Ph.D. Octopus

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All Hail the Mom-in-Chief: Michelle Obama, Feminist Icon

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Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention

by Afrah

The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?

A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008?  It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by afrahrichmond

September 5, 2012 at 21:23

Posted in feminism, politics, race

Barack Obama: Jackie Robinson of Black Presidents

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by David

Barack Obama

For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.

And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.

As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.

Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”

So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.

Booker T. Washington

And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.

First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration.  Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.

Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson

When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.

Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.

Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.

Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?

This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?

Written by David Weinfeld

August 30, 2012 at 15:24

Scholarly Disputes and the Academic Crossfire

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by David

Michael Kazin

In the latest round of “Historians Who Hate Each Other” I give you Michael Kazin and Sean Wilentz. Ok, so I don’t know if these guys actually hate each other. But it sure seems like they do. I’m talking about Georgetown US historian Michael Kazin (son of old Jewish left royalty Alfred Kazin) and Princeton US historian Sean Wilentz. The dispute goes back at least to the 2008 American presidential election. Wilentz backed Hillary Clinton, Kazin sided with Obama. They argued in The New Republic, ostensibly about Lincoln but in fact about Obama.

The latest battleground of this dispute is The New York Review of Books, where Wilentz has written a savage review of Kazin’s new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. 

Wilentz’s review, titled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” runs like this: Kazin says the radicals did X, but actually it was liberals, or at least, mostly liberals. X could be emancipation of the slaves, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, you name it. I haven’t read Kazin’s book, but Wilentz’s attacks seem pretty devastating.

Sean Wilentz

The debate here is not just about liberals vs. radicals, but about top-down political vs bottom-up social history, Wilentz preferring the former, Kazin the latter. So who’s right?

The answer, as any good grad student should know, is both. There is no question that both radicals and liberals, both elites and the disadvantaged helped bring about progressive social change.

I’m sure these two historians would agree on that. The difference is one of emphasis, but that distinction is, well, academic. In any case, I’m in no position to declare a winner here, but I would like to lament the fact that the dispute has gotten nasty and perhaps personal. Wilentz refers to Kazin’s discussion of the Civl War as a “skimpy caricature” and later writes that Kazin’s analysis of the post-Civil Rights era “begins to go haywire.” (the New Republic exchange is even nastier). I hope that whatever animosity these two historians feel towards each other does not cloud their scholarship. Still, I can’t wait for the exchange of letters in The New Review of Books that is sure to follow.

Thinking about this dispute brings me to an interesting quandary for the grad student: what do we do when we are required to interact with scholars who intensely dislike each other? Should we pick sides? Try to stay above the fray? Deceptively placate both? What if we feel a greater affinity for one scholar’s position on a given topic, but we are working closely with another professor who takes the opposing view? Basically, in scholarly disputes, do grad students get caught in the academic crossfire?

Written by David Weinfeld

July 26, 2012 at 17:29

Tommy Boy and Mitt Romney

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by David

Tommy Boystarring the late Chris Farley, is one of the funniest movies of all time. But it also provides us with lessons that are useful in understanding the 2012 American presidential election, particularly the question of Mitt Romney’s role as a “vulture capitalist” for Bain Capital.

In Tommy Boy, Farley plays Tommy Callahan III, a hard-partying recent college graduate (after 7 years) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s brake-pad company. The business is on the verge of bankruptcy, so Tommy has to travel across the country (with his sidekick, portrayed brilliantly by David Spade) to drum up sales for the company, which is the economic foundation of the small town in which it is located.

The point is that Tommy Boy is all about saving the American auto industry, the same industry that Romney effectively told to drop dead. And of course, Romney has had lots of experience dismembering businesses for his own profit at Bain Capital. Free marketeers will argue that Romney was just making the market more efficient by shutting down failing corporations. But, as we well know, presidents aren’t just interested in making the market more efficient, especially when that efficiency translates into big profits for the few, job losses for many, and without any noticeable improvement in productivity, reduction in consumer prices, or innovations that better our quality of life.

Beyond that, Tommy Callahan III could relate to the workers at his plant, whereas Mitt Romney cannot relate to anyone, least of all the vast majority of Americans who aren’t as wealthy as he is. Indeed, Chris Farley, perhaps America’s greatest slapstick comedian, could make everyone laugh, regardless of class or social background. President Obama has his flaws, and he’s more David Spade than Chris Farley, but at the end of the day, he’s a president who at the very least can relate to people across America’s socio-economic spectrum. So if you love Tommy Boy, you should vote for Barack Obama.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 13, 2012 at 19:23

Posted in film, politics, pop culture

Pastygate

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by Bronwen

In case you were getting discouraged by the state of the media in America, take a look at the newest ‘-gate’ to hit Britain: Pastygate.

Yes, that’s right: the Chancellor has added VAT to hot takeaway foods from places other than restaurants.  Apparently this is unfair because Osborne hasn’t had anything from Greggs lately.  This has ignited the popular press of the country, as well as launching new ad campaigns for pasty proprietors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This in turn was followed by a predictable stampede of politicians to the local Greggs, Cornish Pasty Company, etc.

Dave prefers West Cornwall Pasty Company

As the Economist notes:

Like a glacé cherry topping off a Greggs iced tart, the media day culminated with Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor of the exchequer, inviting the television cameras to film him confidently striding into a branch of Greggs to order eight sausage rolls. These were not all for him it emerged (though he is a big chap, and in training for a marathon). Some were for the awkward, besuited southerner behind him who turned out to be his party leader, Ed Miliband.

We love Greggs!

But the Economist points out that this is all about class and the perceived end of British institutions.  I can see that, I guess. The Greggs ad pointedly uses George Osborne’s real first name, Gideon, for instance.  And the Daily Mail pretty much comes right out and says that Cameron is out of touch with normal people.  This is veering pretty close to the dangerous ‘real America’ territory of Fox News.

But as a neutral observer, what I really see is further indication that The Thick of It is spot on in its depiction of the complete lack of control that politicians have over the media here.  Unlike in the US, where the Right thinks there’s a ‘Liberal Media Bias’ and liberals know that Fox News is basically a paid propaganda arm of the Republican Party, in Britain it’s pretty obvious that no one in the media likes or has any respect for any political or governmental figures.  Add to that newspapers’ desire to make anything into a scandal, and you have tabloid gold.

Fittingly this all emerged in the same week that The New Yorker ran a piece on Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail.  But really, nothing says it better than the Daily Show.

Moat Gate

Written by apini

March 30, 2012 at 06:52

Posted in class, politics

Blame Canada (or maybe just its press)

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By Julian 

If you came across a newspaper headline that reported, “remark reveals underlying narcissism, analysts say” who do you think the story would be about? You could be forgiven for assuming the article might profile, Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed world-class historian, moon bases advocate, and “teacher of the rules of civilization.” On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking that the story profiled the recent college graduate who applied for a finance job at J.P. Morgan by bragging about his ability to bench press double his body weight and do 35 chin-ups? Obviously, the headline could describe any number of things uttered by Donald Trump.

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, however, there’s probably a good chance you correctly guessed that the headline described the psychological condition supposedly afflicting federal Member of Parliament, Justin Trudeau. The son of a famed Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau received a virtual tarring and feathering in the Canadian press this past week because of some comments he made about Quebec separatism. In the offending remarks, he explained that as,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” In short, if Canada ever moved so far to the right that it became unrecognizable, a wintery East Texas on the 49th parallel—well, if that day ever came, Trudeau might be open to the possibility of Quebec forming its own country.  Still, in no uncertain terms, Trudeau rejected separatism. Instead, he argued that Quebecers (who tend to be more socially progressive than the rest of the country) had an important role to play spreading their values across Canada.

Were Trudeau's remarks on Quebec separatism simply a beard for his beard?

The responses to this story in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are instructive. In Quebec, views like Trudeau’s are utterly uncontroversial. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, 49% of Quebecers voted for independence. While support for separatism has declined somewhat since then, 60% of Quebecers still identify primarily or exclusively with Quebec.  And these numbers are significantly higher when you poll only Quebec’s French-speaking majority. Even the current Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has officially recognized that the Quebecois form a unique “nation”—with their own language, culture, and history—within Canada.  The only reason Trudeau’s remarks initially received any attention in Quebec was because they avoided the polemical flourishes against separatists, which helped make his father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, so famous.

If you read the press outside of Quebec, however, you might have thought that had Trudeau called for armed insurrection. In Parliament, Conservative MPs attacked his loyalty. Pundits lashed out at Trudeau’s supposed ignorance, immaturity, and vanity. So did several political scientists: one even went so far as to label his remarks “treasonous.” In Quebec, what looks like a nuanced position in favor of national unity, seems closer to separatist posturing in much of the rest of the country.

Estimated cost to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 7.5 million. The Queen's picture on a bilingual stamp, priceless.

The context for the “Trudeau Affair” is the fact that Canadians have recently elected their first majority Conservative government in almost two decades. After only a few months in office, the Conservatives have moved the country sharply to the right. The government  has reduced restrictions on gun control, passed a crime bill that relies almost exclusively on harsher sentencing, and have strongly hinted at reducing pensions for the elderly. To defend deeply controversial environmental and Internet surveillance policies, conservative ministers have lashed out at their opponents as agents of liberal billionaire George Soros and child pornographers (I’m not kidding). In terms of Canadian identity, the government has made major efforts to strengthen the country’s ties to the British monarchy (which will probably never be something very popular in Quebec).

Fortunately, many Canadians—not just Quebecers—reject the atavistic impulse to return their country to the halcyon days of the British Empire. While the Conservative Party formed a majority government in the last election, it received less than 40% of the votes cast. It also turns out that numerous law-abiding Canucks don’t like having their ministers accuse them of supporting “the pedophiles” when they  oppose unlimited government surveillance.  In fact, the comment sections on the many articles denouncing Trudeau were filled with citizens from across the country sympathetic to his views. These readers empathized with Trudeau’s frustration at divisive right-wing politics and realized that he was in no way endorsing separatism.

While Quebec might be a distinct society, nation-wide dissatisfaction with the Conservative government may yet provide some hope for national unity.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 19, 2012 at 22:22

Obama 2012, Occupy Wall Street, and the Left

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by David

I attended an awesome Obama 2012 fundraiser on Thursday. I am a proud supporter (and occasional participant) of the Occupy Wall Street and broader Occupy movements. I see no inconsistency. The only really weird thing is that I’m Canadian, and thus my American wife needed to pay for my ticket to get in (to the fundraiser; the protests are free and open to the public).

I’m an Obama critic, from the left. I’m also an Obama supporter. Any president who cites Philip Roth when discussing the Jewish community has my vote (if I could vote). I have problems with some of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy. I also think he’s done an incredible job as president, after having been dealt a horrible hand by George W. Bush, including a failing economy, two mismanaged foreign wars, and an opposition dedicated to thwarting him without any regard to principle. I suspect my position is not that different from that of many of his staffers and campaign managers, not to mention his millions of supporters.

You can see all that has been accomplished in the video above. It’s an impressive display.

Sure, there’s a lot more to do. OWS will keep fighting. But we need president Obama on our side. Or we need a president Obama to move further along to our side. Because we know that as spineless as Mitt Romney is, he won’t move that way.

Now some of the far left insist that dangling that lunacy of the GOP as a tactic to justify voting for Obama is cheap strategy. And that the two parties are too similar. Well, frankly, they’re wrong. Despite what they may say, there are real and significant differences between the two parties, particularly on domestic policy, that are felt by poor and working class and middle class people on the ground. Felt by women and immigrants and gays and lesbians. Huge potential differences in terms of Supreme Court appointments. And it appears that since Mitt Romney doesn’t give a rats ass about foreign policy, there will likely be big differences there as well in the coming four years. Ron Paul’s libertarianism is both cruel and inefficient and would lead to disaster, even if some of his policies are good, but he can’t and won’t win the GOP nomination. And of course if Santorum or Newt somehow became president, that would be a national nightmare. The left really would be cutting off its nose to spite its face and committing political suicide if it did not back Barack Obama 100%. And it makes me angry when radicals don’t see this, and think that voting for Obama is somehow selling out the left, or picking to best of two evils. Because it really isn’t. I’m on the left. I don’t just oppose the GOP. I support Barack Obama. And not just because it’s the pragmatic thing to do, though that is part of it, for sure.

Because really this should be, and is, a positive campaign. Barack Obama has done a lot of good. And with a free hand in a second term, not having to worry about re-election, and hopefully with a more amenable congress, he can and will do a lot more good. And when he is re-elected, because I think he will be, the left should continue to offer critical support.I don’t always agree with Cornel West, but he did say something before the 2008 election that I thought made a lot of sense. He said that if/when Obama got elected, he would dance a great dance of joy (perhaps similar to Balky Bartokomous and Cousin Larry on Perfect Strangers, though he’d do it with Tavis Smiley). And then once Obama got into office, he would become his biggest critic, holding him to the highest standard possible. West has been true to his word. I haven’t always agreed with that criticism, but I admire his consistency here.

Criticism is good. But I don’t think the left should be unnecessarily critical of Obama. They (we) should support him when he is advocating for change that we believe him. But when he isn’t, or isn’t hard enough, we should try to move him, and congress, in the direction we want. Not give up on him. Because I do think that he, along with the American people, have the ability to make the country and the world better. I’m optimistic. Great things can and will happen. But we have to get there. 

So, if you’re American, donate some money to the Obama 2012 campaign. Volunteer. And make sure you and your friends get out and vote for Barack Obama in November. It’s the only right and rational thing to do, whether you’re a radical leftist, progressive, liberal, moderate, or even a sensible conservative. Si se puede. I’m in.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 18, 2012 at 10:17