern African American Freedom Struggle class earlier that day, when he had recalled addressing a group of Morehouse students the day before President Obama’s 2009 inauguration with the warning, “The most important day is not tomorrow, but the day after.”

Barack Obama’s reelection is not a political end – nor does it guarantee the beginning of a future that values human rights and social justice.

As I wrote in last week’s column “Why I Am Not Voting for Barack Obama,” the president’s record of actively aggravating human rights abuses in the Middle East and his silence on issues of race and racism suggest the president will have a negative impact on the success of our collective futures.

However, I felt dissatisfied with the treatment I gave to the relationship I perceived between foreign policy and domestic justice.

It was not until Professor Carson’s history class later that day that I was able to see the explicit connection between the plights of our brown families in the Middle East and the plights of our brown families at home.

The connection came from the words of Dr. King (emphases are my own):

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

To be clear, issues of racism – at home and abroad – are inextricably bound with the preponderance of the state’s use of force (through the military or the police). And both of these issues are also tied to the ideology of “free-market” capitalism that “justifies” Euro-American expansion into every crevice of the world, resorts to discrimination on the basis of race to determine which bodies are treated as expendable, surplus labor for such production and uses military action as a last-ditch effort to coerce resistant actors into compliance.

The constant threat and attack American drones put on our sisters in Pakistan are the same as the constant threat and attack American-Israeli military occupation put on our Palestinian sisters in Gaza and the West Bank and are the same as the constant threat and attack America puts on our black and brown sisters in the US.

“Let’s fight for fairer elections – repeal the electoral system, introduce a run-off, whatever – but not at the eleventh hour when so much is at stake,” one commenter said in response to my column last week.

The biggest stakes this and other people identified were that the Republican party platform greatly threatens women’s and minority rights – rights that the Democratic platform champions.

I was (and am) critical of those who gleefully celebrated Obama’s reelection without pause for reflection because Obama and Democrats were allegedly proponents of these rights.

While the Republican platform did threaten these issues in some specific sense, taking a step back reveals that the Democratic Party is ultimately harmful to these goals as well.

High rates of incarceration of black/brown men and women, increased profiling of Muslim people and the splitting of migrant families through unprecedented levels of deportation all have impacts on women and minorities. And on a global scale, killing and terrorizing women (and men and children) with drones does nothing to advance women’s rights.

An additional problem with the “X supports Y rights” logic is that this model does nothing to address the underlying and fundamental systems of oppression that create marginalized groups in the first place – it merely assimilates them into being comfortable reproducing these systems of oppression.

Student poet-activist-scholar Janani Balasubramanian ‘12, speaks well to these notions when they write the following in their poem A Unicorn of Color Mourns the 2012 Election:

“I don’t want to move to Maine and get hitched. I don’t want to move to Washington or Colorado and smoke pricey State-controlled pot.  I don’t want to move to Wisconsin so a white lesbian can speak for me. I don’t want to wave a rainbow flag in the military to defend occupied land.  I want to remake the world inside a black hole, turn everything inside and out.”

The eleventh hour is still going on and we still have much at stake in our collective futures.

So, to return to the man who framed today’s column, I present a charge from Clayborne Carson:

 “[What] I hope will happen over the next four years is that there will not be this sitting back and waiting for Obama to act, but rather people will understand they have to act on their own and force Obama to follow their will,” Carson said.

I submit this piece as a rallying call for left-leaning/progressive-minded/justice-oriented students to join a movement to build a self-sustaining coalition of Stanford activists.

For the past two weeks, STATIC, Stanford’s progressive blog and journal, has hosted coalition-building discussions to begin pushing our campus/national/global politics in the direction it needs to be going, and to thereby give students practice for similar organizing post-graduation. Roughly 50 different students have attended one or more of these meetings so far.

We will meet this Wednesday to begin the process of formalizing what such a coalition would look like structurally and what actionable aims we might work towards. Please join us from 9-10:30 p.m. in the El Centro Chicano conference room.

Let’s not sit back and wait any longer.

Contact Kristian at kbailey@stanford.edu.

About Kristian Davis Bailey

Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. A full time journalist/writer and occasional student, he's served as an Opinion section editor, News writer and desk editor for The Daily, is a community liaison for Stanford STATIC, the campus' progressive blog and journal, and maintains his own website, 'With a K.' He's interested in how the press perpetuates systems of oppression and seeks to use journalism as a tool for dismantling such systems.
  • sigh

    I feel like you’re mis-quoting that one article you claim proves that the democratic party is “ultimately harmful” to women’s and minority rights. Not a perfect record, certainly, as the piece points out, but a far cry from harmful. And I think the following – “I was (and am) critical of those who gleefully celebrated Obama’s
    reelection without pause for reflection because Obama and Democrats were allegedly proponents of these rights.” – reveals a condescending attitude I’ve noticed since the election towards mainstream democrats, that we’re just blindly following Obama without truly examining why. Just because someone cheered or posted a gleeful facebook status following Obama’s reelection doesn’t mean they didn’t think long and hard about who they wanted to vote for, what this election meant for them, their friends, their family, and their country. And you never do address in this column the issue several other comments brought up following last week’s column – that American politics is, frankly, about picking the lesser of two evils. Now that we’re between elections, we can work more on changing the system. But on the eve of November 6th, we only had two real choices. I firmly believe we picked the better option.

    And as the eleventh hour comment (by the way I’m rather chuffed you quoted me) so much was at issue in the last election that we have thankfully avoided (an appeal of health care, the further tearing-down of women’s reproductive rights, pell grants, etc) that it was fair to call it OUR eleventh hour. But you’re right that, obviously, people elsewhere in the world obviously have it worse – here in the US I might not be able to get an abortion, but at least a drone isn’t buzzing over my head threatening to kill me. But precisely BECAUSE Romney wasn’t elected, I might now have time to fight for other issues (like protecting the Pakistani people) since a lot of what I was worried about domestically seems to be safe (for now).

    But, honestly, given the language in your columns that can border on condescending, I’m not sure if the Stanford activists coalition is the right place for me to try and fight the battles you outline. Food for thought?

  • Hey sigh,
    Please forgive – and continue to call me out- when my language is condescending to other people. I am frustrated with feeling powerless to address a system that’s failing, and in that frustration I do indeed feel disdainful of the systems that think that you, I and other citizens are easily duped enough not to call out the awful state of affairs that American politics are leaving us in. I want a better world and I am very impatient to get there – some of us have fought and all of us have waited long enough.

    You mentioned that I haven’t addressed that we have to pick between the lesser of two evils – but I thought I made clear in my column last week and in comments last week that I think the system is set up to fail based on how limited our discourse around issues is, and that I’m less interested in participating with the mainstream party monopolies.

    To me, Obama/Democratic policies in the aggregate are not that different from Romney/Republicans. As the editor of Black Agenda Report writes, “If Democrats also believe in wars of aggression and bail outs and subservience to finance capital, Republicans are only left with abortion and gay marriage as issues to differentiate themselves.” This isn’t “women’s liberation” or “queer liberation,” it’s two policies that are important, but as I argue do very little to address the underlying discrimination women and queer people (and on “minority issues” minorities) face.
    And as both the author of “Emily Hauser’s Disgusting Indifference to Women of Color” and I both state, the bodily autonomy of women and minorities is threatened by mass incarceration, racial profiling and stop and frisk policies, deportation, etc, – more under an Obama administration than at any time before. I would maintain that these policies are harmful to women, people of color, and their families.

    Finally, please don’t take a part for a whole with regards to the activist coalition – I am just one tiny part of this coalition and will not even be on campus when it’s implemented. We will collectively deciding the politics of our group – and we haven’t even established what those are yet. If you, or anyone else who thinks the two-party system is failing us and wants to address it would come to Wednesday’s meeting, that would benefit everyone.

    Thanks again for engaging with me and I look forward to hearing back from you.

  • sigh

    In regards to this – ” I am frustrated with feeling powerless to address a system that’s
    failing, and in that frustration I do indeed feel disdainful of the
    systems that think that you, I and other citizens are easily duped
    enough not to call out the awful state of affairs that American politics
    are leaving us in.” – I understand. It’s easy to look at the sum total of the current state of affairs, see everything that’s wrong with it, which is a lot, and get really frustrated. I think the only feasible solution is to pick one problem and try to solve it. Breaking down “systems of oppression” as you name them takes time, and it will take specific action that targets specific systems. But the more you let yourself get overwhelmed by the injustice of it all the more powerless you feel and probably the less effective activist you’ll be. Choose one issue to devote your energy to and go for it. It’s triage, essentially. Last week, for me at least, it was the election. Now that one crisis has been averted I can move onto something else.

    Also in regards to this – “And as both the author of “Emily Hauser’s Disgusting Indifference to
    Women of Color” and I both state, the bodily autonomy of women and
    minorities is threatened by mass incarceration, racial profiling and
    stop and frisk policies, deportation, etc, – more under an Obama
    administration than at any time before.” The *timeframe* matches up with the Obama administration but not, I would argue, his policies. The groundwork for this was laid during the Bush era (the beginnings of racial profiling as well as a hard line on immigration) and Obama I would argue is working to change things with his support for less insane immigration laws. Also a lot the issues with incarceration have to do with specific state and local laws – so blaming Obama’s administration for all these problems is quite simplistic and short-sighted. Allowing Romney to win would not have helped the situation – in fact based on his campaign rhetoric it would have likely worsened it.

    Pro-tip – start local and small when attempting activism. Looking the entire big picture is too scary and frankly it’s unfeasible to change everything you see wrong in the world. (Or if you want to start big, ie federal, I would be interested in working to fight federal drug laws and change them – the so-called “War on Drugs” is a miserable failure that is used to incarcerate far too many people all while allowing the wrong people to profit from drug use.)

  • laura

    Accusing Kristian of being condescending is not only hypocritical but also incorrect. He is always extremely careful to treat alternative positions fairly. I, on the other hand, have no reservations about responding to your cowardice with condescension.

    Of course it’s not feasible to change everything wrong in the world. But as long as you continue turning away from the causes of “everything wrong” and burrowing into your single local issue, you will change nothing wrong in the world. By leaving the general systems that created that issue uncontested, you ensure that any of your local victories will evaporate. The same systems will only create and recreate the small problem you were so proud of solving.

    As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Your “pro-tip” to pick a pet issue makes no demands on power. The stakes are not high enough. Without threatening the larger order, your pet project is a request rather than a demand: starting “local and small” entails asking power to consider making a concession for your particular issue in your particular corner of the world. Whether or not you are granted that concession, you already prop up the structure of power by rendering yourself dependent on its magnanimity.

    Demands are only taken seriously when they are undertaken collectively. Instead of shaming peers who demand a different world and telling them to choose one issue, you should stand with them against the structures that reproduce those issues. Moral fragmentation is the reason why the Democratic party is no longer held accountable to the groups it claims to represent. It is precisely because there is a big picture consensus across both parties that they can only differentiate themselves in “local and small” issues. By following their lead, you legitimate that consensus and undercut our generation’s immense potential to demand structural change.

    The truth is you have every reason to find “looking the entire big picture” scary. If you looked too closely, you would be forced to recognize that your local solutions are holding that picture’s injustices in place.

  • Inspired student

    Kristian, you give me hope. Great column, as always.