Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Feeling Sorry for Obama

Out of character though this may sound, I actually feel a bit sorry for Barack Obama in the wake of yesterday's press conference disowning Jeremiah Wright.

Don't get me wrong. Obama's full-scale, and belated, disassociation with Wright means that an unmistakeable hit has been scored. I have no desire to see this substance-free, condescending, feel-good smooth-talker sworn in as the next president of this fine country, so if this controversy is causing him trouble, then good. It helps that the controversy itself has merit. This isn't a Lewisnky "Scandal" redux, where some poor, but essentially private (yes, yes, I know, "sexual harrassment" is illegal, but no one ever managed to convince me that any of what happened was against Lewinsky's will at the time it happened), choices on the part of the president were taken WAY out of context to back him into the corner that resulted the lie that caused his impeachment. That was a setup - and based on things that are ultimately irrelevant to leadership competence. This thing with Obama isn't that.

This thing with Obama, unlike a candidate's private extra-marital affairs, is relevant. It is within the limits of acceptable public scrutiny. This would be the case even if Obama hadn't made it the stuff of public discourse by titling his autobiography after a line in a Wright speech: We the People, knowing that our politicians present false faces to us during election time, are entitled to attempt to infer from a politician's voluntary associations how he will actually behave in office. If you're running for president, your church attendance record is fair public game. And if your church attendance record suggests that you are an unpatriotic bigot - as Obama's unambiguously does - then the public is entitled to hold that against you when it goes to make its choice.

That said, and as much as I agree that Barack Obama is not a good choice to head the executive branch, I would like to make the case that he is, in one sense, a victim of circumstance.

In "The Speech" - in which Obama initially defended his association with Wright in spite of the pastor's inflamatory comments - Obama said that this was an opportunity for the nation to confront realities about race. I agree - though Obama and I are not talking about the same "realities." And when Wright himself said two days ago that attacks on him were attacks on culture of black churches, I agree even more strongly. Where I disagree is that this is an acceptable defense. The culture of whites and white churches has been under attack for some time. Why should black churches be immune?

The fact is that the culture of black churches is rotten in exactly the way Wright's speeches imply. Do I know this first-hand? Not exactly. I have never been a member of a black church. But I did grow up in North Carolina, and after a while the signs are unmistakable. There were too many times in high school when a black person I knew from class would pretend not to recognize me if we crossed paths outside of school and other black people were around. Once or twice and you can explain it away. You know, "the sun was in his eyes" or somthing. When it gets to be a pattern, you come to know that the black community suffers from more "institutional racism" today than whites ever dreamed of. And the pattern is only confirmed when you turn on the TV and watch one Rodney King and Tawana Brawley and Duke Rape Case after another, where prominent members of the black community make statements that carry the unmistakable implication that the facts of the case and the public interest in seeing justice done are somehow less important than black people's feelings.

This is a community failing. It doesn't exist at all on the individual level. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist; Wright's comments two days ago are yet another reason we can't pretend it doesn't.

And so I feel sorry for Barack Obama. In disowning Wright, he did the right thing. It would never have been enough for some people, of course - because for some people nothing ever is. But it would have been enough for me -- if only Wright hadn't forced his hand in the way that he did. The sad thing is, Obama was getting away with it. Some Republicans dragged up some of his mentor's statements - the kind of thing that would have easily buried a less talented speaker. But Obama is quite talented, and he managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a carefully-worded speech that played on some of the sensitivities of the community. He was getting away with it, until Wright decided not to let him. And one can only assume that Wright decided this. He is, after all, only nationally prominent because a large section of the public objects to Obama's association with him. Going on the air and repeating exactly the kinds of things that put Obama in the hotseat can hardly be something he imagined would help.

Why would Wright want Obama to fail? Why set him up to fail? Why not just wait a couple of months until after the election? Is this all about the spotlight? Wright wants it, saw his chance, and damn the consequences for Obama? Maybe. But Wright has already had a successful career and is retired from it. This isn't exactly the point in one's life where he grabs at the spotlight.

No, I have an alternate theory. This will be objectionable to many, but I do believe it. My theory is that black leaders like Wright - the manic street preachers of the community (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton et al) - are ironically but unmistakeably the interest group in this country that has the most to lose if we elect a black president. One thing that Obama's brain-free college kid supporters get right about him is that his election would send a powerful signal (they like to use hyperbolic adjectives like "powerful" alongside noncommital phrases like "send a signal") that America is putting its racist past behind it. And if that happens, what will the manic street preachers have to talk about? Make no mistake, Wright sold Obama out at a crucial point in the campaign for profit - because the profession he devoted his life to (racialist rabble rousing) becomes obsolete if Obama wins.

So I feel sorry for Obama, just as I feel sorry for anyone who gets stabbed in the back by his erstwhile allies. But I don't feel sorry enough to vote for him. He made a choice when he decided to associate with such people, let him suffer the consequences. If the public can be gullible once, then Wright does us a valuable service by not letting it happen twice.


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