Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama's on Their Side

Compromise, negotiation, tact... or is it pandering? The contest for President of the United States has begun in earnest. One sure sign of this is Barack Obama's values-laden politicking in recent weeks. Exhibit A is the following national campaign ad, which, as John Dickerson points out, is desperately intent on portraying Obama as being "just like one of us."

It's unfair of me to take Sen. Obama to task for trying to appeal to white Americans, and particularly to those who self-identify as reasonable, average folk. Clearly he's got to reach out to as many people as possible if he's to have a chance of winning the November election. But maybe it's too bitter a pill for me to swallow to see that 1) the aforementioned ad needs to be whitewashed (including mention of Obama's African father) in order to appeal to these demographics, and 2) Obama has to deploy an all-American, up-by-the-bootstraps life narrative in order to appear as an upstanding (black) candidate.

We can talk about this being merely a strategic effort to win votes, a pragmatic acknowledgment that a black liberal from Chicago needs to downplay his blackness and political beliefs in order to have a real shot at the Presidency. My question, though, is whether there's a point at which this effort at reaching out actually begins to chip away at the principled political vision that Obama has placed at the center of his campaign. In other words, how far are Obama and his supporters willing to go in order to convince folks that he's their candidate? Does Obama continue to try to sound as though "he's on their side," in complete alignment with their core values, or does he ask the tougher questions of what those values mean in everyday life, why people hold them dear, and what the best policies to nourish those values might be.

Perhaps Obama's perceived misstep of referring to white working-class Pennsylvanians as "bitter" came closest to asking the sorts of questions I outline here. Of course we all know how that turned out -- it almost cost him the Democratic nomination. So maybe the practical, give-and-take approach is the best route to take.

But then consider Exhibit B: Obama's reaction to the Supreme Court's bare-majority decision yesterday which says that the death penalty is a form of punishment that is incommensurate with the act of raping a child. The case, Kennedy v. Louisiana, featured a 43-year-old man who was sentenced to death in Louisiana in 2003 for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter. Writing for the majority (which included Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) was Justice Anthony Kennedy, again the crucial swing vote between the liberal and conservative blocs on the Court.

Unsurprisingly, the dissenting Justices accused the Court's opinion of being too "sweeping," effectively outlawing the death penalty in cases which don't involve the murder of the victim(s). Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the decision prevented states from applying the full force of their capital punishment measures "no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be." Adding a questionable sense of morality to this litany of legal oversights, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain bemoaned the decision, saying, "That there is a judge anywhere in America who does not believe that the rape of a child represents the most heinous of crimes, which is deserving of the most serious of punishments, is profoundly disturbing.”

I've come to accept such reactions as the Supreme Court rounds out its docket for the year and announces its major decisions. But Barack Obama's response to the case surprised me. In a move that has got some people saying Obama wanted to avoid a Michael Dukakis-type gaffe on the issue of capital punishment, Obama said, "I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime." Obama concluded by suggesting that if a state passes a law which levels the death penalty against such a crime, then that state should be allowed to impose it. This strong-armed states' rights position is unusual territory for Obama, and as enough commentators have pointed out, it locates his position squarely in the same camp as the conservative Justices.

Perhaps Obama achieved his goal in "disagreeing" with the Court's opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana. Surveying readers' comments on several news websites, I've seen a smattering of, "This is the best thing I've heard come out of Obama's mouth," and, "Up to now I wasn't convinced, but Obama's got my vote after this." There have also been responses like my own, which basically say that Obama has been giving up too much by currying favor with the "values" demographic -- social conservatives, people of faith, law-and-order types. Unlike the folks "on the fence," though, those of us who object to Obama's stance on the case are unlikely to cancel our votes for him because of it. The issue is one among many, sure, but we also realize, to some degree, that Obama isn't addressing his reliable base in making such reactionary comments; he's talking to people "on the other side."

Like Justice Kennedy and yesterday's majority, I believe that the administration of capital punishment in this country is already fraught with arbitrary decision-making and line-drawing. But unlike the dissenters, John McCain, and Barack Obama, I would argue that allowing states to pursue the death penalty in non-murder cases extends, rather than narrowly limits, the reach of these arbitrary decrees. Who, after all, determines the degree of a crime's "heinousness," its relative "sadism," its offense to what's good and pure? If you ask me, any form of rape is "heinous," regardless of the age of the victim. In fact, we actually lose a great deal of footing in our fight against sexual abuse and gendered violence by conceding that the rape of an 8-year-old child is somehow more dastardly than the rape of an adult woman. Rape is always, under every circumstance, a heinous crime.

Acknowledging this does not compromise the Court's stance on capital punishment. It brackets the moralizing fetish of the sanctity of the American child, articulates the broad political goal of fighting against sexual violence in all forms, and recognizes the Court's decision as a pragmatic solution to the problem of capital punishment -- because it's such an arbitrary and imperfect punitive measure, the most our nation is willing to grant certain states is the ability to execute convicted murderers. In contrast, McCain's and Obama's responses effectively legitimate the death penalty in this Louisiana case on the grounds of a moral judgment -- we know a crime that merits capital punishment when we see one. (The dissenting Justices' opinion avoids such bald moralism and sticks to calling the majority opinion "sweeping," which is in effect a legal, not a moral, critique.)

Barack Obama's few weeks of being the presumptive Democratic nominee for President has energized this country's electorate in a way that we haven't seen for close to fifty years. His candidacy still holds forth a lot of promise. But I'd be lying if I said that his campaign ad and his response to Kennedy v. Louisiana didn't disappoint me. The greatest political orator of our generation no longer seems to be speaking to me.

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