Hard News by Russell Brown


Obama's Mana

Much has been said already about the considered and unifying character of US President Barack Obama's speech at the memorial for the five Dallas cops murdered last week. But I couldn't help but think of the statement he made exactly a week ago, after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile atthe hands of police.

That one contained many of the ideas that featured in the Dallas speech, but it wasn't a big, scripted set-piece. Obama got off a long-haul flight to Warsaw and decided he needed to say something. It's personal and authentic – and evidence of his increasing willingness to talk about race as his presidency draws to a close.

The president gave a speech of a very different character back in May at the Rutgers University Commencement. In that one, he trolled Donald Trump and rocked a stadium crowd while he was at it. "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue!" he declared.

Last month, he went off script towards the end of something called the North American Leaders Summit to address the idea of Trump and populism.

It's clear that, as the Twitter kids would put it, Obama has entered the stage of his presidency where he has few fucks left to give and a much greater willingness to say what he really thinks.

There's no sign that this frankness is hurting his popularity. Indeed, he's getting more popular. An ABC/WaPo poll this month had his approval rating up to 56%, a level he hasn't seen for a long time (not since the extrajudicial killing of Osama Bin Laden, in fact). It's worth noting that that rise is driven by greater favourability among Democrats, many of whom may be looking at their future presidential choices much as Trevor Noah did recently on The Daily Show:

I'm not among those who perceive Hilary Clinton as some sort of modern devil, but "Grandma Nixon" is a pretty sick burn.

Stephen Colbert made a similar point – and noted a report that Obama could go into the venture capital business in Silicon Valley after his term ends.

Whether that's true or not, it seems clear that Obama's mana is increasing as his presidency ends. And that he will be part of American political and cultural life for a long time to come.


There has been so much said about the racial divide exposed by the past week's violence in America that it's hard to know where to start. But I will say that I've found the stunning documentary series OJ Simpson: Made in America useful and fascinating. (It has finished its run on ESPN but may be back soon. Or, well, you know where to find these things.)

At its base, Simpson's story is as simple and awful as series of incidents of domestic violence that ended in a killing. At its broadest, it's a sweeping picture of American race relations, media, money and culture.

The racial intensity of the Simpson trial derived from the beating of Rodney King by police – captured for all the world to see on citizen video and unpunished by the courts. But while I understood that connection, I was stunned by the way the second part of the documentary laid out all the incidents that preceded the brutal beating of King. This has been going on for a long, long time.

We live now in an era where citizen video is ubiquitous. And we recently entered the era where that video goes live. Although most of us saw it afterwards, Diamond Reynolds' video, in which her boyfriend Philando bled and died in front of the cellphone camera, went out via Facebook Live. In one sense, the video was a disturbing spectacle – almost a snuff film – and in another, her prudent, desperate attempt to let family and friends know what was happening.

Will it bring justice? It's hard to say. Since King, and before, a substantial number of Americans have seemed willing to accept escalation, violence and loss of control as part of conventional police practice. There's even some kind of rationale there, given the extreme danger posed by America's gun pandemic. It's hard to even see a way out.

The great Gil Scott Heron famously proposed that the revolution would not be televised. He was really making a rather different point, but we do now know that it will be live online. There will, hopefully, be greater accountability as a consequence – and yet at some point we'll see something even worse than Philando Castile, something we should not have seen but cannot unsee. This is going to take a while to work through. 

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