Obama, Clinton, and the Spectre of the Culture Wars

In Iowa last Tuesday, a man--a good friend and a brilliant professor named Kembrew McLeod, actually--dressed up as a robot--yes, a robot--to heckle Bill Clinton on, of all things, the infamous 1992 Sister Souljah incident.

You may remember that one: at a crucial moment in his presidential campaign, Clinton seized on a decontextualized quote by the rapper about the Los Angeles riots to reassure white voters that he was solidly on their team. (Then he went on Arsenio Hall to play a disastrous sax solo.)

So against the round booing of 400 FOBs--none of whom, it may be safely presumed, had ever been forcibly detained like Wen Ho Lee--my-friend-the-robot dropped a club promoter's amount worth of flyers that detailed Clinton's disservices to racial justice while, at the top of his lungs, demanding on behalf of all robots that the Great Triangulator apologize to Souljah.

It's true that a lot has changed since then. A rap group even won an Academy Award. And I'm still not sure why my man needed to be in a robot suit. But he had a point.

The resentments that made it possible for Bill Clinton to summon race, class, and generational divides to scold youths of color into behaving properly towards nice middle-of-the-road voters haven't disappeared. Think of how the Don Imus firing turned into a referendum on rap earlier this year. (And think of how much money Imus received to return to the airwaves.) Think of the 50 noose incidents in the two months since the march on Jena in September.

The culture wars have never really ended.

Recently, two more robots--these of the neocon variety--raised the specter of the unfinished culture wars: Shelby Steele, the biracial Hoover Fellow who emerged during the late 80s to decry Black militancy and absolve white guilt, and Andrew Sullivan, the gay white libertarian whose support for Charles Murray's crackpot, eugenics-inspired The Bell Curve became one of biggest battles of the era. Steele's thin book, A Bound Man, and Sullivan's cover story in The Atlantic take as their subject the un-Clinton, Barack Obama.

At the peak of the culture wars, Obama was a pro-multiculti student-activist. His biography, Dreams From My Father, is an artifact of a time when publishers were going bonkers for memoirs of young people of color. Still, Steele--whose Black conservatism once made him a bonus-point star in the diversity quest--finds Obama attractive, potentially an "antidote to corrosive racial politics" and "a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics". But because Obama won't challenge Black victimhood or absolve white guilt, Steele argues, he is bound to lose.

Actually, Obama has his own version of real talk--defending the power of rap artists while lecturing them on their moral values, for instance. And he has made peace with aging civil rights leaders not just by necessity, but because he agrees with much of their agenda. Perhaps the prospect of Obama ending the culture war with a progressive racial justice platform supported by whites is what really concerns Steele. Obama might actually become a more effective Black president than Bill Clinton ever was.

In truth, Steele is fighting old battles. He uses his Obama book to restate his thesis about declining black responsibility and take swipes at Cornel West. For him, all Black interaction with whites is conditioned by a desire to "bargain" or "challenge", to be Oprah or Jesse, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. Whites, in turn, are primarily motivated by gratitude or guilt. These are tediously familiar arguments to anyone who suffered them through the mid-90s (when some conservatives declared themselves multiculturalists after all, and some white liberals starting cashing in on Steele's steez: yup, love and theft).

But if Kanye West can call Bush on his racism and still become one of the nation's best-loved musicians, haven't things changed? Here is a generational difference Steele--who has interesting things to say about Louis Armstrong and Sidney Poitier (while ignoring Paul Robeson)--cannot bring himself to consider, for it would admit not only that his old war is a losing cause, but that Obama and the hip-hop generation will be the ones to hammer that last nail in the coffin.

Oddly, the end of the culture war is a prospect that Sullivan--up until now no kumbaya guy on "identity politics"--is not only willing to consider, but ready to embrace. Obama is the real Third Way, the light out of the Baby Boomers' rancor and hypocrisy. He is even ready to forgive Obama's "urban liberalism". The symbol of one who stands between Christian and Muslim, black and white is too big to pass up. He is "the bridge to the 21st Century that Bill Clinton told us about."

But though the culture war has been fought around symbols, it has borne its own strange fruit: an unremittingly harsh view of the rapidly emerging, thoroughly browning post-Boomer generation. The culture wars, in fact, sacrificed a generation under the guise of legislative wars on drugs, gangs, and youth. Abandonment and containment have been the dominant themes of the post-Boomers.

So we now live in a country where racial and economic segregation of students and teachers approach pre-Brown vs. Board of Education levels. Campuses allegedly overrun by tenured radicals remain ivory towers where 80% of faculty are white. Young women and men of color are being disappeared into prisons at historically high rates. Black and Latino poverty rates remain twice that of whites.

Perhaps Sullivan's and other conservatives' battle fatigue may actually be the key to a progressive turn. He notes that, of all the Democratic candidates, Obama attracts the most support from Republicans. Could it be that they too are tired of the nonsense? And it has been a conservative Supreme Court that has undone the excesses of allegedly "centrist" lawmaking that
criminalized vast numbers of youths of color--striking down anti-loitering ordinances and the death penalty for those under 18, and rolling back the effects of mandatory minimums.

But although Obama has gestured toward a platform that takes up some of these problems, the larger discussion remains off the table for most candidates and reporters. Clearly, it takes a certain kind of robot to see that the end of the culture wars will have to come through addressing the schisms of race, class, and generation.

Jeff Chang is the author of the award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of The Hip-Hop Generation, and covered Barack Obama for Vibe Magazine. His next book is on the selling of American multiculturalism.