Obama’s pastor was right

Posted March 17, 2008

Has anyone noticed how Obama and Clinton have been rushing to outdo each other in “rejecting and denouncing” controversial figures associated with their campaigns?  First it was Obama, with Farrakhan.  I was disappointed to see Obama “reject and denounce” Farrakhan himself – rather than rejecting and denouncing his anti-Semitic statements, which are worthy of being rejected.  But I figured it was par for the course.  Farrakhan has always been a lightning rod of presidential politics; Obama was really just distancing himself (again) from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  Then there was Samantha Power, who is an annoying apostle of human rights liberalism, I believe, and I wasn’t sad to see her go.  Then there was Geraldine Ferraro, on the Clinton side, who doesn’t seem to have aged gracefully, making remarks which might have had some core sense to them but were expressed in basically openly racist terms.

But now Obama has thrown his poor old pastor under the bus which is sad because it looks to me like the pastor’s controversial statements are absolutely right-on, and bold in the ways people on the left wish Obama would be bold.  Pastor Jeremiah Wright seems to live up to his name, from the bit I’ve read; his indictment of American white supremacy and imperialism have a prophetic ring to them, in the classic sense of the original Biblical prophets, who bore public witness against social injustice.  I don’t know why – I wasn’t going to vote for him anyway – but it makes me sad that Obama would throw away his relationship with the person who seems to have the sharpest wisdom in his camp.  I would have felt just a little better about an Obama presidency with someone like Jeremiah Wright as a spiritual advisor.  I wonder how Wright and the members of the church are feeling about the denunciations and Obama’s thorough distancing of himself?  Folks on the left: sorry, but if Obama won’t stand up for the faith community he has been part of for 20 years, what’s to prevent thorough opportunism once in office?

Of course many people supporting him on the left don’t expect anything better than opportunism from him; they just hope that deep down that opportunism will be tempered by deeply-held-but-for-practical-reasons-must-be-concealed politics like … those of Pastor Wright.  (Or, they just expect him to be smarter, more eloquent, and less of a cowboy than GWB, to which I can only say, well, if your expectations are that low….)  I don’t know what to say to that kind of argument.  I don’t know how we’re supposed to build a better politics even at an electoral level in this country if its most eloquent purveyors don’t utter nary a peep of it.  The comparisons with Jackson drive me crazy, because Jackson, for all his faults, put forth such a politics.  Which is the last time that anything other than Third Way Clinton-Blair triangulation has been put out in the Democratic Party.  Putting out such a politics would be an integral part of undoing what is still the long-term success of the Reagan Realignment.  If Obama is a Kennedy-type, which he might well be, that means precisely nothing.  Kennedy’s policies were a continuation of Eisenhower’s in most senses including Cold War, economic, and social policies.  LBJ’s Great Society was actually a much more substantive development in social liberalism than anything JFK developed.

I wonder if Pastor Wright would accept a nomination to be Cynthia McKinney’s Vice Presidential candidate?

Returning to the more practical sphere: Obama has got to get out of this mindset that he has to reject, denounce, and fire every aide or associate who isn’t as pure as the driven snow, and figure out some other way to deflect these punches.  Wait, why do I care about that if I don’t support him?  Hmm.  I can’t answer that.  Maybe the latte liberal who has grown up inside me, wanting to bust out, just can’t help it.

Returning to the broader political issue: I wonder if all the right-wingers are right when they say that the anti-US sentiments expressed by Wright (and supposedly Michelle Obama in a famous gaffe) are completely out of tune with where a majority of Americans are at, excepting certain latte liberals?  And would that out-of-tune-ness be so jarring as to justify a candidate like Obama running away from these views as fast as he can, or could he, if he were willing, conceivably make a political stand on this ground?  Of course they’re not completely right; for one thing, us anti-imperialists are over here waving, “Hey, we’re still here, and lots of us couldn’t give a fuck about a latte.”  True, but unfortunately not a significant voting bloc.

Secondly, I believe that sentiments combining real patriotism and love of country and people with a deep disgust with a lot of what the US is about exist broadly in Black communities.  I don’t believe these apparent contradictions are inchoate; in fact, Black culture is probably the best model there is of an “immanent critique” (as opposed to a total critique from anti-imperialists, which might not resonate very broadly at the moment) of US patriotism.  I’ve sometimes thought that Allen Iverson’s pride, after a third-place finish at the 2004 Olympics, when most of the media was bellyaching about the fall from “Dream Team” basketball supremacy, might be the model for what a positive post-imperial sense of self for someone from the US could be like, very, very distant though the reality of such a possibility might be.

Third, my experience is that in a lot of immigrant communities, while there is pride associated with success in coming to the US and being able to succeed, more or less, and maybe send something back for the family, this is also balanced often with a fairly realistic and informed sense of what the US is about internationally as well as its internal injustices.

Fourth, it is true that patriotic pride is often tied at the hip to closely defended white privilege among white workers – at least this is one strand.  But it is hard to tell, anecdotally, how ubiquitous this strand really is.  Would a moderate, sobering critique of the notion that “America is number one” and the US presence on the world stage, combined with an affirmation of a 1940s-Communist-Party-style multiracial-populist Americanism really drive white workers to vote for Reaction?  (I’m assuming that this is the best we could hope of any presidential candidate, even a Third-Party candidate with some hope of resonance.)  We certainly won’t find out this year, because Obama is running scared from the implication that he might represent anything less than red-blooded, gung-ho patriotism.  Again, conscious of my tendency to sound like a broken record here, I think Jesse Jackson is the closest we came to discovering where something like such a politics could go.  Let’s remember that – and this seems to have been lost in the political memories of most 2008 commentators – while Jackson never did particularly well with whatever was the 1988 equivalent of the “latte liberal,” he did do quite well with working-class whites in several states, by speaking directly about class-based grievances as well as other issues.  (I remember this being the case anecdotally in several states, but I’m not sure how the final votes broke down or whether anyone has ever analyzed the “Bradley effect” broken down by class in this election.)


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