Against the Fetish of History

There wasn't rap when I was pickin cotton saying massa,
Ya'll young whippersnappers, with your pants on backwards...
--Redman

I think there's a sense that those of us who thought Obama's jibe at recent technology are somehow oversensitive. As is typical, this post from Cynic got me to thinking. For some context, Cynic is responding to the notion that Obama was actually being self-deprecating:


I'm all for self-deprecation, but this doesn't count. Obama is attacking the overuse of these devices; in that context, his ignorance is presented as more of a virtue than a flaw. It's self-deprecating to make such a confession in a speech lauding technological innovation. It's sanctimonious to highlight your own traditionalism in a speech lauding traditional approaches to information. 

Obama is at his best when he manages to combine an appreciation for the merits of his opponents' views with a compelling explanation of why his own are superior. He's a master at doing this with groups to his right. Ironically, though, he has a much harder time managing a similar degree of empathy when addressing audiences that are less conservative. 

What he ought to have done in this speech was praise the new horizons made available by technological innovation, thereby reassuring his audience that he understands why they have embraced such devices, and then proceeded to explain why these new media must be used for more than entertainment. Instead, he alienated his audience before he challenged it. That's not a rhetorically effective posture. 

I think this explains a fair amount of the criticism that's been launched against Obama from the left. It's not just his policy positions. It's that he doesn't always seem capable of according their views the same inherent legitimacy he so graciously (and wisely) extends to his opponents on the right. And it comes across just as strongly when talking to young audiences, and to black ones. He assumes he possesses the credibility to speak tough truths; he doesn't work, rhetorically, to earn it. And then he seems perpetually taken aback when his remarks provoke a backlash.

As I mentioned in the original post, this is a position that Obama often takes with black audiences, and he's been criticized for it. I think Cynic puts it in the proper, and much broader, political context. Obama knows his natural constituency and thus doesn't feel he has to signal anything. They're his people--and I don't just mean black people, I mean the young, the early-adopters, the urban, etc. 

I strongly suspect that those warnings about the iPod were directed at the parents of those graduating from Hampton, much as I suspect that Obama's hectoring about not thinking you're Lil' Wayne, isn't actually directed at kids. It's a kind of tribal signaling that says, "I'm young. I'm not totally like you. But I understand your fears and concerns. I see the kids with their pants hanging down, and their hippedy-hoppedy, with the iPod in their ears, texting, saying nigger every two minutes, and I'm worried about the future too." For the record, I don't think it's totally an act either. (Though, I suspect the iPod stuff was less than honest.) 

Look, I bring my own baggage to this. I came up in a place and a time that I did not understand, and thus spent much of my youth translating. What little solace I had, I found in locales that were disdained by the larger culture. X-Men and Spider-Man taught me that it was OK to be different--but comic-books weren't "real reading." Hip-hop taught me the power of words and helped me better translate the world I'd been born into--but hip-hop wasn't "real music." Programming my little Commodore-64 taught me about world-building--but programming a C-64 was not "real work." D&D taught me about the power of imagination--but D&D was devil-worship.
What saved me from the pronouncements of the broader culture was my parents. My dad was a comic-book fan as a kid. My mother once went so far as to roll a character and actually play a session with me and one of my brothers. My dad, for whatever reason, knew to listen to NWA, to listen to Ice Cube, to listen to PE, critique it, and then hand it back. Perhaps I have this wrong, but I don't think that's the normal way for most geeks. But given the sanctions of the larger culture, I don't know what I'd do without it. The world is suspicious of the new. But I didn't immediately know that Moby-Dick, Picasso, and Coltrane were genius. What would I have been without the bridge of those new languages, of those new ways of being?

So when I hear people dismiss today's new ways of being, when I hear them confess their ignorance of the new ways with no humility, when I hear them say, "I can't be bothered to understand this, but I'm going to dismiss it anyway," I have an instinct to speak for those kids out there who see something in Grand Theft Auto that may not. 

I think what rankles me most is that in this statement...

With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations--none of which I know how to work--information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.

...Obama is essentially espousing prejudice. I don't know what else to call the simple solution of boastful ignorance and judgement. That it is prejudice against the ways of the young, as opposed to prejudice against, say gay people, while obviously a lesser evil, isn't comforting. I have spent much of my time here grappling with the past, hopefully encouraging people to see the beauty of the past. I am obviously not a futurist, but I am not a nostalgic either. I reject the notion of the good old days when neighbors whipped other people's kids, as wholly as I reject the grand liberated future of flying cars.

The kind of traditionalism that Obama often espouses, the age old wisdom, the reverence of formalized education, is likely great advice for 80 percent of this country. But some of us come up different. For some of us, technology is democracy. Through World of Warcraft, I met and talked to people who I simply could not have known any other way. I was print journalist for over a decade. If I had my druthers, it's all I would do.But I have no tolerance for those who blindly complain about bloggers killing "Real Journalism." To the extent that "Real Journalism" ever existed, it's as flawed and problematic, in its own ways, as blogging.

These new modes of speaking, of communicating, are no more perfect than the old modes, but for some of us--for that 20 percent that can't get it the traditional way--they're essential. Without blogging, I'm a cab-driving college drop-out, with an obscure memoir, and pile of rejection letters. Not to be brash, but I'd argue that among that 20 percent you'll find a healthy number of innovators, people who question because they really have no other choice.

So much of human genius is unintentional, is stumbled upon, and found amidst the ruins of dead traditions and full-proof plans. Who knows how it all ends? Who can really say?
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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