Like many Americans, I watched Barack Obama's speech this morning about race and was, once again, inspired by his erudition, clarity of thought, and unwillingness to minimize his relationship with Pastor Wright. While clearly labeling the pastor's words as wrong-headed and entirely at odds with his own, Obama made it clear that the anger and resentment underlying those words reflected a legitimate expression of the African-American experience that stretches from slavery and Jim Crow, all the way up to today.
Furthermore, I think his speech highlighted an issue that has been viewed quite narrowly in the media, especially by the representatives of the pundit class: namely, why is it a crime to know or even like someone who expresses views with which you disagree? Frankly, this is a kind of guilt-by-association that has harmed many a good and worthy person in authority, whether running for office or not.
For example, I know many liberals who found the late William F. Buckley's views incorrect, or even repugnant, yet valued his friendship and erudition. Certainly, among the many praising epitaphs written since his death, most seemed to have been written by those whose politics veered sharply from his, yet treasured the fact that they'd known him.
I think each of us has had a relative, teacher, or friend whose qualities as a person made a powerful impression on us. Yet--and with doubtless great remorse--this person's views about certain subjects began to create a serious rift, to instigate a growing "parting of the ways," that--while regrettably necessary--didn't invalidate all that we'd learned or experienced in relationship to this person.
Frankly, I believe the "crime" that Barack Obama has committed is simply that he's reinforced the reality that, despite the transcending of race that his campaign represented, he is in fact an African-American. For him to eschew this, and thus deny the myriad injustices, attitudes, and ancestral experiences that forged his identity, would be the worst type of pandering.
Though clearly not as bad as the kind of racist pandering this whole sorry episode will give rise to. Listening to those same pundits evaluating the effectiveness of Obama's speech today, and for the most part lamenting that it might do little to make this crisis go away, my heart sank. Because I thought his speech showed a degree of statesmanship, honesty about his own and his people's experiences, and acknowledgment of how far this nation has yet to go to heal its racial divide, far beyond that of most politicians today.
Can you imagine, for example, George Bush delivering such a thoughtful, candid speech? Or John McCain, whose reputation as a moderate and independent thinker is shrinking daily as he panders more and more to the Religious Right?
Okay. So Barack Obama had a long, intimate relationship with a pastor whose unfortunate racial rhetoric, on occasion, has reflected his post-WW II generation's experience of intolerance and bigotry. Whose intemperate words reflect the frustration of a whole group of people, whose struggle for freedom goes on even today.
Where is Obama's crime in this? Is he responsible for what another man says? Is he to be held accountable for another man's frustration and bitterness? Even for another man's seeming prejudice?
I suppose we'll just have to await the verdict of his jury, the American electorate. A jury of his peers.
Or at least I hope they behave, and react, as such.