Thursday, May 1, 2008
Wright's Politics, and Obama's
I think Ezra Klein's right here, in that the essential problem posed by Jeremiah Wright is the political content of his remarks, and not the racial content. In fact, outside of the AIDS conspiracy theory, there isn't really that much racial content. But as I argued here when the sermon clips were first circulated, the political content of Wright's remarks grows out of the black American experience, one that has nurtured a dual identity, equal parts affirmation and ambivalence towards a country that is at once home and bitter exile. Ezra correctly traces the moral outrage over Wright's remarks to their Chomsky-ite quality, but it's no coincidence that, outside of the anti-globalization movement and far-left academia, black America is probably the most sympathetic echo chamber for Chomsky's analysis.
Ezra's thought experiment of a white candidate's white preacher espousing the same political views does support his argument that this is not a political issue simply because Obama and Wright are black. But it overlooks the ways in which Wright's views mean something essentially different in the context of the black narrative of the American experience, where they are inseparable from the struggle to move from object to subject in the larger national narrative, and from which they form a bridge between that national narrative and the global narrative beyond. The result is not a rejection of American history, so much as a correction to it, one that resonates all the more powerfully for coming from the ranks of the oppressed and not of the oppressor.
But the underlying ambivalence that comes from condemning America on the one hand, and fighting for one's rightful place in it on the other, means that a black politician like Obama can immerse himself in Wright's Chomsky-ite worldview without necessarily rejecting the broader socio-economic structure of American society. Within the black narrative, it is a radical perspective, but not a leftist perspective, anti-colonial, but not anti-capitalist. (Although Trinity UCC's philosophy does disavow "middle classness.")
The equivalent scenario for a white politician would have much broader implications, since they would suggest no ambivalence, but only a political orientation largely incompatible with mainstream American politics. Not only would this still be a story were Obama and Wright white, as Ezra argues, it would probably be a more politically damaging one. It would also be a very different story, as Ezra also argues, and that's very much due to the fact that Obama and Wright are black.