His Bravest Moment: Obama's Refusal to Scapegoat His Pastor

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Mr. Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University.  He is the editor of http://www.progressivehistorians.com and a writer for the History News Service.

In her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula K. LeGuin writes of a fictional utopia whose perfection is made possible by a terrible secret: the imprisonment of a child in the most horrifying conditions imaginable. When the residents of Omelas learn of this devil’s bargain, they face a stark choice: accept a lifetime of guilt-ridden pleasure, or leave the city, never to return. Some choose to stay in Omelas, trading their moral compasses for personal happiness. Those with courage are the ones who walk away.

In America, there is a place very much like Omelas. It is called the Democratic Party. Unlike the Republicans, who generally celebrate their political extremists – think of Mitt Romney cheering Ann Coulter, or John McCain courting the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee – the Democats have a pathological fear of being identified with their party’s more radical elements. In order to prove their moderate credentials, they periodically call upon one of their presidential candidates to publicly humiliate a fellow Democrat. The chosen scapegoat, like the child of Omelas, is usually someone who belongs to an unpopular and underprivileged group, or who has expressed radical views. Strategists argue that this process is necessary for the party’s nominee to win over moderate voters, who apparently require the spectacle of public shaming in order to accept a Democrat as a responsible citizen.

Perhaps the first victim of this bizarre ritual was Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was tapped by 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern as his running mate. After the media reported that Eagleton had been treated for depression years earlier and had undergone electroshock therapy several times, McGovern held a press conference and announced that he was "a thousand percent" behind his running mate. Yet less than forty-eight hours later, Eagleton was out – sacrificed to American intolerance of victims of mental illness.

For the principled McGovern, throwing Eagleton to the political wolves was an uncharacteristic lapse forced upon him by the party establishment. But over the years, many less-scrupulous Democrats have gone out of their way to provoke such ritual humiliations. None has been more dramatic than Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Sister Souljah moment,” an iconic interaction whose name has come to encompass the entire genre of Democratic scapegoatings. Sister Souljah, an African-American R&B artist and strident political leftist, had given a regrettable interview after the Rodney King riots in which she had uttered the phrase, “If black people kill black people everyday, why not have a week and kill white people?” While sharing a stage with Souljah at an event hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, Clinton slammed Jackson for even having Souljah on the program, ludicrously comparing her words to those of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. The ploy worked: Clinton’s poll numbers received a much-needed boost on the back of the hapless Souljah.

Sixteen years after Bill Clinton singled out an angry and powerless young woman for public shaming, the Clintons still believe in the importance of Sister Souljah moments. Weeks ago, Hillary Clinton urged Obama during a debate to "denounce" and "reject" supporter Rev. Louis Farrakhan. In doing so, she reified the ritual scapegoating that has persisted within the Democratic Party for over thirty years – and ignored that ritual’s dark subtext. The Sister Souljah moment was not simply a feel-good morality statement, it was a stark warning to radicals like Souljah: if you utter extremist statements, you will be shunned and hounded from public life. Sister Souljah moments have a chilling effect on public discourse that should raise the ire of all lovers of free speech. Nevertheless, they are – or were – a staple of Democratic politics.

Until Barack Obama walked away from Omelas.

I could write perhaps a half-dozen separate essays on the ways in which Obama’s stunning speech on race last week broke new ground for a presidential candidate. But the aspect of the speech that stands out most clearly to me is Obama’s passionate defense of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – a man who had been caught shouting “God damn America!” in a televised sermon. “That isn't all that I know of the man,” Obama declared in the ringing tones which have become his signature. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. … He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Writers on both sides of the political divide have bemoaned Obama's decision not to scapegoat Wright. On the left, blogger and Clinton supporter Jerome Armstrong charges that “Obama needed to throw Wright under the bus and run him over a few times.” Similarly, conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson laments that Obama's speech "has sanctified the doctrines of moral equivalence" and embodies "the rejection of any consistent moral standard." I could not disagree more. Obama did not endorse Wright’s inflammatory comments by refusing to reject the man himself; far from it. Instead, he declared that our common humanity transcends our political differences. For Obama, there should be no more denouncing and rejecting of people with unpopular opinions, no more public humiliations or Sister Souljah moments. Obama’s speech was not a defense of the indefensible, but a bold appeal to pluralism and tolerance the likes of which has been little heard – and much needed – in our public sphere of late.

In the past, I have bemoaned Obama’s lack of political courage, his unwillingness to stand up for what he believes if doing so placed him in political jeopardy. No longer. By defending Wright at grave risk to his own political future, the Illinois senator has finally shown courage befitting a President. In doing so, Obama has become more than the man with the silken tongue and the audacity of hope; he has vaulted into greatness. If candidate Obama is willing to stand up for his unpopular friend against the winds of political expediency, my hopes are high that President Obama will perform a similar service for his shattered country.

LeGuin writes of the ones who walk away from Omelas: “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. … It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going.” I do not know where Obama is taking us in his rejection of the politics of scapegoating, but I have a feeling it is going to be glorious.

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R.R. Hamilton - 4/29/2008

... still think Obama is brave?

The irony is that Obama, by showing no dewy-eyed idealist but is one who will throw his pastor under the bus (Wright can keep Obama's grandmother company there), has helped his election prospect.

Frankly, in the Obama's speech today, I think I detected the influence of Obama's adviser, my old friend Bill Burton. If so, that's good; Bill is one of the smartest men in America.

Robert Lee Gaston - 4/6/2008

It is interesting that a man who seeks to be a country’s leader and chief executive has long time social, political and religious associations with a few people who have expressed their distain, if not hatred, for that country.

If the Reverend Wright and Mr. William Ayers are typical of Mr. Obama’s Chicago political, religious and social circle, I think at least some of us have the right to look askance at those relationships, and to ask how they reflect the world view of the individual who is asking to be elected president.

We can rest assured that if a President Obama follows through with his promises concerning Iraq, and things really go wrong there, those relationships will be fully explored. I doubt that a Democrat congress will be willing to be triangulated by a second Democrat president.

Robert Lee Gaston - 4/6/2008

It is interesting that a man who seeks to be a country’s leader and chief executive has long time social, political and religious associations with a few people who have expressed their distain, if not hatred, for that country.

If the Reverend Wright and Mr. William Ayers are typical of Mr. Obama’s Chicago political, religious and social circle, I think at least some of us have the right to look askance at those relationships, and to ask how they reflect the world view of the individual who is asking to be elected president.

We can rest assured that if a President Obama follows through with his promises concerning Iraq, and things really go wrong there, those relationships will be fully explored. I doubt that a Democrat congress will be willing to be triangulated by a second Democrat president.

Joseph Mutik - 3/29/2008

I consider keeping quiet about extremism and racism, of the type Wright promotes, as very significant.

Jeremy Young - 3/29/2008

Like McCain and Clinton have never lied, ever. Right.

You hold Obama to an impossibly high standard of truth-telling, yet give the other two a free pass. I'm "spinning" because I just don't see your objection as that important, and yet you're using it as an excuse to oppose the most honest candidate in the race.

Joseph Mutik - 3/29/2008

Why did Obama canceled the invitation for pastor Wright from his campaign launch last year? Because he knew that Wright's presence would raise questions.
If Obama would have said that Wright's activity as a community figure weights much more than his extremist views I would accept the argument but "I didn't know" argument is a pure and simple lie.

Jeremy Young - 3/29/2008

Several points:

1) How many of the Rev. Wright's sermons have come under fire so far?

2) How many years was the Rev. Wright pastor of that church?

3) How many sermons do you think Obama missed after he began holding public office, particularly after he moved to Washington?

I'm pretty sure that if anyone in that congregation had seen Obama in those pews while the Reverend was ranting, we'd have heard about it by now. There's simply no evidence to indicate that he knew anything about it.

It's sad when the truth is tarred as a "sleazy lawyer" argument.

Joseph Mutik - 3/29/2008

If Obama defends his friends that's a sign of his great character. I didn't say anything about. What I wrote in my message is the following: if Obama tries to tell us that during his 20 years relation with Wright and his church he didn't know anything about Wright's extremist positions he uses a sleazy lawyer argument and I can't accept this kind of argument from a man with a high intellectual level like Obama. Hypocrisy is on the side that tries to overlook Obama's sleazy arguments.

Jeremy Young - 3/29/2008

Mr. Mutik, I love how you say that Obama condoned Wright's support of Farrakhan. Don't you realize the hypocrisy that goes into that statement? Is there anyone you are close with whom you would disown because they were the acquaintance of someone you didn't like? If not, do you think your friends should all shun you for this in turn, in an obscene caricature of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Where does this hatred and shunning end? Obama said last week that it ended with him, here, now. In doing so, he became a bigger man by far than his detractors, who would like to see him turn on his friends for political gain.

Joseph Mutik - 3/29/2008

The two party political system in the USA is set up in such a way that only 50-60% of the voters have the influence in the election (at all levels). In my view, a really representative party system would have at least five parties:
the republicans (center right), democrats (center left), a centrist party (McCain and Lieberman should be in this party), a left wing party (unions, and so called "progressives"), a right wing party (Christian right etc.).
The primaries system is quite irrelevant considering the fact that in many states people from one party (or independents) can vote for the other party. Especially when the vote is more or less evenly divided (as in the case of Obama and Clinton) the system becomes an ovation system where the side who is shouting louder has a better chance to elect its primary candidate.
Now about the sleazy lawyer. Barak Obama is a very well educated and brilliant mind (the same about his wife). He was in the church of pastor Wright for 20 years but he is trying to say now that he didn't know about and didn't attend any of the extremist sermons of pastor Wright. This incredible affirmation it's on the same level as the one of Bill Clinton "I didn't inhale". The reality is that for 20 years Obama condoned the extremist position of his pastor and the pastor's support of Farrakhan and only now he is trying to say that he didn't. That's a sleazy lawyer tactic.
I am one of the people that will vote for Hillary if she is the candidate and if not I'll vote for McCain.
In the two party system a candidate bows to the extremes of his party during the primary and moves to the center during the general election. McCain meeting with Hagee was exactly this kind of move. McCain didn't have a 20 years relation with Hagee condoning his extremism as Obama did.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/28/2008

I heard today that the latest move by Obama is to say that he "he would have left his church if his pastor had not retired". http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/28/obama-had-wright-not-retired-id-have-left-church/

I think we are hearing the "thuh-THUMP .. thuh-THUMP" of someone being run over by a bus.

Sorry, Mr. Young, but while I did say that it was a "brilliant" speech (though I was wrong about predicting it a success), I think you can see now why I said it wasn't the brave speech of a "statesman". It's unfortunate, really, but I think it's likely that Obama's decision to join and then remain in that church for 20 years will, in the end, suffice to forever deprive him of the seat in the Oval Office.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/26/2008

Obama knows he needs to be perceived (and my personal opinion is that this is probably his genuine desire) to be what his wife called in her doctoral thesis an "integrationist/assimilationist". And he knew even before he began his campaign that there was no place in that picture for Rev. Wright.

Thus, Wright was still on the bus (but pushed to the back) when Obama last year disinvited him from giving the invocation at his campaign opening. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/06/us/politics/06obama.html

With his recent speech, he's tossed Wright -- and all his "Black Liberation Theology" luggage -- off the bus. We're now in the "Jeremiah Who?" phase, with Obama ending his speeches with "God BLESS America".

Jeremy Young - 3/26/2008

That's where we disagree. I still see Wright as very much ON the bus.

Obama pissed off the people who wanted him to scapegoat Wright: moderate white Americans and the consultant class. That's two pretty important constituencies.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/26/2008

I think I specifically said that Obama did NOT throw Wright under the bus. Let's see ... [reviewing original post]... Yes, that's what I said. So you and I don't disagree on that.

If we disagree on something it may be on what qualifies as a "brave(1) speech". My standard for that is that the speech must pissoff at least one important constituency of your party. Who did Obama piss off with this speech?

An example would be McCain lambasting -- in the GOP primary in Virginia of all places -- the leading figures of the Religious Right as "agents of intolerance". There is a strong argument that THAT speech cost him the 2000 nomination.(2)

Now, as I said, Obama has pushed Wright OFF the bus (though not UNDER it). You won't see Obama within camera range of that guy from now on. And this is at a time when he is running in the Democratic primaries. Wait till he gets to the general election where the political center of gravity will shift substantially Rightward. It is THEN that, as I said originally, we may see Obama turn his bus around and run over his then-former pastor.

(1) Others might call it "foolish" or "hubristic".
(2) As a fairly neutral observer of elections, I said at the time that McCain's speech was foolish -- at least foolishly timed.

Jeremy Young - 3/26/2008

We disagree that Obama threw Wright under the bus. I saw him carefully not doing that, while denouncing his words. To me, there's a clear difference.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/26/2008

I'm not sure what you disagree with, so I can't respond.

Jeremy Young - 3/26/2008

Mr. Hamilton, obviously we disagree. I think Obama did a good job of disagreeing with Wright while honoring his friendship. Obviously the speech wasn't politically stupid, but I do think it was politically brave.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/26/2008

It's true, Obama in his speech didn't throw his pastor under the bus. The speech was a carefully crafted -- to walk a tightrope between preserving his base and tamping down the fire among moderates. To that extent, it was a brilliant success.

But make no mistake, Obama is a politician, not a "statesman". He at the start of his campaign pushed his pastor to the back of the bus. With his speech, he tossed him OFF the bus. And, if necessary before November, he will turn that bus around and go back and run OVER his pastor several times.

Jeremy Young - 3/25/2008

I agree partially. The problem for me is when other people (rival campaigns, the news media, etc.) pressure a candidate to express outrage, as if that expression were some sort of a purgative or catharsis for society. Obama has very good reason not to be hostile to a man who, as he says, "strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children." The most I'm willing to agree with is that a clarification may be in order that Obama disagrees with the words (indeed, finds them offensive). Anything more than that is Obama's business and nobody else's.

mark safranski - 3/25/2008

Let me clarify. If a person makes broadly offensive statements they should not be surprised when many people are offended and react with some degree of hostility or criticism. These are unavoidable, natural, social transactional costs and, I think, reasonable ones.

If the critics go further and attempt to squelch the offender's right to speak, through legal or governmental pressure, that's disproportionate and really does chill free speech.

Re; McCain, criticizing him on his choice of political associations (Hagee etc.) is fair game as it is for Obama

Jeremy Young - 3/25/2008

Mark, thanks for your comment. You say:

In an open society that values free speech, the proper cost of going around saying stupid things is public condemnation and social ostracism

I'm going to have to disagree. I don't see what's the purpose of shaming people for being stupid. It's not going to keep people from doing it; it's just going to have a chilling effect on free speech. Frankly, I don't think there should be any cost at all for saying stupid things in our society -- though I recognize there are absolute limits, such as inciting riots and the like. As a general rule, I would be more likely to advocate rigid enforcement of those limits against people who benefit from centuries of privilege, such as Ann Coulter and John Hagee, than against people who are justifiably angry over centuries of inequality and discrimination, such as Sister Souljah and Jeremiah Wright. However, I don't think McCain should be called on to denounce these people either (though he actually did so eight years ago, in his "agents of intolerance" speech), just to condemn what they've said.

mark safranski - 3/25/2008

Hi Jeremy,

Good to see you publishing here. You wrote:

"The Sister Souljah moment was not simply a feel-good morality statement, it was a stark warning to radicals like Souljah: if you utter extremist statements, you will be shunned and hounded from public life"

I must disagree. Extreme statements sometimes become conventional wisdom. It just can take a while to be proven correct.

Sistah Souljah's statement about killing white people, on the other hand, wasn't merely "extreme" but kind of asinine and hateful. In an open society that values free speech, the proper cost of going around saying stupid things is public condemnation and social ostracism, which is what Souljah received.

Bill Clinton may have condemned her purely out of cynical political calculation but he was using an accurate calculus.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Mr. Davis, you're correct that I got a little carried away with that last sentence. I chalk it up to having been somewhat rushed when completing this piece. I'm glad you liked the rest of the article.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Mr. Besch, it gets worse. Recall that in 2000 John McCain did orchestrate a Sister Souljah moment before the Virginia primary against Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, calling them "agents of intolerance." The result? McCain lost the Virginia primary even though he had been leading in the polls. Republicans actually punish their Presidential candidates for scapegoating, yet insist that Democrats do it to be taken seriously.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Dr. Kutler, it's an honor to read your comments on my work. Thank you as well for your compliments -- I'll do my best to live up to the standards you set for me.

Jeremy Young - 3/24/2008

Mr. Baxter, that's a really good point. Obama may be putting an end (or trying to, at least) to an ugly American tradition that reaches back far longer than the thirty-six years I identified. Thanks for your comment.

Randll Reese Besch - 3/24/2008

For not taking the Republican road of attack,dismissal and denunciation of politically incorrect allies.
Obama showed us again his adroit and caring way of dealing with political obsticals. Unlike the political ruthlessness of the Clintons.
Though in Ferraro's case she left after 12 days unrepentent and unbowed. Hillary said nothing. Notice how when McCain's pastor Hagee says outrageous things nothing happens. No call to oust him. Why is that?

HNN - 3/24/2008

What a thoughtful, absorbing statement -- unlike the partisan hysteria launched by Victor Davis Hanson. If Mr. Young is only a graduate student, then we can all feel much better about the future of the History profession.

Randolph William Baxter - 3/24/2008

While not to detract from Democratic shaming rituals since Eagleton in '72, let's not forget the bipartisan (though chiefly Repubican-driven, McCarthyite) witch hunts of the 1950s, when the political shaming ritual of choice was "naming names" (the title of Victor Navasky's excellent study of the period and process).

The most sought-after names in this purge-yourself-of-evil public ritual were supposed to be your former friends and colleagues -- whom you now proudly betrayed in the name of patriotism -- who had been involved in any "left-wing" group, even those back in the 1930s before the Cold War blacklisted any type of socialist ideas.

As to the relative morality of doing so, isn't it a bit hypocritical for conservatives to cry foul at Dems use of denunciations while, at the same time, conservatives such as McCain appear to have no moral compass in championing any other conservative who comes along?

Kenneth Laurence Davis - 3/24/2008

but this piece made it more clear to me, a not very deeply self-involved sort, why I was impressed by the speech and why I got the impression it showed class. I haven't pricked up my ears toward Obama until now.

Still agree with Vidal about abolishing the Executive, though.

The Clintons have thoroughly humiliated themselves again, this time more shamefully than ever.