December 29, 2008


As with all humor, the "Barack the Magic Negro" meme outrages precisely because of its accuracy. Brights don't want it pointed out that they're worshiping at a totem. Here's a post from the Summer when the matter was being discussed a bit more calmly:

Obama's Romantic Revolution: Barack Obama's promises to heal the world were lapped up in Berlin on Thursday. His speech was a masterpiece in the art of political magic -- and it was all cooly calculated. (Gabor Steingart, 7/25/08, Der Spiegel)

It's not possible yet to compare Barack Obama's words with his deeds. His name is not connected with any legislative project or reform concept, not even a concert hall in his hometown of Chicago bears his name. Until now he has been more of a popular speaker than a politician.

What is true is that he can make a speech like no one else. On Thursday evening he delivered a masterpiece in the art of political magic. He promised to heal the wounds of the world, from Israel to the melting polar ice caps. He wants to reconcile the world's religions, bring black and white people closer together, Europeans and Americans too. The genocide in Darfur should be brought to an end and he wants to end the problems of globalization with global trade that is not just free but also fair.

It's possible to be impressed by all this -- or to find it shameless. [...]

So far, Obama has been the candidate for the romantics. His skill lies in enchanting his supporters with words. Whatever is held against him, his supporters turn into his favor. The man is an unknown quantity -- no mud sticks to him! The man is measured -- no, he is visionary! He wants to save the entire world -- but it does desperately need to be saved, doesn't it?

On pressing questions from common-sense democrats, he has so far offered no answers, partly because he is probably afraid of letting down the romantics.

Lurking behind all such stories is the notion of Senator Obama as Magic Negro, Obama the 'Magic Negro': The Illinois senator lends himself to white America's idealized, less-than-real black man. (David Ehrenstein, March 19, 2007, LA Times)
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia .

He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

The question of whether you find Mr. Obama a fresh new phenomenon or a tired cliched may just be a function of your cultural literacy.

MORE (via ghostcat):
Obama, Shaman (Michael Knox Beran, Summer 2008, City Journal)

What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader's followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. "Charisma" was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a "miraculous gift of healing." James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil's fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land;! in England, the touch of the monarch's hand was believed to cure scrofula.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt--milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.

One of the objects of a mature political philosophy is to reconcile people to the painful limitations of their condition. The American Founders recognized this, as did the English statesmen who presided at the Revolution of 1688: they rejected utopianism. And yet, precisely because they knew that human beings are by nature far from perfect, they allowed a degree of scope, in their constitutional settlements, for the mysterious, quasi-magical qualities that Weber associated with charisma--rather as an architect, as a concession to human frailty, might omit the number 13 when labeling the floors of a building. The "magic" of the post-1688 English constitution, Walter Bagehot observed, lay in the pageantry of the monarchy, a relic of the mysterious grace of the healer-redeemer chiefs of old. The American Founders, after experimenting with weaker forms of executive power, created the presidency, an office spacious enough for a charismatic leader to work his wizardry but narro! w enough to prevent delusory overreaching.

Unlike the English Whigs and the American Founders, the modern liberal regards suffering not as an unavoidable element of life but as an aberration to be corrected by up-to-date political, economic, and hygienic arrangements. Rather than acknowledge the limitations of our condition, the liberal continually contrives panaceas that will enable us to transcend it.

Barack Obama, in taking up the part of regenerative healer, is the latest panacea.

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[originally posted: 7/25/08]

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2008 7:54 AM
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