Saturday, March 15, 2008
Obama, Wright, and Black Ambivalence
It just so happens that the first post of mine that got widespread attention on the web was one I wrote back in February on Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, titled "Obama As Rorschach Test." Periodically since then, someone clicking through from a "Obama afrocentric" Google search will show up in the HJ traffic logs to remind me of it. Which is all by way of saying that the post has stuck with me more than the thousand-odd other ones I've written in the past year.
So each time the question of Wright's association with Obama has come up, I've been tempted to re-visit the post, but have held off. Now that the issue is front and center, though, I figured I'd mention two things. The first is that if you click through to this 2005 radio interview with Wright that I linked to in it, at about the 3:30 mark, Wright mentions that he'd had the honor of being invited to two clergy breakfasts during Bill Clinton's presidency. So if he's as radioactive as people are saying, what was he doing on the presidential mailing list ten years ago?
The second point is that, with respect to Wright's 9/11comments, I can't help but feel that the outrage over them illustrates the extent to which the far-left is non-existent in American political discourse. In fact, the only places you can still find remnants of radical leftist analysis are in the Chomsky-ite anti-globalisation movement, and in Wright's brand of afro-centric Black liberation theology.
Provocative declaration alert: It's impossible to put a number on it, but I'd wager that the only place on Earth where Wright's analysis of 9/11 could be dismissed out of hand is in the United States. Not that the rest of the world agrees with it. But I think you'd find a substantial amount of people willing to accept that a valid case could be made for it, even if they subsequently disagree with that case. I suspect that more people consider it defensible (not correct, but defensible) than consider it outside the realm of acceptable debate.
Now it could very well be that I'm totally wrong on this. But I don't think I am. I'd offer two reasons for why this is. First, the far-left still exists across Europe and most of the world (by which I mean the real far-left, not the Clinton administration), which means that analyses such as Wright's are heard more often and have a certain legitimacy. And second, the great cleansing narrative of globalization has all but erased America's memory of historical resentments (torture and disappearances in South America, agent orange in Southeast Asia, the plight of the Palestinians) that feed anti-Americanism worldwide. But that doesn't mean the rest of the world has forgotten.
It also doesn't mean that there isn't great love felt for our country around the world as well. But it's important to remember that the ambivalence is always there, ready to tilt one way or the other depending on the latest American foray on the global stage. The dramatic shift in sympathy for America between 9/11 and the Iraq War is all the illustration necessary to see how fluid and volatile the world's feelings towards us really are.
The significance of Wright's analysis is that it illustrates the similarities between the world's ambivalence towards the United States, and many black Americans' ambivalence towards the United States. It's no coincidence that his particular brand of Afro-centrism traces its historical roots to the moment when black Civil Rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X placed the struggle in the context of the Third World's post-colonial struggle for independence. That's why it functions as America's conscience, not only for its treatment of blacks in this country, but also for its spotty post-colonial record abroad.
Now, obviously someone with Wright's views could not be elected president of the United States, so Obama is forced to denounce and reject them. The question is whether Obama's spiritual relationship, not just to Wright or a few sentences Wright has uttered over the years, but to Wright's core ideology, will now cost him the election. Back in February, I concluded that:
Assuming that his membership in the church signifies his acceptance of its agenda, Obama would do well to articulate his vision of Afrocentrism, and how it fits into his vision of a united America. Not only would it keep his opponents from doing it for him. It would bring a meaningful discussion of race in general, and his race in particular, to the forefont of the campaign. Until then, everyone will just see what they want to see.
I don't think Obama ever did that. Instead his campaign chose to present him as a post-racial candidate, in the hopes that we'd finally arrived at a post-racial America. The result is that his opponents have done it for him. And now everyone will just see what they want to see.