Michelle Obama’s convention speech has been both applauded and criticized for being too emotional. Those amazed at her love towards her husband have shed a tear or two, while the detractors are disappointed at her personal narrative lacking statistical substance.
A critical inquiry would reveal that her speech was anything but emotive. It was a carefully orchestrated rehash of an old American fixation with individual merits, family values and competitive prosperity. Her speech was a blueprint for humanizing capitalism. It was a justification for the status quo politics that has uniformly strengthened a populist cry for American hegemony; decade after decade, regime after regime. Michelle Obama’s speech has merely colored the template acceptable.
Michelle Obama’s Reaganesque slant has been systematically downplayed precisely because Democrats are still hanging on to the portraits of FDR as their last success story, while Republicans do not wish for their anticommunist legend to be confused with the so-called socialist rival they are pitted against.
Michelle Obama’s narration of her (and the president’s) upbringing was not a condemnation of a racist society during the time freedom fighters in America were being officially brutalized. It was a eulogization of a “good old days” era that only could make the most conservative lots get remorseful with nostalgia. Her autobiographical sketch of getting educated through student loans was not an outright rejection of an economic model that inherently weakens the youth. It was rather a vociferous defense of the authorized loan sharks who prevail upon a commercialized school system heralded by the Republicans and Democrats alike.
Michelle Obama’s reference to her dad not missing a day’s work despite Multiple Sclerosis was not an indictment of a merciless society where people with disabilities continue to fend for themselves. It was an attestation that her dad was a hero, not a victim, the kinds of which she feels elated to greet across the nation, sadly even to this day. Her refusal to believe that indeed nothing has improved systematically – be it last four or forty years – is a privileged faith. Her conclusion that a few handfuls of poor rising to the top in the competitive ladders of American capitalism as a mark of an ideal society, is an individualist myopia she shares with fellow Republicans, Ayn Rand or not.
Michelle Obama’s romanticized portrayal of her parents as the brave Americans who were determined to give their children the kind of education they could only dream of was sadly a result of an elitist education she and the President himself acquired – an education deeply and meticulously devoid of preparing students to analyze the conditions that nurture fissures in a class society. Michelle Obama’s glorious depiction of the education system was precisely the anathema to what the Black Panthers decades ago outlined for the oppressed people of America: “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.”
Sure, the First Lady sympathized with the “middle-class” and she recalled the poverty afflicting millions in America, and she identified with the people without basic healthcare and secure jobs. But she deliberately refused to expose the true nature of the capitalistic society she and her husband today boss over – a society that must leisurely thrive at the expense of toiling masses, a society that must look upon higher education at Ivy League schools as the solution while regretting over the working class uneducated poor as the problems, while mysteriously solving the factoring gap as one of intent and hard-work. A society that prides itself for designer clothing Michelle Obama endorses, the stay-fit-eat-healthy campaign she feels compelled to launch in a country where most public school students tragically skip mid-day meals, a society that exuberantly spends on conventions the very week that witnesses people being rendered homeless through mismanaged natural calamities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
To be charitable and sympathetic and remorseful are not just about emotions. They are individual approvals for systemic overtures. Gratitude and humility are among other traits Michelle Obama instructed American people to imbibe in her speech. Not because the oppressed Americans are unfamiliar with such virtues. But because as demonstrated by organized nationwide protests year after year, majority of Americans have thoroughly gotten tired of soaking in gratitude and humility. They have been getting increasingly sick of remaining enslaved and grateful at the same time. They have been waiting for grassroots organizers to lead them in a revolution that would radically restructure the status quo. Michelle Obama’s speech sanitizing an extravagantly mainstream political party which has gained immensely from misusing peoples’ trusts over decades, was only geared towards pacifying and disempowering the very spirit of collective agitation through advocating the merits of individual selfishness.
The reality is that gratitude and humility work together with selfishness. What Barack and Michelle Obama’s families did for them were what parents do for their children, what families do for their members. The First Family’s stress on family values has absolutely nothing to do with development of society. Love towards family remains intact whether the members are rich or poor because family is the most self-centric unit human beings have ever devised. Too often, our family values – of the rich and those who aspire to be rich (the so-called middle class) – educate us to remain grateful and humble towards an otherwise exploitative society, lest any rebelliousness disturbs the imagined peace and comforting harmony. In case of Michelle Obama, it unfortunately translated into presiding over an exploitative society while “feeling” for those who are beneath the First Family. She and her husband feel, she declared, for those who are left behind. Heck, she expressed a little more love for her husband precisely because he felt also for those who leave others behind: “I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them” – he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country.”
Loving thy enemies is not an emotional appeal; it is a rigorously tested political move to attract the undecided voters. Boasting of “helping women get equal pay” is not an attack on a sexist system, it is a smart ploy to get women voters by the side of those who pass bills, no matter how ineffective. Increasing student aid for higher education is not amounting to make education possible for all, it is a legitimate way to keep a citizenry effectively indebted. Michelle Obama was not about emotions that night. She was about perpetuation of an action plan that is synonymous with capitalism at its most acceptable helm.
Four years ago, she had confessed “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country”. When that sparked controversy, she clarified, “not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”
She was right about that one. People were indeed hungry for change. But like all politicians obsessed with their own success stories, Michelle and Barack Obama continue to believe that people just want a change in the most powerful household. That is because, the ruling class too often sees the world from its power lenses and it narrates the world history through its own acquisitions/achievements.
The overlooked reality has always been different. People are hungry for changes, but not in farcical facelifts every four years masquerading as progresses: they are hungry for changes in the inherently biased societal structures of the world, in the poverty-sustaining capitalistic economics, and in the cultural purities of society that need drastic challenges. As a result, no matter which family hosts the dinners at the White House, those elite entities are certainly not going to be agents of the change the working class people deserve.
Majority of the masses therefore continue to remain hungry for change; and it has nothing to do with the White House.
And, intoxicated with power politics, unable to comprehend the world through the prism of the peoples, Michelle Obama – four years later – doesn’t want anymore to change a thing.
(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)