WTF Does Obama Think They Were Doing at Stonewall?

Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall….

Barack Obama on the Republicans and the shutdown at yesterday’s press conference:

I was at a small business the other day and talking to a bunch of workers, and I said, you know, when you’re at the plant and you’re in the middle of your job, do you ever say to your boss, you know what, unless I get a raise right now and more vacation pay, I’m going to just shut down the plant; I’m not going to just walk off the job, I’m going to break the equipment — I said, how do you think that would go? They all thought they’d be fired. And I think most of us think that. You know, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a raise or asking for more time off. But you can’t burn down the plant or your office if you don’t get your way. Well, the same thing is true here.

Yep, that’s how we got emancipation, civil rights, unions, feminism, and gay rights in this country: just by “asking.” I mean, what the fuck does Obama think they were doing at Stonewall?

Update (1 pm)

Jim Johnson at the University of Rochester reminded me of this wonderful photo from the 1936–37 sitdown strike at Flint. Mr. President, this is what workers do after they’ve asked for something and not gotten it.

Workers defacing company property at Fisher plant #1 at Flint, 1936-1937


  1. Phil Perspective October 9, 2013 at 11:58 am | #

    Doesn’t anyone ever remember reading either of his two books? Does anyone remember the admission he made in one of them? He admitted that the more time he spends around the elites, the more he thinks like them.

  2. Avi Bueno October 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm | #

    I think there’s an important distinction to be made when recalling the lead-up to Stonewall and other incredibly justified riots, and the point Obama was making.

    A disagreement over an additional 5 days of paid vacation or additional pay of $1.00 an hour is not a reason to destroy machinery in a warehouse or burn down factories. The instances mentioned (by you and Obama) were incredible in the level of human abuse that was present. People being arrested haphazardly because of their sexual orientation, sex, or race for decades and without letup is of course a trigger for the kind of riots that emerged. Peaceful marches, attempts to sidestep confrontation, lobbying, and other calm methods continuously failed to achieve the intended aims, so after a travesty (at Stonewall) that included sexual abuse, unwarranted arrests, and public humiliation riots ensued. I don’t think there was any real dissonance in his commentary.

  3. foppe October 9, 2013 at 12:49 pm | #

    I mostly dislike the switch of metaphors.. Why couldn’t he have focused instead on the ‘if you ask for something, you get fired’ truism being problematic, rather than on the ‘you have to be reasonable when you ask something’? Of course this is stupid on its face, but it makes sense if you remember that the democratic party is all about form and piousness, while it has no ideas about reasonableness of demands/quality of life other than in terms of what is reasonable respective to where the Overton window is. They wouldn’t think of shifting it anywhere, which is something they leave to others — mostly republicans — all the while doing their damnedest to ensure nobody to their left becomes important, in order to ensure they are the only progressive choice.

  4. robbformandew October 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm | #

    Your argument is disingenuous and not up to your usual insightfulness. Why would you imagine Obama would, could, or should equate resolving the issue of Congress shutting down the government and possibly forcing the nation not to pay its creditors by the act of refusing to raise the debt ceiling with the civil disobedience required over the course of American history in order for Americans to gain equal rights under the law?

    • Corey Robin October 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm | #

      Actually, it’s not me who made that equation; it’s Obama himself. He’s saying to the workers, wouldn’t it be awful if you were to shut down the plant, break the tools, etc. But that of course is precisely what many workers throughout American history did. In order to delegitimize the GOP — who are worthy of delegitimization, don’t get me wrong — he winds up delegitimizing much of American labor and African-American history.

      • grahamlarkin October 11, 2013 at 7:25 am | #

        Quite so. When a self-proclaimed Democrat defends his position with the argument that “YOU guys are the radicals, just like the proletarian rabble of yore” then the race to the center starts looking a whole lot like a race to the bottom.

  5. Roquentin October 9, 2013 at 2:00 pm | #

    I often wonder how much of what he says he actually believes or if he understands his own beliefs. Sometimes his attempt to make neoliberal ideology go in directions it’s just not capable of going without running into patently absurd contradictions makes me think that it’s more than just an act, like he desperately wants these things to cohere. As time goes one I feel as though a lot of his presidency has just been a protracted attempt to stuff a square peg into a round hole. If you want to turn the hands on the clock back to 2008, a lot of us (at least way more than will admit it now) were right there with him. For a long time, I think this administration just hoped we could go back to the 90s, to the Clinton years, when things were still good enough that these problems could still easily be swept under the rug.

    Sometimes it’s worthwhile to try and zoom out temporally, to take the long view. 10 or 20 years down the line, what are people going to be saying about the Obama era? I sometimes get nostalgic for the Bush years, surprisingly, because at least back then it was possible to have this fantasy that “if we just elected the right person, things could be good again.” Now it is clear that it isn’t the case at all, whether people admit it or not. A car is still a car, it doesn’t matter who sits in the driver’s seat. Man, woman, black, white, or Porky Pig….you can put anyone you want behind the wheel and it’s still a car.

    • Glenn October 9, 2013 at 11:55 pm | #

      “I sometimes get nostalgic for the Bush years, surprisingly, because at least back then it was possible to have this fantasy that “if we just elected the right person, things could be good again.”

      Great observation, Roquentin.

      Way back in 2008 when people thought change was possible without putting bodies in the gears of the machinery…

    • Justin Beck October 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm | #

      Great point about the protracted sqaure peg in a round hole. I often feel that has so much to do with that Clinton nostalgia you’re talking about. I thought it was somewhat striking that Obama threw in the “American exceptionalism” in his address to the American people when attempting to vindicate his then-soon-to-be bombing campaign in Syria; while that’s standard procedure for any U.S. president, I certainly would like to think that I wasn’t alone in 2008 when I sincerely believed Obama could finally take country in a different moral/ideological direction than that archaic crap. If you think about it, Obama’s two administrations have actually not shifted away from Bush’s policies at all. He’s sort of pushed us further down that slippery slope, while attempting to save face with really ambiguous rhetoric. Whether it’s delusional or fanatical, he really seems to believe half of the crap he says, which is kind of troublesome – I feel like this childish Congress has really gotten to him and he’s lost sight of whatever it is he had planned at one point in time. Clearly he’s a leader that requires positive reinforcement or support from the exterior power structures surrounding him, unlike Bush, who did whatever he felt like doing. I’ve been increasingly getting the sense as of late that he is trying to win followers/supporters in the political sphere rather than followers/supporters in the American public. He can’t get anything done, and he looks like he’s floundernig now; upset, frustrated, confused, etc. This is a very interesting article because I think we – for whatever reason – have come to expect Obama to make relatvely level headed decisions. So when he says dumb stuff, you just like WTF man, I thought you knew your s**t? that’s teh vibe I get from this article.

  6. Marc Brenman October 9, 2013 at 5:30 pm | #

    One of your weirder columns, Corey.

    • Corey Robin October 9, 2013 at 5:32 pm | #


      • Gary Anderson October 10, 2013 at 12:35 pm | #

        Lol Corey, while this is true certainly you don’t want the libertarians and Tea Party folks doing that to the government of the United States! Right?

    • foppe October 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm | #

      What is so weird about it? All he does is point out that Obama does not understand that appearing reasonable is just one strategy, while burning down the factories over “a raise or time off” is another, and that both happen… (And, additionally, that politely asking for a raise generally doesn’t get you a raise, even if it might get you fired. Land of the free, and all that jazz.)

      • BarryB October 10, 2013 at 3:34 am | #

        I don’t find it weird. I find it a useful radar to the way politicians rewrite history to suit their need to produce flocks of sheep. In precisely this way Ed Muskie once spoke in a speech on a July 4th the fact that this nation was founded “through a peaceful revolution.”

        It’s important to maintain vigilance against precisely this kind of BS. Otherwise we risk swallowing it as history, even if we disagree with the politicians, themselves.

  7. jonnybutter October 10, 2013 at 7:22 am | #

    One of the really unnerving things about Obama is how flustered he seems when he’s in a crisis. He stammers and pauses and…it’s as if he is incredulous – STILL – that his GOP ‘colleagues’ might be unpleasant.

    The other more-than-unnerving thing – the tragic thing – about Obama and the kind of liberal he exemplifies is the really thoughtless things he says, like what Corey is flagging here. I suppose that even if you go to the most elite schools you can still be intellectually mediocre (maybe a certain kind of mediocrity is even required), but it is still striking. Another example of this sort of 2nd rate thinking is his belief that compromise is a value in and of itself – which is to say that compromise is appropriate regardless of what the competing choices are. I was going to say that that idea would get an ‘F’ in any decent undergrad ethics course, but that is an insult to any reasonably intelligent person who never went to college at all.

  8. BarryB October 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm | #

    Obama? Liberal? In any fashion?

    • jonnybutter October 10, 2013 at 5:45 pm | #

      It’s easier for me to refer to liberals as what they actually are than what we might argue they should be or used to be or, etc. The fact that it’s a vague term (denoting a fairly vague ideology) is part of the problem!

      I didn’t call Obama a man of the Left. He’s clearly not that, no matter what the goobers say.

      • Will Rubenstein October 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm | #

        Well the fact that many liberals in the US have mindlessly adopted the neo-McCarthyist framing of socialism as an “extreme” form of liberalism, thereby blurring liberalism’s leftward boundary and defining liberalism as anything and everything to the left of conservatism, is simply another manifestation of the same problem that Corey highlighted in his original post. Granting that Obama is a perfectly adequate representative of liberalism, and that he tends to compromise too readily with the right both practically and ideologically, the conclusion that *liberals are enemies of the left* is inescapable unless (like many liberals) you see more eye to eye with Ann Coulter than with Karl Marx.

  9. rschard1 October 10, 2013 at 9:08 pm | #
    • BarryB October 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm | #

      Well the fact that many liberals in the US have mindlessly adopted the neo-McCarthyist framing of socialism as an “extreme” form of liberalism…

      Then they aren’t liberals. If they’re inclined to be suckered by efforts to frame liberal values as extreme, then they’re really just part of the drifting herd that likes to call itself one thing or another to bolster its own self-image, while always running back to the group whenever called upon to do anything more than offer lip service to an ideal.

      • Will Rubenstein October 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm | #

        Well, no, they are liberals; they’ve just submitted to the idea that liberalism has more in common with socialism than it has with conservatism, and that liberalism vs. conservatism (rather than liberalism vs. socialism) is the authentic dialectic of modern political life. It’s not that they want to frame liberal values as extreme — it’s that they want to have their cake and eat it too by defining liberalism simultaneously as the Golden Mean between conservatism and socialism in theory, and as the leftward half of the “legitimate” political universe in practice, since they’ve long since made peace with the illegitimacy of socialism at any institution more powerful than a university political science department. (Shout out, Corey!)

        Put another way: to a socialist, meeting the description you just outlined is *what liberalism is*.

  10. Alain October 14, 2013 at 12:24 am | #

    The fact that Obama describes the tea party insurgents in terms of what used to be standard practice of the left, tells us that the true radicals today are on the right. They are willing to destroy the system in order to save it. They will burn it down in order that it may be reborn.

  11. jonnybutter October 15, 2013 at 9:36 am | #

    “Lol Corey, while this is true certainly you don’t want the libertarians and Tea Party folks doing that to the government of the United States! Right?”

    “the true radicals today are on the right. They are willing to destroy the system in order to save it. They will burn it down in order that it may be reborn.”

    Well, except that they won’t (and nothing would be ‘reborn’ if they did). They will *damage* the system, but they won’t burn it down. And I wouldn’t call them ‘the true radicals’, because that means less than it appears to do. ‘Radical’ means ‘root’, essentially – what value are these people at the root of? The longing for death? Entropy? Oh yeah, our pretty crappy constitution.

    I’d say they are the true leninists, which is kind of an insult to leninists, but what the hell. Or you could call them radical solipsists. Their prime value is a passionate love for – an engulfment by – their fantasy idea of themselves, developed and refined over the years. As Corey says in R-Mind, this is a politics of loss and longing.

  12. Valerie Keefe December 24, 2013 at 9:10 am | #

    Ah, the casual erasure of trans rights in the same column in which Stonewall is invoked, and also the invocation of a bunch of upper-middle-class white, cis entryists alongside all those other much more radical movements. It’s always my litmus test of how entrenched one is in the organized left: Do you completely ignore the most effective fighters for queer rights in favour of the same jackasses who think that marriage rights are anything without workplace discrimination laws? Do you extoll a movement without acknowledging one of the worst domestic kyriarchal atrocities of the late 20th century?

    It’s my litmus test that separates actual leftists from Team Blue and Team Pink.

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