Tavis Smiley And Cornel West Want To See Peel And Stick “Black Agenda” Labels On Obama Policies
To Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and all other African American pundits who want to own the conversation about the black community—President Barack Obama is not Captain Save-A-Negro. He is the president of the entire United States. The way Smiley and West have been carrying on lately, though, you would think President Obama is supposed to wink his eye at the TV camera at least once a week and whisper, "I'll get that hook up for y'all when I get done with this announcement." What do these two commentators expect the president to do? Open up special branches of the U.S. Treasury in black communities that sell dollar bills for fifty cents?
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised the other day, while cruising through the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, to come across a video recording of professor Randall Kennedy’s appearance on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show. Kennedy, the author of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, provides an analysis of the dilemma Barack Obama faces as America’s first African American president that is so rational and thoughtful that I took the time to transcribe some of his more illuminating comments.
“In my view, it is a sad aspect of our politics that the president of the United States has to tip toe around the race question. Do I condemn him? No, I don’t condemn him. He has to face the discipline of electoral politics. He has to get enough votes to win.”
Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School
I usually like smart black men who are adept at intelligently articulating their political positions, even if I don’t agree with their policies, so you would think, given the great interest Cornel West and Tavis Smiley profess to have for the less fortunate among us, that their kind of populist rhetoric would be right up my alley. But West’s insistence on clinging to his Signifying Monkey theatrics and Smiley’s infantile need for attention, combined with a need by both of them to be catered to by the Obama Administration often obscures the intent of any message they have. In fact, I am having a hard time figuring out the purpose of their latest attention getting stunt, where they plan to collaborate with Ralph Nader to launch a slate of symbolic Democratic primary challengers against President Obama in order to give progressive issues more of a voice in the next election.
“You’ve got to make noise. You’ve gotta make noise. But you have to make noise again being keenly attentive to the discipline of electoral politics. It would be a tremendous error for progressives to prompt the president, or demand that this president act in ways that would cripple his ability to be re-elected. On the one hand you’ve got to push him, you’ve got to change the electoral landscape, but you’ve gotta do it in a way that enables him to get the votes he needs in order to be re-elected.”
Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School
Are West and Smiley so hypnotized by the lights on top of network TV cameras that they have lost all sense of proportion? Granted, it is harder than it looks to turn your back on the studio lights, roll up your sleeves, and hit the streets day after day to try to teach our African American middle class the kinds of life strategies and techniques that will help us to deal more successfully with the socioeconomic blight in our own communities. It’s even harder to use your imagination to get beyond the idea, as my friend Michael Ross of Short Sharp Shock puts it, of insisting on “singular, identity based attention” and into a twenty first century mindset that can grasp how much more important it is to engineer structural changes in our institutions that finally begin to level the entire playing field, and not just the strip of ground we happen to be standing on today.
“It seems to me that a very important question has to be asked here.What is the presidency worth? If you think that the presidency is not worth the compromises that Barack Obama has made in order to win it – to win the White House, I understand your point.
On the other hand, the presidency is a very powerful influential position, in which people are making – the president’s making all sorts of decisions that nobody ever hears about. Hundreds of appointments that don’t make it to the front page, don’t make it to any paper. If you think that having a person who is closer to your politics than the alternative – again, compared to what? Compared to John McCain? Sarah Palin?”
Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School
Behind the scenes structural changes are not sound-bite material. They are not single issues we can wave around like a victory flag. And there are no peel and stick “black agenda” labels slapped all over these changes so we can be sure to see exactly what the White House’s actual intentions were. In my opinion, The Root did a fantastic job last year of articulating just how some of the structural changes in our government will affect black Americans.
The inequities that persist between our community and mainstream America are as real today as they were last year, and the year before that. For West and Smiley to continue to promote an adversarial relationship between black America and the Obama Administration is like insisting that a dial-up internet connection is faster than broadband.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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