Has Obama Found Himself Trapped by a Myth?

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of the forthcoming book, Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American People (Basic Books, June 2008), which deals with the role myths play in our politics.

In 2004 John Edwards went around the country proclaiming the existence of two Americas. One reason his candidacy did not go further than it did was that his appeal often fell on the ears of people tired of divisiveness. After a generation of polarized politics Americans were eager for national unity--or at least a call for unity. Sensing this need, Barack Obama, in the speech that launched his national career, declaimed at the 2004 Democratic Convention: "there is not a black America and a white America.... There’s the United States of America." This sounded fresh at the time, but it was actually an old refrain in American history of an idea born in the years when the country became a haven for millions of immigrants from around the world.

In its original incarnation the appeal to national unity was a deliberate slap in the face of immigrants. Fed-up with the changes immigrants were bringing to America, mainstream white Protestants who traced their ancestry to the Mayflower began in the late nineteenth century to long for the kind of national unity they vaguely remembered from their youth before Italians, Slavs, Jews, the Irish and others emigrated to the United States in large numbers. Politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, eagerly responding to this feeling, inveighed against so-called hyphenated Americans. "Be Americans, pure and simple," Roosevelt proclaimed.

More than rank bigotry lay behind the concern with "hyphenates," as they were derisively labeled. U.S. foreign policy was constantly being tugged this way and that by immigrant groups eager to use their power at the ballot box in America to settle scores left-over from the Old Country. Irish-Americans, with the memories of British tyranny over Ireland still fresh, demanded that the United States twist the Lion's tail. German-Americans on the eve of World War I sided with the Kaiser over the Allies. In the event of actual war immigrants usually rallied around the flag with the same fervor as other Americans, but their true loyalty seemed in doubt to many. Roosevelt complained, "When two flags are hoisted on the same pole, one is always hoisted undermost. The hyphenated American always hoists the American flag undermost."

Though largely forgotten today, for decades American politics was roiled over concerns about white European immigrants. Even highly educated Americans could fall for anti-immigrant appeals. The highly esteemed historian Thomas Bailey, writing in 1948, shockingly let loose this screech: "when the melting pot bubbles, often with European faggots under its bottom, the scum rises to the top." Bailey, himself the child of immigrants, was no bigot. But he felt keenly that our politics were too often shaped by demagogic responses to individual groups making self-serving demands.

While Americans remain divided over immigration politics, as anyone who watches Lou Dobbs on CNN is aware, the chief issue separating Americans recently has been the so-called culture war, which Democrats and Republicans have each exploited for a generation. (We have moved from"boiling pots" to" culture wars." Progress?) Underlying many of the points of conflict in our culture war have been questions involving race.

Like Theodore Roosevelt, Obama is responding to events. Unlike Roosevelt, however, Obama's call for national unity is clearly not motivated by a desire to squelch the feelings of a minority in the name of some larger good. As he made clear in recent days his intention is to get people talking about their differences openly and honestly. Where Roosevelt wanted to silence Americans who held strong feelings with which he felt uncomfortable, Obama, drawing on a Sixties-era sentiment, wants people to express themselves.

Whether national unity is possible under the circumstances is doubtful. The more we talk the more we may discover that we are different. One of the most remarked about topics of the last few days have been the surprisingly sharp differences in opinions between blacks and whites over a variety of subjects. The New York Times informs us that even Wright's claim that the United States government was responsible for the AIDS crisis was considered so uncontroversial in his black community (and others) that few thought it strange when he made the charge, even though it's groundless.

The irony of Obama's campaign may be that despite his intentions he may have done more to divide the country than any other living politician--at least in the short term. Looking back a generation from now this election might be a turning point in race relations if Obama's premise is correct that the more we talk the better off we'll be. But in the moment Obama's brave speech has opened a Pandora's box of fears and resentments that almost certainly will in the heat of a campaign prove difficult to deal with rationally.

Given that we lack a common ancestry it is natural that we are sensitive to signs of disunity. But how much unity can we honestly expect in a country as diverse as ours?

Our unity as a people has always been something of a myth. Obama played on that myth and in some sense gambled his candidacy on it. But it is one thing to believe in a myth and another to confuse it with reality. While we may all hope fervently that our country is unified, the grim truth may be that it is not and that we simply have to accept that.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/27/2008

It is here by design - economically and socially!

HNN - 3/25/2008

Bailey is one of my heroes so I don't mean to denigrate him.

I do believe that if you read his books, particularly MAN IN THE STREET, you'll see that he was very hard on immigrants. He believed they were susceptible to demagogic appeals and said so. His comment about "scum" shocked me because it was so harsh. I don't think historians of his reputation today would use that kind of language.

Times have changed. We are more multicultural now.

Same with the way we discuss race. We are more sensitive now.

Maybe this means there's an opening for someone like Obama.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/25/2008

I mistakenly posted this comment before commenting. What I meant to do was to comment on Mr. Shenkman's passage:

Even highly educated Americans could fall for anti-immigrant appeals. The highly esteemed historian Thomas Bailey, writing in 1948, shockingly let loose this screech: "when the melting pot bubbles, often with European faggots under its bottom, the scum rises to the top."

I do not read this as an "anti-immigrant" appeal, and I wonder if perhaps Mr. Shenkman's "shock" is due to misapprehending Bailey's use of the term "European faggots".

"Faggots" are of course but bundles of straw and twigs used for fires. I read Bailey to say that when the melting pot "boils over" (a bad thing), it is usually the fault of "European faggots" (European ethnic rivalries and conflicts) which can cause antagonism amongst Americans of related ethnicity, and that these antagonisms usually result in "scum" (think here perhaps the German-American Bundists of the 1930s?) rising to the top.

I hope that makes sense. Again, good article. Obama is indeed trapped, as Mr. Shenkman says, and the answer is found in Obama's women. Read Mrs. Obama's doctoral thesis about "separatist/pluralist" vs. "integrationist/assimilationist", and I think you will come away with the feeling that Obama joined that church to establish one set of bonafides but now finds that choice to cause him problems as he tries to establish a different set of bonafides.as "post-racial".

R.R. Hamilton - 3/25/2008

Even highly educated Americans could fall for anti-immigrant appeals. The highly esteemed historian Thomas Bailey, writing in 1948, shockingly let loose this screech: "when the melting pot bubbles, often with European faggots under its bottom, the scum rises to the top."

Daniel J. Herman - 3/25/2008

I would agree with Rick that Obama has shot his chances with white male voters, esp. blue collar, IF this were a normal election cycle. It's not.

Obama has done well with white working-class males in state after state, esp. in rural parts of the West. Okay, now the Wright thing comes up. Will those voters leave in droves?

They might, if you assume that Obama is an ordinary pol. He isn't. He is the living embodiment of calm, self-possessed rationality. He's the opposite of what his critics say he is (a hell-raising preacher). He's the opposite of Wright. And people will realize that.

Since the Wright thing, Obama has GAINED 9 points in PA according to Rasmussen. He is going to win, and he is going to steamroll McCain in the general. Right now, McCain has everything going his way but when people really begin to examine McCain's favors-for-money record, his hawkishness, and his economic imbecility, down he goes.

Down, down, down.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Interesting point, but I'm still not sure I agree. Obama didn't say he wanted to have an honest debate about race, he only said he wanted to begin the process of doing so. It seems to me he's already done that, even if he never addresses the subject again (which he won't be able to do). Now he's got eight months -- and hopefully, four or eight years after that -- to unify us.

Again, I don't believe unity is a particularly good goal, but I don't think it's impossible, just inadvisable. Particularly when we're dealing with someone with a speaking ability as incredible as Obama's.

Jules R. Benjamin - 3/24/2008

Like ones' relatives, you don't get to pick your country. When uncle racism, aunt class conflict or cousin sexism knocks, you are obliged to let them in. You sit around the dinner table and have a family "conversation." You discover that Bob's daughter is gay, that Melanie's son is still in Iraq, that Ralph converted to Judaism. They find out that your wife left you because of your affairs. After dinner, everybody goes home. Did the "conversation" do any good?. Hard to tell without knowing what people said to one another as they drove home. To know that, why not invite them back? (Even Ph.D's might want to think about this one.)

HNN - 3/24/2008

I am not saying presidents shouldn't try to change the culture. I am only suggesting that Obama might want to lower his sights a bit. It would be a big enough achievement to move the country's race relations to the point where we could talk openly and honestly about race.

But it is a leap to think you can do that AND simultaneously achieve unity.

Politics is about choices. And now that race is on the table and Obama is seeking to change our race relations he has to abandon the rhetoric of serving as a unifier.

If he tries to do both he'll end up doing neither. We won't have unity and we won't have an honest debate about race.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Having staunchly and vocally opposed Obama for months before endorsing him just this week, I'm certainly no fanatical Obama supporter. But while I agree with your assertion that we're not fundamentally unified (and certainly that Obama errs in invoking rhetoric originally used to exclude people), I don't agree that we should just accept that. Obviously there are things that seem impossible to change but can't just be accepted -- global warming, for instance. Obama's insight is to suggest that our cultural predicament is in no less need of being changed than our climate predicament. That's what he means when he talks about "the fierce urgency of now."

My objection to Obama is that I wish he'd be more focused on changing our political realities (corruption, etc.), which is his job, than on changing our cultural realities, something he is not in a particularly strong position to do. But I do commend him for being willing, as Bobby Kennedy (and George Bernard Shaw) put it, to "dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'". You seem to be suggesting our Presidents should focus on the art of the possible, and I can't agree with that -- Presidents are almost uniquely situated to change what is possible, and if they don't do it, nobody will. Obama gets that, even if he doesn't want to change what I want him to.