Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama is not the poor

Barack Obama's electoral victory is hugely important on a symbolic level, and symbols matter, especially for the most vulnerable among us, who are routinely deprived even the most non-material of comforts. The significance of someone who 200 years ago would have been legally regarded as sub-human, the private property of another, now "running the country" surely cannot be overstated. The evidence for this is that the occasion has moved the world.

However, Barack Obama is one person, and symbols do not fill children's stomachs or keep them healthy, or give their parents the material means to raise them. Part of Obama's appeal has been his explicit commitment to address these kinds of issues, and it is reasonable to take him his at his word that he will try. But there is no guarantee that any of this will transpire; it will depend entirely on the level of public support for concrete policies aimed at confronting these issues.

This is very different from pledging allegiance to Obama as a politician, because politicians can and will be compromised. Wall Street, the defense and reconstruction firms, pharmaceutical companies, the energy industry -- these profit-driven concerns have all lobbied the Democratic Party intensely in the lead up to this election, and in many cases have openly embraced Obama as a competent and potentially malleable manager. It is not an exaggeration to say that these businesses are in "the business" of interfacing with government in order to shape policy around their concerns; they have more money, more technical expertise and more general knowledge of how "the system" works than most Americans -- a group that is likely to include Barack Obama himself.

Americans will able to advocate effectively on behalf of specific issues only if they remain loyal to specific issues, not to politicians or other individuals in power positions. To the extent that public officials support the things we care about, they deserve support; in the event they fall short, they deserve to be called on it. Politicians invariably shift their attention to whatever issues clamor loudest; rest assured, the profiteer is always clamoring, even if you, your friends, and your community are not. Anybody interested in "change" will have to identify the central institutions which thrive on established practice and attack them in ways that both expose and undermine their role in society. This usually means making a commitment to popular organizations which are designed for this purpose. Barack Obama's role should be viewed as marginal compared to our own; we control our own actions, not his; and even if he was not here we should be committing to the same things.

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