Thursday, February 21, 2008

Notable & Ivied: Frederick Douglass and "Nas" Show the Way to Obama

"It could be said that Obama's way has been prepared not my Colin Powell, dutifully holding up the vial at the U.N., but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation. It is possible that the emerging youth vote is an anti-'War on Terror' vote, not just an anti-Iraq War vote. Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be. The anti-apartheid movement was one of the few things happening on campuses in the 1980s. Since then white students in their thousands have taken Black Studies classes, reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, bringing Derrida to bear in their term papers on the hip-hop artist Nas's debut album, Illmatic, even as black student enrollment has been falling." Darryl Pinckney, "Dreams from Obama," The New York Review of Books, March 6, 2008 issue

Besides the fact that the writer is constitutionally incapable of developing his thoughts in a cogent manner (not that his thoughts are worth much refinement), two things are obvious here: Pinckney knows as much about the historical (as opposed to iconic) Nelson Mandela as he does about the lives of college students today. I find it remarkable that his meanderings would be published in the preeminent American literary journal, but, of course, he's there to fill a niche and certainly not Frederick Douglass'.

His comparison of Obama to Mandela, though intended as a compliment, of course, is perilously close to the truth. Their objectives, if not their methods, are the same. There is also great richness in his assertion that "Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be." The key to Mandela's "success on the world stage" is that he convinced (almost) everybody that he was what he was not. There the parallel to Barack Obama couldn't be closer or scarier.

Pinckney's comparison of Frederick Douglass, one of the glories of black history and black letters, to the hip-hop artist Nas is outrageous. His assertion that it is white students who have validated this relation is even more ridiculous. White kids have no doubt contributed to the sale of Nas' albums and college professors' to the sale of Douglass' autobiography. And? "A" and "B" are still unconnected. Perhaps Pinckney means to imply that Obama is the bridge that connects Douglass' struggle to be free to Nas' struggle to be even richer. There he might have something except that the name of that bridge is Booker T. Washington.

Still, the image — actually, the fantasy — of white college kids listening to Nas' Illmatic album while attempting to deconstruct it with their well-thumbed copies of Derrida, suddenly exclaiming "Eureka, Obama is the answer!" is something that only a college professor could believe or publish.

17 comments:

nonee moose said...

MAT, interesting post. I guess my question, in this case only (for now), is whether Mandela's iconic (though perhaps inaccurate) image was a net positive. I will tread lightly here, because the slope is slippery. But if I read your implications correctly, would you entertain, in this case only, that the end result of dismantling apartheid outshone his rather major ideological defects, as those have not had profound effect on the country?

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

nonee:

Mandela had nothing to do with the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. The credit for that belongs to Botha. Credit Mandela, if you will, with not turning South Africa into another Zimbabwe.

nonee moose said...

MAT, you are ignoring the iconic, even as you acknowledge it. Yes, Botha deserves credit in the same way Johnson can be credited for the Civil Rights Act. They showed great political courage. But you cannot reasonably stop there, as if there were no March on Washington, or bus boycotts, etc.

Absent the iconic, how can you credit anyone, even someone near and dear to your heart, for a concrete, albeit transcendent, event?

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

nonee:

How can one ignore something while at the same time acknowledging it?

nonee moose said...

Well, you mention the difference of the popular persona in contrast to what you, we, know the truth to be. And yet, you ignore its effect.

Better yet, you don't think Mandela, or Obama for that matter, are popular because they may be marxists, right? It's because the iconic, the popular persona, a purportedly false representation, is having the effect, correct? If so, how can you rail against the effect of the lie, and still not give the lie its due?

Again, I try to limit my comment to Mandela, because the apex of his icon-ness is associated with the struggle against apartheid, and its result was, i hope you can agree, a positive one, if only in absolute terms. That is, society is better without apartheid in it.

The same cannot be said for Obama, in part because his status as icon has yet to be cemented, IMO, and further because the results of his "struggle" have not been determined (and may never be, good or bad).

But ultimately, it is imprudent to invalidate a positive in contribution with a negative in character. All of men's accomplishments would be subject to disqualification, otherwise.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

nonee:

Unlike the Americans, Canadians or Australians, who decimated the indigenous populations of the countries where they settled and insured white supremacy at the point of a gun and not just with their own versions of apartheid, the Afrikaaners by foreswearing genocide effectively doomed their own colonial experiment. They failed in the end not because they were less humane than other white men but because they were more.

nonee moose said...

What has that got to do with it, MAT?

It almost sounds like you defend the policy of apartheid. That or you think the Afrikaaners were just watching the store until the little Bantus were mature enough to handle themselves. You make it sound like public service.

You speak so dispassionately about colonialism. Is that your attitude it in every case? St. Joe would not approve...

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

By dismantling apartheid and relinquishing power to the native majority, the Afrikaaners did more to foster Mandela's icon-status than Mandela himself could have or did. If your enemies capitulate to you without firing a shot, then there is no reason or excuse for you to slaughter them. If Mandela is an icon of non-violence despite his terrorist past it is because his jailers were also his benefactors.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

nonee:

South Africa is the most successful country in Africa because the Afrikaners, who were not a colonialist power but a local "tribe" of whites, created a great nation at the Horn and bestowed it on the Bantu, as you say, whether that was their original intention or no.

Do you think that white Americans will ever relinquish their country to the Indians, or white Australians to the Aborigines? Yet their claims are founded, like the Afrikaners', on the right of conquest.

nonee moose said...

Listen, that the Afrikaners may have been more or less sanguine in their "claim of conquest" is not the point. And I will grant you a limited point on the white government's contribution to Mandela's fame. After all, had the apartheid system not been dismantled, and its repression continued unabated, then Mandela would have been one more keffir thrown in jail for misbehaving and pissing off the Boer. Hubiera pasado a la historia. Am I right?

Mandela seems to have been man enough to confront his terrorist past. I can give him a pass on that, at least.

Alex said...

Question No.1: What does Derrida has to do en este potaje? Derrida's main philosophical tool was skepticism, which seems to me would be the opposite of hope.

Question No.2: Wasn't the South African government's imprisonment of Mandela for 27 years what conferred him his iconic status in the first place? Of course the Afrikaneers made him an icon. I fail to see your point here.

Castro is an icon to many as much for his own self-promotion as for the actions of his enemies. Regardless of what we think, "standing up to the yankees" will be his most widely perceived legacy. That is not to say one does not oppose Castro. It only illustrates the futility to wage political war on icons.

In the end, it took both DeKlerk (not Botha!) and Mandela to do their part, at considerable risk. Would that we extract a lesson from their actions.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Alex:

Nelson Mandela was an icon of armed resistance to the apartheid regime. He was never designated a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International because he publicly espoused, carried out and was convicted of terrorist acts. His imprisonment no doubt contributed to making him an icon as did the fact that he was the anti-apartheid leader with whom Botha opened contacts while he was still on Robin Island in preference to all the others. Ultimately, of course, it was the white South African government that empowered Mandela. Can you even imagine the Castro regime beginning negotiations with Biscet with the view of handing power over to him?

It is true that DeKlerk brought to fruition the negotiations and that had he not forced Botha out of office after a heart attack the transfer of power might have taken longer. Botha, however, was a reformer. It was he who legalized intermarriage in South Africa. This happened while many Southern American states still proscribed it.

At his death in 2006, Nelson Mandela said that "while to many Mr. Botha will remain a symbol of apartheid, we also remember him for the steps he took to pave the way towards the eventual peacefully negotiated settlement in our country." President Thabo Mbeki, showing greater nobility than did Bachelet to Pinochet, offered a state funeral and ordered flags flown at half mast to mark the death of a former head of state. Mbeki even wept at Botha's funeral.

As for Castro, he is an icon to the left only because the left does not understand or care to understand that he discredits them like Stalin or Mao. Both were far greater icons of the left in their day than Castro and both icons are long shattered. So, too, will happen with Castro when his killing fields are dug up and the Cuban people are at last free to express their repugnance for him.

Alex said...

But Botha didn't start talks with Mandela with the intention of handing power, it was with the intention to get his agreement to stop the ANCs actions (both armed and propaganda) in exchange for limited rights within certain areas. Mandela famously replied "a prisoner can't negotiate, only free men can".

If there was the equivalent of an ANC in Cuba -a well organized opposition with widespread international recognition- I could see Raul or his successor being forced to negotiate. One of the biggest ills about Cuba is that there has never been an opposition that could even agree with itself.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Alex:

In any case, it turned out very well for Mandela. Biscet or any of the 2 million prisoners who have passed through Castro's jails in the last 49 years should have been as lucky.

Botha and DeKlerk preferred to negotiate with Mandela than with the guns of the ANC. That's what the opponents of South African apartheid had that the opponents of Castroite apartheid don't. And, of course, the whole world was on their side whereas practically the whole world is inimical or indifferent to the cause of Cuban freedom.

alex said...

Is it really a matter of luck? Or is it that the opposition ceded castro's regime the opportunity to become an icon from day 1?

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Alex:

There was no opposition on Day 1. And Castro saw to it that there would be no effective opposition thereafter by denying Cubans all the liberties which made his own revolution possible.

Agustin Farinas said...

There were some folks who knew or suspected what was coming. My father and uncle who had been through the Civil War in Spain in the thirties kept telling us:
"This so called revolution is like a watermelon, green on the outside and red on the inside"
but no one that I can remember of our friends paid any attention to their fateful words. They kept saying, this is a new dawn, a new honest govt.,Fidel is a good leader and he has no ambitions and many others such nonsense. Well, my father and uncle were proven correct, and their naive detractors had to flee Cuba after losing everything they had worked so hard all their life for. It was the case of the wolf dressed up in sheep's clothing and he fooled most of the Cubans, though not all of them.