I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the “Obama’s Pastor” controversy, because it’s the product of three forms of conservative stupidity that I am glad to be immune to. The first is their deliberate, calculated, and organized distortion of political campaigns with red herring issues and machine-gun assaults of irrelevant attacks whipped up by their noise machine to drown out a substantive discussion of issues on which they cannot compete. The second is their inability to think for themselves and its corollary, their assumption that nobody else is capable of thinking for themselves – hence the bizarre “controversy” over whether Obama was present in the room when somebody else said something that makes white conservatives uncomfortable. (It’s true: a major portion of the noisemaking over individual sentences spoken by Jeremiah Wright and taken out of context by Obama’s critics is the question not whether Obama agrees with them, but whether he was present when they were spoken. Somebody should ask these clowns if they are so weak-minded that they are incapable of hearing anything and not believing it – and if not, why they assume that black people must be.) The third is the inherent inability even to acknowledge race and racial history as an issue in America – the drooling stupidity that allows conservative whites to imagine that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of race hatred, but that black anger over discrimination is. Like so much of conservative discourse, this nonsensical “controversy” simply fails to rise to the level that would deserve to be taken seriously; as with conservatism in general, giving it no credence is the safest and most efficient way to deal with the mess it presents.
But the speech that Obama planned on the subject was interesting to me – interesting as a phenomenon. It occurs to me that this election has now seen two “Kennedy moments” – defining speeches in which a candidate has been forced, by others’ bigotry, to confront their own outsider status and challenge America to expand its notion of community membership and our range of shared values. Kennedy did it with panache over the question of Catholicism, and this year Romney did a decent job in the same vein regarding Mormonism. Obama faces a larger challenge on the question of race. Race and sex are the fundamental lines of discrimination written into the Constitution itself; race especially was the ground of the most vicious and tenacious divisions of American society, the one that defined and shaped the country as no other, and laid the groundwork on which the lives of all Americans are lived today.
Americans have always been able to make themselves feel good about themselves by invoking both religiosity and religious freedom, but they have invested to an even greater degree in defining and maintaining racial divisions. In some ways, Kennedy and Romney were fighting a downhill battle; it required little more for either of them than to express teary-eyed religious fervor and promise not to go overboard with it. Obama is unquestionably struggling uphill; he cannot claim community with other groups by invoking his devotion to his own, as Kennedy and Romney could, and he cannot erase their bigotry by any degree of non-threatening rhetoric or promises not to challenge their complacency (which is just as well, because that’s not what he’s about). Even so, a speech on race is an opportunity to bring race to the forefront of the discussion in a serious way, and potentially to cut through the winking code-words and denials and evasions that invariably smothered any approach to the subject heretofore. It was an unique enough opportunity, also, that it just might have had a chance to make whites shut up and listen for a change, and maybe shift the grounds of discussion just a bit. I was interested to see what Obama would do with it.
(More after the break)
The prepared text of the speech is available here.
I’m not going to go through the speech itself in detail. I thought it was outstanding, maybe a bit short of perfection but a welcome, thoughtful, intelligent digression from the stupidity and superficiality that usually marks any public comment on race or racial history. I thought the Constitution as framing device was exactly right; as Obama notes, it sealed our most profound and guilt-drenched racial crime into the very substance of the country at its founding, but also laid the groundwork for progress. I like Obama’s implicit interpretation of “a more perfect union” as a call for progressivism, rather than a promise of perfection; it simultaneously lets the Founders off the hook, and puts the burden on subsequent generations to keep that goal alive – it also binds the current generation with the obligation of progress, as inheritors of the Constutition. Brilliant rhetorical device, and brilliant politics.
The first part of the speech deals with the Wright issue, in a somewhat indirect way. I thought he said what had to be said, and said it the right way. He notes the distortions that race has introduced into the campaign, and, I thought, threw a gracious blanket over all the candidates in acknowledging the unfairness of some of the attacks made on them on those grounds. As far as Wright goes, he pointed out what conservatives can’t seem to grasp: they are two different people, and there are many ways of being tied to a community that you don’t sever just because a bunch of redneck yahoos gin up a verbal lynching of one of your friends. He did not say what has been obvious to me all along: most of what Wright is quoted as saying is true. I think that was the price he had to pay to throw the emphasis on the long history of their relationship and the good it had brought him. He spoke powerfully of family and community, and of the bonds of loyalty that tie different people together through their personal history. This whole middle section was in fact a deeply conservative speech, emphasizing religion, church, family, and community – a fact that will have absolutely no impact on the imbeciles who have set themselves to drag him down by attacking that community while pretending to preach exactly the same values. Obama tried to convey what it’s like, and what it means, to be a member of a black church – a lesson that is not new to whites who’ve had any contact with the black community, but which I think is going to be lost on oblivious racist whites who don’t know and don’t want to know.
The second half of the speech was the better half. Most important, he made clear and direct statements that there is a reason for black anger, and that the history that gives rise to that anger continues to shape black and white lives today. He flinched on the corollary subject of white privilege: he acknowledged that many whites assert they have not committed offenses against blacks and then feel resentful of programs to address racial discrimination against blacks, and he had already pointed out how the legacy of slavery and discrimination affects the black community today, but he then said nothing whatsoever about the fact that that legacy also benefits whites today. He thus placates resentful whites without calling them on their privilege; again, that apparently was the price he thought he had to pay to get them to acknowledge black resentment as well. He does explicitly, but mildly, call upon whites to admit that racism and discrimination are real and have had real effects; that paragraph, out of all the speech, is I think what makes Obama’s “Kennedy moment” different from Kennedy’s own, or Romney’s. Finally, he turns all this into a call for unity in facing common enemies: he names corporations twice, which is bold in American politics, and he takes a glancing swipe at those who feed cynicism by harping on distractions like Wright’s sermons. Good for him. The last few minutes of the speech, subtly but clearly, turned into a stump speech for himself as candidate: highlighting his signature issues as evidence of the work that needs to be done, and extolling his policies as the solution to America’s problems. Well, OK – he’s entitled to that. I have to confess I didn’t understand the story about the little white girl and the old black man: the bit about the girl eating mustard sandwiches to save money for her mother’s cancer treatments was just manipulative (even if it was true), I don’t see how it relates to her work as an adult on his campaign, and I found the statement of the old man – that he joined Obama’s campaign because of her, and not because of Obama – just bewildering. But what the hell.
[OK, I guess I did go through it in detail. But there's a lot more that can - and will, over the years, for this is a truly historic speech - be said.]
It was a great speech. I found it more defensive than I would have liked, but of course it was aimed at critics, not at people who thought he had nothing to apologize for in the first place. I thought he pulled a few punches, but the same observation applies. He didn’t bring out the heavy weight of racial history in nearly enough depth, but maybe it was enough for a speech of that length, under these circumstances. Most of all, it was new. No other American presidential candidate, not even Clinton, not even Lincoln, has ever spoken of racial guilt and its legacy so forthrightly – and certainly not in a speech aimed at racists! It was bold and true – and again, a speech from the heart delivered in the face of criticism, in circumstances in which it would have been possible to take an easy out. I am impressed.
But what really prompted this post is not the speech itself, but the conservative reaction – much of which was posted before Obama had even given the speech! After reading the prepared text, I thought Obama’s words were truthful, moving, and eloquent. I didn’t think the speech would convert people who were intent on finding or creating a racial divide in the campaign, but I thought it elevated the racial discourse in ways that could not be denied. As in every case in which I think conservatives won’t take an opportunity to be vicious, racist, and stupid, I overestimated them.
Characteristically, The Corner leads the way in ugly idiocy:
Stanley Kurtz has a long post demanding that Obama and the Democrats denounce anyone who says anything critical of America, including Wright and Michael Moore, and that failing to do so, or even (I’m not making this up) just sitting next to them in public, is “unacceptable”. The names “Wright” and “Moore” appear in his post 19 times, and 8 times, respectively; the words “race”, “racial”, or “racism” appear . . . not once at all. Kurtz is simply a moral imbecile.
Cliff May says that independents and conservatives, as the result of this speech, will be less likely to see Obama as a new kind of political candidate, or “not so bad” as an option for president. As to the “new” bit, I am simply staggered that anyone can read that speech and imagine it’s in any way the same as any speech any American politician has ever given previously. But that frank words on racial history, and a black man’s refusal to demagogue black anger over discrimination, would be taken as a reason not to vote for that man, by conservatives, in no way surprises me, or challenges my perception of their perversity.
James Robbins comments on exactly one thing in the entire speech: a single, passing reference to the OJ trial as a “spectacle” with racial overtones. Robbins’s reaction? He demands to know whether Obama condemns OJ’s lawyers, and whether he thinks OJ was guilty. This is the issue he drew out of this entire controversy, and Obama’s speech? They give this moron publication space.
Kathryn Jean Lopez’s paraphrasal of the entire speech: “Damn straight, Rev. Wright is angry. That’s how I wound up at his church. That’s why I stay there. I’m mad too, I just control it better. Now let’s get electing me president so we can all feel good.” She also claims she’s disappointed because she had hoped Obama would “be a gift to civil rights in America — that he would shake hands with Ward Connerly and really be a change”. She’s like a walking statue to conservative obliviousness – uncomprehending, and deliberately stupid in her attempts to grasp what she hears. Her claim that the “gift to civil rights” that America needs is for Obama to suck up to egregious racial lapdog Connerly – that Obama is somehow at fault for failing to pretend race doesn’t even exist, is beyond stupid; it’s deliberately, insultingly offensive.
Kathleen Parker tries a little mind-reading, pretending she understands Obama’s “predicament”. It arises from the story he tells of his beloved white grandmother who sometimes made racially insensitive remarks. Exercising her psi powers, Parker explains: “His narrative of self-discovery and self-identification as an African American in Chicago begins there and the subtext is that his own source of emotional nourishment was polluted by a prejudice that was aimed indirectly at him. His grandmother — his surrogate mother at that point — rejected the black man he was becoming. The anger Obama heard in Rev. Wright’s church may not have felt so alien after all.” Leaving aside whether this makes any sense or not, what is interesting is that Parker apparently regards this as a bad thing. It’s self-evident for her – and the entire Corner crowd – that there can be no justifiable reason for black anger, that no black American can have any grounds for feeling their own country has behaved badly toward them and their families, that any resentment over the history of race in America, on the part of its victims, is simply out of the question. If Obama feels there is something significant in Wright’s anger, it is part of his pathology; his feelings were hurt as a boy, so he feels angry as a man. 400 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and countless decades of stupid oblivious shit from smug conservatives are of no consequence whatsoever; black anger is a psychological problem (and it’s his own family’s fault, so the rest of the country is off the hook on that one, too).
John Derbyshire, uniquely, picks up on the one paragraph in which Obama calls for white acknowledgement of the history of discrimination, and commitment to doing something about it. His paraphrase: “Blame whitey, and raise high the red flag of socialism.” He includes a detailed denial that there is, in fact, anything wrong with the comparative status of whites and blacks in America, or any reason for it. His laughably clicheic response to this one partial phrase: “ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system” is this: “So our police and judges are acting unfairly? . . . Where do you get off insulting our law enforcement and judicial personnel, Senator?” It’s like a little toy prize from the vending machine of knee-jerk slogans that pass for conservative thinking. (Derbyshire also has a stupidly racist post up, entirely devoted to “funny African names” – “I have enjoyed much harmless merriment from contemplating the names of African politicians . . . [like] the Rev. Canaan Banana and Oginga Odinga . . . . Now a new generation of can’t-help-but-smile African onomastic pioneers has taken the stage. Let’s give a hearty welcome to Tokyo Sexwale, Enoch Godongwana, and Playfair Morule.” It’s like he’s trying out for the part of “racist English dickead” in some sort of Monty Python movie. It doesn’t help that the names Canaan, Enoch, and Playfair are unquestionably the product of English colonialism in Africa; they’re funny when you stick ‘em on black people. The great thing about being a conservative is that you can be such an offensive asshole and just not care!) I have enjoyed much harmless merriment from contemplating Derbyshire making a priceless ass of himself over the years, but there’s a limit.
Charlotte Hays admits she stopped listening to the speech partway through, but goes on with her uninformed criticisms anyway. She notes that “Obama says that we shouldn’t ‘condemn without understanding the roots’ of remarks like those Wright made”, but immediately asserts: “Whatever the roots, these remarks are to be condemned.” She thus confirms the conservative principle that understanding is unnecessary for either drawing conclusions, or condemning, others. And this, again, in response to a speech she says she didn’t bother to listen to. Like Lopez, she’s a walking testimonial to conservative stupidity – she openly embraces ignorance and then shoots her mouth off about things she has deliberately chosen not to understand.
To their credit, a few Cornerites manage not to be offensive. Charles Murray heaps praise on the speech, and makes this observation: “Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one?” That’s just what I said above, but not one other person at the Corner seems to notice that it was in any way new. It boggles me that that gets overlooked.
Even Jonah Goldberg says some very nice things about the speech, but ruins it by saying “I think there were some serious logical, philosophical, and political flaws to it.” That would not be an offensive sentiment coming from anyone else, but from Goldberg – the resident idiot of the very, very stupid village that is The Corner – it’s just risible. Goldberg of all people should never, ever, allow himself to use the words “logical” or “philosophical” in anything other than a question.
Alone at The Corner, Mark Hemingway has some thoughtful criticisms, but they strike me as weird. He first offers detailed praise of the speech, but then notes “I thought the first third of the speech was not so good in that that he offered up too much stark racial context before he got to the part about addressing Wright.” Then he says “Further, no matter how eloquent he is here, the ENTIRE speech is about race. The reason why Obama has done so well to date is his ability to get beyond rehashing the same struggles and arguments with regard to race. Now everybody is going to spend weeks talking about the state of racial injustice in this country in response — pretty much the exact opposite of the discussion about unity he’s been fostering so far . . . .” I don’t even understand this objection. Everyone understood that the speech was supposed to be about race; what did he expect Obama to talk about? Apparently, Hemingway’s objection is that he wanted the speech to be about Wright, not about race. But the issue with Wright is race. It’s very blind, or very dismissive, to imagine that Obama could or should repudiate Wright’s angry remarks without a word for what those remarks are about, or why they are angry. Hemingway appears to believe that race is not an issue in regard of black people’s feelings about America. For Hemingway, there’s such a thing as “too much stark racial context” for black people’s statements about slavery and discrimination. He makes it clearer with his later elaboration. He thinks “getting beyond the same struggles and arguments with regard to race” means not talking about race, and that it’s a failure that “everybody is going to spend weeks talking about the state of racial injustice in this country”. That was exactly Obama’s triumph. In Hemingway’s case, I don’t get a sense of cynical racial manipulation, as with Ward Connerly’s insistence on denying race as a real phenomenon; I get something in some ways deeper and sadder. He really thinks that the problem with race in America is acknowledging and talking about racial problems – that we are now “post-racist” and the thing to do is forget it entirely. Connerly knows he’s a racist enabler – that’s why he tries so hard to bury discussion of race. Hemingway seems to be just another one of those conservatives who feel entitled to ignore race, or honestly believe it doesn’t matter, and feel resentful when someone makes them notice that it does actually matter. I’m just incredulous of the idea that so many people could honestly come to such an opinion – or could hear Obama explain to them, so clearly and eloquently, why that is not the case, and still hold to the convenient belief that they are entitled to ignore race, and that black people are at fault for not ignoring race. There is something deeply pathological in conservatives – even the seemingly decent ones.
But The Corner is far from alone is deliberately missing the point:
Dan Collins, at Protein Wisdom, also declares he “can’t” watch or read the speech. But after posting an excerpt, he then declares “This still doesn’t begin to answer why it’s somehow excusable for a pastor to spew demagoguery and outright lies . . .”. Again, the only issue is Obama’s acquiescence to their demands regarding Wright . . . nothing about, say . . . race.
Power Line declares the speech “courageous”, but then insists that the only question is “whether it is acceptable to elect as president of the United States someone who carries Rev. Wright around as part of him, and who takes his ranting seriously”. Again, not a question about what Obama thinks or believes, but a question about the “acceptability” of the fact that he won’t repudiate someone from his past life. The author at Power Line twists Obama’s claim that he “carries around in him” the people he has known and shared his life with to mean that he endorses everything Wright says – a simply dishonest interpretation that Obama explicitly repudiated in the same speech. And the post is yet another tour de force of missing the point, and denying the importance of the history that permeates this entire issue: the post contains 16 occurrences of the name “Wright”; the words “race”, “racial”, and “racism”, collectively, appear exactly once outside of quotes or paraphrases from Obama himself. You have to work hard to be that blind.
Carol Platt Liebau, at Townhall, takes it to the next level. As we have seen is typical, her post contains the name “Wright” 8 times, with “race”, “racial”, and “racism” together totalling one mention. But she also manages to work in American flag lapel pins, the “liberal elite”, the “radical corners of most Ivy League universities”, and Michelle Obama’s secret influence on her husband’s politics. Like Derbyshire, she’s a knee-jerk vendor of right-wing talking points and empty slogans. Nowhere in the post is any discussion of the substance of the speech, or the issues it raises; repeatedly there are demands that Obama parrot the right-wing criticisms of people from his private life, and criticisms that he did not.
And so it goes, throughout the scum-wing blogosphere. What comes to me over and over, reading this nasty drivel, is the almost desperate insistence on making Wright, and not race, the issue. The importance of this speech, for the racists, whas that Obama was required to adopt their talking points about Wright, denounce not only certain remarks they had chosen for emphasis but the man himself, and thereby denounce his own lifelong religious background and church membership. (They thus get to collect another scalp, while forcing Obama to declare that he himself is unfit for the presidency, because he knows someone who is not running for the presidency who is also unfit.) Their entire reaction to the issue, and the speech, has been centered on a particular handful of remarks by one man who is not part of the campaign; their entire receptivity was narrowed to and focused on whether Obama said the things they demanded he must say about those remarks and that man. They not only were oblivious to the actual substance of those remarks, and its meaning in American history, but they felt morally entitled to ignore and deny that substance, and to criticize Obama for failing to play along. Again and again, the only issue that matters – to America, or to the race for the American presidency – is one fringe preacher from a church most of them would be terrified to sit in. Again and again, race as an issue that matters in America was left entirely out of their remarks. Again and aqain Obama was condemned for saying that America’s racial history has something to do with black Americans’ status or feelings. Race truly does not exist for these racists – or at least, cannot be allowed to be mentioned, lest it begin to exist again.
There is absolutely no reaching the lowest stratum of American conservatism. It is simply broken, terminally ill. The one hope for this country is that enough remain salvageable that they can begin to hear the words that have been shouted in their faces for generations, and to see the conditions they themselves and their families live in and profit from, and will begin to listen. If Obama has managed that miracle with a large enough body of people – none evident on the conservative blogs – he will have achieved something greater than I thought was possible.
I don’t think he has done that with this speech. Reading the scum-wing blogs, I think so even less now. As I said before, they have surprised me once again with their depth of inhumanity and simple incomprehension. But it’s just possible he pulled it off. More and more, I hope so.