Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Speech

Almost 24 hours behind the rampaging blog commentary, let me attempt a few random thoughts on the simply spectacular speech which Senator Obama gave on race in America--and the various racial complaints and issues haunting his campaign--in Philadelphia yesterday.

1. Who liked it, among bloggers? Timothy Burke, Henry Farrell, Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Pithlord, John Buass, and no doubt hundreds more. And deservedly so--as I said, the speech, as a piece of rhetoric, is spectacular. And rhetoric matters; rhetoric is one of the tools (arguably, in our media-dominated representative democracy, the most important tool) by which those in politics distill and present to the public at large that slice of public opinion they are trying to enlist for their candidacy and motivate for their chosen causes. Style matters--it's not the only thing that matters, but it definitely matters a great deal. So look at it, solely in terms of its rhetorical style: look at what he lays out in that speech. He has something to say about multiculturalism, angry white males, religious segregation, white flight, busing, downsizing, the civil rights movement, absent fathers, the collapse of the black family, lousy schools, economic alienation, poverty, urban decay, slavery, the inner city, black-on-black crime, the Founding Fathers, etc. And he says it all in a mature, thoughtful, complicated way, denouncing, firmly and in great detail, the numerous hateful and inflammatory statements by Revered Jeremiah Wright (which was the nominal purpose of this speech), but never wholly rejecting him as a pastor and a father figure, nor distancing himself from the church community Wright has built, nor denouncing the contradictions and justifiable anger that make up Wright's perspective--and not just his, but also that of the black community of America as a whole. What an audacious thing to do, and what a breadth of spirit it represents! This is no mere "can't we all get along?" plea; this is an argument about why we all, white and black, so often turn towards exclusiveness and bitterness when faced with racial conflicts and compromises--why it's so easy for many of us to treat our problems as reflecting a "static" reality, rather than acknowledging that time and people and countries keep moving, and that what is needed is not to continue to attend to hurts and distractions (my single favorite line from the whole speech: "But if we do [retreat to these postures], 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"), but to give each others' grievances and frustrations some recognition, and that by recognizing them--not in the sense of allowing that every debt or failure does or does not legally deserve some recompense or reward, but in simply allowing them some legitimacy, some context of respect--we can see the way attending collectively to common problems helps us get beyond them. Ultimately, this was a speech about the hopefulness and dignity--and the necessary foundations too--of the democratic process, of the need to see policy debates as themselves only tools, only secondary arguments, about the best way to achieve the real purpose of self-government: creating a community of people who have the freedom, opportunity, and collective capacity to exercise real responsibility for and sovereignty over their own futures, over becoming the sort citizens and having the sort of families they aspire to be and to have.

2. So, that's it--no great policy innovations or recommendations? Well, given all that I just said, it's seems obviously properly is, "no." The fact is, he's a pretty conventional modern American liberal policy-wise, when all is said and done; his plans for what happens after we "get beyond" our repetitive poses over race and social division that Republicans and Democrats both make use of--assuming we ever do--are pretty standard liberal Democratic plans, regarding urban renewal, education, health care, the environment, and more. As Ross correctly notes, Obama is not reaching out to voters who are basically conservative (again, in its confused modern American state--as I've argued, Obama's affiliation with TUCC's theological resistance to "middleclassness" reflects a certain kind of properly conservative thinking); rather, he is trying to enlist doubtful independents into giving his candidacy, with all its transformational and aspiration rhetoric, a chance.

3. Ah, but who are those independent voters? That's the real political question here, if we can descend from the realm of rhetoric and ideas to that of electoral success for the moment. Well, if we're talking about the mostly secular, mostly educated white independents out there, Obama needn't worry; the "creative classes" have been tending Democratic for ever since the 1990s. The crucial question is the white working class, whom Rod thinks the Rev. Wright controversy has cost Obama their vote entirely. He may be right, though I suspect that it isn't Wright himself or his words that are the essential problem; rather, the real divide appears when one considers Obama's liberalism and his class, for which--in the minds of many working-class and rural white voters, at least--the radicalism of some of Wright's statements are just a symptom. Obama is, in many ways, an almost Burkean moderate, but we have an enormous disconnect in our political understandings in this country (a disconnect that I tend to believe, as I've said many times before, has been created most fundamentally by religious disagreements, which are at their base for most voters not disagreements about doctrine but about authority and individuality and morality and community), one that prevents a large number of working class and rural citizens--perhaps even a reliable majority of those citizens--from being able to recognize any kind of moderation and traditionalism and even "family values" when they appear on the left. Now maybe the fact that Obama did not completely throw Rev. Wright, with his "God damn America" rhetoric, completely overboard in this speech signals proves these citizens are right. Perhaps all this speech proves is Obama's bone-deep membership in that elite class of Americans who just don't get the whole traditionalist point, people who--as the conservative blogger Withywindle puts it--confuse "understanding" a "complex" reality with the need to express some allegiance to the basic morals of that reality, people who strive to complicate and transcend hard questions, rather than make the choice to accept or reject them. Could be. It's indisputable that Obama and his family are members of that elite class, and so maybe that means that, for too many reasons to count, Obama wouldn't be able to reach out to them, perhaps not even as well as Bill Clinton did, and so maybe this speech is just icing on their cake. But I'd like to give this speech a little more credit than that; I'd like to hold open the possibility that, as a contribution to a larger argument over ideas (one that, as Obama himself acknowledges, is hardly going to be wrapped up "in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy--particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own"), maybe Obama's rhetoric here may open a few more people up--including opening a few more religiously conservative, lower- and middle-class white voters up, voters whose grievances he goes out of his way to speak respectfully of in this speech--to the "conservative" elements of this message coming from the left. That may not win him Pennsylvania...but then, to his credit, I don't think this speech was about winning Pennsylvania, anyway.

4. One last thing--I'm familiar with some of Reverend Wright's sermons, having listened to more than a few of them from various sources over the years; two of my colleagues here at Friends U., in fact, have attended and taken student groups to TUCC when they've visited Chicago on several occasions. And let me just say this: leave aside all the arguably justifiable anger and the class-based suspicions for the moment, if you can; if you're a serious and conservative Christian, give the full range of TUCC's message a try. To be sure, it is a heavily race-conscious church...but then, so were Martin Luther King's revival meetings. If you can accept and get past that, you'll find that it is far more doctrinal, evangelical and Biblically-grounded than you might expect. Obama may be a member of the elite, but frankly, anyone who has been willing to listen to those messages of repentance and salvation for 20 years, and whose been willing to build his marriage and fatherhood through such a church, deserves a lot more credit from the religious among us than he's gotten so far.

9 comments:

Jeremy said...

"maybe Obama's rhetoric here may open a few more people up--including opening a few more religiously conservative, lower- and middle-class white voters up"

That's exactly what it did for me. I've never voted for a Democrat in my life but Obama has been slowly winning me over and the speech yesterday pushed me firmly into his camp.

By the way, I'm glad for your increased blogging. I've not commented very often but I've been reading your blog since shortly after the Crunchy Cons hullabaloo.

Rob said...

I'm in Jeremy's area, roughly, though I have voted for Democrats before, just not for President.

Look: Obama captured almost the full gamut of race, and implicitly, feminist, issues roaming at large in the national mind. My brother was denied admittance to UW's dental school because those slots were "for women," regardless of qualification. A friend of mine going to I.T. job interviews has been sent to service entrances by Vegas casino security guards because she looked hispanic. Other stuff.

And, I think the desperation of American youth, 18-30, is rooted in the fact that they have been plainly taught that race should not matter, but they face an older generation, Hillary Clinton and John McCain and every single mainstream American journalist and editor among them, where race not only matters, but it's one of the only few rubrics they use to describe the political world!

Watch the returns for the Pennsylvania Primaries for clear evidence of that, and see if I'm right. But for myself as someone between the Boomers and Gen-Y, and everyone I know who is under 30, our ideal is to transcend race and sex politics and judge people by the content of their character.

I seem to recall someone respectable calling for that decades ago. In my opinion, our kids and youth have passed us completely by. Racism is insensible to them and by and large they simply won't have it, preferring to attack inequities in terms of poverty.

For myself, unless there is some nasty surprise, Obama has my support. If he's nominated I may even send money. Even if the only thing he accomplishes is a furthering of the idea of transcendence on these issues, it will have been worth it for him to be President. Can Hillary say the same?

Sorry... I went long again...

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jeremy, thanks for the kind words. And it makes me happy to know that my hopes and thoughts describe at least one voter out there!

Rob, feel free to run as long as you want in your comments. Your thoughts and experiences here are simply dead on: you are exactly the voter whom Obama was reaching out and trying to connect with through this speech. I wonder if you might be right about Pennsylvania though...it'll be interesting to see how this speech continues to be spun over the next week or so.

Rob said...

Obama didn't win me over with that speech. I had already voted for him in caucus and my decision is still out about him as President, though the speech

And actually, I didn't mean the actual election returns. I'm talking about the reporting about the election returns, where they will give time to a reporter who will break the exit polls and returns down by county and precinct and, within that...

...I predict that they will shamelessly characterize the results in terms of race, gender, age, religion, and perhaps national origin, while completely ignorant of how hypocritical that must sound to Gen-Y kids weaned on different rhetoric, which they and their parents helped to formulate.

Ironies just abound.

I blogged the rest of my thoughts in my own space. Won't claim it's perfect, but I invite comment.

Rob said...

Gah. Incomplete sentence fix: "Though the speech did reinforce the impression I had which obviates Clinton's and McCain's implicit and explicit claims that he lacks gravitas or experience on issues important to Americans."

Pauli said...

Obama and Hillary are the same thing except Hillary is not as "clean" or articulate.

Rob said...

Policy wise, perhaps Obama and Clinton are similar. But their approaches to the problems the policies purport to solve are not similar.

Personally I think Obama is pulling out strategies last seen when Ronald Reagan was refuting the idea of "malaise" observed by Jimmy Carter. And he's more effective than I remember Reagan being.

Anonymous said...

I had occasion to listen to Rush Limbaugh play a few snippets of Rev. Wrights sermons, particularly a Christmas sermon. I find it remarkable that on the basis of Rev. Wright's belief that Jesus is black, Rev. Wright's belief that the nuclear slaughter of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was an ungodly act and that God might actually condemn many things this nation has done somehow Limbaugh has all the evidence he needs to tell us all that Rev. Wright is not a Christian.

I also couldn't help feel that Limbaugh is giving Obama the Romney treatment. Limbaugh was more than fair to Romney...but he very well could have said almost everything about Romney's Prophet that he said about Obama.

Furinstance....Spenser W. Kimball once told his fellow Mormons (I'm paraphrasing here) that we are warlike nation, that when enemies rise up we become anti-enemy instead of pro-Kingdom of God. We train men in the art of war and call them patriots thus perverting the words of our Saviours "do good to those who despise you". Spencer Kimball and Gordon B. Hinkley didn't seem to have ever seen a nuclear weapons system they had any use for. The Mormon Church condemned the Nagasaki and Hiroshima genocides TWICE in General Conference. The Book of Mormon has all kind of uncomplimentary things to say about "gentiles" in passages interpreted by most readers to mean the United States of America. All of it are heaps of coal delivered to the American people of our day that are just as hot as that delivered by Rev. Wright.

Jared said...

First time visitor, and I'm impressed by your insights. I'm a solid Obama supporter from the Chicago South Side, but I have to say that his prospects for the Presidency aren't what I celebrate the most. Even if Obama does not win the nomination and later the election, then I'm still greateful that he's done so much not to 'open the dialog' on race, but to advance it.