Obama's Speech on Race

Race is an issue that I don't often talk about. Like a lot of white men, I tend not to think of myself in racial terms (or gender terms for that matter) while I generally try my best to treat everyone as equals regardless of the color of their skin or any other physical characteristic.

The metaphor of navigating a minefield here is as apt as it is frequently invoked. When I have discussed matters related to race in the past, I have no doubt that I've made an occasional misstep, uttering remarks which may have been racially insensitive. I honestly regret the offense I may have caused anyone at those times.

Despite the dangers involved, it would be a mistake never to speak about race, because it is clearly something that plays a significant role in American life, whether we like it or not. This is why Barack Obama's speech on the issue, an extremely powerful statement that did not shy away from tackling it head on, is so important and so necessary.

I strongly encourage you, if you have not already done so, to take a look at the speech, or at least read the transcript. I will offer my thoughts as I do in this forum, but I think it best for people to form their own opinions by going to the source without the distorting influence of pre-given interpretations by others. Of course we always carry with us preconceptions and prejudices, but there is nevertheless a value in trying to approach things with an open mind.

From here on, I will assume the reader has experienced the speech firsthand.

As I perused the Internet after reading it, looking at editorials and analyses as well as comments on these pieces from anonymous netizens, I found that most people's responses fell into one of two groups. In one, there was the expression of a kind of ecstatic hope, an almost religious feeling of being uplifted and deeply touched by his sentiments. The other consisted of vociferous anger directed at perceived contradictions accompanied with disgust that so many people could be "duped" by Obama's rhetoric. Given such strong and opposite reactions, what are we to make of this speech?

It should go without saying that one's prior feelings about Obama play a significant role here. Those who support his candidacy will almost invariably find his words inspirational, while those who oppose him will more than likely be upset and dismissive. These two groups hear in Obama's oration what they want and expect to hear, and by and large would react in a similar way even if it had taken any number of other forms.

(This is not to suggest that there aren't people who defy these expectations. A substantial number of people offered good reasons to justify their emotional responses. In taking up the stance I am now, I'm writing as though I did not fall into either of these groups. This is not entirely true, however, because I decided a few weeks ago, albeit with some reluctance, to back Obama. This speech put a number of my worries about him to rest, but I can't deny that I went into the experience with a generally positive outlook.)

At any rate, the most informative responses, I believe, will be those coming from people who, up until now, did not feel strongly one way or another. I came across a few of these. Some who were undecided said they were touched and that this made the decision for them. Even some previously ardent Clinton supporters seemed to find themselves torn between the two candidates after hearing Obama's moving words. At the same time, I saw reports of others who reacted with discomfort, who were uneasy about dwelling on these difficult contradictions in American life. Some thought race was not really an important issue and were unhappy that this much attention was being focused on it.

Even though I saw fewer of these, the variety of responses from people in this group was significantly greater, and unsurprisingly I was unable to discern any general trends from the small, unrepresentative sample I encountered. In the coming days and weeks, we'll see polls and eventually primary results which will give us a better sense of the larger impact.

Right now, it's anyone's guess what shape that impact will have. It's clear that Obama took some serious risks--he wrote the speech himself and delivered it without vetting it before focus groups or taking polls to see how people would react--and decided to communicate what he actually felt with a candor almost unprecedented in the politics of our time.

He defied the expectations of many "savvy" political commentators and reporters (many of whom seemed to entirely miss the central points of the speech) and actually addressed the issues with a degree of subtlety and nuance that presupposed that Americans are intelligent and reasonable enough to make complex judgments about almost intractable moral and political problems. Perhaps he overestimated the ability of most Americans, but it's painfully obvious that too much of the news media and far too many politicians underestimate it, perhaps grossly.

I found Obama's speech to be both brilliant and inspirational, and perhaps one of the greatest speeches in modern American history, for at least three reasons, which I'll share.

First, he was able to draw parallels between black experience and white experience, showing how both groups are capable of racist thinking, while giving an account of why such thinking occurs and acknowledging that it won't disappear over night. At the same time, he called on both groups to take responsibility and not to blame members of another race for the problems they face.

Instead, he deflected the blame to the unchecked greed and unregulated excesses of corporate America. This was a master stroke, both because it acknowledges that human beings need to blame someone for their problems, and because more people now are being pressed economically and are all too aware of Wall St.'s misdeeds with the recent financial bail-outs making the news. In addition to being strategically brilliant, it has the added virtue of being true.

Second, Obama showed, once again, how the politics of hope can overcome the politics of fear. Spinoza, in addition to penning the highly relevant quotation I cite in my header (the one that acknowledges that reason alone is insufficient to sway people, but must also have an affective, emotional dimension), rightly argued that hope and fear are the two most powerful emotions politically. Reason will get us nowhere, he teaches us, if we ignore the fundamental realities of human psychology. It's difficult, but one can influence people without being manipulative, and I think Obama does just that.

Obama's campaign has become a broad-based social movement because he knows how to wield hope skillfully and because people are sick of the fear that has disastrously guided this country's actions for (at least) the past seven years. He doesn't talk down to people as does President Bush, and is far more transparent about the motivations for his policy preferences. In short, he treats others equally as rational moral agents, regardless of how much they may disagree with him. Applying these strengths to the race issue, one in which fear of the Other plays all-too-dominant a role, is not only appropriate; it is of potentially tremendous benefit to this country's future.

Finally, Obama eschewed many of the pretenses and rhetorical flourishes of some of his earlier speeches and tried to connect to citizens on a personal level. Having come from mixed ethnic background, he was able to tell both blacks and whites, I think credibly, that he knows what we're going through. As he has often done, he was able to use specific examples of real people's lives powerfully, ending with a story of how Americans from very different worlds, a young white woman and an old black man, were able to come together over a common political purpose.

In some ways, this is the most important quality of this speech and the one that demands firsthand exposure. It made me think to my own experience. I of course have never been the victim of racism firsthand, but I happen to have a member of my immediate family for whom this is a very real possibility.

Several years ago, my parents decided to adopt a little girl from Guatemala. She's of mixed ethnicity but has the features and skin-tone to appear as an African American. She is also one of the most delightful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Even though she has been on this earth not much longer than a decade, she has been able to make astounding connections with other people of all walks of life--my parents joke that she has more adult friends than they do. Her affability and empathy, coupled with a flair for occasional theatrics (although that could just be a product of youth), make her unlike anyone else in my family (we tend to be bookish and on the shy side).

That she could be the victim of racial slurs and slights, of discrimination and prejudice, is a matter I prefer not to think about, because it deeply saddens and angers me. But I look to the example of Barack Obama and what he has been able to do both to transcend racial divisions personally and to inspire others to come together across this divide, and it literally brings tears to my eyes. It gives me hope at a point in my life when cynicism comes all too easily.

Perhaps Obama cannot deliver on his promises and will turn out to be a politician like any other. Perhaps. But I've seen what American politics looks like in the past quarter century and I know that I don't like it. I think he deserves a chance.

To be able to inspire people with his eloquence is more than just rhetoric; to effectively instill hope in others is to increase the likelihood that those hopes will be realized. When people are motivated to pursue a common good, they can do far more than they could isolated in the world of distraction that capitalism has created for us.

That's why his words matter and that's why he should be the next President of the United States.

UPDATE: This article in the NY Times on the impact of Obama's speech and the way it actually is opening up a conversation in America on race is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about (see also my response to another commenter below). Today, in fact, I myself had a very productive discussion with fellow grad students about this very topic.

Some people complain that he is all talk and no action, but they fail to understand how a skilled orator like Obama is acting in profound ways when he speaks. (Those familiar with "speech act" theory might consider extending its insights to an example like this.) That he is able to inspire people with his words, to motivate them to take further action--this is perhaps his greatest asset as a presidential candidate (and president, much of whose power is, as one of my friends pointed out, largely symbolic, directing the national conversation and so forth) and why I feel quite confident now in supporting him.


The Abolition of Intellectual Property

Information should be free.

Music, movies, books, software, and other intellectual or artistic products should be a source of income only to the extent that something physical is being sold (e.g., a CD as opposed to its songs, a physical book as opposed to its chapters). The very notion of intellectual property is, in our digital age, no longer tenable; this turns out to be yet another aspect of life that shows there are limits to the capitalistic model that maintains that self-interest (profit) is the only feasible human motive.

I suspect that most of the people who read this blog are sympathetic to the idea, for instance, of free music. But even if you regularly use BitTorrent or some other P2P sharing, you probably have some reservations. You might think that what you're doing is stealing in some sense, or at least that there's something vaguely wrong about it (just not wrong enough to prevent you from doing it).

I would suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, that in fact trying to charge somebody money for an idea is the real theft. It seems the other way only because this absurd notion, "intellectual property", has been institutionally imposed on these older legitimate concepts: ideas, images, theories, words, artworks, songs, films, etc.

Let me back up these claims with arguments. First, consider the consequences of abolition. Imagine, tomorrow, that all copyright laws were to be purged from the books. Industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA would vanish in a puff of smoke and sulfur (along with a good many lawyers). Would this mean that artists, authors, entertainers, and so forth, would also cease to exist, no longer having the means to support themselves? By no means--here's why:

Let me use an analogy, by looking at a case where ideas still exist free of the notion that they are property. Scientists conduct experiments and publish the results but this data is freely available (especially as more academic journals are going online). This relatively free distribution (I'm skipping some of the details, but bear with me) is not only not a problem, it is of tremendous benefit to scientists everywhere. Indeed, this openness is a prerequisite of the success of the sciences; it is necessary for innovation and progress.

There's a system in place so that credit is given where it is due--i.e., by citing sources--but these citations do not function as a source of income. Imagine what it would be like if we had to pay a fee every time we cited someone else's research results or theories: it would destroy the institution of science as we know it.

How is it, then, that science is a sustainable practice if people aren't directly profiting from their ideas? Simple: they support themselves by other means. Most scientists are either academics--making a living by also being educators, teaching classes, supervising dissertations, and the like--or are private researchers working for companies that sell other goods and services that put these ideas to work.

The same can apply to the music industry and by extension to movies, television, and other areas. Musicians can make a living by selling the kinds of things that aren't information-based and can't be freely copied, say, by performing live shows for money and by selling CDs and T-shirts and other physical media just as they do now. If they are good and develop enough of a following, they can make a decent living.

As an example, I need only cite my two favorite bands, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, who are moving to a model like this--and quite successfully, I might add. Now, of course, not every musician has the popularity that these groups enjoy. It will be hard for new artists to emerge and establish a name for themselves, but this is already the case under the current regime. Unfortunately, not everyone has the talent to make a living off of music. (This of course doesn't mean that they can't still play music in their free time; they may just have to take up another vocation to support themselves.)

There'd be other advantages to eliminating copyright and similar laws. Consider remixes and the practice of sampling in genres like hip-hop. This has almost become impossible because of the idiocy of intellectual property--contrary to the corporate propaganda, trying to charge money for every sample, no matter how brief, has severely stifled creativity and innovation in music.

Art has a long history of artists "citing" famous images produced by other artists without paying some absurd fee to them. (I'm not an art historian, so I can't offer tons of concrete examples, but it's a long recognized practice in the art world. One example: Marcel DuChamp's famous rendition of Mona Lisa with a mustache.) As long as we give people credit and don't try to pass off their artistic or intellectual creations as our own, we are not doing anything morally objectionable.

See, I'm not entirely opposed to capitalism (I'm not for the abolition of all property as is, say, Marx), but we should reassess our assumption that people can own ideas, words, images, and the like. These belong properly to the public domain and constitute a common good--something which the rampant reign of capitalism has practically destroyed.

In the spirit of this alternative proposal, I must give credit to Wired's Chris Anderson, in particular, who wrote an article in this month's issue of the magazine outlining something very much like this. I've just expanded on his arguments and extended their scope. I will gladly recognize my indebtedness to his thinking, but don't expect me to send him a check!


Addendum: Some further support for this position just occurred to me. I'm going to try to articulate this dialogically by invoking an imaginary objector--I will do my best to prevent turning him into a straw man.

"What you say is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that it's against the law, and is therefore wrong."

I grant that it is currently against the law. This is a question of fact, or at least of legal interpretation. My argument is that the law does not have a solid ethical justification here. Whether that merits breaking the law is a question I'll remain neutral about. If nothing else, my conclusion would warrant trying to change the law.

"But there is some justification to the law. If I write a poem or make a sculpture or compose a song, assuming I already legitimately possessed the tools and materials used, shouldn't I own that thing that I've made?"

To answer this I think requires looking at the institution of property more generally. Unless you are someone like Locke that thinks that property is somehow a natural right--a view I won't contest here, but one I doubt is commonly held today--you recognize that it is a social institution. It's a matter of convention, so there are no facts to determine whether an idea is "really" a piece of property or not aside from the social facts, i.e., the laws and implicit norms of a specific culture.

Now let's consider the kinds of justifications given for property laws. There are numerous practical advantages to be able to have exclusive control over certain physical objects. Since these are obvious I won't go into details or try to provide further justifications, but take this exclusive control as a recognized good. Now, it would be bad if someone took one of those objects from me without my permission, because I would no longer have that object under my control.

But what if, hypothetically, he could just make a facsimile of that object for his own use? I would keep my object and he would have one of his own to control as he saw fit. In fact, when I wasn't using my object, it would just be selfish of me not to make it available for that process of copying, although it would be nice if the guy gave me credit if someone asked him, "hey, where did you get that?" I think you can see how this hypothetical case is roughly how things stand with ideas, which can be shared without anyone losing anything.

"But what if, say, I put a lot of hard work into making that item while this other person skips all that and just takes the finished product for his own use? Isn't this unfair?"

I think you are getting at something here having to do with issues of relative status. I'm not hurt by losing the object, but if I'm in competition with this other individual I am now at a disadvantage, because he benefits from my work without having to put forth the effort himself (aside from the relatively easy act of the copying). So, to employ a useful distinction: in absolute terms, I am no worse off because I have lost nothing; in relative terms, however, I am worse off because someone else has gained something without paying the costs I paid to make that object.

"Precisely. The same thing applies to issues of prestige or fame. It would be wrong to profit from someone else's efforts like that. Isn't this a sufficient justification for intellectual property?"

I would say it's a justification but not a sufficient one, and one that happens to be overruled by the following considerations. The problem with status competitions and the like is that they are zero sum games. In order for someone to be rich or famous, most people have to be relatively poor or unpopular. Now, this is good to the extent that it can motivate people to produce things that everyone can benefit from; you do your work, I do mine, we trade, etc., etc., you have the foundations of a market economy.

But, there are plenty of non-zero sum games whose benefits for all of humanity can outweigh the benefits that are accrued by playing according to the rules of zero sum games only. Hence, with cooperation, you have a good which is greater than the sum of its parts.

(If this isn't obvious take the following example. Let's say we're both farmers in a relatively simple culture and we're trying to prepare our land to raise food, but there are a couple of large rocks that we each have on our property. Neither of us is strong enough to move the rocks alone, but if we join forces and take turns, first I help you move your rock then you help me move mine, we can move them. The same level of effort, roughly speaking, is able to be more effective because it's redistributed more sensibly.)

So, the question we need to ask is this: are the consequences from losing the motivation that relative status offers (i.e., the "profit motive") sufficient to eliminate the goods that we recognize and enjoy from having a wide assortment of intellectual and artistic creations at our disposal? In other words, it again comes to the issue of how we can encourage people to put serious effort into producing ideas and images, how we can foster a culture in which arts and sciences and other intellectual disciplines flourish.

But most good artists and writers and so forth do what they do because they enjoy it. The issue is not, "How can we motivate people to become artists?"--because the motivation is already there. The real question is rather, "How can we ensure that people can be artists and still be able to make a living?" And I've answered that above. They can sell things other than their ideas, such as live performances and physical objects that "put their ideas to work".

These artists are doing their part by creating goods that people enjoy, so they aren't mooching off of society, but if they lack sufficient talent (i.e., not enough people are interested in what they're producing), then they will just have to find other ways to support themselves. Them's the breaks.

"You have thoroughly convinced me. I was foolish not to see the larger picture. You truly are a great thinker and wise person and probably also an excellent dancer."

Thank you, imaginary interlocutor, you yourself have proven to be a formidable opponent (since you're my creation after all ;-) ).


To summarize: because ideas and information can be copied easily, they can be shared among individuals without causing any absolute losses. The relative losses, in terms of prestige and so forth, pale in comparison to the goods that are produced by free sharing because we are dealing with a non-zero sum game. The profit motive is able to operate in other ways and there is no serious danger of losing the goods of rich artistic/intellectual communities.

With respect to music, which all along has been the main example I have in mind, the only people who stand to lose are industry groups, lawyers, and perhaps the big record labels themselves. They invoke the artists for support (the really outspoken artists tend to be the ones who make a lot more money than they deserve, but society doesn't owe them the perpetuation of an extravagant lifestyle) only as a cover to promote their own interests. Humanity as a whole would be better off without these institutional monstrosities. They are no longer necessary and the people who constitute them should look for other lines of work. The RIAA is the real thief here, not music downloaders.


Why I want to move to Japan...


At this point, I think it's pretty much inevitable that, some time after I finish my Ph.D., I will have to move there. Unlike the West, Japan gets it. Here's what I mean:

Besides financial and technological power, the robot wave is favored by the Japanese mind-set as well.

Robots have long been portrayed as friendly helpers in Japanese popular culture, a far cry from the often rebellious and violent machines that often inhabit Western science fiction.

Robots are our friends and will only become our enemies if we make them that way (are you listening, proponents of robotic warfare?). I recently came across an interesting paper by Nick Bostrom on the ethics of what he calls "superintelligence" (i.e., smarter-than-human AI) that argues this point persuasively:

It seems that the best way to ensure that a superintelligence will have a beneficial impact on the world is to endow it with philanthropic values. Its top goal should be friendliness. How exactly friendliness should be understood and how it should be implemented, and how the amity should be apportioned between different people and nonhuman creatures is a matter that merits further consideration. I would argue that at least all humans, and probably many other sentient creatures on earth should get a significant share in the superintelligence’s beneficence. [...] One risk that must be guarded against is that those who develop the superintelligence would not make it generically philanthropic but would instead give it the more limited goal of serving only some small group, such as its own creators or those who commissioned it.

If a superintelligence starts out with a friendly top goal, however, then it can be relied on to stay friendly, or at least not to deliberately rid itself of its friendliness. This point is elementary. A “friend” who seeks to transform himself into somebody who wants to hurt you, is not your friend. A true friend, one who really cares about you, also seeks the continuation of his caring for you. Or to put it in a different way, if your top goal is X, and if you think that by changing yourself into someone who instead wants Y you would make it less likely that X will be achieved, then you will not rationally transform yourself into someone who wants Y. The set of options at each point in time is evaluated on the basis of their consequences for realization of the goals held at that time, and generally it will be irrational to deliberately change one’s own top goal, since that would make it less likely that the current goals will be attained.

If friendliness can be assured, then the benefits of superintelligence are profound. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that it could help us solve every human problem (or at least those which admit of a technical solution, which are probably most of them). Read the remainder of Bostrom's essay (it's short) if you're not convinced.

Since the Japanese will be the first to harvest the bounty of this robotic golden age, perhaps you can see why I'm so eager to join them.