Feb 082008

History News Network has reproduced an article by a Paul Mirengoff titled, “Obama’s a masked man.” Mirengoff likes what he’s read of Shelby Steele’s book, “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.”

Steele views Obama as the first black politician to ride the strategy of “bargaining” to great success. For Steele, bargaining is one of two approaches blacks have used as a “mask” in order to offset the power differential between blacks and whites. He considers Louis Armstrong the first great bargainer with white America. Armstrong’s deal was, I will entertain you without pretending to be your equal. His mask, partly borrowed from the minstrel tradition, included the famous smile and laughter.

Today the bargain that works is this: I will presume that you’re not a racist and by loving me you’ll show that my presumption is correct. Blacks who offer this bargain are betting on white decency, and whites love this.

For Steele, bargainers include Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods (to some extent), and best of all Oprah Winfrey. The power of the bargain, which is founded on white Americas overwhelming desire to get beyond racism, is capable of creating “iconic Negroes.” It confers an almost magical quality on its best practitioners, such as Oprah. This is manifested in the ability to sell almost any product to whites.

Whatever the merits of whatever “bargain” it is that Obama is making, he can hardly be said to be the first black politican to do it. A case can be made that all politicians do it. George Washington obsessed over his “character,” by which he meant his public persona. And so on, with everyone else.  It’s part of the bargaining process between politician and public.

However, I think historians usually use the term “negotiated” rather than “bargaining.” I may be treading in deep water way over my head here, having had no formal education on this topic, but I run into this concept all the time in historical writing.  And a little googling found me a wiki article about “Negotiated Order Theory” in which there is this statement:

As Strauss (1978: ix) has suggested, even the most repressive of social orders are inconceivable without some form of negotiation. In such total institutions as maximum security prisons, staff and inmates may negotiate their own interpretation of the social order, often constructing an alternative that may be just as formal, although tacit, as that it replaces. The concept of negotiated order provides a useful way of displaying how such social orders emerge and become processed in the mesostructure of organizational life.

Negotiated order is the consequence of give-nd-take interaction within settings predefined by broader, and usually more formal, rules, norms, laws, or expectations, in order to secure preferred ends (or “stakes”).

“The negotiated order on any given day could be conceived of as the sum total of the organization’s rules and policies, along with whatever agreements, understandings, pacts, contracts, and other working arrangements currently obtained” (Strauss, 1978: 5-6).

In other words, all political relationships are negotiated (or bargained) relationships, even those among the most unequal of parties.    It’s hardly fair to put down Barak Obama for doing what everyone else has to do, too.

(I was amused by the other commenter besides myself, though, when she used religious language to describe the man:  “one will soon realize that it is not only Obama’s face and voice that appeal almost universally to everyone but also the content of his spoken discourse, which can transfigure us all.”)