On critiquing Barack Obama

A few months ago I listened to a talk by Applied Research Center’s Rinku Sen at the “Facing Race” conference in Oakland. Sen placed reactions to Obama’s presidency from the left in two camps, those who feel as though nothing has(will) change and those who feel like everything has(will) change. She rightly surmised that neither of these camps are living in reality. The almost sycophantic worship of Obama is as highly problematic and counterproductive as the obsessive hate directed at him.

Criticizing the masses of black people that may show support for Obama is both strategically flawed and border-line elitist. If we desire truly to engage with our people on an honest philosophical disagreement, we’ll get no where by leading with a total dismissal of their actions. We should practice loving struggle with folks in our communities we may have disagreement with and open ourselves to learn from them. If it’s a shift in policy that we desire, we should focus on the individual that holds the institutional power, not the people that may support the policy. It serves us better to focus our critiques on Obama.

I’d like to present a strategy for critiquing Obama that doesn’t fall neatly into these two frames. By positing in the beginning of an investigation, the conclusion that Barack Obama is a Messiah, or on the other side Black Hitler, is intellectually crippling and ultimately counterproductive. Framing Obama in these stark terms diminishes the value of the actual deeds of the icon (christ/hitler) as well as the central trust of one’s thesis.

The following is my attempt at a basic methodology for critiquing Obama, and other figures.

1. Reject false binaries.
If you start off with the premise that Obama is the Messiah you will cherry pick information to reinforce that narrative. Most things worth considering rarely are black and white.

2. Identify which Obama you’re critiquing.
Obama occupies many strata of the worldwide consciousness and plays many concurrent roles. A healthy critique of Obama should be specific to a clearly defined role or set of roles. Are we critiquing Obama the cultural icon? Obama the political actor? Obama as a civil rights leader? Obama as an American president? As a black leader? As a father? As a rhetorician.

3. Consider the utility of your critique.
My bias when it comes to intellectual discourse is always towards its utility to people on the ground. Folks that work to improve their communities may need analysis to inform their action. Everybody doesn’t have the time, space, or resources to engage in the analysis to develop a cogent and honest critique of the Presidents decisions in real time. I believe that those that do engage in such analysis should consider others in the movement that needs their work. Our analysis can help a brother or sister in their effort to build community or create alternatives. If we at least consider them we can avoid jumping into the abyss of intellectual masturbation and academic one-upmanship.