Day: April 30, 2008

Discourse and Cynicism

I’m watching this tragic exchange between Barack Obama and his (now former) pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and wondering what may really be going on here.

Okay, so a lot of things Wright said in the past have been dredged up and tossed into the maelstrom of the current campaign to potentially discredit Obama.  “See, he went to this man’s sermons, this is what he really thinks!”

Can anyone really buy that?  I mean, seriously—how many people agree with every single pronouncement that comes out of the mouths of their pastors?  (When I attended church, I recall moving from a condition wherein I bought everything because I didn’t really understand it to a point where I began to question and then to the place in which I disagreed vehemently…it’s called growing up.)

The accusations Wright made in past sermons all had currency at one time or another.  AIDS was created by the United States to kill blacks (anyone with a passing knowledge of biology and genetics, or a bit of epidemiology—or knows a doctor well enough to ask—would know this is balderdash.  Intent aside, it’s not possible biologically), that 911 was somehow our fault (one could make a philosophical argument to that effect, but it still doesn’t fly in a direct causal sense), or that we are imperialists (again, if you want speak metaphorically, you can make an argument).  Sure, you can use these things as jumping off points to make broader arguments, and it is perhaps totally unfair of the media to have put these things out.

But then Wright himself, after claiming that he would not do so, has grabbed hold of the media bull by both horns and has contributed to the controversy.


I am just cynical enough to suspect collusion.  After all, this is giving Obama a wonderful opportunity to deny all the potential accusations that may come from a peanut gallery of racially-motivated antagonists when and if he gets the nomination.  He is able to use Wright’s statements are talking points to claim a clear difference.

Which doesn’t make anything he says in that regard untrue or insincere.  But having this kind of forum lends credibility to the sincerity.  After all, he didn’t bring it up.  He’s above it.  He’s not “that kind” of politician.

I am cynical enough to suspect it, but not quite cynical enough to believe it.  What this shows is the difficulty a candidate like Obama has being a non-minority candidate.  The discourse on race in this country leaves us with a problem for the candidate who wishes to be seen as an unhyphenated American—which is the best way to succeed in national politics—while being clearly affiliated with a specific strain of civil discourse, i.e. the race issue.  Barack Obama is and African-American.  What he has tried to do—and has been largely successful at doing—is convince the country that this is not his chief attribute, that he is not limited by the divisive aspects of the race dialogue as exemplified by Louis Farakhan and others.  He has managed to present himself as an American who can talk to all of us and is not bound by minority affiliations.

All it takes is one loud voice to remind us of that oftentimes bitter dialogue to drag him back into the fray and make us see him through a lens he has been evading.

This is the by-product of the long history of pigeon-holing that has defined this issue for centuries here.  On the one hand, minorities must struggle against the dominant insistence that they can be no more than what the cliched definition of that minority is seen to be, and it is a sign of heroism when an African-American (or Hispanic, Japanese, Indian, etc) manages to win individual respect against the weight of that insistent cataloging.  On the other, that same individual often must fight against members of that very group who seem set on dragging him or her back into the fold, unwilling to let them be an individual, insisting that they be representative of the group and no more and certainly no other.

Barack Obama should not have to waste his time telling us what he is not.  And we shouldn’t need to be reassured in the face of absurd accusations that a rational man is somehow a cloaked agent for an absurd position.

I am cynical enough to see that what should be in this instance is not ever going to be what is.  Not for a long, long time.