Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's Speech on Race

Everyone agrees: Barack Obama delivered a high minded, cogent and moving speech on race at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. He handled his Jeremiah Wright problem deftly. Having to deal both with the traditional, anti-Hillary “great right-wing conspiracy” and with the Clintons’ own right-wing conspiracy, he could hardly have sided more overtly with Wright. Not wanting to alienate everyone else, and for reasons of personal integrity too, he could hardly have denounced Wright more than he did. He seems to have found the “golden mean.” In doing so, perhaps he will succeed in moving the electoral contest to higher ground, notwithstanding media like Fox News hell bent on moronizing political discourse.

Of course, the problem isn’t just Fox News; it’s also the liberals. For an especially perspicuous example, take Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s account of Obama’s “pastor problem” published the morning of the speech. Cohen likened Wright to David Duke and, just to show his thinking isn’t too Israel-centric, Meir Kahane. Gimme a break! Wright is no racist. By all accounts, he’s been a major force for good, as I’ve pointed out in earlier entries. Moreover, as I’ve also pointed out, most of what he said is unequivocally true; the rest is, at worst, hyperbolic. That’s why, despite its brilliance, I still have trouble with Obama’s speech.

Yes, Wright did go over the top if he said, as reported, that the government introduced HIV/AIDS into the black community or that it promotes drug use among African Americans. Such things do happen, of course, when one people dominates another: ask our Amerindian aboriginal peoples whose ancestors were given small-pox infected blankets or the descendants of survivors of the Opium Wars. There are many other examples as well. Moreover, in this age of corporate globalization -- where jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, are in short supply -- our ruling classes have come to regard the black people they can’t coopt or make bourgeois as a surplus population, fit for little more than incarceration. They don’t even need them for a “reserve army of labor”; not when it’s so easy to lower labor costs by shipping jobs overseas. But kill them with AIDS? Or drug them into passivity? Not likely. If Wright suggested these things in his sermons, the Holy Spirit must have gotten the better of him.

Wright’s other publicized remarks are thoroughly reasonable: institutional racism was indeed a founding principle of our union. It is inscribed in the Constitution. In fact, it took a Civil War to redress that problem -- partially and very imperfectly. It can get better, as Obama pointed out, but sugar-coating the past is not the way to make it so. Far better, as Immanuel Kant would say, “to dare to know” or, as I would say, “to call a spade a spade.”

Neither is there any doubt that the U.S. supported state terrorism in Apartheid South Africa and in Apartheid Palestine, where it continues to do so (today more than ever). Is it incendiary and offensive to express solidarity with a people living for generations under a brutal occupation? It is indeed in the political culture of the Land of the Free, but not for anyone who wants, as the Clintons would say, to “get real.’

Wright’s “God damm America” remark plays well on cable TV, but it’s essentially meaningless, much like the “God bless America” blather that has now fortunately subsided a little since it erupted with full force after 9/11. The Reverend is a man of the cloth -- that’s his one and only “sin” -- so perhaps he does think he can confer blessings and curses, but to a “reasonable person” “God damn America” just means “boo America” -- a perfectly reasonable thing to say in the context in which Wright said it.

That leaves the comment that, I suspect, rankles the most: the claim that the United States brought 9/11 upon itself. But, if it didn’t, what did? Do the purveyors of conventional wisdom think it’s because “they [evil Muslims] hate our freedom?” Do they agree with the Bush boy about that? 9/11 was blowback. If we don’t want to be mired forever in the so-called “war on terror” – in other words, if we don’t want perpetual war for the sake of empire – then we need to confront that reality too.

How much better it would have been if Obama had pointed these things out! Instead, he told only part of the story. Of course, as Obama said, African Americans of Wright’s age harbor anger that we white folks need to recognize and respect. He might have added that younger African Americans, along with most everyone else, do too, and they have every reason and right. Expressing that anger is not offensive or incendiary; it’s honest. It’s also indispensable if we’re ever to get beyond where we now are.

It was wonderful to see Obama put America’s racial problems in the context of its class divisions and class struggles. Of the major Democratic contenders for the nomination, only John Edwards had done anything like that before. Needless to say, the liberal media have taken no notice. Nothing slows down their condescending references to (white) “blue collar” racism. But here’s a news flash: workers aren’t the problem, prevaricating liberals are.

Like the liberal media, the Clinton camp is full of them. My worry is that Obama is one of them too. He has certainly appeared that way throughout the campaign. However his Philadelphia speech does provide a glimmer of hope that he can transcend the horizons of Democratic Party politics after all. But only a glimmer, and we’ll have to elect him to find out. In the context of an Amerik(kk)an election, with the Clinton (and McCain) attack machines ready to pounce and media working 24/7 to dumb everyone down, it may just be too impolitic to face reality squarely or to propose, credibly and substantively, to change the status quo fundamentally.

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