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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Understanding, But Not Understanding, Obama (and Black America):

(The recent events in Missouri and the general naiveté of “white America” encouraged me to reprise this essay written in March 2011. Nothing has been changed from that earlier rendering, but the contextual emphasis is less on Obama and more on the nature of the Black Experience.)

There are many issues this spring leafing out on that tree!  They have to do with ambition – something that his peers fully understand and others might have hints of.  They have to do with raw talent and capacity – something beyond most of his peers, supporters and detractors.  They have to do with the gauss count of his moral compass – a very difficult quantity to measure.  And they have to do with his worldview – since this is the most difficult and ambiguous, it is one that I will write about.

Understanding of such complexities begins at home. A simple man will find it impossible to understand a complicated one (without help); a computer is not repaired with a hammer and chisel.  A good bit of the difficulty in understanding Obama arises from this fact.

In part because I grew up in a clash of cultures, in a house of secrets, in a town of secrets, in a land of secrets I became what might be called socially hypervigilant.  And it is hypervigilance [1] that I see in Obama as one of the main principles that serves up his experiences.  It becomes so natural, so ordinary, that one forgets that everyone doesn’t experience in the same way.

As I understand Obama’s history he grew up as the outsider.  An American black kid in Indonesia, a black child in a white family and a ‘regular’ black guy in American society.  While much of that history is not in my experience, I have watched, with my own version of hypervigilance, blacks in American society; paying vigilant attention at remarkably high levels is required.  As a metaphor, think of most people only needing and being able to see and respond to four colors, and most minority people being required to see a million colors and to make importantly difference responses to those colors and their various combinations.   They also learn quickly not to try to explain that world to the color blind and color challenged.

In my experience of the American south, blacks must not only be acutely aware of what is happening around them, they most also seem unaware and disinterested in exactly the right amounts.  The perceptual acuity and concentration required are enormous.  The dominant society has its 4 color prescription for the acceptable behaviors of minorities which is mindlessly and ruthlessly enforced.

Obama has to be a master of these skills.  He has always been, I would guess from his first real sentience, a seeker of the way; building a body of skills and habits within which he was safe, or safer than without them, and with which he quickly discovered he could control his world.  One price is that not one person in a thousand (or more) can see the world as he sees it. 

This makes him dangerous as the most important man in the world.  No matter what he tells us, it is not the truth; we can’t possibly see his real truth, and, possibly we “can’t handle the truth” should we see it through his eyes.  But is he more dangerous than the 4 color seers who defile him or those who would replace him?  Almost certainly not.  When Obama is not ‘telling the truth,’ it is often because what he has to say is so difficult to translate into communicable form; the others are just lying [2].

I believe that there are lots of black folks in the US who understand this, but they won’t tell – the unaware and disinterested rule, remember.

Up to this point I have been operating on the assumption that Obama is an honest man; here is where it gets dicey.   Knowing how to read and understand him would be difficult enough were he completely honest, but if he is dishonest like (almost) all the rest of the political world, then where are we?  Then we have a president who is a master at seeing the subtle hues of all the colors, understands their nuance and is willing to lie about their meaning for his own advantage.

People like McCain, Huckabee, Barbour, Bachman, Gingrich, Palin and Romney tell such transparent lies that all but their sycophantic followers are embarrassed for them.  Just a little learning and their 4 color world begins to look colorless and empty of useful solutions.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that they can’t get into positions of power and cause a lot of trouble by applying simplistic, self-serving notions to complex problems, but it does mean that we can watch in informed horror as they do it.

Obama is another story.  What seems a lie may be the truth.  What seems distance and disinterest may hide the closest attention.  What seems concern and engagement may be pro forma sidestepping.  If I am right, Rooseveltian resolve is as foreign to Obama’s deepest comprehensions of how to think and act as the rainforest is to the desert.  And yet, I think that Obama might be trying to be the more honest man.  He farms out his administration’s dishonesty to his staff and cabinet.  Roosevelt did the opposite; he could lie easily and so keep around him some number of people with moral wisdom exceeding his own.  If this is so, then we might understand the meaning of Obama’s choices for retainers in a new light.

Some people seem to disclose themselves completely in their public selves.  Others have a public persona that is accepted as fully adequate, though not exhaustive of the person.  Some seem understandable, but not especially transparent.  And yet others present a public exterior that not only hides, but is intended to hide the machinations of the person beneath.  There is a fifth category much more complex, people who deflect personal evaluation and press their designs for action onto the ‘natural’ behaviors of others.  The socially hypervigilant person often finds this a comfortable way to function; and they can, if they are smart enough, stay in control of the vast amounts of information needed – up to a point.

I have been befuddled and outraged at many of Obama’s choices of people to serve among his minions, not the least by Emanuel, Summers, Geithner and Gates.  These men are self-serving functionaries devoid of human feeling compared to a Frances Perkins or Eleanor Roosevelt, devoid of the capacity to inform a president of the order of magnitude difference between operating the levers of power and the humanity that must be vested in a leader of living, breathing men, women and children.  And I continue to be deeply troubled by adding Daley and Sperling to the mix.

But these are people that can be read like a children’s book.  They have a one dimensional presented nature; like tools: a hammer for this, a saw for that.  They are the people a hypervigilant would select.  Hilary Clinton is the most complex person in the upper reaches of the administration, though she knows how to deal with people like Obama and Bill Clinton; she was a safe choice.

There has been a great deal of confusion about Obama among the people who are his natural supporters; is he a liberal?  Is he a good man playing with bad people?  Is he a bad man playing with good people?  Is he playing chess with conservative checker players? Or my question, is he playing chess with progressive checker players?  It just might be that he is playing chess with everyone – all the time.

Ultimately, I don’t think that we can know.  I don’t think that we will ever know for sure, will not even be able to finally measure the man against the actual results of his administration.  It is almost impossible for it to have been otherwise.  The first black man elected president would almost have to be a question wrapped in an enigma.

Obama is probably the most dangerous president we have had since FDR – dangerous in the sense of being president at a time when great damage can be done to democratic governance – and is, like FDR, among the presidents most unlikely to seek to do the nation ill; his capacity to protect the nation is another matter.  But the nation will be changed dramatically and forever by the events that occur during his presidency.  And it is almost a certainty that Obama, the man, will never be clearly seen with his hand on the guiding controls of national power.  And no, this is not a good thing, but it may well be in the nature of the man to watch us all very closely and try to stay a step ahead of our actually understanding him [3].

[1] I am using the term hypervigilance in a somewhat, though not completely, different way than it is used in psychological diagnosis as part of PTSD.  I am surmising a social, systemic form of vigilance that is extreme and integrated into a complete behavioral system appropriate to circumstances; it is generally explained in the text of the essay.  Here is another example: where I grew up there were more rattlesnakes and water moccasins than almost any other place in the country.  Children learned to look very closely when walking or even opening a door to the outside since there were often rattlers on the cement porches warming in the morning sun or gathering warmth in the evening – the stories I could tell!  To this day I do not step over a log or a rock or otherwise put my foot down without checking around it.  I even notice a little twinge stepping around a blind corner inside buildings.  To some extent my minor obsession with visual pattern recognition might be related to the adaptive ‘hypervigilance’ appropriate to walking around on the central Florida Gulf coast palmetto fields and mangrove swamps.

[2] 4 color seers, of course, cannot recognize the difference.  Complexity for them is always a lie and the inherent dishonesty of simplicity is their truth.  This is a deep problem for the species as we find ourselves confronting a complex reality and needing understanding beyond our present habits of adequacy.

[3] Check my essay Obama Is No Country Song written right after he was elected.