Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Obama :: Go West?

Albert Bierstadt :: Yosemite 1868

Obama’s speeches have been a marvel to behold, an emotional, sublime climax to long nights spent waiting through fill-in blowhards like Wolf Blitzer and Bill Bennett, and Edwards’ one and only speech (it was pretty good the first time).

Obama has begun weaving a new self-mythology, and the prospect of looking west to Nevada and California had him sounding positively poetic the other night in New Hampshire.

We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

He is remaking the American story into his own, with liberal borrowings from Cesar Chavez’s UFW campaign (“Si se puede!”), and Bobby and John Kennedy.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

But these speeches also sound a cautionary note for anyone who thinks he’s the same fire-breathing young revolutionary fresh off the campus, Malcolm X books on the shelf, calling out power to the people. (If he ever was.)

Any history major will recognize Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis at the heart of Obama’s New Hampshire speech. Turner, possibly the most influential American historian, crafted in the fronter thesis the intellectual analog to Manifest Destiny–the doctrine championed by Jackson Democrats to justify the forced taking of Indian lands in the mid-to late 19th century. The frontier was the point at which savagery turned to civilization, hope manifested in democracy.

(JFK’s “New Frontier”, with the moon-shot as its symbol, consciously meant to recapture Turner’s triumphalism.)

Of course, many indigenous people recall that period of history differently than Turner–an era of broken treaties, brutal displacement, and horrific bloodshed. Manifest Destiny ushered in the final Indian Wars of the West, and the conquering of a good chunk of Mexico. (As some immigrant rights activists like to say, “We never crossed a border, the border crossed us.”) The optimism of the westward-facing settler, the lone man on the mountaintop, is predicated on the blood of the native.

Turner’s thesis virtually erased that history from the American record, and the American imagination filled with new images. The emergence of uniquely American painting came with the great landscape painters of the west, who depicted the land’s Edenic grace as unpolluted by any inconvenient Indian or inchoate settler. Later, Hollywood enshrined the heroic settler narrative in the western, the foundation of American film. So these remain powerful American myths. No wonder Obama feels compelled to draw upon their power.

But for those who theorize native/non-native relations in 21st century interracial societies like my home Hawai’i (or even say, Black-Latino relations in Watts, with its myriad twists of history), Obama’s speechifying conflation of the hope of immigrants with that of white settlers has to be a little, well, unsettling:

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

Is it ever possible to forge a truly new national narrative, a different way of understanding “the unlikely story that is America”?

posted by @ 8:02 pm | 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Obama :: Go West?”

  1. Clyde Smith says:

    “Is it ever possible to forge a truly new national narrative, a different way of understanding “the unlikely story that is America”?”

    I’m not sure about the truly new but I am sure that you could make a long list of people that have spoken parts of the narrative of which you speak from Howard Zinn to Gloria Anzaldua and to you for that matter.

    But I certainly couldn’t argue with that phrase if you added [and become President].

  2. joe drymala says:

    “Is it ever possible to forge a truly new national narrative, a different way of understanding “the unlikely story that is America”?”

    baby steps, man…

  3. The Nightshift Chronicler says:

    Obama’s ventures west will definitely be revolutionary now that he has succeeded in Iowa and New Hampshire. Getting the culinary workers on his side in Nevada was big and the sight of all those students in California rallying on his behalf will be quite a spectacle. Getting out voters in California will still prove tricky, but it’s not impossible at this point.

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