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Guess Who's Calling Us for Dinner?

Barack Obama's path to the White House is reminiscent of the tensions and ultimate happy resolution in the 1960s film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But Obama's election can at best be an occasion for a few cosmetic changes in US foreign and domestic policies. It does not imply a radical departure from the fundamental economic and political motivations that govern US behaviour.

COMMENTARY

Guess Who’s Calling Us for Dinner?

Sumanta Banerjee

Barack Obama’s path to the White House is reminiscent of the tensions and ultimate happy resolution in the 1960s film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But Obama’s election can at best be an occasion for a few cosmetic changes in US foreign and domestic policies. It does not imply a radical departure from the fundamental economic and political motivations that govern US behaviour.

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of

Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

I
t looks like the classic case of life imitating art. The quintessential African-American hero of the Hollywood screen of the 1960s, Sidney Poitier, has re-emerged in the United States political scene today in the shape of Barack Obama as its newly elected president. In a racially violent trouble-torn society in the 1960s, the roles that Poitier played in the films were aimed at soothing the nerves of the aggrieved blacks and satisfying the conscience of the liberal-minded whites – building up a constituency of consens us of sorts.

Remember Lillies of the Field where the callow black youth accidentally intrudes into the convent of the white nuns who persuade him (with a faint touch of seduction) to build a chapel for them? Or, To Sir With Love, where the black teacher wins his way into the hearts of his recalcitrant white (British) students? Behind the bonhomie scattered around like confetti in all these films, the audience could not miss the unmistakable suggestions of the African-American being socialised into the ways of the white ruled society, and of white tolerance of the blacks as long as neither breach the traditionally ordained borders.

The breach came in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, made in 1967 by Hollywood’s best known socially committed director Stanley Kramer, in which the liberal white parents, after a lot of soul-searching, finally accept the black son-in-law into their family. In hindsight, it looks like an anticipatory allegory of the acceptance of Barack Obama as a president by the white majority-dominated US. It is not a coincidence that some commentators today, when discussing Obama’s victory, have harked back to this film (Cf Frank Rich in The New York Times; Sitaram Yechury in The Indian Express). Like the handsome young Poitier in the film (whose irrefutable credentials from Yale and John Hopkins finally persuade the reluctant parents of his fiancée to welcome him into the family), Obama can boast of an equally impressive curriculum vitae that won over the American white upper and middle class voters who felt that he was after all – “one of us”. This inter-racial class empathy suggests how American white society has

travelled a long way since Kramer’s film to reach two goals: one, general acceptance of mixed marriages and their offspring (Obama for instance is the son of a father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas) in the national mainstream; and two, subsidising the growth of a black sub-elite (the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powel – beneficiaries of the affirmative actions in education and the job market that the State was forced to implement following the anti-segregation and civil rights movement of the 1960s) who could be co-opted in the white dominated administrative hierarchy, and trained to lend legitimacy to the neo-colonial ambitions of the US. The middle class African-American archetype has thus graduated from the role of the invitee to that of the host in US politics.

This is neither to undermine in any way the great talent of Sidney Poitier, and suspect the political motives of Barack Obama (both have surely contributed substantially to the cause of racial harmony in the US), nor to belittle the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the social reforms that created opportunities for large sections of African-American people. But the acknowledgement of these positive steps needs to be qualified by the reminder that the class alliance between the white liberal bourgeoisie and the new black sub-elite that emerged from these reforms, has till now ignored the vast masses of faceless and nameless African-Americans who still continue to suffer from chronically underfunded schools, diminished job opportunities, limited housing choices, and other forms of discrimination (which were exposed during the nature of government response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina). Their sons (denied education and employment and driven into the underworld) form the majority of the US prison population. The correlation between the two in the underbelly of his country cannot surely escape the attention of

november 15, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
COMMENTARY

Barack Obama. How does he plan to reverse the trend?

Hopes of a New Future?

This unfinished task of improving the lot of the African-American poor is likely to be shoved to the backburner by his more compelling priority of devising means to get out of the mess created by his predecessor – in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the domestic financial scene. But in the absence of a comprehensive policy statement daring to announce the reversal of the hitherto followed US military aggressive designs (which had taken a heavy toll on domestic economy) and a complete break with the past, the mere promise of a gradual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq over a period of time does not sound convincing enough, particularly in view of the simultaneous threat to increase military involvement in Afghanistan and intrude into Pakistan to halt the Taliban. There are no signs as yet of learning from the past mistakes of a knee-jerk militarist response to nationalist aspirations of third world countries

– a response that is firmly rooted in the tradition of US foreign policy. The tradition had been nurtured by the militaryindustrial complex (reaping profits from the arms race), the powerful corporate business houses (preying on exploitable resources like oil and minerals) and the government’s own defence wing Pentagon and intelligence agency CIA (perpetually engaged in subversive activities abroad to serve those interests). To fulfil his promise of bringing peace, can Obama dismantle this nefarious cabal that had been the main cause of popular discontent and terrorist violence in the Arab world and elsewhere, and had promoted the US to the position of a don among the mafia of capitalist states? Will he lift the embargo on Cuba – a demand being made every year by the majority in the United Nations? To keep his pledge of defending democracy, will he revoke the draconian Patriot Act 2001, which in the name of fighting terrorism tramples upon fundamental rights of both US citizens and visitors from abroad ? Positive responses to these challenges are fraught with imponderables that threaten the very basis of US hegemony.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
november 15, 2008

Liberal Illusions

Given the armed and financial clout of the US cabal, and its successful record of co-opting generations of Democratic presidents in the past, the outburst of euphoria by the Indian liberal intelligentsia over Obama’s victory should be tempered by a pinch of cynicism. To nudge their memories – have they forgotten how their darling, the great JFK, while championing civil rights within the US, at the same time carried on the brutal warfare against the Vietnamese – and initiated another aggressive front against Cuba by organising the Bay of Pigs invasion? Or the other acclaimed liberal Democratic president Bill Clinton, who all through his successive tenures from 1993 to 2001, virtually carried out the Republican agenda both at home and abroad?

But then, the Indian intelligentsia had always been involved in a pathetic calflove relationship with the western liberal establishment – whether with the British Labour Party in the past, or the American Democratic Party today. Following the early Indian nationalist elite’s tendency to lionise certain British governor-generals (like Canning or Ripon) as benevolent administrators, the Gandhi-led national movement also quite often tried to discover sympathetic politicians among contemporary British viceroys (like Irwin with whom Gandhi signed a pact in 1930), or British prime ministers like Atlee in the 1940s, expecting a change in colonial policies. As a historical exercise, it may be worthwhile to examine the ebb and flow in Congress radicalism (e g, from Non-cooperation to Quit India) against the background of the rise and fall of Tory and Labour governments in London. Similar changes in the fortunes of the Republicans and Democrats in the US appear to influence the present political dialogue in India.

To demystify the dialogue – at best – Obama’s victory can be an occasion for a few cosmetic changes in US foreign and domestic policies. It does not imply a radical departure from the fundamental economic and political motivations that govern US behaviour in those areas. There is no dearth of advisers from all parts of the world political and economic spectrum to breathe down Obama’s neck and counsel him on what he should or should not do – including our India media columnists who are upset by his advice to New Delhi on the Kashmir problem (“…you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this?” – in an interview with Time magazine in late October). But is it not a legitimate question? Why has the United Progressive Alliance government messed up the situation in Kashmir by repeating the same old political faux pas – from its appeasement of the Hindu communal forces during the Amarnath imbroglio, thereby reinforcing the Muslim grievances breaking out in demonstrations of protest in the Valley, and ending up with the government imposing curfew in Srinagar and house arrest of Opposition politicians who refuse to participate in the coming elections.

Given this situation, if Obama can use his clout as the US president to twist the arms of both the Indian and Pakistani ruling powers to come to some sort of settlement based on mutual accommodation and concession that would immediately ease the sufferings of the Kashmiris, the latter would welcome it at any cost. They do not give a damn about whether it impinges on India’s table-thumping stand against any third party intervention in what it claims to be a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Islamabad only (ignoring the desires and aspirations of the Kashmiris).

But in Obama’s immediate agenda, Kashmir is a minor issue compared to the more intractable problems that he is facing both at home and abroad. Instead of advising others – as is the wont of US presidents – Obama should pay heed to the advice given by the president of another state whom Washington abhors. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, while urging Obama to “make a swing toward humanitarianism, toward respectful treatment of the rest of the world”, reminds him that “the US could be a great country if it refashions itself from inside and turns inward”.

Wish we can share Chavez’s hope that “the new US government would keep abreast of the desires of the world and its own people and focus first and foremost on internal US matters”.

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