The Unvarnished Truth about Obama, Harris and Diversity without Accountability

27 November, 2020

The first volume of Barak Obama's memoirs,  A Promised Land , contrasts with a satirical magazine cover of his true presidential record.

Mara Ahmed

Oba­ma’s new book, A Promised Land, has been mak­ing the rounds. It’s every­where on social media, much like Michelle Oba­ma’s Becom­ing was a cou­ple of years ago. Both dust jack­ets glow with the same Pho­to­shop fin­ish, two attrac­tive peo­ple a bit shy about the strength of their own mag­net­ism. Smart, effort­less­ly debonair, mon­eyed. Dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to Trump’s vul­gar­i­ty, civ­i­lized in their dis­course (“I felt qui­et­ly angry on his behalf. To protest a man in the final hour of his pres­i­den­cy seemed grace­less and unnec­es­sary,” he writes about Bush), and con­fi­dent in the gush­ing response from their stans.

Oba­ma, the drone pres­i­dent. The man who dropped 26,171 bombs his last year in the White House. Lit­er­ary rock stars like Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith fan­girl over his remark­able writ­ing and unimag­in­ably dif­fi­cult pres­i­den­tial deci­sions. The decen­cy of his char­ac­ter is assured, in spite of his war crimes. He’s got a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar Net­flix deal after all, and the pow­er to gift us Joe Biden. 

He makes us feel nos­tal­gic for the good old days, when Amer­i­ca was tru­ly great. Every­one knows he killed almost 4,000 peo­ple in 542 drone strikes, deport­ed more than 2.5 mil­lion oth­ers, and force-fed Mus­lim men cat­e­go­rized as non-human in Guan­tanamo. He expand­ed mass sur­veil­lance, sab­o­taged uni­ver­sal health­care, built migrant cages at the bor­der, and pre­tend­ed to drink Flint water in order to lie about its safety. 

He did­n’t just do the broad­ly bru­tal, pres­i­den­tial butch­ery we expect from Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, he made it per­son­al. He han­dled kill lists, droned a 16-year-old Amer­i­can kid in Yemen along with his 17-year-old cousin, start­ed spank­ing new wars, and called the pres­i­dent of Yemen to halt the release of a jour­nal­ist report­ing on drone casu­al­ties in that country. 

Yet here we are.

Sym­bol­ic firsts are no sub­sti­tute for sub­stan­tive gains. We have been cel­e­brat­ing firsts for fifty years but the gains for the few almost nev­er trans­late into a bet­ter life for the many. Check out Light­foot in Chica­go. These cel­e­bra­tions are old and our peo­ple are dying. Enough.

— Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) August 12, 2020


The bor­ing rep­e­ti­tion of these atroc­i­ties can be set aside eas­i­ly. Pic­tures of dead chil­dren or their wail­ing moth­ers don’t real­ly reg­is­ter if they’re not wear­ing the right clothes or speak­ing the right lan­guages. We can say sen­si­bly that col­lat­er­al dam­age is a price we are will­ing to pay, as long as some­one else is actu­al­ly pay­ing that price. Would we be equal­ly under­stand­ing about the dron­ing of our own chil­dren for the greater good of the world? Why is that a crazy question? 

Seems grace­less to bring all of this up, right after the launch of Oba­ma’s ele­gant oeu­vre. Accu­sa­tions of crude­ness remind one of Houria Boutel­ja’s book Whites, Jews, and Us which so offend­ed white sen­si­bil­i­ties. Anthro­pol­o­gist Nazia Kazi expli­cates how Boutel­ja “claims this crude­ness as a very mark­er of her social posi­tion: ‘The dis­pos­sessed indige­nous per­son is vul­gar. The white dis­pos­ses­sor is refined.’ What are civil­i­ty, vul­gar­i­ty, and man­ners in a world shaped endur­ing­ly by the bru­tal­i­ty of empire?” she asks.

Maybe that’s just how it is these days: every­thing white­washed, pack­aged like an Apple prod­uct, brand­ed like a cap­ti­vat­ing­ly effete IG influ­encer, and placed adroit­ly like spon­con. It’s hard to tell the news from the ads, Hol­ly­wood films from mil­i­tary pro­pa­gan­da, or Nobel Peace Prize win­ners from assas­si­na­tion mas­ter­minds. Every­thing’s pul­ver­ized togeth­er into a bland paste of vacu­ity. Makes one hun­gry for guer­ril­la film­mak­ing and some raw, unvar­nished truth.

• • •

As we look for­ward to a Kamala Har­ris vice pres­i­den­cy, pic­tures of her chan­nel­ing Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks have gained pop­u­lar cur­ren­cy online. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion con­tin­ues to be a means of achiev­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, with­out chal­leng­ing the struc­tures it dress­es up. 

What about Har­ris’s actions? Out of the mil­lions of under­tak­ings she could have pri­or­i­tized, as San Fran­cis­co D.A., she decid­ed to crack down on school tru­an­cy. One of her reg­u­lar shticks at speak­ing events was to tell the sto­ry of how she brought charges against a sin­gle moth­er of three, who was home­less and work­ing two jobs. It demon­strat­ed the tough love of her anti-tru­an­cy ini­tia­tive, the fear she could instill by an artis­tic ren­der­ing of her badge on her let­ter­head. In anoth­er talk, she made fun of crim­i­nal jus­tice reform­ers, mim­ic­k­ing their protests on stage. It’s painful to watch — her flip­pan­cy, arro­gance and cluelessness.

Har­ris is younger than many of the men in lead­er­ship posi­tions around her. Per­haps she will begin to align more with what’s hap­pen­ing in the coun­try. But it bears repeat­ing that rep­re­sen­ta­tion does­n’t go very far when it’s only a sym­bol of indi­vid­ual suc­cess. Unless peo­ple of col­or in posi­tions of pow­er, chal­lenge exist­ing sys­tems and try to improve the lives of the most mar­gin­al­ized, their “diver­si­ty” is just about optics. 

In the words of Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Taylor:

“Sym­bol­ic firsts are no sub­sti­tute for sub­stan­tive gains. We have been cel­e­brat­ing firsts for fifty years but the gains for the few almost nev­er trans­late into a bet­ter life for the many… These cel­e­bra­tions are old and our peo­ple are dying. Enough.”

TMR sup­ports the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights and as such reserves the right to allow its con­trib­u­tors to crit­i­cize any coun­try, includ­ing (for exam­ple) Israel, the USA and Sau­di Ara­bia. We have no sacred cows here. We hon­or free­dom of expres­sion above all else. That said, the views expressed by inde­pen­dent colum­nists do not rep­re­sent the offi­cial pol­i­cy of TMR.

Mara Ahmed is a Pakistani American interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker based on Long Island. She has directed and produced three films, including The Muslims I Know (2008), Pakistan One on One (2011), and A Thin Wall (2015). Her films have been broadcast on PBS, screened at international film festivals, and are part of college syllabi. A Thin Wall was acquired by MUBI India in 2020 and is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime. Mara’s artwork has been exhibited at galleries in New York and California. Her multimedia installation The Warp & Weft [Face to Face] which is based on an archive of stories she curated in 2020, was recently exhibited at Rochester Contemporary Art Center and her experimental art video Le Mot Juste [Part One] was selected for a juried exhibition organized by Chicago’s South Asia Institute in 2021. Her production company is Neelum Films.


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