“Part of what my role in my politics is to get people who don’t normally listen to each other to talk to each other, who [say] crazy things, who are offended by each other, for me to understand them and to maybe help them understand each other…I think he’s saddened by what’s happened, and I told him I feel badly that he has been characterized just in this one way, and people haven’t seen this broader aspect of him,” Obama said.” Barack Obama
I. The Issue Won’t Go Away
Barack Obama is a gifted politician, an eloquent rhetorician, and a savvy politician. He is young and vigorous and offers the Democrats inspiration that they can smash old canards about liberal minority candidates not winning the presidency, or the post-1960 law that a northern liberal Democrat can’t defeat any Republican for President.
That said, it is tragic watching the Wright-Obama mess, and the slow almost deliberate way in which the two, hand-in-glove, are eroding racial relations. I have received a ton of mail about my recent four or five essays on Obama’s Wright dilemma. I would characterize them as mostly negative, some hysterically so, and a few over the top. The calmer ones demand an explanation of why I would write repeatedly about the subject. The answer is simple. Under the guise of utopian brotherhood, Barack Obama is establishing a new relativism in matters of race, and, contrary to what he thinks, Rev. Wright is not the only beneficiary. While it was not Obama’s intent to unleash racial animosity, the net effect of rationalizing Wright will be precisely that. And Americans of all races need to speak out forcefully, clearly—and repeatedly—about this growing madness.
Obama’s evocation of “context” is the new/old defense that one suddenly hears to excuse extremist language against whites, moderate African-Americans, Italians, Jews, America, Israel, the WW II generation, etc. as in:
(1) The Wright slurs were just snippets; or
(2) Came in a context of historic oppression; or
(3) Were part of unique protocols of expression in black churches; or
(4) Were more than balanced by prior good works; or
(5) Were just rhetorical flourishes and hardly offensive; or
(6) The right-wing noise machine is using the Wright sound-bites for the political embarrassment of a Democratic candidate rather than due to genuine anger over his racism.
While some of these mitigations in theory might have some merit, what the Wright defenders—most prominently Sen. Obama himself—don’t realize is that the classical liberal tradition always argued that absolute standards trumped relativism and that situational ethics were never an excuse for extremism.
A clear discussion of the dangers of such relative morality is found in Book III of the historian Thucydides. There the violent revolutionaries on ancient Corfu claim they had cause to destroy the framework of the law and natural decency –and then found no such shelter when they in extremis were in need of it.
The Wright apologia is insidiously tearing down the accepted norms of public expression (sermons in a pulpit merchandised on DVDs qualify as the public domain). And the pastor will sorely miss them should he find himself the victim of racist outbursts against his person that will be inevitably excused by his own contextual contortions.
III. We Are All Victims Now
If one were to compare Wright’s present misdemeanors to historical felonies, we should remember that the Klan in the 1860s cited contexts for their violent racism by arguing poor whites were suffering at the hands of scalawags and carpetbaggers. Hitler contextualized German hyper-nationalistic hatred by reference to the unfairness and humiliation of post-WWI treaties. The horrendous treatment of the 19th-century Irish was a central context to the IRA’s rampage against the British. The murderous round-ups by the Bolsheviks were said to be in reaction to the excesses and exploitation of the prior Czarist aristocracy. Every racist or hater always has had a context—usually dredged up from the past.
But in these cases and dozens of others, liberalism countered that such boilerplate rationalization, even if there were in theory some merit, neither enjoyed a limitless shelf-life nor excused subsequent hatred.
IV. Irony Upon Irony
There are other issues of irony. First, the refuge in context has always been the nursemaid of prejudice and racism. Obama himself seemed to grasp that when he condemned his “typical white person” grandmother’s purported racist remarks by rejecting her supposedly irrational fear of black men on the street. His own subtext was that, even if crime statistics might suggest a greater risk to women from young black men than white, there was nevertheless no rational sanction for lumping anonymous black men loosely under the rubric of the suspect. Would that he applied the same absolute standards to Rev. Wright and thereby jettisoned his own extenuating rationalization of “not particularly controversial”, “five to six minutes”, “loops” and “snippets.”
Second, what is needed is not another national sermon on race-relations that inevitably devolves into a shout-fest about slavery and white racism. A true dialogue instead would explore the strange phenomenon of why and how contemporary African-American elites, whether an Al Sharpton, Michelle Obama, Rev. Wright, or Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena), are often more, rather than less, likely to cite historical grievances, almost in direct proportion to their own success. The Right Honorable Rev. Wright is currently building a 10,000 square foot mansion in a gated suburb of Chicago (at $1.6 million, right up there with Michelle’s house), hardly a reification of his anti-capitalist, anti-black “middle classism.” Presumably from such a sanctuary he will continue to blast “greed” and “white people” and hard-working African-American compromisers deluded by the need for middle-class material reaffirmation.
In addition, such a discussion would touch on the bizarre national exemption given to some African-American churches, talk-show hosts, and entertainers to adopt a sort of racialist vocabulary and narrative that are not accorded to other groups, whether Asian, Hispanic, or poor white, despite their own competing claims on collective historical grievance. African-Americanism is no longer synonymous with unique victim status. An Asian boatperson refugee from Vietnam and survivor of reeducation camps or an impoverished immigrant from central Mexico can make the case that his own life has been far more difficult than anything experienced by Barack Obama or Jeremiah Wright.
V. Brave New World Ahead
Moreover, Rev. Wright, and the reaction to Rev. Wright, in conjunction with the Imus or Michael Richards controversies, has taught us that the sin is not the employment of racist slurs per se, such as the N-word, “ho”, or “garlic noses”, but rather the particular context—or rather the person who voices them.
At some point, a Wright, who grew up in a middle-class household amid a reforming America and prospers in an enlightened United States, must be judged by his own words in the present. And if the public allows these contexts to excuse what he said (and will no doubt say again), then we will have done our part in destroying the entire notion of public censure to deal with racist speech.
That the issue involves a possible next President of the United States has transformed an otherwise irrelevant pastor into an examination of our own contemporary morality. And so far we are flunking that test with flying colors.