Thursday, March 20, 2008

Four-star speech.

Obama hit a "campaign setback" and made setbackaid. This is one for the history books. It not just America that thirsts for this message...

I'm not an internet evangelist or anything, but how wonderful is it that thanks to YouTube we seem to be moving away from the era of soundbytes and back to great oratory?


Mader said...

It was certainly a remarkable speech, and I'm wary of being a lone voice of dissent lest I be taken as a crank. But doesn't Obama offer a bit of a false analogy between the attitude exhibited by Wright and the attitude exhibited by the poor whites Obama invokes? It seems to me Wright's sermons go past mere resentment when he invokes conspiracy theories such as that AIDS was a creation of the U.S. government designed to target the African American community. The analogy is not white frustration with affirmative action; the analogy is white supremacy, to the degree that movement is based on grand conspiracy theories such as Jewish control of the government.

Now it may be that, just as we must learn to understand African American anger-driven conspiracy theorizing, so we have to learn to understand white anger-driven conspiracy theorizing. But I can't say I'm persuaded. A truly great message, in my opinion, would recognize the validity of both African American and white grievance insofar as that grievance is expressed in a rational manner - or at least in a manner that does not have, at its core, hostility and division but rather frustration; but a truly great message would also warn against, and condemn, both African American and white grievance that is expressed through conspiracy theorizing that is obviously grounded in hatred and anger.

Obama's been getting lots of brownie points for refusing to do the 'easy' thing and condemn Wright. Isn't it possible that, in this instance at least, the easy thing was also the right thing?

J. Kelly said...


I believe Obama's analogy was meant to apply to Wright's comments about "god damn America" and the "US of KKK", that sort of thing, rather than the AIDS comment (which I think was one of the later comments that added to the storm, rather than the one that set it off; do you have it in original context?). Nevertheless Obama did condemn Wright's statements unequivocally - he even used the word "condemn" - he just didn't disown the man.

I don't think it was up to Obama to answer for everything Wright has ever said... To go up and down the laundry list and denounce and discuss each comment specifically, whether he knew it was said or not or was in attendance or not.

I realise the AIDs comment is particularly nutty, but we are talking about a man who makes his living talking every week about a man who rose from the dead and who he believes is the son of God. A huge chunk of the American population believes that untrue story, but I, for one, don't think we need to write them off entirely...

To me, America's "racial stalemate" is much more worthy of careful examination than what crazy things pastors believe.

Mader said...

Good point, Kelly, but I don't think I'm yet convinced. I agree that it wasn't up to Obama to specifically condemn each and every wacky comment Wright has made - though I also recognize that Obama did issue a general condemnation of the most discussed comments. That's good, although not particularly reassuring; I should certainly hope that Barack Obama doesn't believe that God should damn America.

But as you note, Obama didn't disown the man - nor, more importantly, did he disown the motivation for the condemned comments. It's sort of like the classic politician's non-apology "I'm sorry if you were offended." In fact, the crux of Obama's speech seems to be his argument that while Wright's specific words should be condemned, his more general message of anger and resentment should be - not simply understood - but to some degree internalized.

Perhaps this is where my confusion comes from. Insofar as Obama preaches understanding as the road to reconciliation, I'm with him entirely. But his speech leaves unclear just how we are to understand what he has presented as standard African American attitudes. As a child of the liberal-idealistic nineties, I'd always thought that the road to reconciliation via understanding required a recognition not just of the historical fact of prejudice but of the irrationality of prejudice and the immateriality, in a fundamental sense, of race.

Obama's message turns that assumption on its head by suggesting that reconciliation requires a recognition of the immutability of race. He says: yes, many blacks are angry, and you have to understand that their anger is legitimate; and yes, many whites are resentful, and you have to understand that their resentment is legitimate; and if we only come to recognize black anger and white resentment, we'll be that much closer to reconciliation.

I don't mean to belittle the importance of Obama's speech when I suggest that it's sort of the underpants gnome approach to reconciliation. Step 1: recognize black anger and white resentment. Step 2: ????? Step 3: Harmony!

But it seems to me Obama's step one makes step two that much more difficult, because Obama's step one involves - it seems to me - a certain degree of retrenchment of racial identities. Taking for granted that little black boys are angry and little white girls resentful may sound like an evaluation based on character, but it's not - it's an assumption based on race, and it teaches those little black boys and little white girls that at root they are black and they are white.

Maybe that's inevitable in this age of realism, liberal idealism is in disrepute, and market economics on its back legs. Maybe a dream of post-racial harmony is simply too much to ask for, and the best we can do is to recognize our divisions and learn to live with them.

But I can't shake the feeling that Obama has very eloquently presented the symptoms as the cure.

J. Kelly said...

For a moment I thought you had lost it, but then I Googled "underpants gnome" and all was explained. (Not sure how I missed meme.)

I don't think Obama is setting out a road map to racial harmony. He's just saying: Try to understand one another, even - and especially - when it is hardest.

I don't think that recognising the reality on the ground necessarily leads to a "retrenchment of racial identities" - and the speech was for adults, not little boys and girls.

If Wright was some sort of an anomaly, Obama could have just disowned him. But we know there is anger in the American black community and we know that sometimes it twists into strange shapes... The AIDS conspiracy theory is something I've only in fringe circles, but the CIA/crack theory is a pet one with people on the Mother Jones/Rabble left. Meanwhile, a sizable chunk of black Americans took it for granted that OJ was not guilty, that it was more likely than not that he was just another black man framed by the police. And when, after Katrina, Kanye West said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people", he was hailed as a truth-telling hero; mainstream black opinion and large parts of the mainstream press seemed to agree that, yes, the president doesn't care when black citizens die.

From that astonishing position that the US finds itself in, though it would be nice to just say, "Why can't we all just get along? Race is a construct." - that's just not going to cut it.

I find it interesting that your criticism of Obama's speech is that it wasn't idealistic enough - that it wasn't all "we are all brothers and sisters" platitudes. I think that's what I admire about it; it's fearless, it touches those thorny issues that most politicians stay far away from - until they explode into race riots. Obama is parodied as giving speeches full of empty, feel-good rhetoric, but I think that though he is positive and upbeat in his message, he is also decidedly unblinkered in facing the problems some would like to pretend aren't there or are only there on the fringe.

Mader said...

"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!"

I think you're right - my core criticism is, in essence, that Obama rejects the idealism of King's legacy, and counsels instead an acceptance of race differences. My argument is that if one's starting proposition is race difference, racial harmony will be that much more difficult.

The alternative is not easy, of course, as we've seen for the past forty years. Saying that, in a deep sense, race should not matter requires those who identify by race to surrender a core part of their identity - in exchange, however, for a universal identity. Reverend Wright and, as you point out, a significant percentage of African Americans, have never surrendered their racial identity in return for a universal American identity. Certainly white Americans have not made that path an easy one - to make a universal American identity a reality, it must be defined as more than, or separate from, white American identity, and it's not clear that that's happened.

But I digress - the point is that Obama is presenting a fundamentally different approach to race relations, one that does not simply qualify but rejects the post-racial idealism that has been the prevalent approach to race relations since the 1960s. Obviously that approach has not attained the successes to which it aspires. But I think it's an open question whether that post-racial ideal failed because it was fundamentally flawed, or whether it failed because it was never given a chance by those who refused to surrender racial identity.

Hey, just call me a liberal idealist. And incidentally, referencing South Park in serious political discussions probably does qualifies as some sort of 'losing it.'

J. Kelly said...

I am entirely in favour of you including more South Park references on your blog.

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