I’ll let the pundits pontificate on Obama’s speech and whether he succeeded in satisfying the concerns of American voters about his religious convictions and relations with his pastor. But there are a few passages I think are particularly worth noting: in particular one that moves me and one that disturbs me.
I have taken the position that Pastor Wright’s views, extreme as a few of them may be, have no place in the presidential campaign. Those who are stirring up the issue have a decided interest in smearing Obama and destroying his candidacy and little real concern about Wright’s actual views or whether or not those views have somehow influenced Obama or might impact future policies he might pursue as president.
Other than George Bush, when have we ever witnessed a president whose political program seemed dictated by theology? I really can’t recall any. When have we ever heard a previous president or presidential candidate asked to explain or defend the views of his pastor? It’s simply never come up because Americans have been wise enough to understand that while religion is important to many of us, it would never determine policy. That’s why Obama’s statement that Wright was his pastor and not his political advisor was important.
But Obama wisely didn’t choose this path in his speech. He decided: if they’re going to make Wright the issue then I’ll accept those terms; but I won’t accept their narrow frame of addressing the issue based on a set of the pastor’s alleged extreme views. Instead, I’ll put those views in the broader context of Black experience in this country. I’ll try to make Americans understand WHY Jeremiah Wright might express bitterness toward white America. And I’ll try to do this in a way that will make Americans understand the bitterness while not expecting them to embrace it.
This is what an American politician at his best can do. This is what Bobby Kennedy did. Or Martin Luther King. They ask us to reach out from our own narrow place within American society toward other Americans who live differently than we do. It doesn’t ask us to falsely pretend we are like them. It doesn’t ask us to excuse their weaknesses. It merely asks us to try understand those who have experienced this country differently than we have–who have suffered injustices that we haven’t; who have had work less well paid; who have had less educational opportunity. This is what that blessed Lincoln phrase means: to appeal to the angels of our better nature.
Obama’s critics are appealing to the devils of our worse nature. They want you to think of what divides us. They want you to mistrust Obama. They want you to think that Wright is Farrakhan is Kahane (as one commenter here attempted to argue).
Personally, I don’t know if this speech was like JFK’s famous 1960 Houston speech in which he laid to rest the concern American voters had with his Catholic background. I hope it will serve a similar purpose. I hope that with this speech he has either won the nomination or at least put himself in a position that will eventuallly get him to that point. I don’t know. But I’d like to think so.
Here are a few of the best passages in my opinion:
The [Black] church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
This is a brilliant description of all religions and even political movements. I’ve often described Judaism and Zionism in similar terms. You can’t, unless you are uncharitable or mean-spiritied, dismiss an entire Church or religion or national movement by saying it’s all-cruel or all-ignorant or all-hateful or all-racist. Only demagogues try to do this. Religion is a constant battle between warring impulses for good or ill. It is the task of the believers to ensure that the angels of our better nature triumph in this battle. Obama has captured this so well.
Here again Obama views Wright as a personal embodiment of those contradictions:
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who…on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
My hope is that Americans reading or hearing this speech will see themselves in it. How many of us enjoy relationships with pastors, family members, co-workers or friends in which we make compromises because we feel that overall the relationship benefits us in some way? How many of us accept imperfections in these people because we realize that there is more good than bad in them? And to the Obama haters out there I ask: how many of you have found perfection in your presidential candidates or your pastors or your friends? Let he who has found such perfection cast the first stone against Obama.
In this passage, Obama captures another important issue in the attack on Wright:
For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear [of Jim Crow and segregation] have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends.
What the Wall Street Journal and John McCain want to do is penalize Jeremiah Wright for his alleged extremism. But the truth is that the latter is merely a mouthpiece for what Blacks really feel. He doesn’t stir up hatred that doesn’t exist. He merely reflects it in his sermons. He is the messenger and not the cause of the problem. So the proper response should be to confront that anger rather than dismiss it. Or as Obama says:
…The anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
If anything in this speech will help him win the presidential candidacy or election it will be this paragraph:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
This indeed IS the better angels of our nature personified in political language. As is this:
…We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”
There are other such passages and I urge you to read or watch the whole thing for yourself.
Now, to the one disappointing passage. We all understand that Obama has a potential Achilles Heel that the right is trying to exploit. They’re trying to insinuate that he’s soft on Israel. It won’t work because Jews aren’t as stupid as Jewish Republicans make them out to be. But it still means that Obama has to watch his right flank in the Jewish community. Which is why he said this unfortunate phrase:
…The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm…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.
The only truth in this statement is that Wright’s comments about Israel DO place overwhelming blame on Israel and U.S. policy and they don’t recognize any Palestinian culpability. And this is wrong. But Obama’s statement above runs to the opposite extreme and makes the statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not at all rooted in Israel’s actions. Which is an abject falsehood.
Further, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has almost nothing to do with the “hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” For the conflict is a struggle between competing national identities, and competing claims over land, and not competing religions. Religious enmity is a symptom of the problem, not the root of it. Here Obama got it wrong and not just wrong but egregiously wrong. This paragraph was written for him by an AIPAC hack or someone who’s channeling one. It doesn’t at all reflect the better angels of our nature.
I agree with your analysis 100%.
Most politicians get it wrong on I/P. At least with Obama, there is some hope that his better qualities will eventually allow him to make room for everything that’s true.
Norman Weinstein says
Not to diminish your countless other posts, but I find this one of special significance largely because of your sensitive explication. I watched and listened to Obama’s entire “JFK moment”, to place a handy tag on it, and thought it as singularly wise morally, politically and rhetorically as it was courageous; indeed, very possibly one of this nation’s most important speeches among many important speeches. My one complaint, and perhaps this is carping as well as being a complaint I often level against the senator’s speeches, is that it could run a bit less long. At least one of the major reasons the Gettysburg Address is iconic is its profound brevity. The subject matter Obama was dealing with is of course far more complex than a simple eulogy, but cutting to the quick more succinctly would have made a powerful statement even more so. Richard, I am not totally comfortable with your observation that “This paragraph was written for him by an AIPAC hack or someone who’s channeling one.” First of all, in coming very close to suggesting that Obama was pandering to the Israel-über-alles crowd, you ignore what I believe is a tremendously important modifier in the offending phrase, “a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted PRIMARILY in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel…” Now certainly to depend on a single word, in this case an adverb, to carry a good part of the thrust of a statement might not be advisable, but I do think that in this instance it makes a difference in just how the entire sentiment should be interpreted. I frankly wish I could accept without qualification your “…Jews aren’t as stupid as Jewish Republicans make them out to be.” I hope to God they aren’t! Certainly Obama must have been more than politically aware in this section of his speech that here indeed was a dangerous third rail, and though I suspect you and I, Richard, would have been happier had he expressed perhaps some kind of balanced statement regarding he Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we know damned well what fury this could provoke, could indeed even help upend the positive reaction to his speech. Still, I think your AIPAC comment overstates his probably deliberate sin of omission, especially if you ignore that important qualifier. But anyhow, Richard, and this may be whistling in the dark, I hope this is the end of all this Pastor Wright nonsense being so deliberately used by Republicans and even some Democrats to diminish Senator Obama’s exciting candidacy. My wife and I, following his remarkable exercise, are even more certain that our continuing support for him is right on-mark.
Thanks for a fine posting!
Richard Silverstein says
Norman: I agree with most everything you wrote above. I too agree that a truly great speech must use the minimum number of words to express its ideas & Obama hasn’t gotten there yet. But he is miles ahead of any of the other candidates and even someone as gifted at this as Bill Clinton was at this point in his campaign.
I hadn’t really noticed that qualifying adverb & agree that it does modify that statement somewhat. But it is a little too oblique for my taste.
I’m sorry but the whole “hateful ideology of radical Islam” meme is so tired. It’s political shorthand that has stopped having any real meaning if it ever did have any. We all agree that groups like Al Qaeda are dangerous & qualify for this description. But using the phrase every time something happens in the Arab world you don’t like is just plain lazy. It’s something AIPAC does all the time which is why I threw that epithet into the passage.
Norman Weinstein says
Indeed, Richard, we are together on this. And as a follow-up to my reaction above to Obama’s speech and your response to it, let me add that the speech should not have had to be made in the first place, and yet he had to make it. To what avail, Lord only knows. I profoundly hope that there will be many other reactions throughout the land like yours. There is, however, a sad and dangerous tendency in this country to dislike and distrust those who are articulate, who hold language in high regard and use it well. Thus do the constituents of the evil malignancy foisted on us, our president so-called, apparently not only accept his nauseating use of English but even love him for his deficiency, or at least give him a ready pass, making them, I suppose, more comfortable with their own inadequate linguistic use and related sloppy thinking. I am eager to learn about Jewish reaction to Obama’s speech, both American and Israeli, although I suspect that pre-speech, pro-Obama Jews like my wife and me shall of course remain committed, and even more so, to his candidacy, and those who were anti- before because of Wright, Obama’s middle name, etc., will be just as opposed, and maybe more so. I sincerely hope not, for his is a tremendously exciting candidacy, and being over 80 I do not succumb to the lure of tooth fairies and believe that he is some kind of flawless demiurge.
Obama has dealt with his loud critics rather well. I was irked by his statement on Israel-Palestine also but aside from that, I believe most of his words can be invoked RELATING to the Palestinian conflict. Why are they angry? Why do we dismiss “Islamists” just because we don’t understand it? Obama would even greater respectability if he makes the parallel between Black liberation movements and Palestinian liberation movements and we know he is not immune to the analogy either. He just has to test the waters and find out that many younger Jewish people would support a change of course from the “pro-Likud” line. I shall await and see if this turnabout will happen.
Check out Glenn Greenwald’s recent “The difference between Jeremiah Wright and radical, white evangelical ministers” column for some *real* extremism:
That throwaway line about “hateful Islamist ideology” was the one jarring note for me. I really felt he said that as dog whistle to the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd, to assure them that he isn’t a sneaky Palestinian lover.
My mother thinks Obama has sold out the Palestinians every bit as badly as Hilary has, and is planning to vote elsewhere in November. I sent her the video and transcript of his Wright speech but I know she’ll pick up on that one statement. Well, this is what people do – they make up their minds, then read all events to confirm their opinions.
Me, I am just hanging in there and hoping. I thought it was a terrific speech. I even like his subdued delivery. I like that he’s “cool.” We need some professorial coolness running this country – and we need his inspiration and his ability to get people to organize and act.
I agree with you completely. I was really taken with the speech until he got to the phrase being discussed. I thought- ok, we know he cannot come out and criticize Israel [ we remember what happened to Cynthia McKinney], but does he have to say something so obviously pandering to Israel, and also something that is not even correct, as Richard points out. That phrase is nonsensical and unfortunate, and it still makes me very angry.
I have been arguing against Obama for a long time, from the left perspective- he is not radical etc. But I am now hoping he gets elected- not because I think he is going to challenge the power structure, not because he is going to “save” us, not because his values coincide with mine, but because at least he is intelligent and articulate, and, as Leila says, cool. I like his unflappability. Since someone has to represent this country at the top, Obama won’t embarrass us to the rest of the world. He won’t confuse Iraq and Iran, or like McCain yesterday, confuse Iran and Alqeda operations.
I think even if he doesn’t get elected his speech 2 days ago was a ;major contribution to the American public discourse. We have never had someone so close to power, speak of the racial divide, address America’s state of denial about race.
I’m starting to find this campaign really interesting! Now if Hillary would just step aside, and let us concentrate on getting Obama elected.
I guess I weigh in here with Norman about the phrase in question. For me it did not sound jarring because of that qualifying word which I did not even focus on because it flowed smoothly without catching me. I think it is a question of what each person brings to this speech, perhaps what your antennae are tuned to. And that goes for the whole speech.
Extraordinary as the speech was at the same time that it was taking a high road and being very inclusive, it had to also be very nuanced and use simple language. “He wrote it himself” was the exclamation on a prominent blog. Several times during this speech tears rolled down from the emotion it provoked in me even though I agree with the comment about the “coolness” of it’s delivery. Maybe that is why. It allowed me my emotion, didn’t telll me what it had to be- which was it’s brilliance. No pounding. I believe Obama has it in him to be a great statesman-president because of this demeanor as well as his intelligence and sensibilities. Also humility was present, or seemingly; the speech was give not from above though it was coming from a higher place he recognized within all of us. Here was an example of compassion without the empty rhetoric us 8 years ago. He was indeed attempting to bring out the angels of our better nature, not just saying so. At the same time he was including our imperfections, he was urging us on to persevere become better and I do not think he excluded himself.
But again- he was making a very nuanced argument which had both intellectual appeal and emotional appeal. He spoke to us as a grown-up speaks to grown-ups. So as he criticizes, takes us through his understanding of him and then embraces Wright so boldly, I feel that we cannot expect him to be perfect either. It’s hard to criticize such a speech which came so close to being perfect. We have not seenhis likes, it would seem, in a long long while.
This is a test on us mostly now. He did what he had to do- and he should keep doing it because it was not nearly enough. He excels in such speeches, not in debates. Here he does not seem to lack “substance” but he offers substance of a different sort, whereas in a debate he may seem thin and too agreeable.
Unfortunately I had a sinking feeling that night (of the speech) as I listened to the reverberations of AM right wing talk radio, the haters. I never tune in but I was curious. And they were going at it full steam, playing that 10-20 second loop from what I have heard was 2001 post 9/11 Reverend Wright. Remember what they did to Howard Dean’s scream? This could be worse.
Thank you Richard- for a fine post.
Richard Silverstein says
Suzanne: And thank you for your fine impressionistic reaction to it. I always enjoy reading such thoughtful comments as the one you wrote.
Thank you Richard-especially in spite my own imperfections here. One of these days I will make a perfect post.
I meant to add to the above that Chris Lydon recently did an interview with Michael Haynes :
Chris says in his introduction on the website Open Source ( link below) “In 1951 Haynes and King broke in together as apprentice preachers at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, and they stayed in close touch until King’s assassination 40 years ago, come April 4. ”
During that interview however it was Chris Lydon (who had or has been attending a black church in Roxbury for years I understand) who said:
“I make an inadequate note in this conversation that on the enflamed subject of religion in American life these days, the amazing grace of African-American church life is a vastly underrated treasure.”
But one must listen to that interview to get what he means a little better. it hit me, listening that this was so. But then again we have been celebrating the gifts all along, not the least of which is the music. So I recommend:
Now I notice Chris has something else timely up just today- but I have not listened yet.