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August 3, 2008

How Schizo Is This, Putting Obama In Double-Bind?

Obama Black Hecklers

My question is, does the NYT put Obama in a classic double bind by selecting this image to run with Saturday’s front page article?

According to Wikipedia, a double bind is:

a dilemma in communication in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages and one message denies the other, a situation in which the person will be put in the wrong however they respond, and the person can’t comment on the conflict, or resolve it, or opt out of the situation.

(If you’re interested, this link describes anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s original intention of the term, conceived as a theory to understand how this communication style between parent and child might lead to the development of schizophrenia.)

Why do I raise the term in the first place?  Because the article by Michael Powell (With Genie Out of Bottle, Obama Is Careful on Race – link) describes how Obama is essentially handcuffed from fighting back if McCain attacks him on race.  As Powell writes:

For Mr. Obama, the risks of fighting back are that anything that calls attention to the racial dynamics of the contest would potentially polarize voters and stir unease about his candidacy, particularly among white voters in swing states. He is, after all, a candidate who has sought to transcend his own racial heritage in appealing to the broad electorate.

That being the case, the choice of photo is rather stunning.

If the article emphasizes the limitation on Obama from pushing back on McCain on the subject of race, the photo — depicting an incident on Friday in St. Petersburg in which “seven self-styled African revolutionaries began shouting and pointing at (Obama), accusing him of undermining revolutionary struggle” mirrors the equivalent dilemma from the opposite flank.  In other words, the photo emphasizes the constraint on Obama from answering the charges of these African-Americans that he isn’t confronting race nearly enough.

Given the double bind, I find the choice of the photo quite exploitive, the racially-balanced crowd injecting even more tension into the irreconcilable conflict.  And then, the theme of irreconcilability seems to also drag in the American flag and the Obama banner, especially as Obama appears to align with the flag in opposition to the protesters who seems to stand for his name.

Boxed in on both sides of the issue, the image frames Obama, with his back to us in a beseeching gesture, as particularly impotent.  And then, to add insult to injury, take a look at the image that appeared almost half-a-page tall on Saturday’s page A8.  It shows the race-baiting candidate, the microphone and the situation well in hand, calmly tackling a concern raised by a black audience member as McCain addresses the National Urban League.

(image: Jae C. Hong/AP.  August 1, 2008.  St. Petersburg, FL)

  •[email protected]/ DennisQ

    I guess we have to assume that nobody put these guys up to heckle Obama, that they did it on their own. The possibility of it being a campaign dirty trick does occur to me, why wouldn’t it?
    The Times article quotes McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.” I recognize that line from the O.J. Simpson trial. This expression certainly didn’t just occur to Davis. He’s been looking for blameless ways to raise the race issue. Another way is by having the candidate specifically deny it. “Why, certainly not!” says McCain. “What do you think I am – a racist?
    It reminds me of New York Republican Guy Molinaro minimizing the significance of mentioning that the Democratic candidate was a Lesbian. “I’m no homophobe,” he said. “It just struck me as something the voters might think is important.”

  • Scarabus

    You echo thoughts I had yesterday when I first saw a variation of this picture, taken from another angle. One of those thoughts was a question of who the hecklers really are. Are they from a genuine revolutionary group (whatever that might mean in this context), or are they from central casting. And if the latter, then who hired them?

  • John Lucaites

    Michael: I agree with the double bind analysis, which is on the mark. But I think the problem is bigger than the critique of the NYT suggests. It is not the NYT that is creating the double-bind but the McCain campaign and it may be more real than imagined … that is, it might be part of the public culture that McCain is exploiting more than creating … and the bigger point is that it is not easily avoided. The photograph, to my mind, is a perfect allegory for the problem. You have the so-called “revolutionaries” in the back demanding special interest and you have O’bama in the foreground trying to quell them some, but apparently ineffectively–or at least not effectively. In between you have a “public” that is all over the place … some laughing and enjoying the interruption (look at those crazy black men …), others ignoring it entirely (if we don’t see race it goes away … right?), and others dour and troubled, like they don’t quite know how to deal with “this” problem. I think you are right that we need to call attention to the double-bind problem, but I think we make a huge mistake if we think that the photograph/article combination puts him in the double bind … it’s there for all to see …

  • Ti molo

    “During a presidential debate in April, Mr. Obama said his two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, “who have had a pretty good deal” in life, should not benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college, particularly if they were competing for admission with poor white students.” NY Times 8/3/08.
    He is going to have to deal with this regardless of the gentlemen, his banner and message being a plant or not. The question is how does the biracial candidate convince the people, the members of the black community who actually believe this message, they need to have more faith, belief and patience. I think if anything it shows him doing this. While the crowd may seem uncomfortable, it is something they are not use to hearing and seeing, but have been needing for along time.
    As for the McCain picture I think it shows it is an issue to big for him to handle. In this context at least.

  • Jan Kees

    Thanks for the perceptive interpretation, as always. I’d like to follow up the comments of John Lucaites who, I believe, is correct that the double bind is real and is created mainly by the larger system rather than the media.
    What tips the balance here, making McCain’s race-baiting easier for “mainstream America” than Obama’s talking about race is that (1) “Mainstream America” is of European descendancy, (2) McCain is Euro and Obama is Afro (according to the long-standing rules, where half-and-half in the US means Afro), and (3) the simple, sad fact is that “race” in America is all about Africans, not Europeans. What do “they” want, how have “they” stayed so far behind economically, why are disproportionate numbers of “them” in jail, why do a larger proportionate of black families have absent dads, why are “their” neighborhoods ghettos and Euro neighborhoods are neighborhoods?
    And we could add a fourth fact — sad too, but fundamental — that this country was founded on race-slavery, got rich on race-slavery for over 200 years, made race-slavery “respectable” and lawful (and constitutional) among Euro-Americans, and did nothing of economic importance to repair those horrific wrongs when race-based ownership of other people was finally outlawed. (“Forty acres and a mule” would, in retrospect, have been a just and profitable investment by Euro-Americans.) Again aided by the law and the constitution, Jim Crow made race-denigration the norm, and racial tolerance difficult and in many cases (public accommodations, education, marriage) illegal and therefore socially impossible. Then with the Civil Rights Act this country did the same thing it did with the Emancipation Proclamation — declared a theoretically level playing field, sins of the ignored. And that’s still pretty much where we are today, except for a few years of half-hearted affirmative action and half-hearted busing of kids, both of which died because of the success of the Declaration of the Level Playing Field among Euro-Americans.
    Maybe, just maybe, Obama will hit Euro-racism as hard as he hit Afro-male Irresponsibility on Fathers’ Day. Racism is not primarily an Afro-American disease but a Euro-American one, and has been so from the beginning in this country. THAT’S WHAT MCCAIN IS CHALLENGING OBAMA TO SAY — THE TRUTH — EXPECTING OBAMA WON’T DARE. And McCain’s gamble may prove correct — Obama might not dare. But the only way out of the double bind the larger system creates for him — the only way to turn his face back to the voters as (non-racial) “Americans” — is to direct strong comments on race to Euro-Americans. The Audacity of Truth. Obama might lose that way, which would be sad, but how sad would it be if he lost without doing that! Like Kerry losing without daring to take a strong stand against the war.) And if he wins that way, there’s a genuine basis for real hope in this country, unique in its still-unacknowledged persecution, terrorism, and genocide (to use more modern words for the reality of race-slavery) that made it as great as it is today. His taking this dilemma by the horns would give us all a real choice in November, and win or lose could deepen if not strengthen the values of this country.

  • ratfood

    The creases across the back of normally unruffled Obama’s jacket also contribute to the sense of tension in the photo. I watched the video of this exchange and Obama handled it very cooly, although you wouldn’t know it from this photo or the brief mention of the confrontation in the NYT article it accompanied.

  • elfpix

    Unfortunately, the NYT article does not address the details of the confrontation in the illustration. In fact Senator Obama listened to the plaints of the people holding the banner and spoke specifically to each one demonstrating the ignorance of the protestors.
    As for Euro-racism – you can forget about humans getting over it ever. It’s genetically scripted, as is all fear on all sides towards all “other” peoples. The best any society is ever going to be able to do about it is exert peer pressure backed up by law to mitigate its impacts.
    Now we all are acutely aware of the profound inequality and poverty prevailing in American primarily urban environments due to uncolored people’s fear of the “other”, but, after 6 months of collecting images from Senator Obama’s campaign, I have come to the conclusion that, while I have been living in my lily-white country/suburban lifestyle of choice, people of color in my nation have been pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in heartening numbers. The number of young non-white people I’ve got photographs of – holding up their digital point and shoots, cell phones and video cameras, presenting themselves at Obama’s rallies in fresh and sensible looking clothing, bringing their sweet kids to see the “black” man and glowing with joy and amazement at the reality of him – is enormously encouraging especially when I review the abject failures of the legal structures set up by us “other” during the last 44 years. Whether peer pressure has actually been effective, or simply a determination born of hope and anger, there are a lot of non-white people in my stressed and prejudiced land who are finding their way against the odds.
    But whether it’s peer pressure or equal opportunity laws actually achieving this, the NYT needs to get on the bandwagon.

  • LanceThruster

    This is great news for Hillary!

  • tina

    The picture looks contentious, angry, and out of control, much more so than the exchange actually was. Obama looks like he is fending off a blow, the man holding the banner looks ready to give one. The implication is that Obama is a man with divided loyalties, who is facing problems even among “his own people”. So why should “we” vote for him? Etc.
    We don’t want a man in office who’s suffering an identity crisis, do we? We want someone who’s sure of himself and his place in the world. You know–a white elite.

  • Scarabus

    I return after spending most of the day wrestling with issues of font corru to see what other people had to say, though.
    The issue of Jim Crow legislation is relevant here. Inevitable that it would be. The phrase is easy, but for a nice overview of what it really means read historian C. Vann Woodward’s *The Strange Career of Jim Crow.” Interesting point is that, by law, depending on percentage of Black blood, a person might be legally “White” in one state and legally “Black” if she/he stepped across the border into an adjoining state.
    Which ties in with the goofiness we heard during the campaign for the nomination. One headline would ask, breathlessly, “Is he too ‘Black’to be accepted; the next, equally breathless, “Is he not ‘Black’ enough to be accepted?”
    Remember the “B” movie *My Blue Heaven*, where Steve Martin plays a New Yorker gangster in witness protection in San Diego? If not, please stipulate: The gang organized by the Martin character, Vinnie, has hijacked what they think is a truckload of electronic goodies. Turns out they had hijacked a truckload of empty 10-gallon water bottles. The gang members are dispirited, but Vinnie rallies them: “Where you see a problem,” he says, “I see an opportunity.”
    Relevance? Have you seen a similar protest banner at a Bush speech (at least in the U.S.)? Have you seen is equivalent at a McCain “town hall” presentation? Of course not. So let’s turn this problem into an opportunity: The absence of protest banners at McCain events shows that he prevents citizens from exercising free speech. The presence of the banner, however dubious it might be, shows that, in contrast, Obama does indeed support free speech.

  • The BAG

    Thanks John for pointing me back to the data itself. I was so focused on comparing the dynamics between the article and the picture (and between the McCain picture and the Obama picture), I failed to thoroughly pick up on the dynamics within the picture itself, and the fact that the double bind is expressed right there in the varied reactions of the audience.

  • Zzyzx

    My first thought when I saw this Friday(?) was it was the work of certain opponents. It may be. I think John Lucaites makes an important point……and I hate to avoid blaming the NYT. In this case, it is the McC campaign (that smoke-filled room?) that is coming up with this and the dirtier, the better. ‘He played the race card from the bottom of the deck.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I don’t know, but it sounds nasty.’ ‘Then let’s use it!’ The McC people did it, just like they did with the grand tour (chiding him for not going, blaming him for being accepted when he does). If they can toss racism into the salad, too, all the better. It’s a chickenshit argument but it works against almost anyone. Another ‘double-bind’ set-up is that Obama has a black duality. He is half black and half white, genetically speaking. He is truly half African and half American. Yet he is removed from the experience of many blacks in this country by parentage (Kenyan/Kansan) and location (Hawaii/Indonesia). He is Pico Ayer’s “stateless” person who also happens to be an American. And he is a black American who doesn’t share the slavery heritage and ‘JimCrowism’ of southern blacks.
    BTW, and OT, there is a book called “Slavery By Another Name” that makes the case that, in effect, slavery in the south lasted into the 1940’s, by criminalizing unemployment, no paycheck-stubs, loitering, etc., which then was only enforced against black men. The author is Douglas A. Blackmon.
    I thought it interesting this morning when Gergen said that as a southerner, he heard the racial slurs in the McC ad, there was a few seconds of total silence. It was as if Gergen had said what they all knew but couldn’t say out loud.
    Jan Kees: “THAT’S WHAT MCCAIN IS CHALLENGING OBAMA TO SAY — THE TRUTH — EXPECTING OBAMA WON’T DARE. And McCain’s gamble may prove correct — Obama might not dare.” Exactly!! This is one reason why I love BagNews…. the comments.
    In order to rise above this subliminal innuendo about race, Obama really does have to step up to the mic and make that speech. He has to call out the McC campaign and point exactly to what it is doing, not just using the bimbos, but WHY they used them. He has to be blunt and open and expose the hidden agendas. It will be tough, but not as tough as if he had been born and bred in the south and grew up seeing the bodies hanging from trees. Unless we, as a country, as a people, face down the spectre of racism, slavery, JimCrowism, et al., we will never rise above it and put it behind us.

  • cenoxo

    More about the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement: their site headlines an edited video of Barack trying to answer their questions, but it deliberately ends with him hemming and hawing.
    If the hecklers were planted Republican stooges, they’re pretty darned good ones. Considering their 13-point platform, they could do a lot more damage to BHO’s campaign if they were cheering him instead of heckling him. (OTOH, this could be another one of those diabolical, double-secret, double-bind media moves by master manipulator Karl Rove. I would have paid good money to see KR himself leading the InPDUM planning session for this little interruption.)
    If and when BHO becomes President, he’s going to face many difficult “double-bind” situations where no matter what he says or does, some of people — and not just white unprogressives — won’t like it. Don’t be surprised if some of his solutions, no matter how consensually arrived at, look much like what GWB (or McCain) might have done. That’s the way the system works, and he won’t escape it.

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