4:56 pm - March 18th 2008
Barack Obama today gave a crucial speech. He had to respond to his critics who had brought up the fact that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had in the past made racist comments about white people and had condemned the United States. Obama took the stage in order to explain why Wright was his pastor and why he beleived that that still made him a fit person to be President of the United States. My instant thought is that he succeeded completely in doing what he had to do. Though how it goes down with the electorate is obviously a different matter.
Obama’s speech stems from a concept that seems almost forgotten on the right wing of the political spectrum- charity. Stemming from religious ideas about the way that we should behave around others- Obama encouraged his audience to hate conditions which promoted racism and other vices but not to hate the individuals that held those views. Perhaps this came through most importantly when he spoke of Reverend Wright: he said
I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Its worth reading that again and again and realising what Obama rightly is saying here: none of us is entirely present in our worst moments. Jeremiah Wright’s worst moments abstracted from the record are ugly- and he should not serve (and since he has resigned does not serve) upon Obama’s campaign. But he is not a devil incarnate- and were Obama to walk away from him now, Obama would have failed in his own duty to remember the man’s kindnesses and not judge him by the worst moments or utterances of his life. Political campaigns often seem to be run by and for those who cannot accept human life in all its complexity and just feel a rage, a rage which seeks to consign everyone who makes a misstep to the outer darkness. If anyone ran their lives in this way then they would be poorer for it, and I think it is a sign of maturity that Barack Obama doesn’t.
Furthermore Obama then went onto consider why Wright felt what he felt. Why did he say the things he said? He linked Wright’s arguments to those of whites angry about their treatment within the United States. What Obama picked up on though which is an interesting and important lesson (it is also the main point of the flawed film American History X) is that hate gets you nowhere. It is Obama’s contention that his pastor’s hate is the wrong way to deal with the history of Blacks in the US. Blacks in the US have been discriminated against for hundreds of years- they suffered massive discrimination as late as just after World War Two when they were systematically excluded from various welfare programs to help returning soldiers. Obama is right to say that that situation encouraged many of his pastor’s generation to become incredibly angry with the system that had produced such injustices- he is also right to say that such anger is not productive. It led his pastor into massive error: Obama is right to say that he himself is a product of an interracial marriage that would not have been possible in many societies before the twentieth centuries and in many places apart from America might have been more difficult to maintain. Furthermore hatred threatens to destabilise society in the opposite direction- not creating a perfect union but leading to more resentment from the other side and to the growth of all sorts of other kinds of social instability. Obama’s charity extends to trying to understand those who oppose him, trying to work out why they are angry and rather than share their anger, trying to work out what would appease it.
Hence, Obama suggests that the real way forwards is to fix the problems that afflict American society- and often afflict white and black people, women and men. He suggests that the US needs to confirm yet again its commitment to a more perfect union based on the equality of citizens before the law and before each other. He suggests various reforms to do that and to enable the poorest to reach the top of society. Such measures Obama argues will defuse the anger that his pastor feels, whilst dealing with the problems his pastor accurately diagnosed and diagnoses. This is a speech of a candidate who wants to move beyond that hatred to something else- to actually dealing with the problems that Americans of all colours and sexes feel. That has to be the proper approach. Afterall there are white male Americans who suffer as much as anyone from the failure of the US to provide universal healthcare. And furthermore it remains true to the essentially Christian message of hating the sin and not the sinner that Obama wants to propagate. Obama’s campaign is one of the most religious campaigns in US history- definitely more religious than many Republican campaigns from the religious right have been over the last couple of decades- because Obama understands that point about sin and sinner. He understands also the point about the futility of anger and furthermore the point about individuals being a sum of their good points and errors, not just explained by their errors.
Obama restates in this speech that he isn’t an advocate of racial revolution or even civil war: he is an advocate of reform which will help all Americans but particularly the poorest (who happen to disproportionately come from communities that were historically disadvantaged). In that sense he wants not merely to move beyond racism and endorses racial equality, he wants to create the situation in which more and more people will agree with him by dealing with the causes of racism. That has provoked snide comments from the right, but compared to the work of the Steyns and the Schiffrens this was a mature and thoughtful examination of what lies behind racism and how we can deal with its causes.
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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