Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Other views

Some interesting and provocative (and mutually incompatible) concerns and dissents about and comments about things left unsaid in Obama's big race speech. This seems to have been a major public philosophy moment; it's worth having a look at some of the responses to it that aren't just (even if they are also) celebrations. I'm especially interested in the range of reactions that engage with Jeremiah Wright as if he's not just an eccentric grandmother in the attic, but someone whose views matter for good or for ill. It happens that these are all from people I know and like and respect-- but one of the nice things about having people with a wide range of political views whom I know and like and respect is that I can be surprised by views to which I'm nonetheless inclined to give some benefit of the doubt.

My former colleague Michael Dawson:
But I'm worried it was it too little, too late.

It was too little in that while addressing race it equated white racial resentment (which scholars know is really just a more polite label for white racism) with the black anger and skepticism that comes out of past and current racial discrimination.

I suspect blacks will give Obama a break on this score, but those comments will not satisfy those large segments of white America that harbor racial resentment. It was too little when he argued that we can move forward toward racial justice for all without the "need to recite…the history of racial injustice."

It was too little because even though he strongly and correctly argued that today's racial disadvantage is based on the white supremacy of the past, we know that many, many whites do not connect the black situation today to either the injustices of the past or the present.

The history must be retold if a case is to be made to explain black disadvantage in this period. It was unfortunate when he implied that blacks were not willing to come together in multi-racial coalitions now or in the past. In the great populist and labor multi-racial coalitions of the late 19th century and early 20th century, during the Civil Rights era, and in modern times it was whites liberals and progressives that walked away from those coalitions with the predictable result of sparking much greater support for black nationalist movements such as those of Marcus Garvey, the Black Power movement, and Min. Louis Farrakhan.

Another former colleague, Melissa Harris-Lacewell [NB: This piece was written before the speech, but it differs from the approach of the speech pretty fundamentally.]
[Frederick] Douglass, like Wright, was speaking as a patriot and as a Christian. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking out of an honored tradition in black church life. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking in the tradition of biblical prophets.

In his 1993 text, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth, historian Wilson Moses labeled this tradition the black jeremiad. Like Rev. Wright himself, it is named for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was among the biblical truth tellers who regularly warned the government that divine destruction was imminent if the nation continued to oppress the powerless. Frederick Douglass was a master of the jeremiad.

He called slavery a curse to the nation and argued that, "we shall not go unpunished." He said it was the patriotic duty of blacks "to warn our fellow countrymen" of the impending doom they courted and to dissuade America from "rushing on in her wicked career" along a path "ditched with human blood, and paved with human skulls."

Jeremiah Wright is a modern Douglass. Both men are like the Old Testament prophets who condemn the injustice and corruption of the rulers of their government.

This week Barack Obama was pressured to denounce Jeremiah Wright. But in the hundred years following the end of the Civil War more than five thousand African Americans were lynched and not a single president denounced the atrocities. Because of this history, black patriotism is complicated.

Black patriots love our country, even though it has often hated us. We love our country, even while we hold it accountable for its faults.

I understand why the Obama campaign felt they had to distance themselves from Wright's post 9-11 comments. But I am worried that Obama has missed a chance to talk about the rich and complex tapestry of black religious life. Not all black people are Christian. Not all belong to large, urban churches. Even fewer worship with such an outspoken, unapologetically political minister. But Trinity UCC does represent an important segment of black religious tradition. It is not scary, racist or un-American. Quite the opposite, Rev. Wright is integral to the broad prophetic tradition that informs many black churches.

Prophetic Christianity allowed African Americans to retain a sense of humanity in the face of our country's racism. Like many people of faith, black Americans have to grapple with how an all-loving and all-powerful God can coexist with evil.[...]

I attended Trinity United Church of Christ during the seven years I lived in Chicago. Although I do not know him personally, I heard Rev. Wright preach on dozens of Sundays. His sermons soothed my broken heart while I divorced, they eased my mental anguish when my sister was ill, and they helped give me strength as I watched the destructive power of racism, sexism and homophobia within my Chicago community. In short, his words did what a pastor's words are supposed to do. I am grateful for Jeremiah Wright and for his prophetic witness.

Political theorist William Galston:

Senator Obama's speech moved me, as I suspect it did most listeners. As a onetime speechwriter, I admire its artful construction, rhetorical brilliance, and historical reach. But it left a basic question unanswered: What, if anything, did Obama do in response to what he now acknowledges he heard Reverend Wright say? Did he raise his concerns with other members of the congregation? With Reverend Wright himself? Was he seriously enough disturbed to consider leaving Trinity for another church? By embedding his own life in the larger narrative of race in America, Obama is implicitly saying that these questions don't matter. But they do, because they present a window on his character and help us judge what kind of president he would be.

Like Walt Whitman, Obama presents himself as someone who contains multitudes, someone whose ancestry and life-history embodies the American experience as a whole. There is some truth to this. But it is a suspiciously convenient stance, because it enables him to evade contradictions and avoid hard choices. Successful leaders must know when to draw lines and say no. They must accept that as they do so, they will leave some people out and make some enemies. Many Americans will wonder whether Senator Obama's sincere, burning desire to forge unity out of division leaves him unable or unwilling to acknowledge lines that must not be crossed. And they will wonder how a campaign built on the political centrality of unifying rhetoric can argue that good deeds somehow counterbalance divisive hate speech from a minister in a position to influence the views of thousands of parishioners? Is this really the moral equivalent of the senator's grandmother?

Obama cannot disown Rev. Wright because, he says, "he has been like family to me." Like family, perhaps; but in the last analysis, not family. We do not choose our parents; we do choose our mentors and spiritual advisors. I do not believe Senator Obama yet understands how questionable his choice appears to many Americans of good will, including those who intend--as I do--to vote for him if he becomes the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Will Wilkinson:
Obama says the real problem is not that an American of a different ethnic background might take your job (that was the context), but that a non-American might. But let’s not dwell on that Mexican, Canadian, or Chinese guy who gets that job. Who cares about them? Well, if you think it for a second, you might care. So let’s try to remove from our thoughts the very real, yet non-American people who often gain immensely from outsourcing and pin it on all corporations. Well, Obama can’t have it both ways. It matters not to the individual American whether she has lost her job to someone in South Dakota, where it is cheaper to do business, or to someone in a whole different country. It matters not to the individual American whether he has lost his job to father of four in India or a new robot arm in North Carolina. In attacking offshore outsourcing Obama encourages in one breathe the zero-sum mentality he condemns in another. It may be possible to induce a spell of internal cooperation by framing it as part an external conflict, but it can’t last. By threatening growth, protectionism encourages internal conflict over the division of a smaller pie. As Obama evidently knows, that’s when racial lines are the most salient, when divisive zero-sum thinking prevails.

I’m convinced that Obama holds himself to a higher moral standard than the typical politician, and think that this speech was proof of that. But he guts his own aspirations when he stops short and preaches conflict at the point where preaching unity is no longer expedient.

Russell Arben Fox (who celebrated his 5-year blogiversary this week):

I'm familiar with some of Reverend Wright's sermons, having listened to more than a few of them from various sources over the years; two of my colleagues here at Friends U., in fact, have attended and taken student groups to TUCC when they've visited Chicago on several occasions. And let me just say this: leave aside all the arguably justifiable anger and the class-based suspicions for the moment, if you can; if you're a serious and conservative Christian, give the full range of TUCC's message a try. To be sure, it is a heavily race-conscious church...but then, so were Martin Luther King's revival meetings. If you can accept and get past that, you'll find that it is far more doctrinal, evangelical and Biblically-grounded than you might expect. Obama may be a member of the elite, but frankly, anyone who has been willing to listen to those messages of repentance and salvation for 20 years, and whose been willing to build his marriage and fatherhood through such a church, deserves a lot more credit from the religious among us than he's gotten so far.