Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Promissory Notes Of Hope

I just watched Barack Obama's speech/sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and was not at all surprised, given his enormous oratorical skills, to find that it lives up to its billing. It's an inspirational and impressive speech, and the way he articulates and contextualizes his vision of hope as an active force for change is effective.

I found his arguments for unity less compelling, since I think what he's talking about is more solidarity than unity. Progress has always been a polarizing proposition, as most of the examples he cites to illustrate it (the American Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement) demonstrate. The key is not to get unanimity or consensus but a solid majority. Ronald Reagan, for instance was a very polarizing figure. That didn't keep him from winning 60% of the popular vote in 1984, which is what makes it hard to call him divisive.

Three things occurred to me, having watched the video. First, the white-haired gentleman with the kente-cloth stole sitting behind the pulpit above Obama's right shoulder is Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama's church, Trinity UCC. Wright, you'll recall, was asked by the Obama campaign not to attend Obama's speech announcing his candidacy last year. So the fact that he was in attendance at Ebenezer so soon after the recent publicity over Obama's ties to him strikes me as significant.

Second, there were a couple of moments in Obama's speech that I found symbolically awkward. The first came when he began his litany of "hope moments" from American history with the American Revolution. It seemed like you could almost feel the enthusiasm in the pews dip for the second or two it took him to hurry on to the abolitionists (not surprising given how many of the patriots that took on the British Empire were slaveholders).

The second was at the very end, when a story used to illustrate the unity driving his campaign culminated in a young white campaign worker inspiring an elderly black man to rediscover the fight he had left in him. Something about the "single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man", as Obama put it, struck me as tone deaf to the patronizing hint of paternalism in the story, to say nothing of our country's particularly charged sexual-racial history.

I wonder if the two moments reflect the difficulties that Obama is bound to encounter in tailoring his message to the various audiences of what seems like a decidedly less post-racial America with every week of this campaign (although I leave open the possibility that I'm paying too close attention and reading too much into both).

Finally, there was a noteworthy moment when, in telling his own story, Obama says, "I got in trouble when I was a teenager, did some things folks don't like to talk about..." Compare that to the language BET founder Bob Johnson used ten days ago, for which he was later forced to apologize: "...Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book..."

Now, granted, Johnson's remarks were objectionable, but this strikes me as similar to a dynamic that Matthew Yglesias already identified with regard to Obama's middle name. Namely, that his supporters don't hesitate to use his background and the impression it will make abroad as an appeal, while getting outraged by every mention made of it by his opponents. Yes, the attacks are cheap and unseemly, but as Matthew put it:

If he's going to get praised in these terms, he's going to get knocked in them, too. That's just how it is.

Obama seems to do a lot of talking (and writing) about the things he's done that "folks don't like to talk about". So he ought to have some responses ready when other people mention them.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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