I watched Obama’s speech, and then listened to a bit of commentary: hedging and doubts on Fox, glowing dewy-eyed awe on CNN.
I’m not a fan; never have been. I see Obama as a typical liberal of an extreme but very familiar sort. I disagree with him on the war on Iraq in particular, one of my strongest concerns. I’ve also been bothered by his lack of experience combined with some shady associations, of which Reverend Wright is only one.
So I can’t claim neutrality in listening to today’s speech. As I said in last night’s podcast, I expected it to be a sermon of sorts, a counterbalance to Wright’s sermons, and Obama didn’t prove me wrong.
What did he actually say? The gist: let’s put this brouhaha behind us. Reverend Wright is typical of black rage, and I can’t disown him because I can’t disown my people. Whites are angry too. The remedy is to throw more money into our schools, create more economic opportunities for the African-American community, and fix health care in the time-honored liberal manner. Anyone who keeps talking about Reverend Wright is just keeping racial divisions alive, although of course we have to talk about them because they’re real.
Something like that, anyway. And along the way he managed to make what I felt was one of the single most revoltingly self-serving statements I’ve ever heard in a speech. I reproduce it here in bold:
I can no more disown [pastor Wright] than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Talk about equivalences! Somehow his elderly grandmother’s privately uttered statements of mild racial stereotyping have become a counterbalance to the invective Wright spouted from the pulpit as a spiritual leader.
And I can only hope that Obama’s grandmother, who is still alive, was told about this speech in advance and agreed that it was alright with her. If she did, it’s just more proof of her love for her grandson. If she did not, he’s guilty of one of the most coldblooded political exploitations of a loved one that I’ve ever witnessed.
Even with his grandmother’s permission, however, the argument doesn’t hold. There is no equivalence there between the two, which differ mightily in degree.
What’s more, there are plenty of African-American churches, probably even a few in Chicago, that carry on Wright’s sort of social missions without his inflammatory rhetoric. Surely Obama could have found a spiritual home in one of them. Yes, as Obama says, the church to which he belonged probably “embodies the black community in its entirety,” the good and the bad, the hate and the love, but that’s no reason to sit voluntarily steeping oneself in the hatred while in church. Disowning a pastor should be easier than disowning a grandmother.
So, what is the remedy Obama is offering for the racial problems that persist in this country? Aside from whatever healing would come from the mere fact of his own election (which he downplays in the speech, attempting to sound modest), what does he suggest?
Obama spent considerable time describing the roots of anger such as Wright’s in the very real inequities and discrimination of the past. But to my ears, he glossed over and minimized the major policy changes and gains that have been made in the decades since the sixties, and prescribes the following as the remedy:
….the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
If things are not perfect at this point, it’s certainly not through lack of trying this particular agenda. Is more money really the answer? Is the problem still a lack of a “ladder of opportunity?” Or is a substantial part of it the self-perpetuation of the problems, that they have become culturally and structurally endemic in segments of the black community, and that this is a major force contributing to the stuckness of some African-Americans today despite efforts at affirmative action that have gone on for decades?
Obama does pay lip service to that fact in his speech in what he refers to as the “conservative” “notion of self-help” and responsibility:
And it means taking full responsibility for own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
How this all-important personal change on the micro level of family will somehow come to pass isn’t clear. That’s because it’s outside the realm of governmental intervention.
Perhaps Obama thinks that his own election can inspire some of it (he does not say this, however, in his speech). Obama does mention that some of Wright’s sermons that are not on You Tube emphasize this very thing—self-reliance and self-help in the black community. But it’s very difficult for me to believe that dwelling so much (as Wright does) on the legacy of past discrimination, and nurturing both present rage and negative stereotyping of other groups as well as disdain towards this country, could ever help to bring about that healing of which Obama speaks, either within the black community or between the races.
So, did Obama pull it out of the fire? I haven’t a clue. As I said, there’s never been a chance I’ll vote for him, and it has nothing to do with Reverend Wright.
Most of Obama’s diehard supporters are probably still in his camp, and would remain so whatever he would do short of being revealed as an ax-murderer (and maybe even that wouldn’t be enough). Those who didn’t like him before aren’t going to be won over.
It’s that large group of Americans in the middle that he must woo in order to win the general election, and I have no idea whether he reached them. Time—and polls—will tell. It’s still a long way to November 4th, and I suspect this campaign has a great many twistings and turnings ahead.