Wright And Wrong
*Note: this is a tediously long post. If you are inclined to spout off in anger at me about it, could you please do me the favor of reading the whole thing before you do it.
I finally got a chance to hear Senator Obama's speech in full today and I couldn't help but think of a piece Rick Perlstein wrote for the Washington Post a few weeks back. He wrote:
One of the most fascinating notions raised by the current presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."
No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.
A President Obama could no more magically transcend America's '60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could, for the simple reason that our society is defined as much by its arguments as by its agreements. Over the meaning of "family," on sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas, we remain divided in ways that first arose after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What Andrew Sullivan dismisses as "the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation" do not separate us from our "actual problems"; they define us, as much as the Great War defined France in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and beyond. Pretending otherwise simply isn't healthy. It's repression -- the kind of thing that shrinks say causes neurosis.
The events surrounding the videos of Reverent Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermons over the past week or so bear that out, don't you think? It would be pretty to think that the culture war and symbolic boomer battles stuff is all old news, but it clearly isn't. We have made great strides since the 60s and continue to, but these are hard intractable differences that have to be faced and dealt with at each stage of improvement. This was why I took issue with Senator Obama using the myths created by the Republicans about the 60's. I knew that his statement that the country had "moved on" from all those contentious issues would be unsustainable over the course of the campaign and saw little point in pretending otherwise since it was going to be used against us anyway.
Among other things, he said then:
"What I'm saying is I think the average baby-boomers have moved beyond the arguments of the 60's but our politicians haven't. We're still having the same argument... It's all around culture wars and it's all ... even when you discuss war the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works." Even when I first opposed the war in Iraq, my first line was I don't oppose all wars, specifically to make clear that this is not an anti-military, you know, 70's love-in kind of approach."
I certainly understood why Senator Obama would take the technocratic approach and say he was about "what works" rather than about ideology or civil rights. He naturally didn't want to turn his campaign into a free for all over what the right pejoratively named "identity politics." But it was clear to me that the Republicans would never cooperate and these issues were going to be engaged whether he liked it or not. American politics are identity politics, whether it's a phony Texan or a California movie cowboy or an east coast "ethnic." We have always voted largely on image (granted, it was variants on the white, male image until now) and the first African American and the first female president were not going to be able to pretend forever that race and gender were not in play. Conservatives have, after all, been winning by stoking primal fears on those very issues for decades and they certainly weren't going to stop using them when the Democrats put forth a couple of historic candidacies which literally embodied them.
Which brings me to Reverend Wright. Perhaps I have a different sense about this than others, but I personally didn't find what he said to be all that shocking. Many of his comments on racial issues were as true as they were discomfiting and his views on American error weren't illogical or unprecedented. Like virtually everyone else, I understood immediately upon hearing them that they were going to be a political problem, but on the substance (except for the HIV stuff, which is rank conspiracy theorizing) they weren't indefensible. Indeed, they speak to the essence of what separates us from the lockstep, chauvinistic , American exceptionalism of the right. No, we aren't "blame America first" fifth columnists. But neither are we "blame America never" which means that we have a much clearer eye about our government's sometimes irrational and immoral actions than conservatives do. It's why we tend to be civil libertarians and skeptical of inscrutable military adventurism.
Here's a case in point, again from Andrew Sullivan, who wrote an explanation of his evolution on the question of the Iraq war for the five year anniversary. He gave a number of reasons, but it's this one that I think is most telling:
[M]y biggest misreading was not about competence. Wars are often marked by incompetence. It was a fatal misjudgment of Bush's sense of morality.
I had no idea he was so complacent - even glib - about the evil that men with good intentions can enable. I truly did not believe that Bush would use 9/11 to tear up the Geneva Conventions. When I first heard of abuses at Gitmo, I dismissed them as enemy propaganda. I certainly never believed that a conservative would embrace torture as the central thrust of an anti-terror strategy, and lie about it, and scapegoat underlings for it, and give us the indelible stain of Bagram and Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and all the other secret torture and interrogation sites that he created and oversaw. I certainly never believed that a war I supported for the sake of freedom would actually use as its central weapon the deepest antithesis of freedom - the destruction of human autonomy and dignity and will that is torture. To distort this by shredding the English language, by engaging in newspeak that I had long associated with totalitarian regimes, was a further insult. And for me, an epiphany about what American conservatism had come to mean.
I know our enemy is much worse. I have never doubted that. But I never believed that America would do what America has done. Never. My misjudgment at the deepest moral level of what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were capable of - a misjudgment that violated the moral core of the enterprise - was my worst mistake. What the war has done to what is left of Iraq - the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed - was bad enough. But what was done to America - and the meaning of America - was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself either.
That is a mistake that Reverend Wright would never make. Neither would I. And not because we hate America or even hate George W. Bush. I can't speak for Wright, but I love many things about my country and being an American is as much a part of my identity and worldview as my family and life experience. I get tearful about the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which I consider to be among the most idealistic, progressive documents in human history. I miss it when I'm away too long.
But our nation has a past which should preclude any person who's taken a high school level course in American history to believe what Andrew Sullivan claims to have believed prior to the invasion of Iraq. America has a long history of immoral deeds, done by men who at the time we all might have assumed were moral and upright too. Unless you think that Native American genocide, slavery, lynching, jailing without due process, apartheid, medical experiments on prisoners and military personnel, forced sterilization, wars of aggression etc are moral acts, you can't possibly think that what Bush has done is unique to despoiling "the meaning of America." The meaning of America has always been ambivalent and confused. (Thomas Jefferson, the writer of that great document about liberty and unalienable rights owned slaves, for gawds sakes)
Of course Bush was capable of immoral acts. He's a human being. That is why we should never blindly trust our leaders' (mostly manufactured) "characters" and rely instead on the rule of law and the constitution. And it's why we must be vigilant in defending ourcivil liberties an d democratic processes even when we really, really love our leaders. Humans are flawed, power corrupts, leaders are stupid, shit happens. You can't depend on powerful people's good intentions. It's more than a little bit silly that so many adults seem to need to maintain a romantic fiction that elected leaders are more prophet than politician, but many of them do. (Sullivan especially is susceptible to this phenomenon.)
For me, the fact that Barack Obama may have sat through those sermons and listened to them and didn't stand up and march out as people seem to think he should have done, settles some important questions. I have not been able to discern until now whether he truly understood the fault lines that run through our nation's history or had any sense of just how hard it was going to be for him to make good on all these promises of reconciliation. I couldn't honestly tell if he got that we have to fight for progress and sometimes get bloodied up, both literally and metaphorically. Those sermons answered that question for me. If he's been listening to Reverend Wright then he understands that very well.
Yes, Wright is an example of unreconstructed 60's style African American confrontational politics. And for those of us who weren't in the know, we learned over the course of several days of fevered discussion of the issue that it isn't just him, but rather that he represents a widely held philosophy in much of the African American church, one of the bedrocks of American liberalism. And when those views came to the surface through those video tapes, his parishioner Barack Obama, the urbane, modern, post racial, transcendental politician who wanted to cast off all those musty old politics from the past, was forced to use his tremendous rhetorical skills for something more than political process talk about "getting beyond the divisions of the past." He had to talk about it, straight up. And that was a very good thing.
I realize that many of you love Obama because of his heartfelt appeal to hope and change, two abstract idealistic and inspirational concepts. But I'm unmoved by abstract, quasi religious language that demands faith because well --- I'm not much of a believer in faith, particularly when it comes to politicians. But that doesn't mean I don't love a great speech or understand the power of words. In my view there is no skill more valuable to a politician than the ability to explain complex issues in accessible, human terms and employ political rhetoric to speak to higher truths. So, while I've read his book on the subject (and it is quite moving) I have been waiting for Obama to use his great gift to say something real about these divisions and he did. It was a great speech, a milestone, which had heft and substance and spoke to something more than feel-good exhortations about the value of "hope." This was the kind of speech I've been waiting for him to give.
Now, am I under any illusion that the speech put the issue to rest and Wright's sermons aren't going to continue to dog Barack Obama's campaign? Of course not. Here on planet earth, Wright's words are decidedly un-mainstream and there is nothing more important for a presidential candidate than to be seen as mainstream. The subjects of race and religion make people uncomfortable and challenge their own view of themselves creating all kinds of emotional dissonance. We saw that with Katrina, when even the most committed liberals didn't want to admit that race played a part in the response to the tragedy or the conditions that led to it. Time and again I was challenged on the subject by those who insisted it wasn't about race, it was about class, and by discussing it racial terms I was perpetuating the myth. I disagree. It is no myth. Progress has been made, but as I wrote at the time, the single most powerful lingering vestige of racism is an irrational fear of an angry black mob --- led by an angry black man. That informs the perpetual fear among whites that Obama mentions in his speech and that's the political minefield Obama and Reverend Wright walked into when those tapes surfaced.
The Republicans have been laying the groundwork for sometime to portray Obama as an ultra-liberal, anti-American, black militant (Muslim) in a nice suit. Tim Russert didn't get all obsessed about the Farrakhan out of nowhere -- he's well known to call up GOP oppo shops and ask for tips, you know. (David Niewert does a nice job showing how the media's own racist tendencies come to the fore with stories like these.) I'm not surprised, and I'm sure Senator Obama is not surprised, that the reaction to the flap among the public, particularly among political independents, was mixed:
March 20, 2008 —
Of those who knew about the controversy and the speech, we asked, “Taking all this into account, are you more or less likely to support Obama for president?”
Less likely (52%)
More likely (19%)
About the same (27%)
No opinion (2%)
The disturbing numbers for Obama are the independent voters. By 56% to 13%, they said they’re less likely to vote for him because of the speech.
This CBS poll has a different result, showing that the only area in which Obama suffered was his "ability to bring the country together" --- which actually makes some sense, since the country got a refresher course in how the conservative movement and their friends in the media handle these things. (Update: The Gallup poll shows him back in the lead over Clinton, so at least with Democrats he seems to have come back to his previous position before the Wright scandal broke. How this will affect the general election is obviously still unknown.)
Lest anyone think that I am making an electablility argument in favor of Hillary Clinton, I'm not. If anything, it's quite clear that she would have an even harder time getting past these deep intractable stereotypes than Obama. Kevin Drum wrote about that recently, showing that while many people are still racist in America, even more of them are sexist --- and willing to admit it outright. (Paul Lukasiak crunches some numbers on the gender gap here ,to demonstrate the same thing.)
The fact is that faced with circumstances that make the prospect of a victory easier than they could usually expect, Democrats have used that opportunity to break through some long standing barriers to blacks and women in spite of the fact that it would lessen their advantage. This is an unusual and counterintuitive step for a party out of power to take --- generally they go the safe route after being beaten two elections in a row and nominate the most mainstream candidate they can find. So, good for the Democrats for using their advantage to do more than just win an election. ( And truthfully, when else could they possibly do it? When the Republicans are on a roll?)
As a liberal who's been watching all this take place over the course of half a century now, I am thrilled at the prospect of crossing those boundaries with an African American or female president. But the sexism and racism we've seen in the campaign so far is a reminder that these things don't happen by magic or positive thinking. (Look at the racial make up of the prison population or the gender pay gap for illustration.) They happen because people are always out there fighting for it, over time, vigilantly manning the barricades against the conservative aristocrats (there aren't any other kind) and the people they purposefully manipulate with fear to keep full equality and true liberty from coming to fruition.
And sadly, those who do that fighting are often considered to be "unamerican" and "unpatriotic" because by demanding that America change, they are making a case that America is not perfect. For the chauvinist, nationalist, exceptionalist right, (and the mindbogglingly provincial thinkers in the village) that is something you are not allowed to admit.
I have long believed that Democrats will win in the fall and I still think so. But no election is guaranteed and running the first African American and the first woman undoubtedly made it harder than it otherwise would have been. But that's the price you pay for progress.
Oh, and as for Obama's church? I am not qualified to weigh in on the theological acceptability of the various people politicians pray with and I don't make political decisions based on religion anyway. However, I might be more persuaded by the arguments of people like Pat Buchanan, who says that Obama should repudiate his pastor and the teachings of his church, if Buchanan himself weren't a member of a church that enabled and covered up for pedophile priests for decades. Perhaps my freethinking ways make it impossible for me to see the proper theological distinctions. I'll leave it to others to sort that all out.
Update: If you haven't read Glenzilla's post today illustrating certain current racial attitudes, go here.