don’t worry, be happy was the number one jam

Sorry to disagree with you, everyone on the Internet, but I wasn’t impressed with Barack Obama’s big speech on Tuesday.

Obama took the pulpit today to denounce some speeches made by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, over the last six years. Apparently, Rev. Wright suggested that “the United States brought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on itself and say blacks continue to be mistreated by whites.”

Here we have a problem with proper nouns. The “United States” can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to:


  1. a particular region of land defined on a map;
  2. the people living within its borders – you, me, that guy sitting next to you, the people on the street, etc;
  3. a set of shared historical and cultural ideals – truth, justice, the American way, democracy, etc;
  4. the policy of the governing body that claims a monopoly of force over the aforementioned region – the laws passed by Congress, the actions ordered by the President and the movement of armed forces carrying the U.S. flag.

Osama bin Laden had a particular grievance with the United States (4), in the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Because of his radical religious beliefs, he also has issues with the United States (3). So he recruited a number of sleeper agents to infiltrate the United States (1) and carry out attacks on the United States (2).

The outrage comes because citizens of the United States (2) tend to connect, implicitly or openly, the ideals of the United States (3) with its actions abroad (4). They also identify strongly with those actions in their own selves (2), seeing them as a reflection of their democratic voice. However, #1, 2, 3 and 4 are entirely different entities which can – and usually do – contradict. Witness Bush declaring, “We do not torture.” Witness leftists declaring, “Bush is not our President.” To believe either of those statements, you have to ignore – or even worse, embrace – the contradictions between the U.S.’s citizens, culture and elected officials.

So it is with the Rev. Wright’s statement. To believe that the U.S. brought the attacks of September 11th “on itself,” you have to believe that #2, #3 and #4 are one and the same – that every action the U.S. takes abroad, from funding anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua to bombing Cambodia to sending CIA agents to Cuba to firebombing Dresden to occupying the Philippines – reflects the will and culture of the people living in Delacroix, Denver and Des Moines. You call yourself a U.S. citizen so, apparently, every dead Iraqi baby is all your fault. Oops.

To reject the Reverend’s notion, you have to reject the idea that democracy does what it says on the tin – that it creates a government responsive to the explicit desires of the civilians it governs. Sometimes people who ran in open elections start secret wars. Sometimes the U.S. lends its name to torturers and thugs. But if you accept that you are ruled by forces out of your control, it’s not an issue.

One or the other. Take your pick.

Obama, of course, doesn’t take his pick. He doesn’t cling to the balm of the democratic process and say that yes, you voted for Nixon and Carter and Reagan and Bush and Clinton and Bush again, and therefore those dead Vietnamese and Cambodians and Laotians and Grenadians and Iraqis are on your head. And of course he doesn’t say, “Sure, vote for whoever makes you feel good, but the U.S. will continue to conduct extraordinary renditions and cover operations and bombing campaigns all over the world.”

Rather, he embraces the contradiction. He says that the Reverend Wright’s comments are “not only wrong but divisive.” Really? Not only wrong but divisive? Being wrong isn’t sufficient? If the Reverend’s comments were right but divisive, would you object? If they were wrong but unifying, would you stay silent? Is divisiveness not an inherently wrong thing, such that you have to call it out?

You can accuse me of nitpicking over word choice, but if I have to accept this man on the quality of his rhetoric – as so many other people are – then I’m going to take my time double-checking it. Barack Obama said that the Reverend Wright’s statements about America are wrong. He doesn’t say in what way. Barack Obama said that the Reverend Wright’s statements about race were divisive. He doesn’t say what would unify. Barack Obama takes the controversial maverick stance of saying, “I disagree with this person you don’t like,” puts a little more wear on some platitudes about investing in schools and rebuilding the economy, and people get giddy!

Update: Yes, I read the part about “binding our particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” And about “providing this generation with ladders of opportunity.” What do those words mean?

Reverend Wright may be wrong. That doesn’t make Barack Obama right.

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9 Responses

  1. He’s taking the stance that he disagrees with someone that others have a problem with, but that he’s not going to kick him to the curb for saying something controversial. He’s asking people to understand where someone else is coming from, and he’s saying that despite having differences with what he says, he’s not going to abandon him.. despite what it might do to him in the press. I haven’t heard any politician say anything of this kind, ever.

    He’s asking that we come together to look at where other people are coming from. He’s asking that we understand that people of another color are frustrated by a percieved injustice due to race.. that we need to accept what things have changed for the better, that we need to get our heads out of our asses.

    And he does in fact, say what would unify us.
    “For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

    “In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

    Yes, this is rhetoric, but it’s true. He also says he’s not naive enough to believe that he alone or one president alone can change this.. but he’s saying something damn fundamental, and strong, and incredibly brave here.

  2. Unca: I’d be more impressed by the “I disagree with him but I still love him” bit if I knew what Obama disagreed with.

    And what does it mean to “bind our particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans”? What exactly should a person who follows that advice be doing? What does it mean to “provide this generation with ladders of opportunity”? What, exactly, is he saying?

  3. “To reject the Reverend’s notion, you have to reject the idea that democracy does what it says on the tin – that it creates a government responsive to the explicit desires of the civilians it governs.”

    I think that’s a pretty broad leap on your part. As you stated before, one can define the United States in more than one fashion.

    While I agree with most of your complaints, I think you have to take into account, that as a candidate running for office, it’s very tricky to get down to the level of detail you want, without saying something that is easily twisted around. If Obama came out of this, and a right leaning news agency was able to dumb his statment down to “he thinks 911 is our fault” or “he thinks America can do no wrong” the guy is politically screwed. Like it or not, 90% of the voting public does not read into such issues as deeply as you.

  4. The 9/11 comments are not the only of Wright’s comments in question; other comments are specifically about racial relations and such in this country. Most of the speech, including the parts you quote, are meant to address the other comments.

    He only alludes to the 9/11 comment once specifically, and basically says terrorism=bad. He doesn’t really even get into an argument about it.

    So I don’t understand what your beef is with “not only wrong, but divisive.” He just finished a paragraph about how the thought the comments were wrong, then went into one about how he thought they were divisive. I don’t see how that implies he’d be OK with wrong-but-not-divisive or divisive-but-correct.

    Then you say that he doesn’t say exactly what he thinks what wrong about the comments. The speech is full of what he thinks is right about the issue. Does he really need to read each of the comments he’s denouncing and do a point-by-point commentary? I mean, Obama is the guy running, not Wright. Obama doesn’t have to address what Wright believes, he has to address what he believes.

    And I think the speech told us what he believes. That racial equality in this country continues to improve, in no small part because of seeds planted from the country’s creation. But that we may find ourselves stalled because the national discussion about race has become charactured and driven by anger & defensiveness.

    I found I came away very impressed by his understanding of race relations in this country, and very hopeful that he can move the ball in the direction he’s pointing.

    Lastly, with respect to the nature of what a democratic nation “is,” when it comes to someone expressing patriotism, isn’t it more a question of poetic intention than rhetorical construction?

  5. Dave L – it’s difficult to get detailed and not have your words twisted? Are you sure you don’t mean that the other way around? How can someone have their words misinterpreted if they’re being more precise, not less?

    Bob – having read some of the Rev. Wright’s comments, I see plenty in there that’s divisive. I’m wondering what Obama sees that’s wrong. For example:

    “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes three-strike laws and wants them to sing God Bless America. No! No No! God damn America … for killing innocent people. God damn America for threatening citizens as less than humans. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and supreme.”

    And I’ll agree that the rhetoric was uplifting and inspiring. But until Obama explains what policies are behind it, the rhetoric is no good to me.

    To the last point: I would define patriotism as a love of item #3, often exploited to sanction #4.

  6. When worrying about appealing to as many people as possible, details can sometimes be a killer. I feel like a lot of candidates take the “I need to appeal to as broad of a range of people as possible” approach, and that seems to be part of what he is doing here.

  7. I didn’t vote for Bush and I feel terribly responsible for what is happening in Iraq, like if I had only quit my job before the war to become a full time war protestor (as if Bush gave a shit about what other people thought!) or did _something_ that could have changed the outcome, I should have.

    I have only so many legal recourses. I can not give orders to Generals, nor direct groups like US AID. I have tried communicating with military people (one longish conversation with a Command Sergeant Major about mercs) but, honestly, they don’t have much power, either.

    I’m like a european social democrat, I guess, maybe an old style Fabian, and there hasn’t been a single political voice that I can say “Yes, that’s a person I’d happily go to the wall with.”

    Like Ron Paul and Michael Scheuer and Reverend Wright, I know that Sept. 11th was driven by far more than a (source never identified) raw hatred for America, but in large part a direct response to a foreign policy that has been going on since the 1930s at least (as far as America is concerned) or earlier (Sykes-Picot) or earlier (Crusades!).

    Once Obama said the Palestinians were “the most oppressed people on Earth.” Of the three people left in (the media’s conception of) the ring, that’s the closest thing to sanity I’ve heard.

    So that is where, with head bowed, I am forced to hang my hat.

  8. If Obama were just cutting Wright out of the campaign here, I might be more inclined to agree with you that something was missing. Then, he would have been buying into the characture that has emerged of Wright, and dismissing it perfunctorily. Like a non-apology apology of “sorry you hurt, even though I didn’t do anything wrong,” what condemnation occurred did not get to the particulars of the statements or mutual understanding of what was wrong with them.

    But Obama did not get up there and take the easy, expected way out, cutting ties with Wright. He got up there and said outright that Wright was being charactured, because people on all sides can’t talk about race without getting offended, defensive, and angry. And he was not going to reject that real human being because of how he was being portrayed at the moment, in the media, and by his enemies. I think that’s where the bravery shows.

    Obama is cutting through the bullshit. Because those statements of Wright’s, and the reactions to them, have been bullshit. They’re not thought-out universalizable arguments on either side; they’re emotional eruptions of the kind that affect frustrated people who don’t know or understand each other. They’re not meant to be persuasive, they’re meant to be inflammatory to people who already think that way.

    So I do think attempting to parse the actual words of Wright’s statements is futile. Words matter, but what they’re trying to express matters more. So that may seem like a cop-out to you. Politics frequently drives people into overly careful but meaningless language; intra-group rallies frequently drive people into uncareful gaffes that express something real in an imprecise way. Truly addressing a real problem means cutting out both those types of bullshit. But I think that’s what Obama was going for, and I think he succeeded.

    And after all the bullshit of the administrations during my lifetime, I am hungry and eager for someone who can cut through it.

  9. —To believe that the U.S. brought the attacks of September 11th “on itself,” you have to believe that #2, #3 and #4 are one and the same – that every action the U.S. takes abroad, from funding anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua to bombing Cambodia to sending CIA agents to Cuba to firebombing Dresden to occupying the Philippines – reflects the will and culture of the people living in Delacroix, Denver and Des Moines. You call yourself a U.S. citizen so, apparently, every dead Iraqi baby is all your fault.—

    No you don’t have to believe that they’re the same. Osama has to believe it.

    As for the implication that the US foreign policy does not reflect the will and culture of its People, well hundreds of thousands have died from the war and no one gives a shit. So I’d say you get the foreign policy you care for.

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