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Barack Obama and the Reverend Wright

Here is my take on Barack Obama and the Reverend Wright: most people and especially Obama partisans, have missed the point.

I sent this to Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times because his commentary on “the speech” happened to be the last in a long line of commentary I read about it, and so he was foremost in my mind when I wanted to express that opinion — well, that and I included in my message a self-promoting link to my prior attempts at a “dialog on race” hoping (not confidently) to pique the curiosity of someone actually in a position to publicize them.

I did not receive a reply. On the other hand, after I’d e-mailed it to him directly I discovered that he had invited commentary on the topic on his blog, and so far he’s received over 950 responses. I’d say individual replies to correspondents on this would be impractical.

20 March 2008

I admire Barack Obama. I may even vote for him despite some misgivings about his traditionally ‘liberal’ “government can fix everything” roots. And I admired his speech about race, although I found it somewhat shallower, and nuanced in a manipulative rather than intellectual fashion, than most reviewers seem to have.

But I must say that most of the commentary from his admirers that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot in the last few days) have missed the primary aspect of the story of Obama and the Reverend Wright.

At the forefront is Wright himself and the views he espouses. What was disconcerting to me about what I’ve heard in snippets of the Reverend Wright’s sermons was not racial animosity but a fundamental pessimism about America.

I view those who blame all the problems of modern “black America” on slavery and white racism as somewhat detached from reality. It’s not that I believe neither white racists nor residual, subtle, and systematic institutional racism exist here any more. No doubt they do. But we have come so far since the days of Jim Crow that it is as foreign to our current circumstances as is the slavery that came before it or as is our colonial past; and what still exists is not nearly enough to explain the dire state either of the black underclass or of modern race relations. There is much more going on than racism, and those who focus all their attention and anger on racism, for all their sincerity and perhaps righteousness, end up deflecting attention from those things that would actually make much more difference to those for whom they struggle. And besides, although the Reverend Wright’s fomentations were, perhaps, a bit more extreme, they were not really different in kind from what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and others more “mainstream” have to say. I lament the language of racial animosity I hear from such “black leaders” but it doesn’t surprise me and, after all this time, it doesn’t scare me.

But beyond race, or perhaps as a result of it, the Reverend Wright appears, at least in the extracts that have been played for us, to have a deep-seated and vehement animosity toward America itself and toward its institutions and traditions. He didn’t lead his congregation in a chant of “God damn those fools who’ve led this country toward perdition.” He exhorted God to “damn America“. In that, and in much of the rest of what we’ve heard, he seems to be communicating the fundamental message that America, for all the progress we’ve made in the last 150 years, and more so in the last 50 years, and for all our current good intentions and striving to become even better, is simply evil at root and not worth Blessing. He seems to be saying that all the good we can see around us, all our prosperity, the liberties we enjoy and the ideal of liberty to which we aspire, are worth nothing. He seems to be saying that because we are not yet perfect and because we sometimes still make mistakes we are, therefore, no different, and certainly no better, than all the tyrants and despots and zealots that make so much of the rest of the world unfit for human existence.

It is his potential association with that attitude, and not with an archaic racialism, that taints Obama.

Yes, I understand that Wright is coming from an experience base that I can’t really imagine. And yes, I understand that it has led him to some justifiable anger, and perhaps justifiable paranoia. And yes, I understand the oral tradition of exaggerated rhetoric in the cause of inspiring action.

I also understand that much that the Reverend Wright has done in deed rather than in word is admirable and beneficial. And I understand that his spiritual, rather than his political, philosophy is probably truly inspirational for those seeking such inspiration. So I can see that someone might value his spiritual guidance and his good deeds while finding discomfort with his political spewing, might choose to overlook the latter in order to benefit from the former.

And yes, I acknowledge that there are right-wing preachers whose rhetoric is as bombastic and vile as the worst that Wright ever uttered. In fact, as someone who is areligious and temperamentally libertarian (with a small L) I find the religious right in this country every bit as frightening as the socialist left, and for much the same reason.

But, even with all that, there are a couple of things about this that leave me feeling discomfited.

The first is that there is a world of difference between being merely a long-time member of Wright’s congregation and claiming Wright as a mentor and guiding force in your life. John McCain, as has been pointed out ad nauseum by those who think it an insightful and powerful defense of Obama, sought out the endorsement of the nefarious Reverend Hagee and shared a stage with him when that endorsement was granted. But John McCain is running for President and, as does every such candidate, he seeks the endorsements of those who have the clout to deliver large voting blocs. I guarantee there are people of the whacko left who have endorsed Obama and/or Clinton and with whom they have shared the stage that seem to ‘conservatives’ (and to me) as extreme as Hagee does to ‘liberals’ (and to me). There has been no indication that, before the endorsement, John McCain ever gave any favorable thought either to Hagee or to his ideas, and no indication that he has embraced those ideas now other than as a brief political expedient. That expedient embrace is troubling, but so is most of what happens during a Presidential campaign.

But Barack Obama didn’t just sit in the pews at the Reverend Wright’s church, wasn’t merely an active member of the congregation. He specifically cited the Reverend Wright as a mentor. He quoted from the Reverend Wright’s sermons in his books and speeches. He went out of his way to identify himself and his worldview with the worldview of the Reverend Wright. And until a few weeks ago, when the world finally noticed what that worldview encompassed, he never thought to qualify that self-identification, never thought to separate the spiritual and inspirational part of the Reverend Wright’s program from the political one.

A few weeks ago Michelle Obama was quoted as saying that this moment, the moment of her husband’s so far successful campaign for the Presidency, was the first time in her life that she had been proud of being an American or been proud of America. ‘Conservative’ partisans were strategically outraged, and I admit that it gave me pause as well. That story faded rather quickly, in part because of the adroit damage control that the campaign managed to bring to bear and in part because we understand that the candidate’s wife is not the candidate.

But now we hear what the Reverend Wright, who Barack Obama has singled out as his spiritual and philosophical mentor, has to say. And it sounds much the same. No pride in what America has achieved and might yet achieve. No pride in her founding principles of human dignity and liberty, and the struggles she has undergone to live up to them. No pride for the material and political and spiritual benefits that this has wrought for the vast majority of her citizens. No pride for the opportunities she increasingly makes available to those who would seek them out. And we begin to wonder: it appears Michelle Obama has internalized that message; what of Barack Obama? Is that what he really believes as well?

Because if that is what is in his heart, if the rhetoric of the campaign about hope and harmony is just that, rhetoric designed to win an election, if he really believes we are fundamentally immoral and unworthy of God’s Blessing, then how could he possibly protect our interests? Why would he bother?

Which brings us to the final point, that of judgment.

Nicholas Kristof said in his New York Times column that “blacks have a pretty good sense of what whites think, but whites are oblivious to common black perspectives.” Perhaps that is so. But, if it is so, if Barack Obama really does have that kind of insight, then how could he not have seen that the language of racial animosity would become incendiary? Surely he didn’t think that no one would ever bother to read what the philosophy of his philosophical mentor actually had to say? What did he think the reaction would be?

And beyond that, what did he think the reaction of those in the political mainstream would be to the message of American moral depravity? ‘Conservative’ partisans like to attack their ‘liberal’ opponents with the accusation that they “hate America”, and the ‘liberals’ denounce such attacks as untrue and unfair. But isn’t that precisely what the Reverend Wright’s message sounds like? Was Barack Obama so steeped in a political culture that accepted such notions that he couldn’t see beyond it? Is this such a part of his worldview that he can’t imagine anyone seriously believing otherwise or imagine anyone who would find it repulsive?

As engaging as his speech was, and as honest and clear and realistic as he was about the state of race relations in America, he did not address directly the real question raised in all this: Which parts of the Reverend Wright’s worldview are the ones you find abhorrent? And, finding yourself running for the Presidency, knowing that you and everything and everyone you touched would be under a microscope, why did you choose to ignore those abhorrent parts of his worldview rather than address them when you chose to elevate him as your singular inspiration and guide? Was it because you were naive? Was it because you were careless? Was it because you were foolish? Or was it because it simply didn’t occur to you until it was pointed out by others that they were, in fact, abhorrent? What does that say about your own beliefs and your own judgment?

We await the answer still.

(C) Copyright 2008, Augustus P. Lowell

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