Obama is not your ‘magical negro’

The Obama years confirmed the usurping of politics by therapy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

With Barack Obama bowing out, it’s time to talk about how extraordinary his presidency was. No, not for its achievements. Aside from Obamacare, which is hardly the New Deal, policy-wise there’s little of substance from his eight years in the White House. Nor was his stint extraordinary for its contrast with the Dubya years. If Obama was any kind of president it was a continuity one. He maintained, and in fact spread, Bush’s meddling in the Middle East, and intensified Bush’s undermining of civil liberties in the name of combatting terror. Yet where Bush was a ‘fascist’ for those things, Obama, we’re told, had little choice. He ‘inherited’ this mess, his apologists say.

No, the extraordinariness of Obama’s presidency lay in its replacement of politics with therapy. Its turning of the commander-in-chief into therapist-in-chief. Its confirmation that political leaders no longer concern themselves with such earthly matters as wealth and liberty and really improving people’s lives, but rather see it as their role to boost self-esteem, soothe historical wounds, be a ‘catalyst for psychological change’, as one appraisal of Obama puts it, as if American adults were patients not citizens. The Obama era was striking for its decommissioning of the political citizen, and of politics itself, and its building of an empire of emotion in which leaders emote and the citizenry is expected merely to feel and not do much else. There were no jackboots or watchtowers but this is a species of tyranny nonetheless.

The response of the media and much of the political set to Obama’s leaving has been intensely emotional. Not since Princess Diana died have respectable newspapers been so stuffed with gushing photo-spreads and memorials and over-the-top comparisons (Di was a secular Virgin Mother; Obama is an amalgamate of Lincoln, Gandhi and King). Observers and the Twitterati are expressing a sense of loss entirely out of proportion to a politician leaving office, which is a regular occurrence in the adult realm of politics. That’s because they’re losing more than a politician. They’re losing a healer (of history’s wounds); a voice of ‘wisdom and grace’, as every gushing editorial describes him; a man who applied ‘balm’ to our personal and political ‘traumas’, as one observer sees it; someone who in recent months had become ‘therapist for those suffering from Trump anxiety’, in the words of the Guardian. The turning of Obama, of the institution of president, from commander of a nation into shaper of feelings, into provider of historical medicine and guarantor of self-esteem, means his leaving is experienced as a profound loss, a mourning. It opens a psychological gap. Some observers claim they feel genuinely ill. The usurping of politics by therapy, and of the citizen by the patient, is complete.

For those of us who cling to an old-fashioned view of politics as the affairs of state, as ‘the science of good sense applied to public affairs’, as 18th-century US congressman Fisher Ames described it, the past few weeks have been incredibly frustrating. Any attempt to analyse, seriously, the things that were done by the Obama administration — or, as some see it, the things that merely happened under Obama, their authorship unclear or obscured — meets with confusion or even hostility. Obama, it has been made clear, is not to be judged by such earthly matters as industry or liberty or war and peace, but rather by how he made people feel; by what one author has described as ‘the profound shift in the American psyche’ he brought about. Obama’s impact is mental, not political; curative, not concrete. Even newspaper pieces on his legacy that include discussion of Obamacare and his decisions on the Middle East swiftly move back to the realm of character and emotion, to his grace and style and wisdom. His legacy is judged psychologically rather than politically.

These highly emotional appraisals of Obama are in keeping with how he has always been viewed by the mainstream media and political set. Back in 2008, in the run-up to his election, the Chicago Sun-Times said the most important thing about Obama was the emotion he evoked in sections of the populace. And it refused to be defensive about this: ‘Yes, this newspaper is endorsing a man because of how he makes us feel [my italics], because of the hope he evokes within us’. With Obama, feeling and imagery have always trumped achievement. As the left-wing author Sasha Abramsky put it in 2009, ‘simply by virtue of who he is’, Obama can bring about ‘psychological shifts in how America understands itself’. Never mind what this politician says or does; it’s who he is that counts, and it counts in terms of changing psychology, not infrastructure.

This led to a situation where Obama was cheered not for improving people’s lives but for making people feel, rightly or wrongly, that their lives had improved. As argued by the authors of Obama on our Minds: The Impact of Obama on the Psyche of America, Obama’s great service was to ‘the cultural image of African-Americans’ and to ‘perceptions of social opportunity’. This is striking; clearly what matters is not whether Obama tangibly improved African-American people’s lives or really, physically expanded social opportunity, but that he cultivated new images of African-Americans — that is, his own image — and created a perception of opportunity. Because politics isn’t now about things; it’s about feeling.

Obama’s own language is the language of therapy. His early slogan ‘Yes, you can’ was straight from the world of self-help. He speaks of empowerment. Apparently his very image can be empowering. According to the political thinker George Lakoff, speaking in 2008, ‘You look at him and… you feel empowered’. He’s referring, not to political power — which is something you must win and use and tangibly impact on the world with — but to therapeutic power. Which is not power at all, of course. Rather, empowerment is another word for feeling good, for self-esteem. ‘Be empowered’, said Michelle Obama in her final speech, addressing America’s young people. This is not ‘be powerful’ or ‘seize power’ or ‘here is more power and more liberty’; it’s ‘feel confident’; it’s ‘perceive of yourself as powerful, even if you are not’. It doesn’t seek to change people’s living conditions (politics) in order that they might have more control over their lives; it seeks merely to boost self-esteem, and in the process, through the misuse of language, it obscures where actual power lies and why it remains jealously guarded.

The treatment of Obama as therapist-in-chief continued throughout his time in office. In 2015 a writer for the New York Times hailed Obama as ‘cognitive therapy for the country’. He praised Obama’s eschewing of ‘sterile facts’ — political concerns — in favour of being our ‘our therapist-in-chief’. At the end of 2016, following Trump’s victory, the Guardian thanked Obama for ‘play[ing] therapist to Western allies suffering from Trump anxiety disorder’. The infusion of politics with the language and outlook of therapy is now so entrenched it goes unnoticed.

The therapeutic regime of the Obama years actually acted as a block on proper politics, on serious debate, and certainly on any sense of history-making. Many have described Obama as ‘making history’, and of course he did in the narrow sense of being the first black man to lead the US. But at a more fundamental level, Obamaism stood firmly against the idea of the historic man, the engaged citizen, the maker of society’s fortunes. Under Obama, history came to be discussed as a wound, a trauma, and it was Obama’s job to heal it. Obama was discussed, as one critic put it, as ‘the balm that would finally salve the festering wounds’ of American history, in particular slavery and Jim Crow. He was the ‘salve for [the] racist scars’ of history, as John Wilson put it in Barack Obama: The Improbable Quest. From this perspective, history is a kind of curse, a source of horror and sorrow, and Obama is here to cure it, and end it. This speaks profoundly to the Obama era’s replacement of social change with mental mending — the political, historic actions of man are judged too dangerous, causing centuries-long PTSD, and Obamaism is about keeping such actions in check. Obama is fundamentally anti-history; he wasn’t the president of change but rather was an enforcer of stasis, the placater of history’s awkward questions, a lid on the past, and by extension a warning against too much risk in the future. Hence Obamaism wants you to feel empowered rather than be powerful.

All of this was bad for politics, and bad for America. But it was sometimes bad for Obama, too. Yes, as a result of the elevation of how he mades us feel over what he did on the world, he got a free pass on what happened during his presidency. But he also ends up infantilised, and racialised. Raise criticisms of Obama’s actions in the Middle East and his supporters will say ‘he inherited this, it’s not his fault’. The rush to protect Obama from the normal thrust of political critique leads to his sometimes being absolved of agency, as if nothing is really his doing — it simply happens, around him.

Even worse has been the celebration of Obama as the black ointment on Western historical scars by a white intelligentsia that feels increasingly ill-at-ease with modernity and its origins in industrialisation and colonialism and other acts that had bad sides as well as good. They end up valuing Obama, not for his conviction or intellect, but for the emotions he invokes in them, especially the feeling that his election signalled the moment when they would no longer have to feel so guilt-ridden about their position or their heritage. Witness the New Statesman’s excruciating list of Obama’s best moments, which included the time he let a little boy touch his afro hair and the time he sang ‘Amazing Grace’ — ‘the first time in history the US had a president who knew the conventions of worship in black churches’.

This, like so much of the gushing commentary around Obama, takes us close to ‘magical negro’ territory. The ‘magical negro’ is a trope in modern American literature and cinema: a wise, kind black character who helps troubled white people overcome a hardship or trauma. Spike Lee popularised the term in 2001, in his criticism of movies like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, and a few black commentators have used it in relation to Obama. The treatment of Obama as a kind of ‘magical negro’ for America’s history problem and for white intellectuals’ feeling of guilt over the origins of their societies and their lives reduces him to mere symbol, almost to the level of an innocent, incapable of being judged politically and morally.

When Obama clashed with Hillary for the Democratic candidacy in 2008, much was made of his emotionalism in contrast with her technocratic demeanour. They had a striking argument about this on TV. ‘Words are not actions’, said Clinton of Obama’s oratory. ‘The truth is actually words do inspire’, he replied, hinting that Clinton left people a little cold. But in fact there’s a deep link between the therapy of Obamism and the technocracy of Clinton (and much of the modern Western elite). Both express, and in fact facilitate, the corrosion of political citizenship, the reduction of politics either to process or emotion, and of the public to things acted upon by officialdom — whether with therapy or with expertise; with balm or nudges; with a pat on the head or a rap on the knuckles. For all its oratory, the Obama era was as symbolic of, and destructive of, the ideals of politics and morality as has been the EU, the Hillaryites and other colourless technocrats. All sides eschew morality in favour of feeling or correction. So this is our task going ahead, post-Obama: to remoralise public life; to demote emotion in favour of conviction; to say history is not something to be put to rest, but to be made anew.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics


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