Artists Are Bashing President Obama. That’s A Sign of Racial Progress.

Think again.
April 30 2014 11:23 AM

The Soft Bigotry of Loose Exaltation

170793416-protestors-hold-poster-reading-stasi-2-0-depicting-us
Posters depicting President Obama as a perpetrator of mass surveillance, June 18, 2013.

Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama’s tenure is being memorialized in art, and not in the way his idolizers had hoped. According to the New York Times,

Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy.
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Advertisement

The preferred story lines are killer drones (in movies and sculpture), surveillance (in TV dramas), and the Bin Laden raid (in comic books). The article frames this in tragic terms. “There are a lot of people being let down by a president they were very enthusiastic about,” says an arts curator. “There’s a big sense of betrayal.”

I’m sorry these people feel betrayed. But their criticism isn’t a setback. It’s a sign of progress.

Electing a black president was a big deal. It was, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in The Root, “the grand achievement of a great, collective dream.” For many Americans, it was proof that we had finally transcended race.

But part of transcendence is getting over the achievement. You can’t spend eight years celebrating the election of a black man. You have to let him do the job and take the lumps.

That’s why these critical paintings, plays, and movies are healthy. They’re a sign that we’ve moved on. Artists, like others on the left, are no longer fawning over Obama because of his color. They’re treating him like any other president. And they’re discovering that a guy with roots in Kenya and Kansas can be just as vigilant, pragmatic, and lethal as the white men who came before him.

Our 43rd president talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Our 44th, in his first years in office, lived under those expectations. He was exalted as much for who he was—or, rather, who his admirers thought he was—as for what he did. Now he has to earn his praise and face the disappointment of those who idolized him. Judgment can sting, but the dream wasn’t to be judged perfect. It was to be judged on your merits.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company

Science

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 11:25 AM Gays on TV: From National Freakout to Modern Family Fun
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 11:48 AM Watch the Hilarious First Sketch From Season 4 of Key & Peele
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.