Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.

Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.

According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .

Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.

(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)

Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.

What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.

There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.

The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.

The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.

I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.

The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.

The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.

Still, it’s not too far from ugly.

5 thoughts on “Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

  1. Tiffany

    Thanks for this essay, which is particularly thought-provoking to this reader, one of “those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings” in danger of choosing her own political rationale over the appeal of a feminist cause.

    The negative spin on an eloquent and confident user of language is interesting in regards to my recent conversations with similarly-minded friends. We argue that in spite of the many missteps and unpopular decisions of our current President, one of his biggest flaws is not being able to assuage the public through language – in contrast, ironically, with the skill of the Former President Clinton in that regard:

    How much is Mrs. Clinton countering with her own Lothario?

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Thanks, Tiffany. I’m actually still somewhat on the fence, though tipping toward Obama, as my recent posts probably indicate. Despite American suspicions with language, it does seem to me that Obama is right when he insisted at the debate that words matter, that language matters. It frames the way we think about ourselves. Language can help us hope, and our hopes give birth to our efforts at least as much as our efforts create new hopes.

    Though I’m slightly appalled at my own association, it strikes me that Obama is, potentially, the Democrats’ Reagan. The Great Communicator, for whom idealism mattered at least as much as and probably a great deal more than policy. Reagan’s ascendancy, along with the failures of the 60s generation to realize it’s utopian ideals, left baby boomer Democrats embittered and suspicious of ideals. Witness how many recent Democrats have tried to run on a vague platform of post-ideological competence. The lineage of Michael Dukakis. Hasn’t worked for any of them. Bill Clinton was a policy wonk, but at least he understood people wanted to be inspired, if by nothing else then at least by the melodrama of his own overcoming.

    Hillary’s own Lothario? I’m guessing you mean sex appeal? Hard for a female politician to get away with I think. If there’s any stereotype as ingrained in American culture as the inferiority of blacks it would have to be that a sexy woman lacks something upstairs. Unfair and unfortunate, but it’s the political landscape she has to win in.

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