Juan Cole: The First Web 2.0 President?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

The NYT leads this morning with "Obama Claims Nomination; First Black Candidate to Lead a Major Party Ticket." You can see from my headline that I put a different emphasis. I'm not one of those politically correct, color-blind people who finds it indelicate to mention race or ethnicity. I think those categories are largely socially constructed, but I don't deny that once they have been constructed, they have social and political significance. US urban politics can't possibly be understood without reference to communities-- WASPs, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans (in Detroit, Arab-Americans), etc.

But all that said, I don't think Obama's being Black is the thing I would put into the headline. Opinion polling at the beginning of his campaign did not show that most self-identified"whites" even saw him as Black. Initially a lot of African-Americans had their doubts, too. His mother's family is white Kansans and his early life experience was Hawaii. He first made a big splash in Iowa among white progressives, independents and younger voters, and African-Americans did not swing away from Clinton toward him until later in the campaign.

I would suggest that Obama is 'metro-racial,' by which I mean Americans of mixed and ambiguous ethnic ancestry. Of course, most Americans fit into that category, but in the older generation they were typically just coded as 'white.' Among the post-1965 generations of Americans, people often conceive of themselves differently. 1965 is significant in two ways, as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and as the year when Congress finally showed some shame about the 1924 racist immigration laws that allotted big annual quotas to northern European Protestant countries and limited everyone else. Instead, every country in the world was given an upward limit of 25,000 ordinary immigrants. And then the Africans, Latinos (many of them actually Mayans & etc.), Arabs, and Asians came. And they often intermarried, both with already-constituted ethnic groups in the US, and with each other. That's Obama's family.

In short, Obama is more Tiger Woods, Vin Diesel, the Rock, Kelly Hu (another Hawaiian) and Keanu Reeves than he is a traditional African-American community leader. He is eloquent about how his grandfather's experience of British colonialism in Kenya, where he was called 'boy,' articulates with the African-American experience. But that he has to frame things in this way already tells you something. In fact, Hawaii is a major unacknowledged site of metro-racialism, with large numbers of persons of Filipino, Japanese and other Asian heritage and a high rate of intermarriage. In the 1950s and 1960s I think mixed-race couples sometimes even moved there from the mainland because it was comfortable in that regard. Maybe the NYT should have headline 'the first Hawaiian Candidate'.

Of course, there are enormous anxieties in segments of the US population around the post-1965 wave of immigration, half of which has been Latino, and which is enormous--typically a million persons have come in legally every year since then. I think 'Arab' and 'Islam' as categories are often used to symbolize those anxieties about the advent of Africans, Asians and others as major new ethnicities. I.e. 'Islam' is to the early 21st century what"Nihilism" or socialism was to the early 20th century, when there were all those anxieties about Italians and Jews. It was therefore foreseeable that Obama's opponents would attempt to blunt the appeal of his metro-racialism by attempting to raise anxieties about any Muslim connection. But I think Obama's potential symbology as the candidate of the new, post-1965 American multiculturalism is why the Latinos will very likely swing behind him. If he can get 70% of the Latino vote, I think McCain loses.

In fact, it is obvious that older voters who came of age before the 1965 Immigration Act, before the new multicultural America, often don't get it. They, and rural southern whites who have a binary view of race because of how they produced and reproduced race in their local politics. And then apparently the New York Times is the other segment of society that doesn't get it. That one, I don't quite understand.

I think it is more significant that Obama is the first major party candidate for president who got where he is through the current iteration of the World Wide Web, which includes the blogging world, distributed information networks, social networking, and video sites such as YouTube (i.e. Web 2.0). That is, the Iowa breakthrough was iconic of Obama's success, because youth, progressivism, metro-racialism and independent politics are all tightly interwoven with Web 2.0.

Ironically, Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 was the first to use email extensively to shape the news cycle and contact supporters, but Hillary Clinton's people did not seem as good (or maybe as interested) in being on the vanguard of communications technology.

Among the more important capabilities bestowed by the Web 2.0 has been a new model of grassroots fundraising. American politics had been dominated by rich old cranky white people, because they had the money and they voted. They gave us all those Republican administrations and they shaped the Clinton administration as essentially neo-Eisenhowerism. Obama really does have an opportunity to accomplish some new things in American politics, and to avoid slavish adherence to Lobby politics, precisely because he has a different economic base. People younger than 65, and people for whom certain racial categories are not the most important thing in the world, might finally have a voice. In the past, the promise of the youth vote has always faltered when it comes to the November elections. If people in their 20s, 30s and 40s really want change (and with Iraq, the economy, etc., why would they not?) they have to go on organizing, canvassing, giving and above all voting. It is in your hands, O Generation of Web 2.0.

Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)

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