Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Sermon of My Own, I Suppose

Given the speed of current “news” cycles, I’m the equivalent of a year behind on this one. But my frequent and often lengthy posts in praise of Barack Obama make it impossible for me to avoid commenting on the fact that he’s been linked to a brashly outspoken African-American who sometimes sounds like he’s lost his mind.

No, I’m not talking about Tracy Morgan.

I’m disappointed. That’s the first thing to say. This isn’t going to be some paean to Barack Obama arguing that anyone disturbed by his relationship with Reverend Wright is overly partisan or hypersensitive or tacitly racist. Few have been bigger supporters of Obama than I have, and it disturbs me. I don’t think it troubles me the way it troubles the anchors at Fox, but then not much does.

I’ll start with my disappointment, and then I’ll try to describe why this won’t change the way I plan to vote in November, if I have the opportunity.

I have never thought Obama is superhuman. If my tone has sometimes led people to believe that, it might just be relativity. Throughout my lifetime, major politicians have so often seemed subhuman -- coming off as shady salesman, or obsequious climbers, or sitcom characters that have been focus-grouped seven too many times -- that I admit to being excited by Obama’s attempt to speak to voters as fellow adults. The fact that this is so refreshing says less about Obama than it does about our expectations and shortcomings as an electorate.

But while I was more than open to learning of Obama’s flaws, I honestly thought that being drawn to extreme personalities wasn’t one of them. Here, I’m not even talking about Wright’s beliefs being extremist (though some clearly are), but just his personality. Even when he’s speaking of more mundane things, Wright seems overheated in a way that’s diametrically opposed to the calm reasonableness that I consider one of Obama’s greatest strengths.

In his headline-generating speech last week, in which he addressed his relationship with Wright, Obama compared his feelings for the preacher to those for his white grandmother, who he loved dearly despite the fact that she occasionally made racist comments. To paraphrase Andrew Sullivan, as civics this was a necessary, useful comparison to make. But as politics, it seemed a bit disingenuous to me. You do not choose your grandparents. The allowances you make for your family, if you make them, are fundamentally different than those you make for people who start out as strangers to you. And while we all have complicated relationships with people, one commenter on this blog struck a chord in me when he wrote this:
I confess myself baffled by Obama supporters who can't fathom why the Reverend Wright is suddenly a big deal. The lunacy, the stupidity, and the poisonous conspiracy theory-mongering of his sermons should trouble anyone who hears them. The fact that Obama treats the man as his spiritual advisor and subjects his children to his rants calls his judgment into serious question.
That makes perfect sense to me. If Obama believes, and I think he does, that his own story proves how we’re capable of moving forward as a country, with effort, then why would he want his smart children -- who, as the next generation, have the potential to build on the progress that’s come before -- to listen to someone who’s entrenched in battles that Obama considers outdated and counterproductive? It’s a good question.

Likewise, if Obama believes, as he eloquently stated last week, that Wright’s sermons sometimes emphasize a “profound mistake” about the nature of American society, and its ability to change, then why did Obama title a book -- and his whole campaign, essentially -- after a line from one of Wright’s sermons?

I’m reminded here of a story my mother recently told me. At four years old, she insisted her family change churches because she didn’t like the preacher. Four years old, and she managed to make that choice. Of course, she didn’t have political aspirations at the time. I do think Obama needed the support of a community in Chicago that he didn’t naturally belong to, considering the level of his education and his diverse background. One commenter asked me to use this moment of revealed expediency to admit that “Obama is just another politician, not particularly different from Hillary.”

I’ll meet that commenter halfway. Obama is a politician. In a republic like ours, where there’s an amount of pandering inherent to the process, he is compromised. No one running for office (especially president) is pure. But to say that a relationship that’s been available for public scrutiny this whole time (this isn’t Watergate) suddenly makes him “just another politician” is ridiculous. To say that it doesn’t make him “particularly different from Hillary” is just to legitimate her race to the bottom, where the goal is to make everyone else look as corruptible as you are. I’m plenty cynical, and I’m not arguing for Obama’s infallibility. If there were to be a scandal that truly destroyed my belief in his integrity, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t rip up all my old baseball cards and weep for the death of heroism. But the Wright controversy is simply not that moment.

I keep coming back to the fact that there’s one best answer to all of these concerns: Barack Obama. In his hundreds of speeches in the past year, over the course of debates, town meetings, stumping, and all the rest, even those who don’t support him would be hard-pressed to hear anything but a moderate (in temperament), soft-but-powerfully spoken, inclusive vision of what America is. Forget the fact that now imagining Obama as somehow a Black Separatist candidate who wants to establish the United States of Watts is more ridiculous and conspiratorially minded than anything Wright has preached. Forget the fact that no one as intelligent as Obama could even imagine smuggling such an agenda into Washington. Forget that Obama was raised by the white women who he's always praised. Forget all that, and just listen to what he has said. Time after time, including in front of entirely African-American audiences, Obama has emphasized what Bill Richardson, in his endorsement speech the other day, called “the awesome potential residing in our own responsibility.”

That’s an idea both conservative and liberating it its core, and it flies in the face of Wright’s worst moments. (It also flies in the face of many of the Democrats' talking points in my lifetime, which is one reason, as an independent, that I'm a fan of Obama.) Norm Geras, who says he’s been “supporting Barack Obama in a quiet sort of way” (I’m sure many of you wish I would do the same) said that, in his speech addressing Wright, Obama “dodged nothing and rose to the demands of the occasion, rose above the standard concerns and tricks of the mere political competitor.” I think that’s true. And whatever flaws I might have found in the speech, they’re overwhelmed by the fact that I can’t imagine another politician matching either its substance or its style. If we assume that whoever leads us is going to be flawed -- which I certainly do -- I still think Obama is the most inspiring choice.

Lastly: It may be an oversimplification, but the idea that we shouldn’t be assumed to share all the beliefs of someone close to us is a deeply important one. That Wright holds certain beliefs that are silly and even noxious is hard to dispute. The notion that governments created AIDS as a means to commit genocide is wackiness of the highest order. But it’s also undeniably true that many of us, and our puddle-deep media, have turned Wright into a caricature based on sound bites. He’s a scholar, a military veteran, and many of his strong statements are not substantively different than things that have been said by more mainstream figures throughout history, including recent history. None of these things excuse his worst statements, but surely they shouldn't be ignored. The moment in which he said, “God damn America,” seemed to come during a speech about the country’s drug laws, which I think are absolutely wrongheaded and, yes, racist. To curse the country for them seems like anyone’s right, and understandable if that person lives in a community disproportionately affected by them. I think it would be fair to summarize at least one strand of David Simon’s The Wire as “God damn America.” It doesn’t mean Simon wants to violently overthrow the government.

In that instance and others, Wright speaks about race in a way that we must continue to confront, whether we like it or not. A friend of mine asked on his own blog, “how long must we loathe ourselves for the sins of our ancestors?” Well, the word ancestors implies that we’re talking about ancient history. The fact is, anti-black violence of the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and even lynchings were common just a few years before I was born, and I’m young. I'm also not sure why being willing to talk about something means you loathe yourself for it.

Like much of our political discourse, the Wright issue has been inflated for sensational purposes -- it’s a serious issue, worth discussion, but not scandalous. I feel the same way about almost everything that we “dig up” about candidates. I’m not even sure that Hillary Clinton’s gross exaggerations should disqualify her from the office, much less a relationship of Obama’s that has never been hidden. The fact that the media finally addressed this large, well-known church is fine, but I don’t see how it quite amounts to a “gotcha,” our favorite political tool.

Obama admits to being imperfect. What sane person wouldn't? And he exists, for better or worse, in a political landscape where we often vote for the person who has the least rubble strewn around them by the time election day arrives. It will take a lot more rubble for me to stop supporting him.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a longtime supporter of Obama, I appreciate your comforting words. And while I continue to support his candidacy, I am also terribly disappointed and dejected by these developments. Since you have done a thorough job of parsing the issues, I have no objection to your reasoned analysis and your continued support for Obama. One might say, what alternative do we all have at this point? My concern, however, lies with the diminished opportunity to seize the moment in November. We would all probably agree that Hillary presents a host of hurdles as a candidate in the general election. Many of us were counting on Barack to be the fresh and inspiring alternative. The Republican Party, though, has now been given a gift to be broadcast over and over of Wright's "God damn America" with Michelle Obama's statement that this is the "first time" she has been proud of "my country." While I am not judging the meaning of these statements out of context, needless to say, they will not play well to the ordinary American in November. And I am not heartened by additional references to a "modern day lynching" in more recent sermons. For those who are ardent supporters of Obama, this is a mere bump in the road, but the broader electorate will not be as easily persuaded. That being said, I understand your continuing support and intention to vote accordingly. Sadly, though, I believe that Barack's prospects and electability has been diminished greatly and possibly extinguished.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Mrs. White said...

Well said, John. And as I've said before, if there's any good that can come from this whole business it's that a politician finally stood up and gave a truthful speech about issues of race in America. He talked to Americans like we were intelligent adults, and it's a bit sad how refreshing that was.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Kraig said...

John, as usual, covers the issue exceedingly well. And, also as usual, the comments really nail it. Electability is now the main problem. If you want a sneak peak into what you can expect to see come September and October, watch the following video:


Something tells me videos and ads like that will "play in Peoria" as they say. But I'll hope the issues play stronger. From a strictly political standpoint, it doesn't help that McCain is a decent candidate. If superdelegates were looking for a reason to jump from Obama to Hillary--this is as valid a reason as they'll ever find.

9:47 PM  

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