Barack Obama had his “Sister Souljah Moment” Tuesday, as he at last fully distanced himself from his former pastor, the Wrong Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fanatical and fantastical views have badly damaged Obama’s campaign and punctured his image as a transcendent “uniter.”
Obama professed himself “outraged” and “saddened” by Wright’s conspiratorial ravings, which, the senator said, “were not only divisive and destructive,” but give “comfort to those who prey on hate.”
Now, conservatives have long argued that the black community is desperately in need of a leader who speaks out forcefully against the divisive, destructive worldview of “those who prey on hate” — the worldview of Wright, Sharpton and Jackson, of the race-baiters and the grievance-mongers. Why, conservatives have often asked, won’t somebody, anybody, take on the entrenched “old guard” of African-American political life, the aging charlatans whose continued relevance depends on perpetuating a poisonous culture of blame-whitey victimization?
Well, now it has happened. Barack Obama, a man who commands overwhelming support among African-Americans, and who stands a fair chance of becoming the next President of the United States, used the bully pulpit of his candidacy to unequivocally condemn the very sort of conspiratorial lunacy that is too often tolerated or even applauded within segments of the black community. This is exactly the development that so many conservatives have supposedly been yearning for. At last, a widely respected black political figure on the national stage, telling it like it is! As I wrote on my blog, “This is the promise of the Obama candidacy, encapsulated and made real.”
Yet the reaction to on the right Obama’s speech was something between a yawn and a sneer. “Too little, too late,” wrote Glenn Reynolds. “It doesn’t address questions of judgment at all to finally act after being backed into a corner,” opined Ed Morrissey. “After 20 years of friendship, if Obama didn’t know Wright held these beliefs he’s a moron and if he did know he’s a fraud,” declared Allahpundit.
These are all valid points, if somewhat snarkily expressed. Obama clearly has not handled this controversy as well or as speedily as he might have, and there are many unanswered questions. Chief among them: what did the senator know, and when did he know it? Also, relatedly: what exactly changed his mind between March 18 and April 29?
Those are genuine mysteries, because the purely cynical answers don’t make much more sense than the purely credulous ones do. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that Obama knew nothing about Wright’s repugnant beliefs for 20 years, and that even as of last month he still knew so little that he honestly thought those YouTube clips were purely isolated incidents taken out of context. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that Obama knew everything about Wright all along, yet chose not to cut ties because he somehow didn’t recognize that Wright was a massive political liability. Say what you will about Barack Obama, but he is not a stupid man. Anyone who knew, months or years ago, what we all know now about Wright, would recognize that the reverend was very likely to eventually become a huge political problem in an Obama presidential campaign.
Perhaps the bigger question, though, is whether Obama’s critics are missing the forest for the trees in their commentary on his “divorce” from Reverend Wright. No matter the wicked, twisted road that got him here, the fact is that Obama has now joined the battle against the conspiratorial victimhood complex of Jeremiah Wright and his ilk. He may not be the fiercest warrior in this struggle — he hasn’t denounced Sharpton and Jackson, nor started talking like Bill Cosby — but at least he’s fighting for the right team.
Inevitably, some question Obama’s motives. Personally, I believe Obama’s actions can be understood without resort to cynicism if one views him as a human being first and a politician second. But even if his conversion is one of pure convenience, that’s arguably almost as good as a genuine change of heart, because he’s unlikely to “convert” back. Obama must now stand his ground for the same pragmatic reasons that (under this theory) spurred him to disown Wright in the first place –particularly because he’s already being accused of vacillation and weakness, and thus can hardly afford to engage in further waffling. If anything, he will probably need to strengthen his position further in the coming months, to become a bit more vocal in his criticism of Wright & Co.
In short, whatever his unknowable inner motives might be, Obama now needs to be seen as an “anti-Wright.” And that means he now finds himself positioned to potentially become the most effective spokesman against the Wright-Sharpton-Jackson axis that this country has ever seen. If Obama turns his considerable rhetorical skill to consistently condemning the race-baiting brigades –and if he is able to bring his massive numbers of black supporters along for the ride– he can do an enormous amount of good. As a scout for last weekend’s NFL Draft might say, he has a tremendous “upside” potential.
Can those who truly care about moving past the endless rehashing of grievances old and new, real and imagined, toward a more constructive approach to race relations in this country, really afford to tear down the man who could help them win this battle? Particularly when, in so doing, they’ll be unintentionally allying themselves with the very grievance-mongers they abhor, who will now want Obama to fail for very different reasons?
This latter point is crucial. Although the other shoe has not yet dropped, there will undoubtedly be a backlash against Obama’s remarks from Wright and others who share his worldview. There may even be a price to pay at the polls, as Morrissey suggested: “Obama may still find himself in trouble with his own base of African-American voters, who may not appreciate the political imperative of throwing Wright under the bus.” It should go without saying that the “black community” is not a monolith, and the views of Wright & Co. are by no means representative of “African-American voters” in general. Yet demagoguery is a powerful thing, no matter the audience. Hence, the potential backlash matters.
For Wright himself, of course, this controversy is personal, as the New York Post reported today. But it’s more than that. For those who, like Wright, see everything through the prism of white racism and black victimization, Obama represents a grave threat to their power. If he wins the presidency, it will be much harder for these charlatans to ply their trade.
Wright reportedly told Obama that “if you get elected, November the 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.” But surely Wright knows that the power of his message would be diminished in that event. His false vision of America as a fundamentally, unalterably racist nation –rather than a nation with pockets and instances of racism, but one that is genuinely working toward wiping out the vestiges of prejudice and discrimination– would be severely undermined by the specter of a black man in the White House.
It is therefore unquestionably in the personal best interests of Wright and his ideological and theological fellow-travelers for Obama to lose. All the better if he is perceived as losing because of a racially charged controversy. Then, especially, Wright & Co. can comfortably blame white racism for his defeat, preach that he never should have “betrayed” them, and return to business as usual, fighting again and again the battles of the 1960s as if nothing has changed since Martin Luther King dreamed his dream.
Such a result should be anathema to conservatives. Yet by continuing to harp on the Wright controversy, they may help bring it about. If Obama is torn apart by a two-front assault, with the left’s grievance-mongers arguing that his condemnations of Wright are an act of betrayal while the right’s harumphers dismiss the condemnations as tardy and insincere, it could set back the larger battle against “those who prey on hate” for a very long time. The takeaway lesson from such an event, rightly or wrongly, would be that no black candidate — not even one as talented as Obama, with his rhetorical skill, his fundraising prowess, and his almost cult-like, “post-racial” appeal — can successfully walk the necessary tightrope to succeed in racially charged America.
Now, admittedly, we’re in the midst of a presidential election, and conservatives can hardly be expected to rally to Obama’s defense. They want him to lose, for reasons entirely unrelated to this issue. I certainly am not suggesting that the right is somehow obligated to support Obama for president just because of his conversion vis a vis Wright. Still less am I suggesting that those who oppose Obama are therefore opposed to racial progress. Barack Obama is not some sort of post-racial messiah; he is a mere mortal, and if he loses, that by itself will not doom race relations in this country.
But it matters how he loses. If Obama loses because the American people reject his policy views, or because they view him as unready to be Commander-in-Chief, or because they consider him an elitist, out-of-touch, far-left liberal, that would be an unalloyed victory for the political right, with minimal impact on race relations. But if, in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s better-late-than-never decision to rightly divorce himself from Wright’s poison, this controversy sends Obama’s campaign into a death spiral and dooms his chances in November, the collateral damage could go far beyond just this election and just this candidate.
That’s why it’s so distressing to see, for instance, Allahpundit rooting for Reverend Wright to play the victim card and damage Obama further. This is the height of cynicism and hypocrisy. Wright is diametrically opposed to everything conservatives believe in. Do they really want him to play a starring role in their victory?
Obama’s critics are asking legitimate questions about the Wright sideshow. But they need to consider how important those questions really are, in the big picture. Obama is doing the right thing, and that should not be ignored or dismissed. As I wrote on my blog, “Conservatives ought not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That’s liberals’ job!”
It would be far easier to stomach criticism from the right if it were to explicitly acknowledge the positive step Obama has taken, while suggesting that he needs to take it even further. “You’ve disowned Wright; now what about Sharpton?” That would advance the cause that conservatives believe in. Obsessing over the timing of Obama’s statement, on the other hand, arguably misses the point.
The bottom line is this. From a conservative’s perspective, there are plenty of reasons Barack Obama should lose the presidency. The fact that he finally did the right thing and disowned Jeremiah Wright is not one of them.
Brendan Loy blogs at Irish Trojan in Tennessee