“HOLLER IF YOU HEAR ME”


Just finished Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac book Holler If You Hear Me. As in his book on MLK, Dyson draws out radical intentions and implications of his subject’s work, wrestles with the problematics of his life, and considers what the mythology that’s developed since his death says about the culture around him. The discussion of Tupac’s relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur, brings together several threads of the book: the contradictory meanings of black masculinity in Tupac’s work and his thinking; the currents of rage, indictment, forgiveness, and affirmation in his music; the personal as political; the relationship between the ’60s Black Panther generation and the next one. If anything, the book suffers from Dyson’s tendency to over-explain the significance of each sentence from Tupac. Good read, and I learned a lot from it.

One passage of interest:
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ANDREW BREITBART: NOT CONTROVERSIAL

From Andrew Breitbart’s attack on Congressional Democrats for walking outdoors:

The first sign that a plan was in place was the ham-fisted, high-camp posturing of the most controversial members of the Democratic caucus walking through the peaceful but animated “Tea Party” demonstrators on Capitol Hill. There is no reason for these elected officials to walk above ground through the media circus amid their ideological foes. The natural route is the tunnels between the House office buildings and the Capitol. By crafting a highly symbolic walk of the Congressional Black Caucus through the majority white crowd, the Democratic Party was looking to provoke a negative reaction.

Emphasis mine, because Breitbart’s use of the word “controversial” as a stand-in for “Black” pretty much tells you all you need to know about Breitbart and the right-wing drive to blame Black and gay congressmembers for going where angry White people could see them.

(This is the same school of thought in which “carefree” kids are ones who aren’t gay and don’t know about anyone that is)

Unless we’re supposed to believe that two-term Rep. Andre Carson became on of “the most controversial” Democrats based on the content of his character.

FIVE MOST MISOGYNIST SUPERBOWL ADS NOT FEATURING TIM TEBOW

“Honorable” Mention: Dove: Men + Care – This one got edged (barely) out of the misogyny top 5 because instead of going full-on essentialist it acknowledges that guys suffer from being socialized not to show the “sensitive side.” But you’ve still got the man saving the family from a bad tire while his ungrateful wife waits in the car – and the general “Life is harder cause you’re a man, but you triumph cause you’re a man” shtick.

#5: Dockers: Men Without Pants – What’s become of our society? If the men don’t “wear the pants” are we doomed to wander the fields forever? Have the trappings of modern civilization collapsed because of insufficiently dominant men, or have they just been abandoned?

#4: Mars’ Snickers: You’re Not You When You’re Hungry – Hunger makes young men play sports like old women. Get it?

#3: Bridgestone: Your Tires or Your Life – This time the wife gets thrown out of the car as bad-guy-bait so our protagonist can save his tires. “Man’s best friend” etc.

#2: FloTV: Injury Report – Like the pantless guys in the field, without the subtlety. A man who fails to boss his woman around enough might as well be wounded, or a woman (same thing?). Like the Moynihan Report, just less racist and more homophobic.

#1: Chrysler: Dodge Charger – The most interesting thing about this one is the way, like the Fight Club guy, it grafts a free spirit anti-corporate message onto a macho anti-woman one. Your wife is another boss, women crush men’s spirits etc. And don’t you want your wife to be civil to your mother?

POSITIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE

From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

More on MLK Day here.

JARRING

I think Matt Yglesias is going too easy on Harry Reid when he says

To clarify what I said yesterday it’s the very lack of having really done anything wrong that makes Reid’s situation to sticky. It’s just jarring for those of us under a certain age to think of an old white guy walking around saying “negro” and wielding political influence. But Reid can’t really apologize for being the sort of old white guy who would say that because he is, in fact, just such an old white guy. On the merits, the observation that it’s a political asset for Obama that he doesn’t speak in a manner that’s racially coded as black is pretty much banal conventional wisdom.

First, I’m sure are plenty of senior citizens, including African-Americans, who still find it jarring that the US Senate is run by a guy who uses the word “Negro” in conversation with journalists. Beyond that, I don’t think Matt believes that Harry Reid is just physically incapable of not saying Negro. I’m sure he’s done much harder things in thirty-some years in public life.

There’s a range of readings of what someone could mean by using the word “Negro” to describe the “dialect” Obama doesn’t use, from “the way Black people talk in my racist stereotype,” to “the way Black people talk in the minds of ignorant racists,” and I don’t know any way to discern exactly where Harry Reid’s intended meaning falls on the spectrum. But he was right to apologize.

That said, any comparison between Harry Reid’s comments about his support for a Black man for President and Trent Lott’s support for a White supremacist for President can only make Harry Reid look very, very good. And Republicans’ attempts to conflate the two just leave the impression that they never really understood what was wrong with what Trent Lott said in the first place. On this, I agree with Matt entirely.

LEAPING TO JUDGMENT?

Something else on Henry Louis Gates: It’s not surprising to see the congealing conventional wisdom that Barack Obama screwed up by saying anything about what the Cambridge Police did to him, but it’s disappointing that a number of pundits seem to think not just that it diluted Obama’s focus on healthcare, but that it’s categorically wrong for the President of the United States to take any position in such a situation. I think that position is easy to maintain if you start from the premise that it’s not clear who’s at fault – the premise for much of the media, and the premise Obama implicitly granted credence with the much-hyped Beer Summit. But it is clear that James Crowley was at fault in arresting a man in his own home for being rude to the police. It would still be wrong if it were a young Black man without a cane. It’s wrong regardless of what particular proportions of race, pride, and police authority motivated him to do it.

Was it wrong for our Head of State to come out so quickly in praise of Captain Sully for landing his crew safely in the Hudson river? If not, why shouldn’t he have said that what Crowley did to Gates was wrong?

30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS

Alyssa didn’t just respond to my criticism of 30 Rock’s racial humor, she responded with a level of detail and erudition about the show I will not attempt to match. Alyssa is right to say that the show can’t be judged fully on one episode, and I agree that some of the others do better on the topic. But I chose that one – “The Given Order” – because it was the moment in watching 30 Rock when I said to myself, “This is what’s so frustrating about this otherwise great show!” Her response didn’t fully salve my misgivings, either about that episode or about the show in general. Consider this a partial response.

Defending the episode in question, Alyssa says (emphasis added, Yglesias-style):

Seriously, dude? There is a serious and substantial debate over business functions held at strip clubs (tax-deductable according to the IRS, at least as of 2006. Woo!), whether women should feel obligated to attend, whether it’s sexual harrassment, and whether it’s a sign of empowerment (or of a pragmatic sucking it up) to be able to go on a guy’s-night-out events in order to ingratiate yourself in the workplace. I think mocking the self-deception of that latter motivation is pretty funny. There’s a huge difference between equal standards for work performance and rigid equal treatment-and-experience feminism that refuses to acknowledge sexism and different styles, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch that carried to slightly absurdist ends. But most importantly, the episode isn’t really about race! It’s about a famous person doing a non-famous person’s work, about someone who’s pretty quiet taking on the hard-partying identity that another person works to maintain. And ultimately, it’s about the fact that everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.

Alyssa seems to be making a few points here: first that the use of strip clubs for business functions is a real-life issue, second that feeling like you’re not a strong woman unless you go along to a strip club is problematic, and third that this episode “isn’t really about race!” I agree with those first two points, but I don’t see how they exonerate the episode. And I don’t see how this episode is not about race.

This is the episode where Tracy hands Liz a literal race card. Which could be funny in another context. But the context here is Tracy wanting to get away with being late to work and unreliable because he’s Black. The whole plot is borne out of Liz’s attempt to get Tracy to be more disciplined about his job. She tells him to show up to work on time and prepared, and he hands her the race card. Then he calls her a racist. Then – in a scheme to prove her wrong – he says since we’re in a post-racial Obama era, he doesn’t want any more special treatment. And the moral of the story is that Liz has to go back to letting him be unreliable because he’s Black if she wants to be excused from strip club outings because she’s a woman. So he gets his special treatment back.

Alyssa points out that Tracy is also a celebrity, and certainly I doubt that even in the 30 Rock universe we’re supposed to think that a working class Black guy could get away with Tracy’s shenanigans. But what Tracy the celebrity leverages over Liz for why she should fear holding him to the same standard as everyone else is his race (relatedly, I don’t think Tracy’s self-description in the pilot as “straight-up mentally ill” softens the racial angle of his plotlines). And he gets her to back down by ostensibly proving that staying out of strip clubs is also special treatment. That’s the message Alyssa describes as “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.” But being Black doesn’t make you come into work late, while being a woman does change your experience of a strip club – and of your co-workers in that environment. What if the episode were about a gay character whose Mexican co-worker equates making a Mexican work hard to making a gay man have sex with a woman? Would that be clever?

The “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege” argument in and of itself is logically undeniable. But in the world of 30 Rock, and on most TV sitcoms with mostly white casts, it tends to manifest as a series of scenarios of extortion of the majority by the minority. It bothers me that a show with writers as clever as 30 Rock so often choose to mine the vein of Black people (et al) getting away with stuff, and White people (et al) being burdened with the fear of seeming prejudiced. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember anything “utterly brilliant” about the episode with “Tracy’s business manager exploiting Liz’s fear of being perceived as racist to keep him dating her.” Didn’t that already happen on Seinfeld and Frasier? Ditto for the one where “Liz’s then-boyfriend Floyd loses a promotion to an African-American guy in a wheelchair.”

That’s why I was surprised to see Alyssa close by saying

But what I think 30 Rock does that is subversive and extremely effective is to puncture the idea that when it comes to race, good intentions will save us, that we can really understand what other people experience, and that race and sex can only be disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female. Is the show universally applicable? Of course not. This is a series about relatively wealthy, privileged people who work in an extraordinarily strange, distorting industry. But in 2009, are those truths that people have a hard time accepting? If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, I think they’ve demonstrated that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

I think there are ups and downs to emphasizing the limits of racial empathy. But what strikes me most is the last truth Alyssa lists. If a major thrust of 30 Rock’s humor on identity is demonstrating the advantages Blacks and women can get over Whites and men, that helps explain why I often find that humor annoying.

What confuses me most is why Alyssa would say that this truth – that “race and sex” are not just “disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female” – is one that “the last few weeks” have shown us “people have a hard time accepting.” What’s happened in the last few weeks?

The mainstream of the Republican party took the position that our first Latina Supreme Court nominee would favor women and people of color over White men and for that reason should not be confirmed. She was pilloried for supposedly having depended on affirmative action each step of her career and mainstream journalists stated as fact that she was chosen based on race and gender. Mark Halperin declared “White Men Need Not Apply” (to say nothing of Pat Buchannan). Her confirmation hearing and its coverage centered on whether or not this Latina woman could be fair to White men. Some left-of-center journalists joined conservatives in denouncing the injustice that White firefighters didn’t get a promotion because none of them were Black.

Meanwhile, a Black professor was arrested in his own home after showing ID for being “disorderly” in loudly questioning the police officer’s motives. The first Black President opined that making such an arrest was stupid. Much of the media questioned why the President was siding with the Black guy, forcing him to retrench. And the President and the Professor both were accused of using their power as Black guys to ruin the reputation of the White police officer.

(Meanwhile, on a lighter note, charges were traded regarding cinematic sexism by the star of a comedy where a woman is involuntarily brought to orgasm by electronic underwear in a business meeting, and the star of a comedy where a woman is raped while drunk enough to pass out.)

What about the events of these past weeks has shown Americans to be not willing enough to chalk things up to the advantages people get from being a woman or a person of color?

30 ROCK’S RACIAL HUMOR: NOT SO HOT

Somewhere in between catching up on Alyssa’s great (relatively) new blog and hearing that 30 Rock just got more Emmy nominations than anything ever, it occurred to me that among the proto-posts I’ve meant to write here is one disagreeing with Alyssa’s take that 30 Rock “has done a terrific job with ethnic humor”:

Ethnic humor is, I think, generally effective under a couple of fixed circumstances: a) when it comes from within the minority group being parodied, as with the best of Woody Allen and the Jews, b) it expresses something true that is difficult to say under polite or serious circumstances by carrying something far beyond its logical conclusion or realistic bounds, c) it subverts our expectations or understanding of the group in question, or of the teller. I think 30 Rock in particular has done a terrific job with ethnic humor, whether it’s Irish…or African-American (the running feud between Tracy and Twofer fulfills all three categories at once), especially in Tracy’s plans for a Thomas Jefferson movie, which refer to the former president as a “jungle-fever haver,” while also mocking African-American actors like Eddie Murphy

I’ll take Alyssa’s word for it that the racial humor about Blacks comes from Tracy Morgan, but I don’t think it tends to get at hard truths or subvert expectations. I watched all of 30 Rock in a short stretch a couple months ago, after having pretty much avoided it because I disliked the pilot so much when it first came out – largely because of the Tracy Jordan character. My boyfriend et al were right that it’s a great show and was worth a second chance. But I still think the racial humor is the weakest point – the most common trope seems to be “Black guy [Tracy] that gets away with stuff too much.”

The episode that epitomizes this for me (spoilers ahead, but they’re from memory so could be inaccurate) is the one in which Liz gets fed up with Tracy for never showing up to rehearsal on time and never learning his lines. Liz announces she’ll start holding everyone to the same standard, with the implication that she’s been letting him slide because he’s Black. She gets her comeuppance when Tracy starts being super-disciplined but announces Liz will no longer get special treatment because she’s a woman. That means she has to refill the water cooler and come to a strip club, which is enough to break her by the end of the episode and make her abandon her equal-standards project. In other words, women will get to keep abstaining from strip clubs and manual labor and Blacks will get to keep abstaining from punctuality and discipline.

What’s clever about this? It seems to me it’s hard get something good out of this without taking some kind of double-double negative/ “stereotype of a stereotype” position. What are they sending up in this episode? This is not a rhetorical question. Who or what is being satirized here? Is it satirizing people who believe that African-Americans are undisciplined? If so, why contrast that with the belief that hetero women object to being forced to strip clubs? Is it satirizing ostensible liberals who are willing to believe uncomplimentary things about Black people? Satirizing people who push for equal standards for everyone? People who push for special treatment for some people? Black people who “play the race card” to get out of showing up the work? Women who say they want to be treated equally but expect men to do the heavy lifting?

It’s provocative to joke that making a Black guy come to work on time is like making a woman come to a strip club, but I don’t see how it’s illuminating or even ironic.

I mention that episode because it’s the most flagrant example, but also because a lot of 30 Rock’s humor about race (Irish jokes excepted) seem to fall into that category. Edgy, but not really subversive. Based in stereotypes without really upending them. I agree with Alyssa that some of the jokes revolve around Tracy Morgan’s character (Tracy Jordan) trying to maintain a certain Black male image that’s not really him (pretending to be adulterous, or illiterate). But a lot of the jokes just come down to him being stupid or clowning around, him getting away with what others can’t, and more sympathetic characters having to put up with it.

THIS ANNOYED ME ENOUGH TO TRANSCRIBE IT

I was listening to the Slate’s latest (very enjoyable) Culture Gabfest today and was disappointed to see (well, hear) their discussion of the absence of women in Pixar movies (it’s roughly 33:00 to 37:00). First they establish that, indeed, the heroes in Pixar movies are always men, never heroines. But then Julia Turner interjects that, merits of the criticism aside, “I just resist the sort of close political reading of children’s entertainment,” offering as an example the “flap” over Disney and race – first, Disney was criticized for offering its multi-ethnic audience only Caucasian protagonists (I remember when I was in the Disney demographic that the bad guys in Aladdin had Middle Eastern accents, but not the good guys), and now that Disney is making a movie with a Black heroine, people are criticizing the portrayal. Turner and her fellow gabfesters don’t like this criticism. What makes their criticism of the criticism especially annoying is that they’re not even arguing Disney’s critics are totally off-base. Turner concedes that:

this one actually did seem sort of objectionable: part of the twist of this movie is that when she kisses the frog, she turns into a frog instead of him turning into a prince, so we don’t even get to see the Black princess on screen for half the film because she’s going to be a frog, so all of these points are incredibly legitimate, but there’s something pedantic about incredibly close reading.

This strikes me as a particularly weird kind of triangulation that tends to crop up when some liberals approach race: I wish this institution could do a better job in terms of racial equality, and I wish people would stop calling so much attention to it. Turner doesn’t suggest that activists are calling for boycotts of Disney or kidnapping children of Disney executives or otherwise acting out of proportion. She just takes issue with finding fault – even if the fault is there – in the racial undertones of well-intentioned entertainment, especially children’s entertainment. I know not everyone relishes rooting out political meaning in kids’ movies as much as I do. But shouldn’t we be more concerned, rather than less, about how movies portray race or gender when the people consuming the product are children? If, say, obscene language would bother us more (or only) in a kids’ movie, why should these movies be immune from criticism for only showing Caucasians or men or Caucasian men as heroic?

If it’s good for millions of children who consume these movies (including the White ones) to see heroes who aren’t all White, how is it bad to call attention to it when they don’t? Does the perceived bad of talking “pedantically” about race, or “politicizing” kids’ movies, outweigh the bad of kids seeing only White heroes, or only seeing a Black heroine when she spends half her screen time as a green frog? As this article (in Slate!) on the paucity of Black college football coaches reminds us, for decades business people who think themselves race-blind have still seen White as the safe choice to avoid alienating racists. If Disney worries about losing the business of some White people by offering non-White protagonists, shouldn’t they be made to worry at a minimum that only having White heroes will subject them to “close political reading?”

As the podcast closes, Dana Stevens worries about Disney executives holding “focus groups” about race, rather than having the freedom of Pixar to “just come up with a story and do it” in a way that isn’t “sanitized” (must we choose between sanitized and whitewashed?). Stephen Metcalf agrees, as does Turner:

I wonder if it will be depressing when Pixar eventually does have a female protagonist, because it will feel like the boys of Pixar capitulating to criticism instead of following their whimsy.

Stevens responds that “it’s just going to take someone coming along with a great story that’s about a girl.”

Saying that none of Pixar’s ten movies so far feature a female heroine just because they happen to keep coming up with great stories about boys strikes me as about as exculpatory as saying your friends – or your country club, or your Senate – are all White because you’re just waiting for a great worthy person of color to come along and join the group. If the “whimsy” of Pixar’s boys guides them exclusively to stories about other boys, and critics get together to challenge that, why should we root for the boys’ club to win out? Does whimsy trump equality?

A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

IF BY “CAREFREE” YOU MEAN HETEROSEXUAL

At a time when November 4 seems to be shaping up to be a very very good night, it’s sad to see California’s Equal Marriage Ban (Prop 8) leading against the opposition in our nation’s biggest state. After months behind by double digits, the marriage ban brigades have pulled ahead on a raft of plentiful money and false advertising. They’ve moved votes by claiming that if civil marriage equality remains in place, churches will be forced to perform religious marriages they oppose and schools will become training grounds for homosexuality. That’s false. So is the slippery idea, promulgated by self-appointed hall monitors of heterosexual marriage, that letting the rest of us get married to the people we love will somehow force them to “not just be tolerant of gay lifestyles, but face mandatory compliance regardless of their personal beliefs.”

Maybe it’s a sign of progress that the “Protect Marriage” crowd can’t scare up a majority just by saying same-sex couples don’t deserve to get married, and instead they have to pretend that your right not to like them getting married is somehow under attack. Indeed, as Paul Waldman argues in Being Right Is Not Enough, what’s really striking about public opinion on same-sex marriage is how far left it’s moved in just a decade. When I was in middle school and domestic partnership seemed like a noble but politically unpalatable concept, it would have been hard to imagine that by 2004 our Republican president would have to say nice things about civil unions days before the election and dispatch his running mate to endorse full marriage equality as a sop to some swing voters.

The arc of history is bending towards progress here, and faster than we might have thought possible. California voters won’t stop it in two weeks, but they will make it go faster or slower.

Honestly, watching Marriage Protection Poster Couple Robb and Robin Wirthlin make their case for why discrimination belongs in California’s constitution, what disturbs me most as one of the people they want their marriage protected from isn’t the dishonesty about what’s actually at stake. It’s their honesty about what they want and what they’re afraid of. As much as they bend over backwards to borrow the language of the left (see, it’s their “rights that are being infringed upon,” and now “it’s no longer OK to disagree”), what’s brought this couple across the country to campaign for Prop 8 is dismay at the idea that their children would be exposed to “human sexuality,” by which they mean gay people (King and King is not a children’s book about gay sex, it’s a children’s book about gay people). They want their kids to “not have them face adult issues while they’re children…we just want them to have a carefree and protected childhood.” No word on whether Robb and Robin’s poor son has yet had his innocence spoiled with talk of America’s struggle against racial apartheid, or god forbid coming into contact with people of a different race from his own. And if their son or one of his classmates should be wrestling with “adult issues” of his own, one gets the sense that Robb and Robin would have little to offer other than cries that the child is oppressing them.