20 March 2008

Obama and Wright

Barack Obama is not going to be President.

The Jeremiah Wright problem is not going away. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans will use it to destroy him, and McCain will win the general election. The practical question is whether or not the Democratic party will grasp this fact quickly enough.

Obama's speech this week (video and full text here) was certainly a brilliant dissertation on the issue of race in America. Unfortunate-ly, that issue is not the issue Obama needed to address.

The issue he needed to address was his decision to maintain for twenty years (most of his adult life) an intimate association with a preacher of hatred and lunacy. Only a small part of his speech confronted that specific question, and the results were not reassuring.

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

There -- right there -- is the problem. There are issues on which people can legitimately "strongly disagree" and leave it at that. Virulent racial hatred, claims that the US brought September 11 on itself, and paranoid fantasies about AIDS being deliberately engineered to kill non-whites, are not among them. Millions of people, hearing or reading these words, will have thought, "If my pastor, priest, or rabbi consistently preached ravings as ugly as these, I would long ago have left and found myself a new one." Obama must have known for years how vile Wright's ideology was. He did not leave and find himself a new pastor. That's the problem.

Here is Obama's next paragraph:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

But although the "firestorm" is recent, the remarks which Obama recognizes as more than "simply controversial" are not. Again, Wright has been preaching this kind of material for years. His first statements about September 11 date to a few days after almost three thousand Americans of all races (and many non-Americans also) had been murdered by barbarians loyal to those "perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam" which Obama rightly condemns.

Again, Obama knew all along what Wright was preaching. He chose to stay. That's the issue.

He points out that there is more to Wright than his ideology. Probably true, but also probably true of almost every preacher of hatred one could name. If, say, Hillary Clinton turned out to have stayed for twenty years in the congregation of a clergyman who preached the equivalent kind of paranoid anti-black hatred, pointing to his good works in other areas would cut no ice.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.

The entire black community cannot be equated with one single paranoid and hateful individual.

I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother

As many commenters have pointed out, biological relationships are not a matter of choice the way one's decision to affiliate (and stay affiliated) with a pastor is. And occasional stereotypical remarks or nervousness around young men on the street is not equivalent to consistent preaching of paranoia and bigotry.

Wright's ravings about AIDS, September 11, and so forth do not "reflect the complexities of race in this country". They are evil and outrageous, no matter who preaches them or why. They were not enough to make Obama leave and find a new pastor. This suggests that he did not find them to be as evil and outrageous as they in fact are. That's the issue.

The hard core of Obama's supporters are already diligently working to convince themselves that the speech has put the Wright problem to rest. None of their rationalization will cut any ice with the broad mass of people in the political center who will decide the election. It's not that they'll think Obama himself is racist or paranoid (I don't believe he is). The issue in their minds will remain: Didn't Obama realize how terrible this stuff was? He couldn't have, or else he'd have dumped the guy. And he's still defending the fact that he didn't -- he still doesn't get it. I can't see any possible response to this. Obama is an intelligent man and he must know how serious a problem he has here. His speech this week was thus probably the best defense he is able to make. It was not good enough. As for his supporters, some of their efforts -- such as constructing arguments for why "God damn America" isn't so outrageous in context -- will merely dig the hole deeper.

What should the Democratic party do? It faces a crucial choice.

One option, the superficially-easy one, is to let itself be lulled by the reassurances of those who claim that the Wright problem is being laid to rest. In this scenario, the nomination contest will continue along the trajectory it has followed since Iowa, and Obama will be the nominee. October will be awash in Wright's ravings and in thunderous reminders that Obama chose to keep this man as his pastor for two decades, Obama supporters will trot out their rationalizations and evasions, the political center will recoil in revulsion, and McCain will be the next President.

The other option is for the party to recognize that Obama can't win the general election with this albatross weighing him down, and choose accordingly. This seems to be exactly the kind of situation that the institution of superdelegates was designed for. There is also evidence that the party rank and file are getting it.

Whether enough people will understand the reality of the situation quickly enough to avert disaster is the big question. I'm not going to make any predictions now.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a lot I like about Obama, but this issue raises serious questions about his judgment. I know there are questions about Hillary's judgment too (she voted for the war, supported and anti-flag-burning amendment, etc.) but all of the issues you raised here will hurt badly if Obama is the nominee.

22 March, 2008 06:01  
Blogger Toad734 said...

So does that mean McCain will also not be President due to the crazy preachers he hangs out with that want to overthrow our democracy and replace it with a theocracy or does this only pertain to Obama because he is black?

23 March, 2008 12:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

If it were shown that McCain had a similar kind of relationship with a similarly-outrageous preacher -- that is, that the preacher in question consistently spouted rhetoric as anti-American, racist, and paranoid as Wright's, and that McCain had been a member of his congregation for most of his adult life, proclaimed him his "mentor" and "part of me", gave him a role in his Presidential campaign, etc. -- then I think that that would indeed discredit him to a similar degree among centrist voters. So far I have not seen such a connection alleged.

23 March, 2008 13:35  

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