Obama’s cynical analysis of youth activism was yet another dog whistle to the wealthiest and most conservative sections of white America.
Hillary Clinton is not the only servant for the lords of capital in the Democratic Party that won’t go away. Former president Barack Obama has raked in millions from speaking deals with Wall Street and one of the highest grossing book deals in U.S. history. Obama also erected his own foundation in 2014 from which to gentrify Chicago and cement his thoroughly reactionary imperial legacy. The Obama legacy was on full display at the foundation’s annual summit held in Chicago this October. During the event, Obama provided plenty of savory soundbites for his wealthy friends and donors to drool over.
Obama specifically targeted “call out culture” in his conversation with summit attendees. He reprimanded young activists for being so judgmental of others and told them to get over their “wokeness.” Obama denied that correcting a person for using the wrong pronoun is activism at all because it produces no real change. The tendency to “call out” others, according to Obama, resides principally on college campuses and on social media. In these settings, activists appear not to understand that “the world is messy, there are ambiguities, and people who do really good stuff have flaws.”
Obama’s cynical analysis of youth activism was yet another dog whistle to the wealthiest and most conservative sections of white America. His first dog whistle to racist elites occurred during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was here that then Senator of Illinois, Barack Obama, proclaimed in his keynote address that “there is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America or an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” This speech propelled Obama into Democratic Party stardom and paved the way for several more dog whistles to white America. Obama soothed white America’s fear of a Black president by calling Black men irresponsible “boys” at a Black church on Father’s Day in 2008. Five years later, Obama demanded that Black men take more responsibility for their oppressed condition in a commencement speech at Morehouse College in 2013.
Ironically, Barack Obama’s presidential career was uplifted by the very same “call out culture” that he derided at the Obama Summit. While Obama chastised Black America and served the rich, his most loyal supporters fostered a political environment hostile to criticism of his policy record. A host of Black misleaders were given comfortable careers in the corporate media to slander any leftist critique of Obama’s corporate rule. People like Melissa Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson avoided all left criticism of Obama in favor of lauding his presidency for its symbolic importance to “blackness.” The Black misleadership class and its white liberal followers never missed a moment to “call out” those who questioned whether policy should take precedence over symbolism.
Barack Obama is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of “call out culture” outside of the lords of capital who hired him. What Obama refers to as “call out culture” is a bourgeois phenomenon rooted in the repression of revolutionary politics, especially Black left politics. The U.S.’ counterinsurgency war against the communist and Black self-determinationist movements of the 20th century ensured that the period of U.S. imperial decline beginning in the 1970s would embolden the rich to eviscerate any and all gains made by workers in the decades prior. Neoliberal austerity, privatization, and monopolization drowned the United States in a sea of counterrevolutionary political ideology. “Call out culture” commodified movement culture and channeled activists into profitable modes of expression that promoted individual recognition, academic prestige, and careerism rather than the plight of the poor, especially the Black poor.
Obama is the enemy of the left and is incapable of grasping what Huey Newton expressed in 1970 when he penned his infamous letter of solidarity to the gay and women’s liberation movements. True revolutionaries understand the importance of solidarity with all peoples and experiencing oppression. While there is no space in a revolutionary mass movement for activists who seek to “cancel” and condemn oppressed people for their lack of “purity,” there is also no space for those who fail to scientifically investigate and unite with the suffering of various strata of the population. Movements must be aware of the internal contradictions within their organizations and society at large to meet the many challenges that come their way. Failure to act on these contradictions gives credence to academics and corporate political operatives like Obama who seek to “diversify” a violent empire and make its state apparatus an even more effective instrument of imperialist violence and exploitation.
“Corporate political operatives like Obama seek to ‘diversify’ a violent empire.”
As I wrote for Black Agenda Report in 2016, Obama’s legacy is in large part shaped by a mastery of counterinsurgency warfare. His recent slandering of millennial activists fits snugly within this legacy. While appearing to castigate the very political environment that elevated him beyond criticism for eight years, Obama was really taking aim at the increasingly left posture of millennials. The “Bernie or bust” movement is worrisome to a ruling class that has utilized the counterinsurgency skills of Barack Obama to engineer massive profits from endless war and austerity. “Wokeness” and “purity” must be shot down by Obama because it threatens the legitimacy of political class actors like him who expect to be praised for their intelligent leadership over the great race to the bottom.
Barack Obama takes great pride in his impurity. Obama was elected in 2008 to bring “hope” and “change” to the masses, only to escalate and add to every single ill of end-stage U.S. imperialism. Under his administration, whistleblowers were prosecuted under the Espionage Act in record numbers, Black wealth plummeted, bankers ran away with trillions worth in bailout rescue funds, and the military industrial complex expanded its special operations to engulf 70 percent of the world’s nations in a regime of endless chaos. In many ways, Obama’s presidency was the biggest lie in the history of an empire built on grand lies of democracy, liberty, and freedom. As he successfully posed as the “lesser evil,” Obama was hard at work instituting a permanent private healthcare system (the Affordable Care Act), murdering thousands of people by way of drone strike , and militarizing the African continent through AFRICOM to ensure the instability required for Western corporations to plunder the continent of its vast wealth.
“’Wokeness’ and ‘purity’ must be shot down by Obama because it threatens the legitimacy of political class actors like him.”
While Obama succeeded in ramming through the ruling class’ agenda, he also helped engineer the political crisis which paved the way for the rise of Bernie Sanders. Millennials have mobilized in the millions to elect a president that will bring them Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and living wages. They are no longer interested in politicians like Obama who claim to be a “lesser evil” choice to the Republicans only to implement a more effective Wall Street agenda that renders ninety percent of all new jobs low-wage or temporary. The “purity” of the Sandernista’s principles is a sign to Obama and his class that Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg are unlikely to garner any support from Sanders’ large millennial base. It should come as no surprise, then, that Obama feels compelled to condemn the political leanings of young people as an affront to his sordid legacy.
Obama benefited from the proliferation of call out culture so much that he has no shame in telling its most loyal adherents to “shut up and dribble” into the embrace of the Democratic Party. Neither Obama nor the rest of the corporate Democratic Party has anything to offer except the so-called civility and respectability that characterizes their approach to imperial rule. Obama is aware of who he works for and what will keep him well-paid now that his presidential career has ended. Like Hillary Clinton, Obama has quickly become a pundit for Wall Street and its paid killers in the war machine. His most recent comments offer further evidence of the desperate need for a mass exit from the Democratic Party. Of course, no mass exodus from the Democratic Party is possible prior to a popular repudiation of Obama’s legacy and all the imperial arrogance and destruction that comes with it.