Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Crazy Like an Uncle

Fox News ran a typically sensationalistic report last night on the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr, retiring pastor of Obama's own Trinity United Church of Christ. The ostensible news hook for the story was a sermon delivered by Wright on January 13, which the network suggested may have violated the church's tax exempt status. Let's get that out of the way up-front. Wright never uttered the magic words "endorse" or "vote," which would have been clear violations. If discussing the candidates were grounds for the revocation of nonprofit status, whatever the rules may technically say, then the IRS would first have to clear a substantial backlog, revoking the 501(c)(3) status of thousands of other churches before it got to Trinity.

But the real news in the report was an incendiary clip of the Reverend Wright in high dudgeon, framing the election in starkly racial terms. "Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country, and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people," he says. Perhaps enough to raise some eyebrows, but pretty much par for the course at Trinity. What followed was not. "It just came to me within the past few weeks, y'all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama." Unlike Hillary and Rudy, he says, Obama doesn't fit the mold of elites. Hillary has never experienced racial discrimination, he argues, and can not know what that's like. "Hillary ain't never been called a Nigger!" he shouts. "Hillary ain't never had her own people say she wasn't white enough." It's not in the clip I link to above, but Fox reports he even took a direct shot at Bill Clinton: "Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty."

First, let's be clear about what's being said. Wright is targeting those in the black community who were inclined to support Hillary. The sermon was delivered less than a week after Obama's loss in New Hampshire, but well before the Illinois primary, and his frustration is almost palpable. His argument, such as it is, is that Obama (like Jesus) knows what it is to live in a society that turns its back on him and his kind. That Hillary cannot know that. That there is no reason for blacks to feel indebted to the Clintons. And so, at least by implication, that it is incumbent on black people to support Obama and not Hillary.

I understand the man's point, but the fact remains - this is every bit as divisive and polarizing an argument as that advanced by Geraldine Ferraro. If it is wrong to suggest that gender alone entitles a candidate to votes, that the experience of being a woman in a man's world is uniquely difficult - then it is also wrong to suggest race play a similar role. Wrong, polarizing, and ultimately self-defeating.

Indeed, Obama's campaign was quick to recognize that these remarks were beyond the pale. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton issued this response:

Senator Obama has said repeatedly that personal attacks such as this have no place in this campaign or our politics, whether they’re offered from a platform at a rally or the pulpit of a church. Senator Obama does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms. Like a member of his family, there are things he says with which Senator Obama deeply disagrees.

That, I'm afraid, isn't going to cut it this time. Obama may not think of Wright in political terms, but it's quite clear that the converse is not so.

It's worth exploring the relationship between Obama and his pastor in somewhat greater depth. Here's Senator Obama, in perhaps his most affecting explanation of that relationship:
It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is
somebody who on occasion can say controversial things....It is also true that he
comes out of the 60s; he is an older man. That is where he cut his teeth. That
he has historically been interested in the African roots of the African American
He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I
don't agree with. And I suspect there are some of the people in this room who
have heard relatives say some things that they don't agree with...
And as I
said that last point I would make is that you know my Pastor is going to be
retiring over the next month. So my general view, and the reason that I raise
this, this is always a sensitive point, what you don't want to do is distance
yourself or kick somebody away, because you are now running for President and
you are worried about perceptions, particularly when someone is basically
winding down their life and their career.
I find myself empathizing with Obama, and admiring his instincts. He doesn't want to denounce a man who played a crucial role in his own life, who was a friend and a mentor when he needed one, just because it's now expedient to do so. He understands that Rev. Wright hails from a different generation (what, in another context, he labeled the Moses Generation) and Obama's entire candidacy is premised on the notion that that generation's day has passed, that it is now time for the next generation to take the reins of leadership, to transcend the divisiveness of earlier battles, to move us forward to a better future without neglecting the sacrifices of the past. I'm even sympathetic to the problem of a controversial spiritual leader. Who among us attends religious services with regularity, and hasn't squirmed in the pew from time to time, as the pastor or preacher or reverend or rabbi gives voice to a thought with which we adamantly disagree? Perhaps even a thought that is politicized or prejudiced? Or hasn't had an elderly relative do the same?

That's why I've always moved the scurrilous, conspiratorial e-mails to the trash bin on my computer. I was content to know that Obama was attracted to Reverend Wright and his church for the "cultural community" that they embodied; for their recognition that not just material interests, but also "hopes and dreams and...ideals and...values" motivate actions; and yes, for their Christian faith. If there's a single theme to Obama's intellectual achievements, it's been his ability to sieze upon powerful words and themes, lifting them out of their original context and reframing them to be inclusive and uplifting. Thus, Rev. Wright's fiery sermon on "The Audacity to Hope" in a racialized world becomes the title of Obama's serene meditation on the possibilities of transcending political and racial polarization. That seems to hold true more broadly. It's how Obama is able to credit the honorable motives of his opponents even as he disagrees with them. It's how Obama took the best of what Reverend Wright had to offer - community, inspiration, rebukes for his congregation's shortcomings - and set aside the anger and divisiveness that seemed to him relics of an earlier time.

The problem is that, with just weeks to go before he stepped down and removed himself as an ongoing issue, Reverend Wright crossed the line. Obama was succesful in his efforts to distance himself from Wright's opinions on myriad other subjects; he simply said he disagreed. That won't work for Wright's opinions on Obama. If these sorts of attacks have no place in our political dialogue, then a generic denial by a campaign spokesman isn't going to cut it. Obama himself will need to forcefully and clearly reject the logic of Wright's claims, the tone of his remarks, and the words that he used. Then he has to take the most painful step - he needs to distance himself from Wright.

There's a lot of glee on these boards this morning regarding the Ferraro debacle. I don't share it. Ferraro has left us weaker, as a party and as a nation. "I don’t think identity politics has served the Democratic Party well. I think it’s been an enormous distraction," Obama said in response to her comments. As usual, the man had the right words for the occasion. But now that one of those closest to him has made statements that are at least as divisive and egregious, he needs to find similarly powerful words to express his rejection of those statements.

It's not that the Clinton campaign, or for that matter, conservatives or the media, have gotten in his head, or that Obama's too weak, or that he needs to prove his manhood. Not every incendiary remark made by a supporter is a test of a candidate's ability to withstand attacks, to hit back, to give as good as he gets. Sometimes, those remarks are a test of what the candidate believes, and of the ideas he's prepared to embrace, even implicitly, in his pursuit of power. It's a test Clinton failed with Ferraro. And without denouncing these remarks, Obama fails it twice. He loses on a tactical level, because a campaign that splits along racial and gender lines is a campaign he loses. And he loses on an ideological level, because he has devoted his political life to convincing Americans that those divisions are less important than the things we share in common.

This one's not going away until Obama puts it to rest. So, Senator, what do you have to say?

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