Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Harriet Miers Moment

So, yesterday I said I wouldn't be blogging much this week. Promises, promises.

But in light of Barack Obama's speech regarding the Jeremiah Wright controversy, I've decided to jump into the discussion. There's quite a lot to look at in that speech of Obama's, and I think it's the sort of thing that calls for careful analysis.

The full speech is here. It's length prohibits posting very much of it, but I will post those sections that seem especially worthy of discussion. The words of the speech will be in italics.

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy...

Right off the bat, Obama strikes a note that subtly hearkens back to the Gettysburg Address: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Aside from noting that Lincoln said it better, two places in this passage are a bit jarring: "...a group of men..."? In light of what this controversy is all about, wouldn't it have been better for Obama to have said something like "our founders" or "our founding fathers"? By using such bland words to describe the framers of our Constitution Obama is, I think, trying to be all things to all people; if we've learned nothing else from the samples of the Rev. Wright's speech we've heard this week, we've learned that many in the African-American community do not consider America's founders to be worthy of any particular respect. Whether that is justified or not is another debate, but for the moment it's at least troubling that Obama would so carefully avoid offending that particular segment in a speech that was designed to distance him from Wright's rhetoric.

The other word I dislike is "improbable", but that's probably just me. I've heard the American experiment described many ways, but "improbable" seems rather negative.

It [the Constitution] was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

"Original sin of slavery"? That's rather loaded. Not only is Obama drawing an equivalence between the Fall of Man and the existence of slavery at the time of the founding of America, he's also implying that slavery is to America what original sin is to man--not a light analogy, considering that original sin shattered man's relationship with God, darkened man's intellect, gave greater rein to his passions, and weakened his resistance to sin and evil, not to mention depriving him of eternal happiness. The analogy makes the founding of America akin to the banishment from the garden, the Civil War the fulfillment of the prophecy of salvation, and Lincoln Christ--which makes Obama the Second Coming, if you carry the analogy to its conclusion.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

Why is it that when I hear a string of words like "...more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America..." all I can think of is "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?" These are the kinds of rhetorical flourishes Obama's famous for, but when you examine the words, you'll find that they mean little. How, exactly, are we going to make people "more equal" than they are now? Or "more free"? Or "more caring"??? That last isn't exactly the sort of thing that's measurable, anyway, which makes it very convenient to promise.

Obama then shares the story of his background for the millionth time in this campaign (did you know John Edwards' father worked in a mill?). He concludes:

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.

Is it just me, or is it weird to think that one has ideas seared into one's genetic makeup? The only things seared into my genetic makeup are redheaded tempermentalism and a crippling love of carbohydrates.

Cutting to the chase regarding the questions of racism, Obama says:

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

What a neat trick in the art of equivalence this is! Rev. Wright's speech is no different from people who say that Obama's the affirmative action candidate (not that I've heard anyone say that, but still). Moreover, Wright's words, instead of being bigoted, hateful, and disgraceful, merely "have the potential" to widen the racial divide. This isn't that far from the apology-non-apology example, the "I'm sorry you were offended" sort of phrase that takes no responsibility for the offense. Note what he's really saying here: that Wright's use of incendiary language is the problem. Oh, wait, the views denigrate the greatness and goodness of our nation, too. How about "views that promote hatred of white people," Obama? But he can't say that--that would be to admit that he took his family, week after week, to a church that openly practices racism.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.

Here and elsewhere Obama avoids getting specific about those statements. This phrase makes it seem that it's the fact that the statements caused any controversy that must be condemned.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

This is the closest I think Obama gets to being clear about the problem, and yet he still says "...elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right..." which makes one wonder--does he share the Rev. Wright's views about what is wrong with America? Is his argument with Wright based more on proportionality than a disagreement with facts?

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?

This is the million-dollar question, but the weakest section (and almost the lengthiest) follows. Several jumbled paragraphs discussing Obama's relationship with Wright, the reality of the black church experience, and the notion that the anti-white racism that pops up now and again is simply a reality for blacks in America today are laid out, and yet none of them really answers the question--perhaps because it is unanswerable.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

Others have pointed to this passage as the worst one in the speech. What kind of equivalence can there be between a man one voluntarily associates with, and one's own grandmother? Obama is attempting to blur the lines between family and friends; he's done this before, by calling Wright a kind of "uncle." But Wright is no relation to him; Obama chose to befriend this pastor, and to attend his church for two decades. His grandmother, to put it bluntly, is irrelevant to the discussion, and it's a particularly nasty thing to do to equate her occasional racist notions (not uncommon in her generation) to the sermons of the Rev. Wright, particularly as she's still living.

But beyond the "grandmother" question, there's another. Obama says he could no more disown Wright than he could the black community--implying that the entire black community is inherently racist and bigoted against whites! With friends like Obama...

Obama then moves on to a general discussion of racism in America. There are some good points, some bad ones, and some real head-scratchers in this section of the piece, but the main thing he's attempting is to move the question beyond Wright and his racist views. By returning to the tried-and-true theme of white racism and white bigotry that has kept black Americans from reaching their potential, Obama hopes to get away from the discussion of Wright racism and Wright bigotry; and in fact, when he brings Wright up again, it is only to remind his listeners how men of Wright's generation experienced firsthand the world of segregation, which makes their Sunday morning views more understandable, at least according to Obama.

He then touches on the resentment brewing among middle-class white America over some of the effects of affirmative action, and says:

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

I can't help but admire the cleverness of this, even as I disagree with it. Obama is drawing yet another equivalence in his speech, this time between Wright and talk-radio hosts. But any reflection on this reveals a clumsiness underneath the cleverness: no talk-show host or conservative commenter has ever been the twenty-year spiritual mentor of any presidential candidate, as Wright has been to Obama. This is one attempt at equivalence that has the potential to backfire, and backfire badly.

After comparing black and white racism and referring to the "racial stalemate," Obama says:

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

You know there's an "or" coming, right? Before we go there, though, notice how once again Obama is being rather dismissive of the idea that he agrees with Wright's "most offensive words" without saying what he does or doesn't agree with.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This is the "or" his listeners were expecting, and from this paragraph on Obama lists the things he thinks Americans care about, from schools to health care and on through the Democratic Party platform's points--some of them, anyway; there's no sop to his Planned Parenthood supporters, but I suppose it would be out of line in a speech where he's hoping to neutralize controversy.

He ends with the usual sort of "inspiring anecdote" so his listeners will have the feel-good takeaway they were expecting; it's not a bad story, but it doesn't come across as well in print.

But what I think Obama failed to do, or even to understand, in this speech is a rather profound thing, one that has ominous implications for his campaign. The discussion about Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright is not, ultimately, about whether Obama himself is secretly an anti-white racist or has strong sympathies with that element within the black community; it is, in the end, a question of judgment. What troubles some of the people who might have been inclined to support Obama before this incident is the odd disconnect between the image of the savvy, smart politician, and the tone-deafness implied by the idea that Obama has never had a problem with Wright before now. It's not that Americans want to elect a man who has wanted to be president all his life, and has therefore carefully cultivated every friendship with that in mind (e.g., John Kerry); but Wright is more than a mere friend to Obama. It is Obama himself who has pointed to Wright on many occasions, referring to him in his books, in speeches, and in other venues as a man who has had a deep and lasting influence on his life.

And so Obama had no choice but to continue to stand by Wright, while denouncing, albeit obliquely, the latter's racist views. The comparisons Obama drew between Wright and his own grandmother, Wright and the black community at large, and even Wright and talk-show hosts may temporarily quiet some of his critics, but it's only going to fuel others, particularly those who will demolish these as false comparisons and demand to know why Obama would select as a mentor and guide a man who espouses such hateful views. The questions this choice of association raise in the minds of many will not be answered by this speech; they will be heightened, especially now.

Because we've had eight years of a president who is inclined to overlook and excuse the flaws of cronies and to value loyalty above any other quality; that Obama would be ready to do the same thing in regards to Wright is going to leave an unpleasant taste in the mouths of many. Some people were hoping that this Wright speech would be Obama's Sister Souljah moment; unfortunately, Obama's speech makes it clear that Wright is going to be his Harriet Miers moment.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Is it just me, or is it weird to think that one has ideas seared into one's genetic makeup? The only things seared into my genetic makeup are redheaded tempermentalism and a crippling love of carbohydrates."

Your post was brilliant and that part was hilarious! The guy knows how to write a good speech using empty words.

Anonymous said...

I think it's absolutely 'funsies' that of any of the candidates, we simply love to dissect his speeches as if they have deep and canonical meaning. I mean, do we do that about any of John's or Hil's speeches? It's crazy that we attempt to find the depth of his language compared to the others. Are we trying to ferret out his sincerity, personally establish his credibility, or find the locus of our cross-identity within ourselves? After all, the majority of Americans are younger or middle-aged, don't belong to the 'old boys (or 'old girls' club), and dislike continuance of a useless war... Personally, I think that of any of 'em he appeals to that segment of the population that values intelligent conversation.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous number two above, I don't agree.

The reason Obama's speeches are scrutinized is that his speeches are all we have. Hillary Clinton's views are well known, both from her Senate experience and from her years as the First Lady. John McCain has been a politician for a very long time, and again, we can look at his voting record and many other things for clues to what sort of president he will be.

Obama has written books and given lots of speeches. Other than that, all we have to go on in determining what he stands for is his record of support for infanticide--so it's no wonder his speeches are analyzed. There's nothing else of substance to look at.

Anonymous said...

Seems that both NRLC and NARAL rate both Obama and Clinton exactly the same on their stances of voting issues in the Senate.
Please, see the following websitehttp://www.ontheissues.org/Abortion.htm#Barack_Obama I certainly would not vote for someone who intends to continue a war in Iraq. I am both a pharmacist and Roman Catholic and value my integrity. Simply put, I cannot support nor condone rubbish that Planned Parenthood spouts in their propaganda, even in light of their protests which furthered the State Supreme Court decision against a pharmacist who refused to sell contraceptives based on his conscience. I am all for education of the masses. I deal with education every day. I see the result of uneducated choices every day. Morals come from within a person. Is it right that I infer that if there was no law 'Thou shalt not kill', that many humans would be killing each other? Before the Judeo-Christian legal eagles that set up that particular tenet there were other cultures and other eras. I seriously doubt that banning all abortions would allow for the legal precedent of retaining rights under the US constitution, the one that the 4,000 fallen soldiers in Iraq have upheld.