In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have assembled a distinguished panel to explore the “Unknown Obama.” Our guests today are:
Fred Siegel, Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.
Jeff Herf, a professor of modern European and German political and intellectual history at the University of Maryland in College Park. His most recent book is The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006). He has been a frequent contributor to The New Republic and was one of the authors of American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto of fall 2006. He is currently writing a history of Nazi propaganda aimed at the Arab world during World War II.
Thomas Cushman, Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, and the founder and Editor-at-Large of the Journal of Human Rights. He is a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University and the editor of A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (California, 2006).
FP: Fred Siegel, Jeff Herf and Thomas Cushman, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Thomas Cushman, how would you begin a discussion on the Unknown Obama?
Cushman: I should begin with an affirmation that I am impressed with Barack Obama for many reasons. He is charismatic and charming, Harvard trained and astute on many issues, especially constitutional law, which is his area of expertise. On the latter, he has offered many surprising comments, the most interesting one being his declaration the Second Amendment guarantees gun ownership as an individual right, a trend which is on the rise and which counters the liberal orthodoxy on that issue which emerged in the 1960s and has led to what I consider to be unconstitutional regulations on gun ownership. He seems to be representative of a new generation of African-American elites who have put paid to the demagogic excesses of people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who have done severe damage to the Democratic Party by alienating the broad base of moderates (although I shall end my comments by questioning whether this is really the case). A large number of Americans are sincerely disenchanted with the current leadership and policies of the United States, as it should be in a healthy democracy, and Obama serves a very useful function in invigorating and re-enchanting the public sphere.
And I would add further, that the successes of Barack Obama, especially among white voters, is an indication that many Americans do, indeed, feel badly about the African-American experience in the United States, and lacking any real means to effect "reparations", they see casting a vote for him as a way to show that they really have moved beyond the racism of the past and wish to truly show that Americans have changed for the better. The fact that Geraldine Ferraro was released from the Clinton campaign for saying what is so obviously true -- that many people are voting for him precisely because he is an African-American - is regrettable, because it should be stressed in no uncertain terms that his race is a very important variable in the calculus of many voters.
Having opened with what I consider to be the best things about the Senator, though, I want to begin answering the question of "The Unknown Obama" by focusing on some particular points about what is known about him, but which few people have dared to bring up for fear of political correctness. To cut right to the chase, the first issue has to do with the religious status of Obama. In my response, I want to avoid the kind of cheap propaganda tricks that have appeared thus far, such things as the releasing of the photo of Obama dressed in the garb of a Muslim tribal leader, or the tendency of people to refer to the Senator as "Barack Hussein Obama", tactics which try to infer that he is some kind of Islamic "Manchurian candidate."
Now it is entirely clear that Senator Obama is a Christian, and as we now know a member of a congregation with a particularly strident and apoplectic pastor who is given to expressing the kind of anti-American sentiment that gives aid and succor to America's enemies (more on that in a moment). Since the beginning of this campaign, I have many times wanted to raise the question of Obama's religious status in a strictly disinterested, sociological way, but even being of iconoclastic disposition, I have hesitated given the abuse that has been hurled at people who raise the issue. But it is important now to raise it, because we are talking about the presidency of the United States and it is attendant to raise some important questions about how it is that people might interpret the "meaning" of Barack Obama, given his particular biography, which is extremely anomalous in relation that of previous candidates for the presidency, and particularly important given the tension between the United States and the "Islamic world".
The real question of "who one is", whether in a political, religious, or more general sense, is seldom defined solely in terms of who the person says he is. It is certainly objectively true that Barack Obama is not a practicing Muslim. It is certainly the case that he is practicing Christian, and apparently a quite devout one at that. In the United States, we are free to choose our religion, and so there is nothing problematic about his religious status if we consider it in relation to our own society which places great value on the fundamental right to practice the religion of one's choosing. But the question that has nagged me from the very outset -- and it is a provocative and controversial one -- is how Obama's religious status is looked at by the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. The fact of the matter is that there are about 1 billion Muslims in the world, many of them who are fundamentalists. According to the law of the Koran, if your father is a Muslim, you are considered to be a Muslim, regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a Muslim. In fact, if you do not assent to this ascribed religious identity, then in a literalist interpretation you are considered an apostate, the penalty for which is death. So by inference, we can surmise that a good proportion of the Muslim world considers Obama to be a Muslim and for many an apostate as well.
This interpretation has nothing whatsoever to do with Obama's self-professed religion or whether we in the United States consider him to be a Christian. It has to with the fact that for many Muslims, religion is an ascribed identity, so that whatever it is that Obama thinks he is there are a lot of people in the world who live by the rule that religion is ascribed at birth, and that the individual has very little choice in the matter. Islam, in particular, is a religion in which this is a central belief. One of the most powerful theorems in my field, put forward by W.I. Thomas (often called the "Thomas Theorem"), is that" if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." It doesn't matter so much what you believe yourself to be, but what others believe you to be that is crucially important. Objective renderings of one's self are strongly mediated by subjective meanings over which the "objective self" has very little control.
I myself do not have any indication of the actual empirical sociological data about what Muslims think about Obama's religious status, but it is very likely that if many people in the world who live by the literal word of the Koran, then they will have their own meanings as to "who" (or should I say "what") Barack Obama is that have very little to do with what he says he is, or what we in the US think he is. Now the consequences of this could play out in any number of ways. For many of the world's Muslims, an American President with a Muslim heritage could be seen as a source of pride, an affirmation that people of Muslim background are not all fanatics and fundamentalists, and that even in the much-scorned US, a man of Muslim background can be elected to the highest office in the land. The election of such an impressive man with a Muslim heritage could lead people to look at America in a different light and Obama could be an inspiration for many ordinary Muslims to reject the pernicious road that the Islamists fundamentalists have forced upon them. The most important positive consequence could be that "one of ours" has succeeded in becoming the leader of the nation that our leaders tell us is the "Great Satan." It would create a legitimation crisis of the first order for the Islamists who have hijacked Islam and done it such a great injustice in recent years. Liberal-minded and moderate Muslims could take great succor in having such a role model interacting with Muslim leaders in the world, someone who represented American interests, but also would be seen as symbol of pride. I often imagine this legitimation crisis by considering Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave somewhere asking his advisors, with some consternation and apprehension, "Is his name really Obama?"
On the other hand, it is easy to imagine an alternative scenario of negative consequences based on the the Muslim practice of ascribing religious identity at birth and expecting a lifelong commitment to that religion and its beliefs and practices. It is entirely clear that radical Islam is on the ascendancy in the world today and it is the elites in this movement who have immense power to define all manner of things, including the "meaning" of Barack Obama. Look how successful they have been in defining the US as the source of all evil, of George Bush as the devil incarnate, meanings which find sympathetic audiences among many liberals and leftists in the US and the rest of the world. There is the very real possibility that Obama could be labeled as an apostate, rather than simply an "infidel" outside of the faith such as George W. Bush. Radical Islamist terrorists consider it right and just to kill any American, and we also know that apostates are a particular object of scorn, the opprobrium of which there is no escape. The case of Salman Rushdie is particularly instructive, although The Satanic Verses qualified Rusdhie as a more offensive apostate, and not just “guilty” of the "simple apostasy" of leaving Islam.
Surely, for the extremists, killing any American president would be the hallmark of glory, but killing an apostate would surely be a step even beyond that. If Obama were elected, would the radical Islamists issue a fatwah against him for the crime of defecting from his ascribed status as a Muslim? Would America become even more engorged with evil by virtue of being led by an apostate who serves the interest of America over the interests of the Muslim world? I do think it is important to raise these questions, and I am endeavoring to do it in the most disinterested way by thinking about the "meaning" of Barack Obama in a sociological way. And his "meaning" to the Muslim world is a vitally important issue to raise. Naturally, one would hope that his election, if it were to be the case, would serve to temper and moderate the views of the Muslim word -- that would be the very best consequence. But in a world where Islamic fundamentalism is ascendant, I think it is extremely important to consider also the more negative consequences of what it means to have a president who hundreds of millions of people - rightly or wrongly -- think of in religious terms over which a President Obama, or anyone else, would have little control.
It is troubling, I might add, to consider that candidate Obama has already indicated his willingness to negotiate and barter with some of the more despotic leaders of the Islamic world. This is something which is "known" about Obama. The great unknown is what the consequence of such friendliness toward these leaders might be. In a recent controversy, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King raised a perfectly valid question, not quite realizing that he was being quite a good sociologist in asking it: "When you think about the option of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States -- I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world?
What does it look like to the world of Islam?" His answer, "terrorists would be dancing in the streets", was infelicitous in the extreme, at least in a world where politicians always have to watch their words. But one must ask: in the upcoming elections, who would the Islamic world prefer to win? It is reasonable to think that it would be the man who wants to surrender Iraq, make peace with and appease dictators who wish harm to the United States, and work within the United Nations and the illiberal blocs who dominate that institution. In my speculations above, I've tried to offer various answers to these questions, with the hope that, provocative as they might seem, people will be willing to discuss them because they are perfectly valid questions. This is especially the case, given the fact that opponents of George W. Bush have spared no energy in constantly declaiming about the negative meanings of the president in the world at large, and in the Muslim world in particular. If we get to ask what George Bush "means" in the world at-large, despite whatever it is he thinks he means, we get to ask the same about Barack Obama.
Since I have focused on religion, it is important also, since the news has just broken, to mention the recent controversy over Barack Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Their close relationship has been known for some time, but it is only recently that the videos of the Reverend Wright declaiming against Hillary Clinton, damning the United States, and blaming 9/11 on America have become known. One wonders why this has taken so long; one would have expected the Clinton machine to have trotted the Reverend out a long time ago. The real controversy here is not so much that Reverend Wright presents as something like a Noam Chomsky on drugs, but Obama's claim that he wasn't present to see these performances and that he did not know about them. Even granting him the shady evasion that he wasn't there, it is impossible to imagine that he could not have known about them. In church, everyone knows what the pastor says, either by direct observation or word-of-mouth.
What is even more troubling is that Obama would appoint the pastor to a high position in his campaign and describe him as his spiritual advisor knowing that he was prone to apoplectic fits of political rage. Obama's (very Christian) condemnation of the sin, but not the sinner, was quite noble as well as tactical manoeuvre, for to condemn the man himself would have completely destroyed his claims to authenticity in his interpersonal relationships. So the issue is less about the "unknown Obama" than the fact of what Obama must have known, but would not and could not address. The best he could do was to champion the good qualities of the pastor, likening him to an uncle who has "lost it" and thereby reasserting the fact that Obama considers this political charlatan still to be like a member of his own family and his spiritual mentor. It's not quite like the situation of Jimmy Carter, who had to tolerate his drunken redneck brother Billy because they happened to share a mother and father. For Obama's association with Reverend Wright was a choice and it says a lot more about the man, his worldview, and his judgment than his charismatic personality and leadership skills seem to imply. The Senator may have figured out how to act like a moderate, how to charm people, and how to appeal to their disenchantment by invoking the slogan of "hope" and "change", but this new "unknown" relationship strips off some of that fine veneer. It is truly troubling that Obama knew about the Reverend Wright and that he was either 1. Too stupid to realize the political damage this fanatic could do to his campaign or 2. He thought we were too stupid to discover that his spiritual advisor is a fanatic, or that we wouldn’t care.
I began my thoughts here praising Obama’s abilities as a public performer and a charismatic figure in politics. He will retain those, yet behind this front stage performance of a new kind of African-American leader, it is clear that Obama remains closely tied to the most retrograde and reactionary elements of the African-American community. Backstage, the “unknown Obama” may be closer to people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson than we were at first led to believe. The truly frightening prospect is that the current infatuation with the Senator might occlude concern with his choice of spiritual advisors. This might especially be the case among young people who, led by their radical professors who support Obama en masse, might think that Rev. Wright is “right on.” There is nothing that Wright has said in his various tirades that I have not heard in the groves of academe.
What remains to be seen are the other unknown, or hidden affiliations and sentiments of the Senator, which may indicate that behind his effective and charming performances there lies a man who is deeply connected to some of the most radical and reactionary elements in American politics. And this is not purely in relation to those elements in the African-American community. It has recently come to light that Obama enjoys a close relationship to Bill Ayers a former member of the Weather Underground, whose professed aim (for which he is not apologetic) was to overthrow the American government through armed force. I suppose it is entirely reasonable and even necessary to judge a man, especially a candidate for the presidency of the United States, by the company he keeps. The main concern is whether or not rank-and-file moderates who seem to have fallen in love with Obama can look beyond the charm and charisma to take a deeper look at who the Senator really is.
Siegel: In his widely discussed speech on the rantings of his South Side of Chicago “spiritual mentor” The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Presidential candidate Barak Obama never apologized for his own failings in never having chastised Wright. This is particularly problematic for a man whose only deeds of consequence are words. Evidently, Barak Obama wants to be the nation’s conscience without having one himself. The disparity between Obama’s rhetoric of transcendence and his conventional Chicago racial and patronage politics is the leitmotif of his political career.
One of the unwritten rules of the civil rights movement in its mid-1960s glory was that when people told insulting racial jokes or speakers engaged in defamatory rhetoric, you needed to register your immediate disapproval - not 20 yrs later when you're running for president. But not even Pastor’s Wright’s trip with Louis Farrakhan, to pay homage to Libyan dictator Momar Khadafy, elicited a response from Obama. Perhaps that’s because as Tom Cushman points out - and I disagree with little of what Tom said - while Obama is most definitely not a Muslim, he has a strong third wordlist view of international relations that he probably imbibed from his hard left grandparents and mother. It’s probably that viewpoint with its authentication of his blackness that, in part, produced his adulation of Wright.
There are no virgin births in politics, particularly Chicago politics. For all of his Camelot-like rhetoric, Obama is a product, in significant measure, of the deeply corrupt politics of Chicago and Cook County. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass bitterly described “The Chicago Way: “We've had our chief of detectives sent to prison for running the Outfit's jewellery-heist ring. And we've had white guys with Outfit connections get $100 million in affirmative action contracts from their drinking buddy, Mayor Richard Daley. . . That's the Chicago Way. At no point did the would be savior of American liberalism challenge this corruption. He was, in his own Harvard Law way, a part of it.
When he had the opportunity to back “clean” candidates for The Cook County Board of Supervisors and Governor, he stayed with the allies of The Outfit. The Gubernatorial candidate he backed, Rod Blagojevich, is now under federal investigation, in part because of his relationship with Tony Rezko, the man who helped Obama buy his house. “Some strangers to our lands,” notes Kass of the Syrian born Rezko, have used the Chicago Way with perfect pitch. Rezko's buddy, former Iraqi electricity minister (under Prime Minister Alawi), Aiham Alsammarae, escaped an Iraqi prison after he had been convicted on corruption charges. A reporter asked Alsammarae, the most senior Iraqi official arrested on corruption charges -- How did you escape? "The Chicago Way," he said upon return to his palatial Chicago home. So perhaps experience in Chicago politics provides a useful orientation for Third World politics.
Buried in the glamour of the Obama campaign is a rather conventional candidate. Obama was first drawn to Wright’s Afro-Centric church because it provided a political base for his already well developed ambitions. Writing in the Huffington Post after the Wright furor had erupted, the Illinois Senator insisted that the “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments.” Clear to whom? “Obama,” notes the left-wing netzine Salon quoted Wright at length in his book "The Audacity of Hope" -- and took the name of his book from one of the first sermons he heard Wright deliver. “That first sermon included a comparison of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, which claimed 69 lives, to Hiroshima.”
Obama, deeply tied to Wright, planned to have him deliver the blessing when he was announcing for president. Only the press of ambition has separated them. In The Speech he obliquely acknowledged that he might have been present when some controversial statements were made. Delivered from Mitt Romney this would be called a flip-flop. In the words of ABC’s Brian Ross, “Buried in his eloquent, highly praised speech on America's racial divide, Sen. Barak Obama contradicted more than a year of denials and spin from him and his staff about his knowledge of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermons.” In the same conventional vein, Obama initially insisted that he had taken only $60,00 from Rezko, a figure accepted by most of the national press. But when pressed on the matter by local reporters, the campaign acknowledged that $60,000 was more like $250,000, and that contrary to his earlier assertions that Rezko, Obama’s sometime business associate, had only been casually involved in the home purchase, it turns out that they had toured the house together. None of this is in and of itself definitively damning, but by no means can it represent moral leadership.
Nor is it moral leadership to play traditional South Side of Chicago racial politics. The morning after Obama’s surprise loss in New Hampshire and in anticipation of the then upcoming South Carolina, South Side Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr, Obama’s National Co-Chair appeared on Obama’s very own network MSNBC to argue, in a prepared statement, that Hillary Clinton’s teary moment on the Campaign trail reflected her deep seated racism. “Those tears,” said Jackson,” have to be analyzed," Jackson said, "they have to be looked at very, very carefully in light of Katrina, in light of other things that Mrs. Clinton did not cry for, particularly as we head to South Carolina where 45 percent of African-Americans will participate in the Democratic contest ... we saw tears in response to her appearance, so that her appearance brought her to tears, but not Hurricane Katrina, not other issues."
This brought no media rebuke. In other words, in anticipation of Rev. Wright affair, much of the press has accepted the implicit assumptions of Chicago style racial politics. Whites, who are at odds or who haven’t delivered for Chicago pols, can be accused of racism on the most oblique basis, but pillars of local black politics like Rev. Wright preaching an exclusivist racial theology are beyond criticism. Chicago is, after all, the city where Farrakhan is a respected political figure.
Shortly after the Jesse Jackson Jr. Speech, Emanuel Cleaver, an African- American Congressman and Clinton supporter from Kansas City, described the attempt by Obama supporters to smear him and other Clinton Black super-delegates as an “Uncle Tom” for not switching to Obama. “African-American superdelegates are being targeted, harassed and threatened,” Cleaver explained. They are, he went on getting “nasty letters, phone calls, threats they’ll get an opponent, being called an Uncle Tom. “This is the politics of the 1950s.”
The man who savors his intellectual ability to make interesting distinctions has shown none of that ability in his own Chicago career. Obama, his verbal fluency aside, is a clever but conventional Chicago left-liberal party hack. The legatees of the media elites who denounced former mayor Richard Daley Sr. as a racist for the way he played ethnic and patronage politics, find that similar game entirely admirable when it comes from a Harvard intoned a mixed-race, black identified candidate.
Herf: Tom Cushman and Fred Siegel raise a host of important points. I want to focus on the known, not the unknown Obama. We know, based on his public positions, that he is a conventional left-liberal, closer on most issues to The Nation and The New York Review of Books than The New Republic or The Washington Post. Yet he has won many Democratic primaries and leads in the delegate count in part because he has convinced millions of voters that this is not the case and that he is, instead, a unifying, not only post-racial, but post-partisan candidate for the Presidency.
While he has huge support in the black electorate, his early and oft-repeated opposition to the war in Iraq contributes to his support among the young, and college educated who give his campaign energy and dollars. As the course of the war shattered early optimistic predictions, opposition to it became the heart and soul of the activist base and much of the congressional representation of the Democratic Party. Support for Obama became the logical expression of this broad sentiment, especially in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s more ambiguous stance on the war. In other words, support for Obama is indicative of the fact that the base and leadership of the Democratic Party has moved to the left.
In a recent edition of the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer published, in my view, an excellent column about Obama’s speech on race. As I agree with Krauthammer’s point regarding moral equivalence, I will save time by presenting the URL link and suggesting that readers read it themselves. See: A Brilliant Fraud.
As Krauthammer rightly notes, it is remarkable that Obama would equate his white grandmother’s privately expressed fears of black men who passed her on the street with Jeremiah Wright’s public, political statements about, for example, the government’s responsibility for the spread of Aids in black neighborhoods. Bill Bradley, now an Obama supporter, gave an excellent speech in the Senate around 1991 in which he contrasted the deep admiration, respect and affection he felt for his black New York Knick teammates with the fear he–a very tall, very big, very strong guy–felt about crime. Jesse Jackson once expressed similar fears. There is no denying that such fears have been exploited at times by conservative politicians for electoral gain.
As Obama knows very well, the overwhelming majority of the victims of crimes committed by blacks are other blacks. This is a fact that is most inconvenient. In 2005, I published an essay in The New Republic online (“True Crime”) in which I presented crime statistics collected by the Department of Justice and placed on the website. From the mid-1960s to 2002, about 850,000 people have been murdered in the United States. Of them, about 220,000 were African-Americans. Over 90% of those murders were black-on-black crimes. By any measure this is the greatest catastrophe to befall African-Americans since slavery. The chances of a black man being a perpetrator or a victim of a violent crime were about 6 to 7 times greater than were those of whites. So the fear that Obama’s white grandmother expressed must be rather mild compared to the fully realistic fears of crime that African-Americans in the inner cities and now close in suburbs live with.
This age of murder is one of the great disasters in the history of this country. Given that its causes are complex, it is no surprise that demagogic arguments and conspiracy theories have flourished in black neighborhoods and, as Jeremiah Wright’s sermons indicate, in some black churches as well. The facts of these murders have been on the evening television news and in the local pages of newspapers in American cities for the past half-century. Not to express fear in the face of such a cataclysm would be a form of denial. So to equate Obama’s grandmother’s fears with the political views of Jeremiah Wright is mistaken.
The problem raised by the revelation of Reverend Wright’s sermons is thus not only or even primarily the problem of race. It is that he has distinct political views that, as Obama acknowledged, badly distort the causes of the problems facing African-Americans. Obama has known of those views for many years and nevertheless decided to remain close to Wright. The question will linger: why did he continue to have a relationship, and a close relationship, with a man whose views he now finds unacceptable?
Cushman: I am grateful for the comments of Fred Siegel and Jeffrey Herf, two of the most astute scholars and commentators I know.
In my first comments, I suggested that a man who chooses someone like Reverend Jeremiah Wright to be his spiritual mentor simply lacks the good judgment necessary for high office. And this is not simply because of his political statements, but because it suggest a close relationship to a kind of self-serving and coarse black liberation theology, which is way outside the margins of conventional religion in the US. It is ironic in the extreme, because for years now, the left-liberal critics of Bush have gone practically insane over Bush’s religious fundamentalism, which seems even somewhat mild in comparison with the Rev. Wright’s particular brand of apocalyptic and divisive theological poison. Because Obama presents himself in such a much more articulate and rational way, are we supposed to imagine that his alignment with black liberation theology is to have no bearing on his conduct as President? If liberals are so concerned about the separation of church and state, why have they not raised this question?
As all of us have indicated, Obama has been successful precisely because of he presents himself as a messianic figure, preaching “hope” and “change”. It comes out a lot more eloquent than the way he heard in church, but it is clear that Obama understands Americans’ constant need for salvation of some sort or the other. Sociologists have been telling us for years about the cynicism which characterizes American society. The most affluent society on earth is constantly unhappy about something, no matter what its material circumstances (I recall with irony that Americans, in public opinion polls have consistently registered around 30% when asked if they are hopeful about the future, in contrast to 70% of Iraqis, in national polls in 2006, admittedly a figure which has declined in the last two years). Obama has charged headlong into the cynical society with rhetoric of hope and change, and this has had great appeal, even beyond the boundaries of the most idealistic parts of the population, especially youth, as Fred Siegel points out. There is a demagogic aspect to this, I think, even when considered in light of Bush’s flawed presidency, because Obama’s strategy is to objectify the generalized pessimism of Americans in a rhetoric which shields him from real scrutiny.
And lest someone actually scrutinize the Senator, there is always the race issue to be played, which Obama clearly did in his famous speech on race in America, even after demanding that Geraldine Ferraro be fired for bringing the issue of race into the campaign. His speech, much touted as one of the most brilliant speeches in American history, masterfully resurrected the “sacred evil” of slavery and racial oppression, the best possible weapon against white people who cannot say a word in the defense of these practices and a surefire way to exponentially increase white guilt, which as I have noted is probably playing a role in the Senator’s popularity. What was truly brilliant about the speech was not the words themselves, but the strategy of countering the “shame” of the Reverend Wright with the “ur-trump” of the national shame of the historical treatment of African-Americans in US history. This is a vast pool of cultural capital which can be drawn on for political eternity without running dry. Not only Jeremiah Wright can be contextualized, but indeed, any manner of deviance among African-Americans. Jeff Herf pointed out the vastly disproportionate homicide statistics among African-Americans and this too is almost always contextualize as a result of history rather than agency. The problem with such contextualizations is that they rob African-Americans who have transcended the past, rejected violence, and become ordinary and in many cases extraordinary Americans – of their agency and status as individuals. This is all the more ironic because if what Obama says is true, he shouldn’t be the leading the contender for the Democratic nomination.
The real problem with Obama’s speech, though, is that it has called into question his so-called progressive agenda for America. It does a great disservice to the African-American community at large, since he doesn’t mention any positive social outcomes that the latter have experienced since the civil rights movement. Black incomes have grown, as has the black middle-class. Are there still problems? Of course: black incomes have grown less than those of whites, and blacks have more difficulty passing on their social mobility to the next generation.
This gets to the more fundamental issue of Obama’s status as a “progressive.” For in his association with Wright, and his recent proclamations about slavery and the negative black experience, he is taking us backwards to things that cannot be forgotten, to be sure, but should not be at the center of a progressive agenda for black Americans or for any other Americans for that matter. It is like hoping for a better past, rather than imagining a better future. This man of great “hope” got the future has now stepped backwards, purely for political advantage, when what he should be pointing out is how it can be that more people like him can be produced in the future.
One could also point out the existence of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even Justice Clarence Thomas, but that is taboo in most of black America because they don’t have the right kinds of politics. Rev. Wright, it will be remembered, referred to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “Condoskeezza”, from the urban slang word “skeeze”, one of the most derogatory terms for a woman imaginable. He regularly refers to Justice Thomas as “Clarence Colon.” Here is real injustice to upstanding African-Americans, and the Senator never brought such things up at all. He generally slides out of perverse comments by fellow African-Americans by invoking the First Amendment and then changing the subject. I think we have yet to see what the real consequences of Obama’s retrogression on the race issue. If he loses the election, one can expect the level of racial tension and possibly even racial violence, to skyrocket, and some part of the blame can be laid at Obama’s feet for that should these occur.
I’d like to end this round by noting that, in my opinion, the Senator is actually quite politically retrograde in inverse proportion to his rhetoric of hope. I’ve already discussed why this is on the race issue, but it is true of his more general politics as well. Fred Siegel masterfully pointed out that Obama has very little political experience and is, in fact, “a clever but conventional Chicago left-liberal hack”. Surely one can understand why supporters of Obama would be silent about Obama’s real political credentials and lack of experience. After Bush, he may be a hack, but at least he’s “our hack”. And he makes us feel good. Such is politics.
Obama remains mired in the past, as well, on the issue of Iraq. The dominant message of his campaign is that we never should have gone to war in the first place (another demagogic feint to anti-war sentiment). This is about as backward a form thinking as one can get, since the new president must imagine and carry out a solution that protects the nascent Iraqi society, which is a fundamental duty that we have taken on ourselves as a nation, whether we like it or not. He must also protect American interests in the region, regardless of whether he agreed with the war or not.
The other central part of his campaign message on Iraq is that the war is a lost cause – a fact with which most Iraqis and General Petraeus would not concur. He is, in effect, consigning America to defeat against al-Qaeda, which can only benefit the latter and enable radical Islam to new heights globally. It is hard to see any “hope” in Obama’s plans for Iraq. In fact, I have strained myself to find any indication whatsoever of what exactly a President Obama would do about the war on terror. I suppose, like most left-liberals, he imagines that it only exists as a creation of George W. Bush, rather than something which was there before Bush and will be with us a long time, especially if Iraq is lost. The astute Paul Berman has recently pointed out in The New York Times that the silence of the left on radical Islam is one of the most troubling hallmarks of the discourse of modern times. Like his preacher, one gets the sneaking suspicion that Obama, like many left-liberals, really do think that we are the cause of Islamic radicalism and terrorism, as if the agents of the latter are simply reflexes of our “evil empire.”
This is the Unknown Obama that strikes fear into my heart. So-called liberals think that everything will just be better when George Bush goes away and think that someone with no political experience, armed with “the audacity of hope” and the spiritual guidance of a black liberation theologist, and with a little dash of charisma and charm, is qualified to be Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces and to protect our national interests and national security. What is even more troubling is that so many Americans, distanced as they are from the realities of the world, see this self-appointed messiah and political hack as their national savior.
Siegel: Tom Cushman asks why Rev Wright’s Church with its profoundly political perspective and Obama’s close relationship with it haven’t raised the standard issues of the separation of church and state among liberals. It’s a good question. Part of the answer is surely that darker skinned people are given a special dispensation by liberals. But in this case it’s also a matter of an ongoing love affair with Obama in the press.
In the wake of the Reverend Wright flap and Obama’s evasive response, the New York Times went out of its way to praise Obama. The Times editorial, which is entitled “Profiles in Courage,” compares Obama’s race speech to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Writing about the Church that Obama joined in large measure to launch his political career, the Times said “Obama drew a bright line between his religious connection with Mr. Wright, which should be none of the voters’ business, and having a political connection, which would be very much their business.” Would the Times even begin to accept such a verbal assertion as a statement of fact from a candidate they didn’t love? Then again this is part of the broader leitmotif of the Obama campaign, words as illocutionary actions
Jeff Herf rightly wrote that “support for Obama is indicative of the fact that the base and leadership of the Democratic Party has moved to the left.” This is true, but it’s also true that the underlying tension produced by globalization, the failures of the Bush administration and the failures of the oh-too-clever market for exotic financial instruments has pushed the center towards the left.
But even on this turf, Obama is a windbag. I sat a few seats away from Paul Volcker for Obama’s recent talk on the economy at Cooper Union. The Obama speech was thoughtful and well delivered. His plan for dealing with the sub-prime mortgage crunch is far less heavy handed that Hillary Clinton’s. But the problem as almost always with Obama is the disparity between his words and deeds.
In his speech, he denounced in no uncertain terms the "special privileges" regarding the taxation of people on Wall Street (from whence he derives many funders) But when he had an opportunity to push the repeal of the privileged tax treatment of private equity firms as the matter was before Charles Grassley's Senate finance sub-committee, he made a pro forma statement and then disappeared into the wood work. He attacked predatory lenders in the Cooper Union speech, but has taken roughly 1.3m in contribution from companies in that business.
On the more general matter of regulating brokerage houses in the wake of the Fed’s bail out/liquidation of Bear Stearns, Obama presented himself as a fearless pioneering foe of Wall Street’s special privileges. But as always with this silver tongued Chicago-hack, he fools himself and the press into believing that it’s the rustling of the leaves that moves the winds. The substance of Obama’s reform proposal followed inevitably from the bailout and had already been put in motion, in part, by none other than Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson
The theme of both Obama’s and Rev Wright is Do As I Say Not As I Do. Obama is the Chicago politician who speaks of post-racialism but belongs to a black nationalist church, the man who says he's post-partisan but has a 100% partisan voting record. He and his wife are quite well off with an estimate income of $1.2 million dollars from 200 to 2004. But the man who preaches compassion and mutuality gave all of 1% of that income to charity in that period. This the guy who says he represents ethics in government, but when given a chance to back reformers in Illinois supported the party hacks, including the current famously unethical governor who is under federal investigation and is likely to be indicted. And to complete matter his beloved Rev Wright who has preached against “middle classism” and its “materialism” and rants that “White folks greed runs a world in need,” this same humble servant of the Lord, has just bought 10,340 square foot $1.6 million dollar home-in a gated community. No doubt, he’s looking for protection from Obama’s grandma.
Herf: Thomas Cushman is right to raise the issue of liberals’ double-standards regarding the issue of religions fundamentalism and of separation of church and state. It is clear that if a conservative politician belonged to a church whose minister, for example, said that 9/11 was punishment for the “sins” of homosexuality and abortion, he would be finished as a viable political candidate for national office. The issue of Barack Obama’s willingness to sit in the pews of Jeremiah Wright’s church for over twenty years is not going to go away. Conspiracy theories are not only, as Christopher Hitchens wrote, “wicked and stupid.” Conspiracy theories are also dangerous. Barack Obama is a sophisticated, highly educated person who must know how dangerous conspiracy theories and theorists are. Yet for twenty years he listened to them, uttered no public criticism and then compared his white grandmother’s fears of black crime to Jeremiah Wright’s nonsensical notions about the causes of the condition of blacks on the South Side of Chicago.
As Fred Siegel notes, this reluctance to antagonize or offend is something many politicians do. It is not a new, different or post-racial politics. Given that Obama’s experience on the national stage is so brief, his political activities in Chicago and Illinois should, and I think will, assume a larger significance in the election. I agree with both Cushman and Siegel that Obama’s now famous speech on race fell far short of what was needed. The critique came too late and it was too mild.
Obama, and Hillary Clinton as well, are competing with one another about who will be a most convincing advocate of an exit from Iraq. Obama has a peculiar optimism about the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq. Here, as Fred Siegel notes, the press has been easy on him. A President Obama would argue that such a withdrawal was really in the American national interest. Yet if the United States does leave Iraq before it succeeds, radical Islamists of varying hues, Shiites as well as Sunnis, in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and in many other places where radical Islam has adherents will all see this exit as the greatest victory for radical Islamism since the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the wake of an American defeat in Iraq, why would Ahmadinejad’s Iran feel any hesitation about proceeding even more quickly to development of nuclear weapons or intensifying its threats against Israel and, for that matter, the Arab states? What incentive would a President Obama create for Iran to change its ways?
If a President Obama implemented the views in foreign policy of candidate Obama, I think the result would be snatching defeat from the jaws of uncertain, tenuous and potential, modest success in Iraq. If the worst happened, political turmoil in Washington would be intense and the hopes for bipartisan policy would collapse in bitter recriminations about who “lost Iraq.” The prospect for bipartisan consensus on domestic issues would also be undermined.
Candidates for President like to talk about the marvellous, soaring future they will make for us all. Sometimes avoiding catastrophe needs to be a larger part of the campaign speech. This is one of those times. We need a President who knows the reality of evil in international politics but does not see that as a license for American self-righteousness, one who will continue a fight that, no matter who is President, will be unpopular in many quarters. While Obama articulates a full catalogue of American miscues, he has not tried to create a mandate to continue American leadership in the–call it what you will–war, confrontation, struggle, fight–with radical Islam. This issue will not go away. It will continue to be a defining element of American foreign policy for the next President. From what Obama has said and what he has not said, I conclude that his mind and heart are not in this fight.
FP: Fred Siegel, Jeff Herf and Thomas Cushman, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.