There is the image and then there is the reality of things. More often than not the two are in some opposition to each other. This is no more true than in the case of bourgeois politics. When I want the image of things I watch the NewsHour on PBS or, rarely, the Sunday morning network wanks. PBS has the attraction of being utterly conscious of setting the parameters of acceptable debate and of “agreed upon” history. Ken Burns being only the most arrant example. That acceptable debate is, of course, the liberal-conservative dichotomy (in the American sense of those terms). But PBS, contrary to some on the right, doesn’t do liberal well; it’s too culturally stodgy for a start. Their nostalgia shows about the 60s star the Kingsmen for god’s sake.
No, for the left of the acceptable dial I go over to the Huffington Post and wade through the TnA to watch clips of the Daily Show and read the night-terrors of liberals. I suggest that it says something pretty profound about the culture of the Late-Imperial United States when Arianna Huffington, a card-carrying member of the Beverly Hills elite, is passed off as someone who “speaks truth to power”. It’s hard for me to take someone seriously when I am constantly mistaking them for Zsa Zsa Gabor. Dawling.
The conflict between image and reality took on epic proportions during the last election cycle. Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency was followed every step of the way by wonks writing about the symbolism of the historic change represented by a black man, with a decidedly foreign sounding name no less, sauntering to the White House. But there was a lot more symbolism embodied in Obama than just that. Far from being the herald of a “post-racial” America, Obama represents an elaboration of racial politics, not its denial. Obama’s personal, and carefully presented, history is testimony to that. Isn’t it just as symbolic that the first black man to win the highest office in the land was not a descendant of slaves?
The packaging of candidate Obama as the harbinger of change was a very different proposition than presenting him as bringer of reform. Reform, aside from the necessary health care pledge (and we see how well that’s turned out), wasn’t promised by Obama. Why? Well, to start with Obama’s politics of triangulation are thoroughly “post-reform.” I think of him speaking in Denver, standing in front of those theater-prop Roman columns; his real promise was to the ruling class. “I will be a better steward of the system.” If you thought Obama was going to bring change rather than simply be a change than you weren’t listening.
Paul Street was listening. No other writer on the political scene has spilled more cyber ink trying to scrape away the bullshit that embodied Obama’s rise than Paul Street and it is to him that the Rustbelt bestows the highly coveted 2009 Teller-of-Truths Award.
Street has written for years on class, race and history, much of it with a focus on Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago. He is also an activist, and this activism informs all of his writing. Street first started analyzing the Obama phenomenon before the primaries opened (Why I’ve Focused on Obama) and his writings will, in the hope of this blog, be an invaluable chronicle of that period for historians and activists. Better than that, for us now, he continues to expose the class and imperial character of the present administration at a level that few writers today are achieving (Street on Obama’s Nobel Prize speech).
For many progressives, Paul seemed a stodgy leftist unwilling to accept the zeitgeist of the moment. A naysayer and a denier of the “seismic shift” represented by Obama in the American cultural landscape who challenged “progressives” and leftist hopes in Obama (See Obama And The Left). However, his understanding of racial politics was a lot more profound than his detractors (Street’s Because He’s Black). Other writers, even leftist writers, were blinded by a symbolism that Paul’s keen understanding of capitalism, the reality behind the apologue, allowed him to deconstruct. Read those angry liberals at the Huffington Post and then read Street (No Left Excuses For Obama); the gap is almost embarrassing. His quest for the truth, to expose the reality behind the image, seemed Quixotesque in those heady days of hope. With each passing day Street’s analysis is confirmed.
Street’s output puts most other writers to shame; not just in the volume but in depth as well. His articles are almost always thoroughly researched; every i dotted, t crossed and enough footnotes to send you off in a thousands different directions should you choose. He doesn’t just tell the truth; he names the facts, he names the system. Street starts with an understanding of capitalism and the role of bourgeois politics within it (Obama: Ruling Class Candidate).
When, in the depths of Obamania, and I felt like I lived in a different reality, it was Street’s articles that illuminated the moment and assured me that I wasn’t crazy for not “getting it.” Even while I do not always agree with Paul, and sometimes slightly more than a little, navigating the rise of Obama without the aid of his articles would have been so much the harder. It is because I occasionally disagreed with him and he was so clearly on the side I felt, but couldn’t fully articulate, that he’s been so valuable to me coming to terms with what has happened over the last years. What the symbolism of Obama represents and what it doesn’t, and more than that, the real role of the (as projected) New Face of the American Empire. He enriched, more than any other single writer, the whole discussion in the left around Obama.
If anyone has the right to hire a plane and fly an “I Told You So” banner it’s Paul Street, but he is too serious a writer for that. Paul Street continues to expose the truth, dispel the myths, analyze the symbolism and point another way forward. In a period that saw so much confusion we all owe Street a debt for speaking truth to power and telling it like it is.
The bath soaps and fruit basket normally awarded to winners of this prestigious accolade have been waived this year due to the recession. However, Paul can accept History’s Vindication at a time of his convenience.
Paul Street’s massive corpus can be accessed at Znet here.