Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones, But Names Will Never Hurt Me

Recently the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek contributed an essay to the website of In These Times, a lefty-progressive publication. The title: "Why Cynics Are Wrong."

I'm not sure just which "cynics" Žižek has in mind. He begins by saying that he agrees with Noam Chomsky that "From a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will just do some minor face-lifting improvements, turning out to be 'Bush with a human face.' He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus effectively even strengthen U.S. hegemony, which has been severely damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years." But then he draws back from the abyss and begins to scold. Obama's election, Žižek tells us, has, like, another dimension, y'know? "[I]t is a sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements."
This is why a good, American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, in that moment of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.
To which I think the only proper response is, "What do you mean 'we', paleface?"

In the end it appears that Žižek's cynics are those, whoever they were, who thought that as wonderful as it would be if Obama were elected, he totally couldn't be elected: "All the skepticism displayed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives (what if, in the privacy of the voting booth, publicly disavowed racism reemerges?) was proven wrong. ... In some sense, the unthinkable did happen, something that we really didn’t believe could happen." This is a marvelously blinkered picture of the discussion that surrounded Obama's candidacy on the left. (Some of us never thought that Obama was particularly dreamy to begin with.)

Maybe Obama's blackness was all Professor Žižek could see from his perch at the Institute for Advanced Study of the Humanities in Essen, Germany. As he says with charming unselfconsciousness, "The position of the cynic is that he alone holds some piece of terrible, unvarnished wisdom." But then there's this other bit which for me undermines all his gleaming, lofty historical pontification:
Arguably the most sublime moment of the French Revolution occurred when the delegation from Haiti, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, visited Paris and was enthusiastically received at the Popular Assembly as equals among equals.
As far as I can tell, Toussaint l'Ouverture never set foot in the Popular Assembly. He spent the whole period of the Haitian Revolution in Haiti. He only went to France when Napoleon, having overthrown the French Republic, sent a force across the Atlantic that ultimately captured Toussaint through trickery, deported him and his family to France, and imprisoned him. He died in his cell a few months later, and although Haiti gained its independence, it remains under assault from Europe and the US to this day. (I've begun Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment [Verso, 2007], but can only read it for short periods before I become too infuriated to continue. It's a long book, so finishing it is going to take a while.)

So I don't take Žižek's historical and philosophical hectoring seriously. Who knows what else he's gotten wrong? Certainly he has no sense of the criticisms that have been and still are being directed at Obama from the left. If it makes me a cynic to take those criticisms seriously, I can live with that; I've been called worse.