Stretching for analogies

>> Saturday, January 16, 2010

Though I can appreciate critiques of Obama for being too willing to accommodate the more conservative forces within his own party, and while I'm hardly enamored of the direction that some of this administration's big ticket items are heading, comparing Barack Obama to Booker T. Washington is just about the silliest progressive critique I've yet seen.

Though it's possible to submit a brief in defense of Washington's address at the Atlanta Exposition -- e.g., in the face of a regional wave of violence in the 1890s, and in the absence of any federal interest in promoting racial equality and defending black lives, it's hard to imagine precisely what a Southern black educator was supposed to argue in 1895 -- the overall arc of Washington's career was profoundly conservative. He was a nativist whose opinions of Asians and new European immigrants were marked by bog-standard chauvinism. Rather than simply argue that blacks should adapt to political exclusion and social segregation (while arguing that whites should offer them a gradual path out of tenant farming and sharecropping), Washington went even further and argued that Congressional Reconstruction was misguided and foolish; his account of the period in Up From Slavery reads like a milder rendition of a Thomas Dixon novel, or perhaps a rough draft of what we'll find in the next generation of high school history texts. For Paul Rosenberg's analogy to hold, then, we'd have to expect that Barack Obama will soon be lecturing us on the follies of the New Deal or the aspirational errors on display during the March on Washington. Obama is no CLR James, but neither is he a collaborator with reactionaries, which is the (I think oversimplified) intent behind Rosebnberg's analogy.


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