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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack and the Preacher: What's the Crime?

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.


Dr. David Levy said...

I, too, was profoundly impressed with both the content and delivery of Obama's address. He clearly isn't responsible for what another man says. He shouldn't be held accountable for another man's frustration and bitterness. And certainly there is "no crime" in his association with Pastor Wright. With that said, however, I must confess a not insignificant degree of discomfort in viewing Wright's vitriolic (and somewhat delusional) tirade, coupled with the fact that Obama has chosen frequently to turn to him for professional and personal advice. I know that no person - or relationship - is perfect. But this relationship does make me question his judgment.

Tali said...

Thank you Dennis for inviting me to read this blog, as a non American I find it important to read this beginning of a conversation.
The distiction you make, Levy, between the respect of a difference and the nature of the relationship between two people highlights the difference between the rights of a private human being and the demands on a public figure.
Tali Levine BAr-Yoseph, Jerusalem

March 20, 2008 12:25 AM

NewsstandGreg said...

Dennis and friends,

Y'know, my dear departed Dad voted Republican most of his life. He also helped me become politically aware, even in ways he never realized.

He was from Texas and was 25 when the Depression hit. Dad moved west to California and did well.

I never agreed with all of his political feelings, but...I loved him very much. Even though he surely voted for Nixon and Reagan.

Surely every critic of Obama has some family member they disagree with, but don't feel necessary to disown them for it.

The speech by Obama is certainly an historic talk about race relations at this "pastoral" moment in time.

I'm waiting for Hillary's addition to the national discussion on race relations and where we go from here. But I'm not holding my breath! --Greg

susan said...

I'm so glad you wrote about Obama and his wonderful unusual speech. I, too, have family with bigoted views, including my own dear parents, Republicans who have found their slant confirmed by watching Fox News. (I just signed a moveon.org petition suggesting to the FCC that they do something about Fox's "Fair and Balanced" motto. Ha.)

Peter Anthony Holder said...

When I think of Obama I am reminded of when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball. It wasn’t enough that Robinson broke into baseball as a Black man, but rather he was the right Black man for the job - someone who had the skills and also the temperament to deal with whatever came his way both on and off the field.

I point this out because you brought up the issue of Obama as a statesman and I really think that is what he is - in other words the right person to make such an historical leap in politics, in dealing with not only the issues but with other people who might have issues with him, solely based on his race.

Since I am not American I cannot vote in your election, but as a keen observer of American politics I have been interested in the process. I must, however, preface my comments by stating that I am Black, but my leanings towards Obama have nothing to do with race. I would never vote for a person based on their race or gender, but rather their issues and my perception as to them as a strong leader on the world stage. There have been other Black candidates in the past but none of them were viable, realistic options.

I think the Democrats had an embarrassment of riches when it came to candidates this time around and many of them, including Obama and Clinton are up to the task for President.

What is refreshing is that people of colour and women can indeed break through the glass ceiling because they are qualified as opposed to being mere tokens. Regardless of who wins in November what will come out of this is that in the future little boys AND girls from all walks of life will truly believe that they have a chance to one day be President of the United States. That can only strengthen the political gene pool.

Peter Anthony Holder

Jacqueline Surchat said...

Thanks Dennis for letting me know about your blog. I also was impressed by Obama's speech. And you are so right about giving people, us, everybody the choices of our relationships and not feel responsible for what they think. It makes for a better and open world.
Jacqueline Surchat, Paris, France

Craig Zablo said...

Like Obama's speech, your review was well said [written].