Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

“There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

Mark Twain, commenting upon the U.S.-Philippine War, 1901

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., commenting upon the U.S.-Vietnam War, 1967

As Barack Obama stood on the stage at Grant Park in Chicago on election night, my euphoria yielded to a strange unease in the pit of my stomach and all good feeling drained away. I soon realized what caused this sensation as I consciously registered the reflected image in the bulletproof glass that imperceptibly framed Obama’s face. Even as his mouth formed words that announced a new founding and the vindication of old foundations, the ghostly image conjured a recurrent, traumatic history of unfulfilled promises, unredeemed struggles and unaccounted losses, the many thousands gone.

Perhaps any victor that night would have been so protected. Nevertheless, that black existence and aspirations toward inclusion and equality in the U.S. readily associate with a history of legal and extra-legal violence deployed to produce and preserve racial distance and disparity is hardly surprising. However unseemly, the strongest prospective parallels between Obama and King drawn during the Democratic primary and Presidential campaign implicated the threat of premature death. In turn, Obama’s ostensible fulfillment of King’s dream arguably has less to do with substantive political connections between the two men than with the racial form and symbolism of one life and its associated promise repairing the violently truncated closure of another before its time.

Racism and violence, their past and their presence: the 2008 election season at times appeared to turn on exorcising the ghosts and demons of a still unfinished civil war. George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright were figures of the past made present by another massive military intervention built on distortion and lies, a storm that laid bare the immorality and catastrophe of a post-civil rights era of (not so) benign neglect, and a politician of hope and change who promised reconciliation and redemption from crimes too large to be named.

Exorcism and reparation: but at what price? As unmistakable as these subtexts are, in my view, Obama’s winning strategy was to accentuate the value of his campaign’s egalitarian racial appeal through disciplined and calculated non-reference. Invisible protective glass in this sense may be a suitable metaphor for the reigning orthodoxy of color-blindness cum post-racialism, whose architecture in politics and law becomes more durable and less assailable with every U.S. Supreme Court decision: a state sanctioned enclosure increasingly hard to perceive or identify between those who are protected from racially differentiated vulnerability and those who continue to bear its marks and suffer its consequences.

Obama’s call to “choose our better history” might be read productively in this light. First, it is worth recognizing how it constitutes a rejoinder to a preferred formulation of John McCain: “We face no enemy, no matter how cruel; and no challenge, no matter how daunting, greater than the courage, patriotism and determination of Americans. We are the makers of history, not its victims.” Although McCain eschewed the direct (even murderous) racist appeals of some of his supporters, he nonetheless tapped the exclusivist, supremacist kernel of the American political tradition—the racial nationalism often invisibly braided with purportedly civic appeals to true Americanism. History for McCain is a domain of friends and enemies. Make history, (my friends), he seems to say, or become its victims. How to know the difference? Real Americans understand that making history sometimes requires turning another people into victims.

The idea of our better history, by contrast, expressly adopts what Frederick Douglass called “the standpoint of the victims of American history.” This standpoint, however, is no endpoint, for it is through the struggles of the trammeled and dispossessed—slaves, women, workers, the segregated, all disfranchised and stigmatized—that “our better history” presumably has been realized. In other words, even as Obama evokes timeless values and solid foundations, his conception of history remains explicitly revisionist and revisionary in this sense. Thus, while it is accurate to say that he resists the prophetic and agonistic tones of black radicalism, he appears to have internalized one of its central claims: without struggle there is no progress.

In his “More Perfect Union” speech, and his arguably riskier 2004 preface to Dreams from my Father, Obama approvingly quotes Faulkner: “the past isn’t past; it isn’t even dead and buried.” Clear and certain lines of tribe and geography, time and syntax no longer separate victims and makers of history. Indeed, one might say victims become (and are continuously becoming) makers, through assertions of will and acts of remembrance and communication that transform old divisions and augur reconciliation, even as they may threaten new victimizations. The conflict between “worlds of plenty and worlds of want,” he writes arrestingly, “twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of the children on the South Side of Chicago.” Failing to grasp this dialectic, the powerful needlessly intensify a destructive spiral with their “dull complacency,” their “unthinking applications of force,” their “longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware.”

Bolstered by these thoughts, my exuberance was fully restored by the time of Obama’s Inauguration. Just a day had passed when I awoke to a New York Times headline announcing the new President’s first order for air strikes by unmanned predator drones in North and South Waziristan. The queasy disquiet from election night returned. Why had these disparate events produced the same uncanny sensation? It occurs to me that what links the episodes is how they encapsulate a constitutive paradox of Obama’s ascent. For as much as an Obama presidency reflects the undeniable culmination of the long, black-led struggle for genuine democracy in America, it is also captive to the violently truncated inheritance of this struggle that continues to constellate the present.

At its most profound and far-reaching, the black freedom movement proposed a general social transformation of the United States, one rooted in opposition to what King in his final hour called America’s interrelated flaws: “racism, materialism and militarism.” The conventionally bifurcated history of the movement we now inherit—with one part annexed to the teleology of liberal-democracy and its clichés of progress, and the other told as a tale of inner city decline and sectarian racialism—fails utterly to reckon with this aborted challenge and vision. A post-civil rights legacy that conscripts racial progress to state legitimacy and assigns social decay and pathology to increasingly isolated individuals and vulnerable communities once again renders imperceptible the technical and ethical infrastructure upon which U.S. imperial citizenship has long depended: the production and maintenance of substantive value-differentiations among human populations through the development and deployment of an institutional capacity and public willingness to kill and quarantine (and let die) from a distance.

Scorched by the images of Katrina, you may recall that the Bush administration dispatched Condoleezza Rice to the Gulf Coast where she proceeded to argue that the damage on view was little more than a “vestige of the Old South” and that the civil rights movement had helped the U.S. to finally “find its voice” as a champion of democracy overseas. These were odd and unconvincing statements, particularly in a context in which it was possible to mistake New Orleans and its people with ruined places and peoples occupied by U.S. military forces from Baghdad to Kabul. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that much of Obama’s reparative and restorative quality circles back to Rice’s claim. For even as visible and indisputable signs of racial division and neglect can now be used to discredit the governors, the promise of “transcending race” and its’ associated ills is a powerful legitimating tool of U.S. state purpose at home and abroad.

It seems undeniable to me that a fundamental aspect of Obama’s appeal was a promise to bridge the domestic and foreign discord of populations divided by race and war. His consistent hawkishness on Afghanistan in this context could be viewed as political cover for what is a more deeply held anti-war position. Obama would not only close Guantanamo and end the policy regimes of torture, rendition and rightlessness, he would also re-think, reduce the scope, if not end altogether, the “war on terror.”  Indeed, among the slew of correct moral and ethical positions that now give way to “realism,” the candidate Obama condemned the air war in Afghanistan as both immoral and politically self-defeating for the routine and entirely predictable “collateral damage” it yielded. His rapid and symbolically significant retreat from this position was just the first among a series of policy decisions that now ineluctably link the Obama and Bush administrations within the domain of “national security.”

Just who is entitled to freedom and security: or more precisely, to the freedom of an unlimited security and the security of an unlimited freedom? Apparently not the “tribal” peoples of the Pakistani frontier, among whom the shadowy operatives of Al-Qaeda have taken refuge.  Lahore’s News cites official figures of 687 civilians and 14 Al Qaeda leaders killed in some 60 U.S. drone strikes since January 2009, an approximately 50 to 1 ratio. As Sven Lindqvist shows in his magisterial work, The History of Bombing, the ever-increasing technological mastery and dread terror of air war was a fundamental prerequisite of modern, colonial power. Its simultaneously protective and destructive capacity enabled a double spatial and ethical displacement according to which liberal-democratic society separated the boundless violence it enacted from the boundless freedom it arrogated for itself. As much as Obama and McCain (or Bush) might be convenient foils for all those characteristic efforts to distinguish good from bad U.S. nationalism (that is, the civic from the racial, the horizontal from the vertical, the patriotic from the jingoistic, the democratic from the statist), one feature appears constant: to make (American) history, one still needs the will to declare enemies and the stomach to make victims.

My point is definitively not that there are not contradictory strands within U.S. political culture; there clearly are. The problem is that powerful, centralizing state institutions have been largely structured by a “bi-partisan” agreement over the boundaries and terms of their contention, especially in the domains of national security and so-called foreign policy. But we must ask: in what ethical universe can the eminently foreseeable destruction of civilian non-combatants, who must be bombed in order to be saved, be justified? Is this in fact “realism,” or a philosophical standpoint according to which some human lives are simply less valuable, and therefore expendable? I have no doubt that Barack Hussein Obama of Honolulu, Jakarta, Nairobi and Chicago’s South Side would categorically reject such a standpoint. At the same time, President Obama of the United States has become “part of the mechanism that recommends it.”

Being part of “the mechanism that recommends it” is how the recently deceased Robert McNamara described his own dire contribution to the history of U.S. air war, and at the same time belatedly acknowledged a deeply criminal complicity. Yet, somehow, the liberal belief that its forms of killing are not murder, and that force can be applied with thoughtful, prophylactic discretion, refuses to die. Afghanistan (like Vietnam) has always been the liberal’s (preferred) war. Unless it is rethought, I am afraid that an Obama presidency and the hopeful alternatives it recommends to the disastrous rightward drift of U.S. social, economic and foreign policy of the past thirty years, will come to very little, but rather, as King put it, once again “add cynicism to the process of death.” To prevent such an eventuality, a more insurgent and less teleological conception of our better history is required: the moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but power concedes nothing without a demand.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]