African American President, Barack Obama, Black footballers, Bobby Zamora, CSKA Moscow, Dennis Haysbert, Detroit, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, Judith Butler, Kelso Cochrane, multiculturalism, Oval Office, politics, post-racial, racism in football, War on Terror
When the ball hits the net it’s fired from a jet, that’s Zamora
When you’re sat in row Z and the ball hits your head, that’s Zamora…
Not long after Barack Obama became the first black (ok, I know, I know, but let’s not quibble for today at least) president of the USA, respected American philosopher and social theorist, Judith Butler, pointed out that, much like the love/hate relationship and affectionate ribbing between long suffering West Ham fans and former striker, Bobby Zamora, ‘new configurations of political belief make it possible to hold apparently discrepant views at the same time without having to resolve them.’
To illustrate her point, she focused on how the California electorate had both managed to approve onto its statute books the anti-legalization of gay marriage and vote for the ostensibly ‘progressive’ presidential candidate, Obama, in large numbers, such that the Democrats were able to comfortably secure that state on their way to the White House. Actually that’s not strictly true. In fairness to Professor Butler, she never mentioned Bobby Zamora or West Ham, but really, when you think about it, it’s not that much of a stretch from row Z to the Oval Office. And that’s without even getting into all those durable whispers about Obama the Hammer.
But her wider point still stands, and whilst it might have grated on some ears in the heady aftermath of that first election triumph, its underlying wisdom appears to have been borne out by so much of what has followed – the ongoing sagas of Gitmo, Drones, Wall St over Main St to name but a few.
She warned of the dangers of ‘uncritical exuberance’ replacing critical enquiry as the cornerstone of a progressive politics, and of the heavy price that would be paid by both electorate and appointed ‘messiah’ should this disavowal of autonomous critique hold sway. With forensic clarity, and as it turns out no little prescience, she foresaw how the messiah would be scorned as a false prophet:
‘If the initial expectation is that he is and will be “redemption” itself, then we will punish him mercilessly when he fails us (or find ways to deny or suppress that disappointment in order to keep alive the experience of unity and unambivalent love.)’
Still, even amidst the wreckage of bank bailouts, federal shutdowns and ongoing ‘wars on terror’, the question persists: what measure of disillusion is necessary in order to retrieve a critical politics? And while monochrome responses might be attractive in their therapeutic simplicity, perhaps they aren’t really the salve we ought to be reaching for right now.
Obama’s mixed heritage-as-metaphor and fluency in several vernacular codes – those on Capitol Hill and in the high analytics of the ivory tower as much as the symbolic expression of black, middle-class life – should have already hipped us to the chameleonic quality of his uptake by the wider electorate. Indeed, the view from highbrow seems to be that ‘he’s operating outside the precincts of black America.’ (Tea Party crazies and Donald Trump of course go much further, insisting that the erudite ‘leader of the free world’ is in fact a foreign born electoral fraud with a latent Islamic agenda.) But even to those who initially hailed him a hero, it rapidly became clear that Obama represented something more complicated, troubling even, than the much heralded triumph of ‘post-racial’ coalition politics.
Then again, it’s also true that pop culture got there first in its distillation of white anxiety and imputed black power, with all the attendant feelings of yearning and confusion, euphoria and regret. Think Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact or Dennis Haysbert in 24. Long before the California electorate, it was pop culture which was able to conceive of a black president as a casting choice rather than a fantastical premise.
And it’s not even clear what those aforementioned ‘precincts’ are any more as they apply to black America, beyond an amorphous cloud of desire, destitution and more often than not, Detroit (latterly B’more, but either way the triptych remains intact.)
For all the impassioned pleas of HBO drama and a certain strand of sociology, we’d most of us struggle to name a contemporary ‘blackness’ functioning beyond the ken or material orbit of the mainstream. Or, say it quietly, which operates beyond the employ (as both useful alibi and organic exemplar of ‘pluralism’) of the mainstream. So that really what we’re left with is just a macro retread of that old racist default, ‘some of my best friends are…’
Applying this logic, the one which says that blackness per se only truly functions as serviceable commodity in this zeitgeist, perhaps we’d be better off viewing those ‘wars on terror’ and their key protagonist, the US military/industrial complex, as a prototypical, state of the art multiculturalism. A blueprint for all our cosmopolitan futures…
…Black and white, male and female ‘grunts’ under primarily white command, but with a nominally ‘black’ Commander-in-Chief, presumably used as the shock troops of neoliberalism in a war against the ‘premodern’. The war machine itself as multi-ethnic battering ram – a veritable smorgasbord of the ‘underclass’ – to prise open the door to all that Oil; to engineer the pretext for all those reconstruction contracts. And on the other side, the equally syncretic ‘soldiers of god’ whose notion of medieval theocracy nonetheless does not preclude a certain cosmopolitanism-in-action. Hence the ranks of the holy warriors swelled by recruits from all over the globe willing to set aside the petty considerations of race, class or nation in their zealous dreams of the Caliphate.
And if all that doesn’t tell you just how messed up things are, then maybe there truly is bliss in a particular kind of ignorance.
Of course the most damning forms of laziness are the ones which see this type of issue in exclusively ‘national’ terms, as if the fuckries of race, desire and abjection miraculously disappear once the white cliffs or any other boundary markers hove into view. Hence all those snide voices ever swift to condemn the misdemeanours of ‘elsewhere’, while retaining the self-same instincts that they’re decrying closer to home. ‘But that’s the States (or whichever country happens to be in question) – you know what they’re like over there.’ The ‘they shoot horses, don’t they’ school-of-thought which nonetheless manages to overlook a history (much of it ‘over there’ but plenty over here too, and effectively when one was in any case a designated extension of the other) long predating the sad fates of Kelso Cochrane or Gurdip Singh Chaggar or any number of more recently recorded outrages permeating the heartlands.
In a curious paradox, too, the ubiquity of ‘urban’ (read ‘black’) influences on vernacular culture or even the reassuring presence of ‘plurality’ at the newsdesk, or especially on the field of sporting combat, has made it far tougher for charges of ‘racism’ to stick to the frequently smug profile of this zeitgeist. Just scan the comments’ thread of any major newspaper to sample the outrage regularly expressed by all shades of political opinion at the mere suggestion that elements of national life may be rife with racial prejudice. Be it social policy or what happens on the football pitch, the implication is clear: we are comfortable in our cosmopolitanism and resent any allegation to the contrary. In fact the logic of manufactured outrage goes further, insisting that we’d be far better served focusing on the flourishing presence of high profile footballers and athletes (and newsreaders) in the mature realm of our public culture rather than on any peripheral abuse that they may claim to have suffered on their meteoric rise to the top. Besides, our cities, London in particular, enjoy global renown as tolerant, open places to live and work; and whatever else the doom-mongers, or recent memory might say, Chelsea, even with the Russian connection, is no CSKA Moscow. That’s not who we are. We, after all, are family.
Let’s be clear though. On what city chronicler, John Rogers, might have described as a ‘collars-up’ London evening, this isn’t about finger pointing. It’s about trying to understand why racism and seamlessly cosmopolitan vernacular culture can walk hand in hand, often in the same mind.
Black presidents, black mates, black footballers, multicultural mujahedeen, none of this really matters. You can have all of the above, or be all of the above, and still be a warmonger, or bigot, stooge or soldier. The chances are that you will have learned the hallowed language of ‘the institution’ or those other, non-secular sacred texts, risen through the ranks, maybe even become the Commander-in-Chief. And the truth is, beyond the release of those first few endorphins, the giddiness which evidently accompanies the power, or at least its presumption, that you ain’t really about shit. Still just the stooge, albeit a smart one, but a stooge nonetheless. It demeans all of us to join in a cheerleading exercise for such totemism, craving a redemption that can never come for as long as we remain obscenely grateful for so little. Surely we’re capable of something better than that?