Walking the Obama Criticism Tightrope

June 1, 2013

Philippe Petit in midst of his high-wire crossing between the Twin Towers, New York City, August 7, 1974. (http://www.talktalk.co.uk).

Philippe Petit in midst of his high-wire crossing between the Twin Towers, New York City, August 7, 1974. (http://www.talktalk.co.uk).

These are the times in which we live. Where a critique of a phrase, speech, demeanor or policy can leave someone like me on the outs with White progressives or blindly devoted Obama supporters. Or a comment that could be used to paint me as an Uncle Tom and a Black socialist revolutionary at the same time. It’s crazy these days whenever the subject of President Barack Obama, (or Michelle Obama, or the Obama Administration) comes up.

I’ve probably done about thirty blog posts and nearly 1,000 tweets related to the politics and policies of President Obama and his administration over the past five and a half years. Most of them have been positive, or at least hopeful. I genuinely like the man, his wife and his kids, at least from afar, in part as a result of reading his books. My distaste for his centrist political decision-making, for policies that have left the nation stagnant economically, educationally, socially and geopolitically are all well documented here and on Twitter as well.

Yet it’s hard for most people I’ve encountered to separate how they feel about the man and his family and what they think about his presidency and politics. I’ve found myself having to defend my writings about Obama against a tide of rabid far-right Americans. They’re mostly White and male, and mostly making arguments that approach the ravings of psychotic serial killers. Theirs is an imagined President Obama, one who conspired with his mother for the presidency from the womb. One whose policies range from socialist and Kenyan one minute to fascist and Islamic the next. They absolutely refuse to admit they’re ape-shit over this Black guy as POTUS, his Black wife as First Lady, and his Black children living in the White House.

I’m used to the ravings of this lunatic fringe, though. They are a familiar enough sort. The academic version of these folks were the ones who insisted that I was a plagiarist because of the quality of my writing. So when I get their often idiotic ramblings and significantly misspelled, often grammatically incorrect responses, I laugh nervously, knowing that you don’t have to be literate to be dangerous.

Maria Spelterini crossing Niagara Falls on tightrope with feet in peach baskets, July 4, 1876. (George E. Curtis [1830-1910] via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Maria Spelterini crossing Niagara Falls on tightrope with feet in peach baskets, July 4, 1876. (George E. Curtis [1830-1910] via Wikipedia). In public domain.

But I also have to deal with two other camps on Obama, one steeped in policy criticism, the other in ecclesiastical praise and worship. Progressives, mostly White (though hardly as exclusive as the rabid right), have been on a rampage about President Obama’s use of executive privilege since day three of his presidency. To be sure, I’ve made many of the same criticisms about the use of drone strikes and the murdering of American citizens (not to mention Pakistani and Yemeni innocents) abroad, about the continued use of Gitmo to hold dozens of folk who have been proven to not be terrorists. Not to mention the Obama Administration’s ineffective use of political capital on the economy, K-12 and higher education, and even healthcare.

Still, my not-as-left-as-me comrades tend to act as if they were clairvoyant about the missteps that the Obama Administration would take and make back in ’08 and early ’09, even though they voted and actively supported his election in the first place.

Yet there’s no group more annoying than Obama’s blind supporters. They are Black and White, but both tend to be elites who think that they’re liberals but are really Clinton-esque centrists. They seem to praise President Obama’s every word, every step and every decision. When there’s a clear-cut issue on which to criticize his administration — such as the huge increase in drone strikes and the sequester agreement of ’11 — they remain as silent as church mice. It’s as if Obama’s White House is the Forbidden City and his army of supporters the eunuchs who run the place, never telling the emperor what he actually needs to hear.

So with any criticism of President Obama or even Michelle Obama comes the insinuation that how dare I beat up on the nation’s first Black president. “He’s doing all that he can, but Congress and the GOP stand in his way,” they often say. Or “leave Michelle alone,” some say, noting her active (yet completely ineffective) efforts to tackle childhood obesity as an example of her grace.

Forbidden City tour, with actors playing emperors, eunuchs and concubines, June 1, 2013. (http://www.newmantours.com).

Forbidden City tour, with actors playing emperors, eunuchs and concubines, June 1, 2013. (http://www.newmantours.com).

My last set of comments on Obama came on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, noting their “hard truths” speeches about the plight of African Americans in today’s America, calling for Black graduates of Bowie State University and Morehouse College to take up the mantle of personal responsibility. I said it was the wrong speech for the wrong audience at the wrong time. Except that their audience was really their White supporters watching on TV, not the Black students who already knew too well that mantle.

My tweets brought representatives from all sides out to praise or blast my comments. I was an Uncle Tom one minute, absolutely right the next, and then a socialist making excuses for Black pathologies a minute later. I think the next time I do a post on Obama, I’m riding a unicycle!

Glad Obama’s In, But Nothing to Celebrate

January 21, 2013

President Barack Obama takes his first oath of office, US Capitol, January 20, 2009. (DoD photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

President Barack Obama takes his first oath of office, US Capitol, January 20, 2009. (DoD photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly supported President Barack Obama for election in ’08 and again in ’12, as my blog posts and my thousands of tweets show over the past five years. I’ve admonished neo-cons, naysayers, liberals and racists on my pages over the past half-decade for their ridiculous statements about the president’s ancestry, motivations and policies.

But, even with all of this, I’ve gleaned flaws in President Obama’s approach to domestic and foreign policy, to his administration’s continuing Bush’s work on the semi-police state, to his whole-cloth acceptance of K-12 education “reform” and backing off on regulations for the for-profit higher education institution world (see my posts “Can Do No Wrong” [March ’10], “Bad Conversations and Education Reform” [November ’10], “The POTUS and The Last Airbender” [December ’10],  “For the Love of a Lockout & an Impasse” [July ’11], “Emancipation and Compromise” [this month] and “Why Obama Is Only A Failed Centrist President” [this month]).

The recent fiscal cliff solution, the extension of widespread surveillance powers over our email, cell phone calls, text messages (and, presumably, blogs, tweets and Facebook pages like my own as well), and the ho-hum approval of $633 billion in appropriations for the Defense Department’s budget this year, though, give me even less of a reason to celebrate President Obama’s second inauguration.

Crowd at National Mall morning of President Obama's inauguration, January 20, 2009. (DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

Crowd at National Mall morning of President Obama’s inauguration, January 20, 2009. (DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

Without a doubt, he was a better choice than that dumb-ass sycophant Mitt Romney. If only because Romney’s entire raison d’être as president would’ve been to allow the rich and corporations another round of economic rape, destroying the American middle class, and pushing the working poor and welfare poor into oblivion in the process.

Obama’s win in November, however, was a sigh of relief for me, not really a jumping-for-joy moment. Now, after witnessing the fiscal cliff debacle, it is obvious that the next four years will be more of the same lukewarm, milk-toast domestic proposals, hardline national security and military policies, and half-baked rhetoric that we were all a part of in President Obama’s first term. By 2017, if I’m still alive to write and tweet, here’s what will remain before us as major crises when Obama leaves office:

National debt; universal health care reform; higher education reform; student aid; student loan policy; minimum wage; living wage; union-busting; long-term unemployment; long-term underemployment; de-industrialization; Wall Street/banking deregulation; housing/mortgage crisis; comprehensive immigration reform; federal tax code; rendition and torture; warrantless wiretapping/surveillance; drone strikes on innocent civilians; upgrading the electrical grid; crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, water and sewage systems); PreK-12 education reform; social mobility; green jobs; environmental pollution; cap-and-trade; global warming/climate change; nuclear proliferation; Medicare/Medicaid solvency; religious tolerance; racial/ethnic tensions; women’s reproductive rights; over-incarceration of poor men and women of color; police brutality; gun violence; violent crimes; domestic terrorism; cybersecurity; military-industrial complex; racial/gender/age/sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace; school privatization/high-stakes testing/charter schools/voucher programs; border security, the War on Drugs, prison-industrial complex; voter disenfranchisement; decriminalization of marijuana (and other drugs); post-trauma stress disorder for war veterans and the poor; lingering effects of the Great Recession; funding for public mental health facilities; high-speed rail; food security and policy; prescription drug abuse; Big Pharma; Social Security “reform;” obesity/diabetes/high-blood pressure and other long-term illnesses; and GMOs.

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy,  New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission, October 30, 2012.  (Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

Aerial views of Hurricane Sandy damage, New Jersey coast [climate change as example of crises that will go unaddressed during Obama’s second term], October 30, 2012. (Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen, USAF/Wikipedia). In public domain.

Now, you tell me. Do I really have any reason to see today as a day of celebration?

The POTUS and The Last Airbender

December 8, 2010

C-SPAN Video Player - President Obama News Conference on Tax Cut Agreement Screen Shot, December 8, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.

In a post I did during President Obama’s campaign run (see “The Avatar State” post, July 22, 2008), I dared to hope that the then energized candidate and senator would be a bridge that would work across the divides of race and ideology. Much like the main character of my favorite animation series of all time, Aang of the Avatar: The Last Airbender. But unlike Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), I don’t purport to have a special wisdom about how he can do this.


And like the animated series, Obama’s run for president also came to a successful end. For both the creators of the series and our beleaguered president, it was time for the big time. For one, it was the opportunity to do a live-action, big screen movie to introduce the epic nature of kids embarking on a journey to save the world to a larger audience. For Obama and his group, it was the chance to govern based on the ideas and ideals that they communicated successfully to nearly 67 million voters.

Unfortunately, both have disappointed, and not just a little. James Cameron managed to wrest away the very title of the movie — Avatar — from the Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, even though his movie was merely a dream at the time that series had begun in ’04. That, and settling for M. Night Shyamalan as director turned The Last Airbender into an irrelevant movie that hurt the brand, while inadvertently helping Cameron’s Avatar make money-making history.

Poor Noah Ringer as Aang of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender Screen Shot, December 8, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.


The Obama Administration also began conceding its brand within weeks of reaching office. They say that governing dilutes the rhetoric of campaigns, and even hopeful me maintained enough jadedness to realize that. Yet to see how quickly Obama and his administration moved from action on the stimulus bill to a bunker mentality on virtually everything else was a bit distressing. The picks of Larry Summers, Peter McNickol of Ally McBeal fame — I mean Timothy Geithner — and Arne Duncan to be pillars of his economic and education teams should’ve been signs. That the Obama Administration would look after corporate and rich people’s interests before it would look out for mine. That there would be little fighting for the ideas and ideals of his campaign.

Only yesterday afternoon did Obama decide to flash anger at liberals and progressives. To be truthful, some of them have been bitter and overly critical of Obama’s decisions almost from day one. But to paint all of those left of center with the same broad brush, as if we all “have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.”

It’s a nice sentiment. Except that the president doesn’t seem to understand the difference between compromise and capitulation. As David Gergen put it on CNN yesterday, while Obama may well be right in heading off political opposition from the Tea/GOP group looking to hold Americans and him hostage, his execution of this from a communications standpoint was terrible.

We’re approaching the midway point of his first — and possibly only — term in office, and Obama has yet to take a serious stand on any principle he campaigned for in ’08. I’m not speaking as a liberal or

"Sozin's Comet, Part 4" from Avatar: The Last Airbender Screen Shot, December 4, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.

progressive here. Just look at his memoirs, his speeches and campaign promises, even the speeches and pressers Obama gave in his first months in office. Now, some of this is the result of real compromise. But after nearly two years, those compromises look more and more like concessions for the rich and corporate, and less like compromises to protect the poor, unemployed and underemployed.


Like the poor kid who didn’t have a chance in heaven to measure up to the character Avatar Aang in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, it looks as if President Obama is having a hard time measuring up to his forty-six-year-old self. But hopefully, like the animation version of Aang, the real Obama will find his way. He needs to take a stand on something important to him and us, and do it with the bravado in which he ran on. So that even the folks who wouldn’t vote for him if God asked them to will at least get out of his way.

Bad Conversations and Education Reform

November 2, 2010

Improving Degree Completion for 21st Century Students, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, November 2, 2010, Screen Shot. Donald Earl Collins

I’ve been thinking about the fields in which I’ve worked and sort-have-worked in over the past fourteen years, and I’ve drawn one simple conclusion. For all of the talk of education reform, the talk about reform itself is in need of a reformation. I’m tired of the contrast between the experts in the field — who pay little attention to the cutting-edge trends, research and activism in K-16 education — and the everyday folks. They refuse to do anything except complain about teachers, as if education is as simple as organizing a file cabinet.  The who, what and what for’s regarding education reform has stifled what should be an engaging conversation, one that’s essential in the consideration of America’s twenty-first century ills.

Who’s part of this conversation remains something of an atrocity. Almost all of the experts in education reform — whether on a scholarly panel or in the documentary Waiting for Superman — tend to be Whites (more male than female) over the age of fifty. With more than one in three students in public schools of color — and with tens of thousands of teachers and administrators of color in this school districts — it’s hard to believe that all the experts are White, and most of those are middle-aged to elderly males. Their vision, at best, is a liberalized twentieth-century vision of K-12 and postsecondary education. Most of their proposed solutions — smaller class sizes, more homework, small schools, higher certification standards — will not in any way fundamentally reform K-16 education.

When combined with what’s considered important in education reform these days, it becomes painfully

A Nation At Risk (1983) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

obvious that the conversations we have on education reform are predetermined ones based on certain interests and short-sighted economic considerations. Most of the money in education reform — whether from the federal government, private foundations or corporate interests — is earmarked for things related to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). No one living in this century would deny the importance of STEM fields to a post-industrial economy. But not to the exclusion of everything else. Science folk and scribes alike still need to know how to write well, to think critically, to act ethically, to extend themselves beyond government and corporate interests.

Thomas Friedman — at least as he wrote in The World Is Flat (2005) — Bill Gates, the Obama Administration are all correct in that STEM fields will provide living wages and supply jobs at a rate over the next generation to replace the easy jobs of the by-gone era of industrial jobs straight out of high school. Yet none of them fully appreciates the connection between education reform, community development, corporate irresponsibility, lobbyists and the swaying of government policies and the politics of race and class in all of this.

STEM fields without a real direction for providing livable communities for the poor and for low-income people of color. Education reform that doesn’t do more than make scientists out of artists. Ideas that don’t account for the long-term issues of climate change and energy and resource depletion. Education policies that contradict themselves in terms of funding and a lack of understanding of what education reform truly

Double the Numbers (2004) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

means. That’s what we have now, and have had since the 1940s.

In the end, all these ideas are about is tapping the same human resources. The dwindling middle class, folks who’ve managed a traditional education track, folks whose lives are stable enough to allow the resources necessary for higher and advanced education. This need to tweak — instead of overhaul — the educational status quo and then call it reform is what leads to bad conversations. This is why what little in the way of reform actually occurs, and why so few of our kids get the reform they truly deserve.

An Honest & Open Conversation on Race?

July 26, 2010

"The Chase" Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Source: Donald Earl Collins

A few days ago, in the midst of the NAACP-Tea Party-FOX News-Shirley Sherrod-USDA-White House-Obama Administration scandals, one of my Facebook friends asked the question, “Can’t we ever have an open and honest conversation about race?” I didn’t give her a direct reply, mostly because I spent the better part of a decade attempting to answer that question through my first book Fear of a “Black” America.

But I also didn’t feel like being bothered. Though I remain hopeful, my level of optimism is nowhere near where it was in ’94, when I started work on the doctoral thesis that turned into my first book six years ago. Still, it’s an important question, to which the answer’s generally “No!,” mostly because that level of honesty is hard to come by in a nation like ours, so full of itself, so rich and imperialistic, “smiling, crying insularity,” as U2 would say.

About thirteen years ago, former President Bill Clinton attempted to open up an open and honest and

Staff of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, June 1997.

bipartisan discussion of race. President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, which started with widespread media coverage of the President’s speech at the University of California, San Diego commencement on June 14, 1997, ended with a report buried in Monicagate obscurity on September 18, 1998. President Clinton stated that the Initiative on Race was about making out “of our many different strands one America — a nation at peace with itself bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.”

The seven-member Advisory Board included the late trailblazing Black historian John Hope Franklin, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, former Mississippi governor William Winter, former CEO of Nissan Motor U.S.A. Robert Thomas, lawyer Angela Oh, Linda Chavez-Thompson, and Bronx, New York minister Suzan Johnson Cook. Three White men, one African American man, one African American woman, one Hispanic woman, and one Asian American woman, all born between 1915 and 1957, made up the Advisory Board that would give America the blueprint for beginning a sincere dialogue on race.

To say the least, the Advisory Board was not entirely representative of late-twentieth-century America. Despite each individual member’s prior accomplishments, there were a host of other scholars, ministers, CEOs, lawyers, union organizers, and former governors who should’ve been considered for this task. Beyond that, the Advisory Board’s lack of ideological (six liberals and one moderate) and age balance (the youngest person on the board was 41 in 1997) would make anyone wonder if they possessed broad enough perspectives to address race issues in 1968, much less during their 1997-98 tour on race.

The late John Hope Franklin, circa 2006.

The Advisory Board on Race – led by John Hope Franklin – traveled the nation in search of consensus but instead found controversy throughout their fifteen-month tenure. For example, Franklin refused to invite anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly to an Advisory Board meeting regarding racial diversity on college campuses on November 20, 1997, which violated the spirit of the President’s Initiative. Franklin stated that Connerly had “nothing to contribute” to the discussion on cultural differences. Connerly, as many of you already know, was a University of California regent who campaigned in 1996 for the passage of Proposition 209, which led directly to the repeal of all affirmative action programs for the state of California.

Regardless of what people like me think of Connerly, Clinton had created this mandate “so that we can better understand the causes of racial tension” — not to increase them. Not only

Ward Connerly, circa 2006.

that. It proved that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom Generation couldn’t find a way to do what South Africa, Chile, Spain, Australia, Liberia and so many other countries have been able to do in the past half-century. Have an open and honest dialogue — a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — on issues like apartheid, political repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war. Maybe it rests with our generations — Gens X and Y — to make this so, to “make it plain,” as Malcolm X would’ve said.

The Advisory Board asserted in its final report that in crisscrossing the country, they had “engage[d] the American people in a focused examination of how racial differences have affected our society and how to meet the racial challenges that face us.” That was a bald-faced lie, and not just obfuscation. The Commission instead reflected in subtle ways the previous three decades of racial divisive and political exploitation thereof. Not much has changed since ’97 and ’98, and as long as Whites feel they have something to lose — and Blacks merely four centuries of things to get off their chests — I’m afraid not much will either.


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