Obama’s Inaugural: A Progressive Exegesis of the Constitution

via huffingtonpost.com

via huffingtonpost.com

My last semester of college I took a remarkable course taught by Eddie Glaude, “The American Jeremiad and Social Criticism.” Structured to explore the space between Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism and Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, the course achieved a number of complex goals. It offered a history of American civil-religious discourse from colonial times to the present, but it also explored how, from America’s inception, African American discourse had critiqued the lofty promises of a slaveholding enterprise. The Exodus story was central to the course (as it was in Glaude’s own recent work) and to the basis of Black critique of American rhetoric. While early pilgrims saw the colonies as “God’s New Israel,” as a deliverance from bondage, African-Americans saw that “there’s bondage on both sides of these blood red waters.” Freedom still needed to be fought for, and rhetorically defended, in the not-yet Land of the Free.


Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism is essentially conservative: he advocates for the position that laws and morals are best derived from interpreting and re-interpreting sacred texts: the Bible, the Constitution, earlier tropes and symbols. He writes, “moral argument is (most often) interpretive in character” (21). That is, we make our moral arguments through interpreting earlier texts, histories, events. On the first day of Glaude’s class, we watched Obama’s recent “Yes, We Can” speech, delivered after winning the South Carolina primary. In that speech, Obama suggests, with some historical hubris, that his phrase “yes we can” is actually a “timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words.” With this speech, Obama introduced a vision of America rooted in change versus stasis, but he rooted this vision always in reinterpreting the past, not challenging it. Then we watched Will.i.am’s remix of the speech, where celebrities speak along with Obama to a slick, optimistic beat. Obama’s speech and Will.i.am’s video were both acts in remix: Obama remixed past tropes into a speech, while Will.i.am remixed a speech back into pop culture. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for this liberal, African-American presidential nominee, Professor Glaude was ever skeptical. He pointed out how then-Senator Obama’s speech drew on earlier tropes from American civil-religious discourse, how Obama’s genius was in weaving together themes, tropes, and even inflection and cadence from previous presidents and prophets.

william yes we can

I thought of Professor Glaude’s class this morning, while listening to President Obama’s inaugural address. Obama displayed the same fluency with American tropes and cadence that Professor Glaude pointed out to us eight years ago. The President’s speech today was a triumph of Walzerian re-interpretation. Taking the Constitution as his template, President Obama’s speech presented an inclusive portrait of “We the people” and a progressive understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bucking the critics who see him as an enemy of the Constitution, Obama rooted his progressive vision within that foundational document, re-claiming the Constitution for American progressives.

glaude exodus

The President’s approach, however, was a conservative one. He argued from within our canon, not against it. Instead of challenging the Constitution’s language, Obama critically re-interpreted it. By referencing “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma,” Obama read America’s movements for women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights back into a document that cared little–nothing–for women, gays, or people of color. In so doing, Obama reified the power of the Constitution, but he also rededicated himself to a document that can be interpreted powerfully and progressively. He advocated for equal pay for women, gay rights, a path to immigration, livable wages, an end to endless wars, a vision he rooted in the Constitution. This morning’s speech was a masterful display of a moral argument made through interpretation, worthy of our professorial President.

Sam Jackson says, “Wake the Fuck Up!”

Most obviously, this video is a funny repurposing of Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep for apathetic political times. However, by popping up in a white family’s various bedrooms, Samuel L. Jackson also recasts black rage as black engagement, thereby recontextualizing an angry “Fuck!”: from “Fuck the police” as “Say hell no, motherfuckers!”

And to that we can all say: righteous.

CTRL+F (A Clinton-Era Vignette)


It’s been a long, hot summer in Michigan, I’m not teaching until fall, and I don’t have air conditioning–perfect conditions for long steamy afternoons spent curled up with the World Wide Web. I start with the Huffington Post and the New York Times, then slide into Jezebel and Politico. The Sartorialist and Garance Dore are always just a click away. I slip back into HuffPo Style Section. I go back to Jezebel. I troll the opinion pages of NYT for new blog posts by Mark Bittman and Charles Blow. If I’m really desperate, I check MediaTakeout for new pictures of Kanye and Kim. I watch all the videos on NewBlackMan. I read Alternet, Colorlines, even Grantland. I scour my Twitter feed for more articles. GOOD. TheGrio. Fast Company. The LA Times. The Chicago Reader. I watch old episodes of Melissa Harris Perry and Rachel Maddow. I watch the Politico Playback, clips of last night’s political standup. I feel a little dizzy. I drink water. I start all over again. On bad days I check the reflection on Fox News

How did it get like this? 

In 1998, when I was in seventh grade, I heard about the Kenneth Starr Report at school. At home that night, I climbed up to our third floor office and powered on the hulking green Acer computer my dad had brought home a few years earlier. I must have signed on to AOL, that penned-in area we used to think was the whole Internet. Somewhere beyond the News! and Gossip! and Chat! buttons, there was a search bar. I typed in what I needed and was presented with the results. I probably found myself on this same dated looking Washington Post page with its endless iterations of scandal. So, presented with the option of a full text search, I did what any burgeoning young researcher would do. I typed in “blowjob.” 

Repeating my search now, a decade and a half later, I see this query yields no results. I don’t know if my twelve year old self was wise to the relevant synonyms. If I did, I may have discovered these moments of titillating political reporting:

Ms. Lewinsky testified that her physical relationship with the President included oral sex but not sexual intercourse.(38) According to Ms. Lewinsky, she performed oral sex on the President; he never performed oral sex on her.(39) Initially, according to Ms. Lewinsky, the President would not let her perform oral sex to completion. In Ms. Lewinsky’s understanding, his refusal was related to “trust and not knowing me well enough.”(40) During their last two sexual encounters, both in 1997, he did ejaculate.(41) (Starr, The Starr Report) 


(A few weeks later I got in trouble at school for drawing and circulating a cartoon that featured our Jewish Studies teacher in the role of Monica Lewinsky, with the caption, “Tastes like roast chicken on Shabbos.”)


Is it any wonder, in the light of Kenneth Starr’s daring prose, that I spend my afternoons in search of the perfect mix of political maneuverings and celebrity gossip? Just as growing up under the reigning Chicago Bulls dulled future attempts at sports fandom — what, every team doesn’t win every game, every year, forever? — so coming of age under Bill Clinton’s most amorous years melded the realms of the tabloids and the Times. I should be grateful, perhaps, to have learned in such momentous fashion that politics are sleazy and smut is political. The president pulling the same ish as the eighth graders, undersupervised, on a field trip, on the front page of the Washington Post? More like Bill and Monica: 50 Shades of Seventh Grade

Congratulations, Monsieur Hollande: What Obama Could Never Do

On Sunday, fiscal conservatives the world over freaked out when France elected its Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, and ousted the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. While I am interested in the shifts this upset will cause in world affairs, I am more interested in the following campaign advertisement for Hollande, discovered by Pitchfork and brought to my attention by a friend.

 If you were wondering what I thought “Obama could never do,” it’s release a campaign video like this one. I mean, Obama invited Jay-Z to his 50th birthday bash and Fox News headlined its coverage, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” But because Hollande, a white man, does not have to worry about his electorate remembering that he is a Black man, he can explicitly reach out to French voters of color by featuring them in a campaign ad backed by the Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Niggas in Paris.” Umcensored.

Slate calls the ad “unlikely”; Pitchfork calls it “confusing” and “strange.” Neither seem to analyze it beyond the pun “That shit Creil,” where Creil is the name if a city shown a few times in the ad that is pronounced like Kanye’s “cray.” But this ad is amazing to me for so many reasons that neither publication seems willing to explore.

Fox News’ Obama birthday banner image

First, the title of the song. Hollande’s commercial literally depicts “Niggas in Paris,” even as it totally recontextualizes the subjects of the song. In the original, Ye and Jay are high-rolling American Black men partying in an idealized Paris. Jay raps, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” But in Hollande’s ad, these niggas in Paris aren’t high-rollers and they’re in their own country. In fact, the video is explicitly concerned with portraying people of color as French citizens, with constructing the French voting citizenry as a racially and culturally diverse body. Much of the ad consists of a multiracial cohort of people holding out their voter cards and smiling wildly. One of the first shots is of a woman in hijab, a symbol of Muslim religious practice that has become controversial  in much of right-leaning Europe. (In fact, full face veils are actually illegal in France.) There are also a lot of shots of Hollande speaking enthusiastically to folks who do or don’t look like him. Indeed, Hollande’s advertisement suggests that the people it depicts are more than “niggas in Paris,” that is, outsiders to be labelled in a place that does not belong to them: instead, they are French citizens with the power to shape their country’s future through voting.

A comment on Slate claims this ad was created by supporters, not by Hollande’s campaign itself. I don’t know. I wish Melissa Harris-Perry was here to talk about the construction of citizenship. But it’s all good. This video still rocks my political socks. What do you guys think?

A Very Short Close Reading for All the Anti-Reproductive Health Haters Out There

Tell my cousin Jerry, to wear ‘is condom,

If you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum,

Wo, oh, oh oh,  you sucka MC’s you got no flow…

– Wyclef Jean, “Gone Til November”

In nine words, Wyclef acknowledges a more nuanced portrait of reproductive health than the entire Republican party has evidenced in months of speeches, campaigning, and proposed anti-contraception and anti-choice legislation at the state level. What does Wyclef say? In the persona of a young man leaving his girl “til November,” Wyclef issues some parting wishes. (“And give a kiss to my mother.”) In one notable line, quoted above, Wyclef asks us to “tell my cousin Jerry, wear ‘is condom”–good advice for any young man seeking to avoid illness or children. But Wyclef goes on: “if you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum.” What work a quick allusion to The Shining does!

Of course, in Stanley Kubric’s 1980 film, the nonsense word “REDRUM” is written on the bathroom door by a psychic little boy (gifted, in fact, with the eponymous “shining”); viewed in the mirror, the word reveals its meaning: MURDER. (With a backwards R. Because little kids are involved. Cute, right?) So when Wyclef raps, “If you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum,” he uses the allusive power of that word to do a few things. First, most basically, to mean murder, that is, abortion. The assumption here is that Jerry is not trying to be a daddy. Well, Jerry, if you don’t wear a condom, you’ll see a murder go down. What did you expect? However, part of the power in the word “redrum,” simply “murder” backwards, is its aural evocation of “red room.” In The Shining, the whole Overlook Hotel becomes a sort of red room, a murderous space. In Wyclef’s line, it’s Jerry’s partner’s uterus that becomes a red room. So “redrum” packs the double punch not just of denoting murder (or here, abortion), but also of conjuring a red space brimming with potential tragedy.

Into this simple allusive line, Wyclef builds surprising moral accountability: if “you,” cousin Jerry, don’t use protection, “you” will be the one to “see a redrum.” That is, you hold responsibility for the tragedy of the abortion to follow. There, too, lies a subtlety missed by so much of our current discourse: that it is precisely because abortion is a tragedy–a “redrum” in all its connotations–that contraception is so essential. In our current discourse, women’s bodies are present but their agency is excluded. So, too, in Wyclef’s line, where there’s no mention of a woman except for her redrum. But while current debates propose the uterus as a site for men’s policing, Wyclef envisions the uterus as a site for male responsibility and accountability.