Blogs > Cliopatria > Some thoughts on Obama's speech

Mar 20, 2008 9:42 pm

Some thoughts on Obama's speech

Like him or dislike him, Barack Obama has done something extraordinary with his speech on race. It was not simply an attempt to deflect attention from his politically dubious choice of pastors—though of course that was the immediate “inspiration” for it. It was also an attempt to forge a new relationship between race and politics. In fact, it will only work politically if it works idealistically; if it really does result in dialogue; if that dialogue really does find common ground.

Rick’s comment below shows something of the challenge this will be. For him, the impact of Obama’s eloquence is muted by two key facts. One is Obama’s having failed to distance himself from Wright before he became a serious candidate, the way Lyndon Johnson distanced himself from white supremacists. For Rick that raises at minimum a question of competence. Here, I think Rick has an important point. Obama had to have known his patriotism and his religious beliefs were going to be scrutinized: the former because of the nature of American politics these days and the latter because Obama himself made his faith part of his campaign. Did he really see no potential problems in Wright’s comments?

The second key fact is that some of the company that Wright has kept has made him suspicious of Obama’s values. In Rick’s case, it is seeing Wright “hang out” with anti-Semites.

Rick did temper the statement by noting that he might be overly sensitive on this point. Even so, being suspicious of politicians who “hang out with people who hang-out with anti-Semites” is going way too far. I doubt if anyone with an active political life has not hung out regularly with someone who has hung out with someone else who holds odious beliefs. This suspicion is, implicitly, a demand for an irrational level of purity.

Still, Rick’s concern underscores two points. 1) Wright’s statements have entangled Obama in America’s identity politics where many such sensitivities and suspicions lie in wait. 2) Obama has chosen to deal with this entanglement by grappling with and trying to change that politics.

It’s an amazing thing for a candidate to try. If he really pushes this; if he really makes this a part of his campaign in the manner that his speech suggests, then my admiration for him will be immense. But even if he does, will a dialogue emerge? If it does, will that dialogue really do any good, or will it simply prove a breeding ground for ugly sound bites?

The sad truth is, if it does not work very quickly, then even if Obama is doing all the right things, they may not bring him the nomination. Even if he gets it, these efforts may result in a victory for John McCain. For the Republicans would really have little choice but to counter his efforts and that, almost inevitably, means forcing the dialogue down into the gutter. That could work. And if it did, it would be interpreted as another victory of Rovian identity politics. At least in the short run, that would let loose a new round of hatred.

Obama has rolled the dice, for us all. I hope he gets a 7, for us all.

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More Comments:

Randll Reese Besch - 3/30/2008

Race politicts again? Concentrating on Obama but not the inflaming theorcratic prophecy of Agee? Nuclear war with Iran not aggrivating enough?
Crypto-racism by omission? Am I wrong in my observations? I think not.
If only Obama had Dennis Kucinich's points that could turn this ship of state around 180 degrees like it needs to be. Obama isn't much of a liberal considering his connections to the nuclear industry and his talk of attacking Pakistan on "actionable intelligence" whether Pakistan wants them to or not. Be worried.

HNN - 3/20/2008

Hi Oscar,

I think your observations are astute.

In my exchange with Ralph Luker I have explained a little further my reservations about Obama's being friends with somebody who's friends with an anti-Semite.

Ralph said: "The facts that Jeremiah Wright traveled to Libya with Farrakhan *24 years ago* and that Wright was Obama's pastor are, well, so what? That's the worst sort of guilt by association reasoning."

My Response: Say Obama was keeping company with a friend who was a communist. Would I find this objectionable? Of course not. But suppose this friend was a commmunist who gave an award to a person who believed that Stalin's regime was moral. Further suppose that this friend happened to serve as my church's pastor. Would I not be justified in wondering what Obama would be doing in such a church? Would you be saying to me that I am guilty of condemning Obama because of the friends he keeps? I don't think so. I question his judgment not his values. Why did he remain in the church? I have my suspicions, as I've indicated. But I don't really know. But he is running in part because he professes to have superior judgment. In this case I find his good judgment wanting.

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