e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


your old road is rapidly agin'

Jim Holley's editorial in today's Detroit Free Press invokes Bob Dylan's words, implicitly at least. Rev. Holley, a long-time civil rights leader, responds to Jesse Jackson's critique of Barack Obama by urging Jackson to "step back and let the new guard take control." Holley establishes his own credibility by connecting himself generationally and ideologically to Jackson: I'm one of you and I'm saying from the inside that WE need to defer. By way of justifying the step aside argument, Holley doesn't hesitate to point out the shortcomings of his own generation of activists:
The simple truth is that our generation -- my generation -- has not only failed to fulfill the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, but we have also failed this younger generation. We gave them nothing, and yet it is a member of this generation that is coming closer to fulfilling King's dream than any one of us ever thought possible.
Holley cites current economic conditions as evidence of this failure and concludes that new tactics and a new message are necessary.

It's an interesting and compelling argument. The major weakness of the piece lies in the shaky, shifting nature of the "we" pronoun. Throughout the piece Holley vaguely invokes the first person plural. Sometimes "we" refers to black America. Elsewhere, "we" refers to a particular social movement--i.e., civil rights workers of the 60s. Sometimes "we" refers to activists in general.

The thing is, social movements work in concert with electoral politics. They represent two different realms of the democratic process as we know it, so the idea that a political candidate could somehow replace a social movement strikes me as odd. Obama has moved from one realm to the other, first working as a community organizer then as an elected official. Has he worked on similar issues in both realms? Absolutely. Lots of politicians have made seamless or nearly seamless transitions from non-profit sector or activist community to public sector or elected office.

But the fact remains, the worlds have different norms and different objectives, and present different rhetorical possibilities. I think some of Jackson's statements may not have been politically expedient or prudent. However, conceiving of Obama's candidacy as a replacement for activist work seems wrong-headed. In fact, given Obama's moderate platform, it seems potentially dangerous.

No comments: