Monday, March 17, 2008

Notes on the Barack Obama/Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle 

While we are sitting around waiting for the stock market to tank and other delights of the new week, I thought I would offer my consolidated thoughts about the controversy surrounding Barack Obama's minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's distancing from same. Without focusing on "gotcha" considerations -- let's not dwell on the implications of Obama's various post hoc positions -- I propose a series of statements about Obama's relationship with Wright's church that strike me as pretty uncontroversial:

1. The Obamas listened to many of Rev. Wright's sermons over many years, so it is highly unlikely that they were unaware of his opinions as now famously expressed from the pulpit.

2. There is information relevant for voters in the fact that the Obamas listened to the Rev. Wright over so many years and contributed to and participated in his church, whether or not Barack Obama agreed with some, most, or all of the Rev. Wright's political opinions. In particular, that fact circumscribes the possible motives that the Obamas may have had for joining and remaining with Wright's church.

3. Barack Obama's motives for joining and participating in Wright's church were probably one or more of the following:

3.1 He went to Wright's church because his wife chose the church wanted him to join her on Sundays. He would not be the first Christian male for whom the choice was that simple. If this were true, we could conclude that Michelle Obama is significantly more left and racialist than Barack, which seems like a reasonable conclusion based on some of the things she has written or said.

3.2 He went to Wright's church because he actually enjoyed Wright's sermons, whether or not he agreed with the politics embedded in them. If he enjoyed Wright's sermons while disagreeing with the political opinions in them, he probably did not disagree strongly with those opinions. Or, quite possibly, Obama actually agrees, or agreed, with many, most, or all of the political opinions expressed in Wright's sermons (recognizing that it would hardly be in his interest as a presidential candidate to admit that).

3.3 He did not enjoy Wright's sermons, but worshiped there because he liked other aspects of the church, which probably include the other people in the congregation (many of whom are seen on videos cheering Wright's political opinions). This suggests that he actively seeks the company of people who enthusiastically support the opinions expressed in Wright's sermons. If true, that may tell us something about the political opinions of the people that Obama would associate with once elected.

3.4 He did not enjoy Wright's sermons, but decided that it was politically advantageous to belong to and regularly attend the largest predominantly African-American church in the area. If it is true that he joined the church for political advantage, then I respectfully submit that it is entirely fair under the goose/gander principle for his opponents to hold that fact against him for their political advantage.

4. If Obama was actually not aware of the Rev. Wright's opinions on the various subjects under public discussion, then he is an astonishingly unaware person. Even I, who regularly tune out the sermon on Sunday, noticed (and got agitated) when our visiting priest compared the American war on Islamist terrorism with the counterinsurgency within Judaism against Jesus and his followers. While there certainly have been presidents who were similarly tuned out, they are not generally regarded as having been successful in the office.

Are there strong arguments against any of the statements set forth above?


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 11:08:00 AM:

The main problem with what you said, gives them impression that one has to choose from the points above. Given that in reality none of those points may be true, and that they are speculation, and that anything imaginable may be speculated, the points themselves are fairly worthless and have no intrinsic value. The real question is does any of this matter? If this is Obama's downside, how does it weigh up against the other candidate's downsides? Leaving political spin aside, even with this situation, Barack Obama is still the least worst option for President.  

By Blogger David M, at Mon Mar 17, 11:14:00 AM:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 03/17/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.  

By Blogger Nomenklatura, at Mon Mar 17, 11:20:00 AM:

The real thing we learn from this, and the real damage for Obama, lies in his decision to go with a series of evasive and disingenuous responses.

For a politician who claimed (highly implausibly let's face it) to be different, there is no way back from this.  

By Blogger Nomenklatura, at Mon Mar 17, 11:22:00 AM:

I guess it almost goes without saying that find his responses on this transparently disingenuous.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Mar 17, 11:37:00 AM:

Igirisu Jin,

Yes, these points are all speculative, but what other explanations might there be? The Rev. Wright's political views and sermons are demonstrable fact, so it is legitimate for voters to want to understand why Barack Obama and his family chose to worship under him over a period of years. Even without getting into his responses to this controversy and whether they are disingenuous, I am interested in knowing what possible explanations I may have missed.  

By Blogger Elijah, at Mon Mar 17, 11:52:00 AM:

Is this speculation as well, or just taken out of context?

From Dreams of My Father -


“The emotion between the races could never be pure, even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race (WHITE) would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.”

“That hate hadn’t gone away,” he wrote, BLAMING “WHITE PEOPLE — some CRUEL, some IGNORANT, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a system claiming power over our lives.” Barack Hussein Obama

“There were enough of us on campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs,” he wrote. “It remained necessary to prove which side you were on,to show your LOYALTY TO THE BLACK MASSES, TO STRIKE OUT and name names” Barack Hussein Obama

“What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice,” Obama said. “He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics.”

Again, what group/race constitutes the captors Mr. Obama's race-based value system?  

By Blogger SR, at Mon Mar 17, 12:27:00 PM:

It seems simple. Barack must renounce the concept that white people are completely responsible for the contemporary condition of blacks. He should acknowlege history and the progress of blacks in America over time. If he does a Cosby, it will work. Nothing short of that can.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 01:09:00 PM:

Live by identity politics, die by identity politics.

If Barack Obama actually feels the visceral dislike of white people that is somewhat evident in some of his Pastor's comments, it makes it deucedly hard to garner the millions of votes from white Americans that are needed to win the election.
Yet, if he disavows too much, he could lose or alienate the base vote from the Hard Left and black Americans, who are looking for a 'revolution', but by seeming to be an appeaser, or whatever else blacks call "race traitors" these days, these people might sit out, or not turn out enough for him to win.
Like any human being now, he is all too flawed in his approach. He may yet win, but thankfully the overhyped expectations may be deflating. If people in America truly know what they are voting for, and the majority chooses Obama, so be it.


By Blogger Escort81, at Mon Mar 17, 01:25:00 PM:

VDH at the NRO Corner yesterday morning puts it in context (see the either/or at the bottom):

Race and the Democrats—Postmortem [Victor Davis Hanson]

End of Story

The Wright scandal has now been clarified as much as it is going to be clarified: Obama senses that most (given the alternative of Hillary or the self-destruction of the nation’s first competitive black presidential candidate) want to believe him—and where there is a will, there is a way.

So Sen. Obama apparently is going to insist that either the racialism and hatred of America (“God damn America”) voiced by Rev. Wright are maliciously cherry-picked and taken out of context (despite the clear evidence of entire sermons delivered in toto on these topics and in this style); or he is going to stonewall by condemning only piecemeal each successive and more astounding venomous sound-bite that surfaces—while contextualizing them by claiming that Wright is retiring, that someone who raves about AIDs being created in the U.S. is a “scholar,” and that Wright was a Marine, etc. And don't dare raise the issue again, since you, not the Rev. Wright, are the problem, or as Obama proclaimed on Saturday, —"The forces of division have begun to raise their ugly head again." Again? Or as they have for 20 years at the Trinity Church?

It doesn’t seem to matter that there is more than enough evidence in Obama’s own memoirs and past interviews and puff pieces—as well as the common-sense deduction that one does not frequent a church for 20 years and remain oblivious to the ratings of its preacher—that Obama knew what went on.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Obama’s assertion he will stay on at the church due to Wright’s departure is problematic, since Wright’s successor Otis Moss III, in a recent CNN interview, simply defended Wright and gave no evidence that he would distance the church from his message.

The senator, I wager, apparently thought the extremism of Wright was a sort of venting and metaphorical catharsis, and what damage it might be doing to the African-American community by demonizing their country and fellow citizens was more than offset by the inculcation of racial pride and solidarity—and the occasional nostrum of having a fiery surrogate articulate the frustrations and bitterness that blacks sometimes fell.

At least, that is the subtext that seems to explain Obama’s inexplicable past—of preaching a new unity and racial healing while being connected to a church that preaches hatred.

If one were to review the recent network appearances of Obama, the reaction to them by pundits, and the campaign’s spin on them, the story we are to swallow is pretty clear:

Given the racist history of the United States, the black church has developed a counter-narrative and history. Others outside the community are apparently not fully aware of the vocabulary, metaphor and style of this sometimes problematic and complicated milieu, but they should give this “alterity” a pass, given our own culpability for shameful episodes in American history. Obama surely and at present does not buy into this “God damn America” rhetoric, so what is the point in pursuing it any longer?

We are most certainly not ever going to get from Sen. Obama anything close to something like “The repugnant rhetoric from the Trinity Church neither reflects my own views nor those of most in America. To assure others of my long-standing objections to such hatred, I am now leaving the church.”

So the question will simply be left to the American voter:

EITHER: 'Obama probably knew what was going on at Trinity, but, given the complex circumstances and Obama’s other strengths, it doesn’t matter enough to affect my vote;'

OR: 'Obama’s attendance and his feeble reaction to the criticism of Wright provide a valuable warning of why someone so inexperienced and yet so familiar with extremists should not be President of the United States next year.'

It's left to the electorate, as it should be.

TUCC is part of the Liberation Theology movement, which attempts to and does do a lot of good work in underserved communities. It has a quasi-Marxist philosohy that emphasizes the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, and that the teachings of Jesus call on Christians not only to help the weak, but to deal with the power structures that unjustly created their situations in the first place. In the sense that Jesus was a rebel against the status quo of 2000 years ago, these churches want to significantly change the culture today.

Obama is a smart man and might be a capable POTUS, but he would clearly be the most "progressive" person ever elected to that position, more so than FDR. He "came to" Jesus becasue of the appeal to him of Liberation Theology, and how it fit with his desire to do good works in the community, notwithstanding the other more mainstream churches that also had extensive community involvement (almost any AME church). Had Henry Wallace run as FDR's VP in 1944 instead of being kicked off the ticket, and had he ascended into the office in 1945, that would be the only comparable progressive POTUS (though unelected). JFK and LBJ were Cold Warriors. Carter was a moderate while in office (and in fact was challenged from the left by Ted Kennedy), and only went far off the reservation in his post-presidency. Bill Clinton, if only by virtue of his support of NAFTA, and his apparent lack of core principals, could not be characterized as that progressive. Maybe the fictional Jed Bartlet of West Wing might be comparable, but even he was pro free trade and approved the killing of a terrorist leader masquerading as a foreign government official. It boggles the mind that Ralph Nader believes he can run sufficiently to the left of Obama to get even one per cent of the vote.

For people who think of themselves as center-left, centrists, center-right (Obamicans?), and have contemplated voting for Obama, this episode creates a significant hurdle. Obama's repudiation of Wright's statements was strong, but there remains his history with the pastor and with the church itself. The effects probably can't be known until November, if he makes it that far, which it is likely he will still do. Will voters have forgotten about it by then? How far to the left has the political center of the country moved this decade -- is it a Newtonian backlash against Bush and Cheyney and the Iraq War?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 03:24:00 PM:

If Reverend Wright were white, and made analogous comments in a white church, and a white politician was a member of that church, that white politician would be hounded off the scene and ruined. That hateful speech when directed to blacks or anyone other than whites is commonly called racism.

I deplore that hateful speech. I also don't accept Obama's assertion that the reverend was aberrant. The reverend was revered.

I was born in 1952, so I came of age during the civil rights push in the 60's and 70's. I think my generation has mostly broken from our parent's generation in terms of racial tolerance. I have friends of all colors, my parents did not.

I don't feel guilty about what people long ago did. And I don't feel guilty for anything I have done, though I am a man of conscience.

So while I can have a reasonably good feel for the anger in segments of the black community, I don't feel responsible for it. I think this anger, which is a tool of manipulation by those seeking power, should be seen for what it is. Racism.

Racism is alive and well in the black community.

Barak is associated with that. It is as if there is a public Barak, and a down home Barak. He has become an equivocal figure. He is not longer a man with a simple and appealing message. He is a man with a complex message and part of it is in code and not suitable for the general public.

Barak has now been revealed as not really having found a way to bridge the gap between the black community and the rest of America. It seemed like maybe he had found a way, but now it is clear he is multilingual and has different phrases for different constituencies.

When people talk about a dialogue between the races, as if that would be transforming, they usually suggest that the dialogue should be open, candid and honest. Barak, with one foot firmly planted on each side of the chasm, is neutralized. He can't take sides. He also can't facilitate because each side would want to see him champion their cause. So at the end of the day he can't even talk about race honestly to the American public. What an astonishing situation.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon Mar 17, 04:48:00 PM:

I don't know where in the spectrum of "Left-to Center Blogs" Firedoglake ranks, but I just clicked through the link to the right provided here by TH and read this post there.

If I read it correctly, Scarecrow asks why Obama would throw his pastor under the bus, when he needs Wright's "underlying message" to "'end the mindset'" that leads to such things as the invasion of Iraq.

I have to admit I am confused. Can someone help me out here?  

By Blogger jj mollo, at Mon Mar 17, 05:19:00 PM:

I don't know about you, but I have spent a lot of time in the company of people whose opinions I consider dead wrong. Sometimes because I just like them, sometimes because they are kin. Maybe I try to inject a little course correction from time to time, but mostly I enjoy them and accept them for who they are. That's not to say I've never washed my hands of someone, but only a politician abandons his friends and acquaintances just because their opinions are wrong.

As a matter of fact, I can't think of anyone whose opinions are actually correct.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 06:17:00 PM:


When I say someone is opinionated, I don't consider it a pejorative. Opinionated people can be a lot of fun which is why TH's blog is so neat to read.

So when I say you seem like an opinionated person I mean it in a friendly way. You do seem like a very opinionated person.

So I find your post, especially the last thought as puzzling. Are you saying that only your opinions are correct, or that your opinions are not? Or, are you saying, there's no way to tell?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 08:28:00 PM:

It is funny because I keep reading how Obama has done a "good job" of handling this and "distancing" himself from Rev. Wright. This of course is coming from his supporters, but I have to say - I think every time he speaks, he seems to be less sure of himself. This and the Rezko dealings have really shown what a novice he is politically in that he was stupid enough to align himself so closely to such unsavory people and not think this would come up at another point. He is either, unbelievably naive or really stupid. As Forest Gump said "stupid is as stupid does..." and most of this stuff is really dumb.

It is not lost on the average man, that when a person equivocates as much as he has with respect to both of these characters (Wright and Rezko), that he starts to look with much deeper interest at who this candidate really is. Say what you will about McCain, under that same lens he will just improve over time.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 17, 08:43:00 PM:

Whatever point explains Mr. Obama's actions, it entirely suffices for me that Mr. Obama has very deliberately chosen for his spiritual mentor a man who hates the country that I love.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 18, 12:25:00 AM:

Though I'm a big fan of Obama, I would say the link between him and the Reverend Wright is actually stronger than you have suggested. This page has a pretty good history. There are some important differences between Obama's position and those of the opposite case, you know, if he were a white guy listening to some Jerry Falwell type of guy.

One of the most important is that he came to religion very tentatively and skeptically, and has always maintained there should be a strict division between church and state. The religious white guys tend to be conservative nutcases that want to make my kids pray in school, and generally want to place the Constitution at a level lower than Christian religious dogma, like Justice Scalia.

Another is that, while I deplore religion generally, the civil rights history of African-Americans is like that of no other oppressed group in America, and the liberation theology is based on some pretty strong truths and similarities to scripture. It's not unreasonable for African-American men to express some bitterness at the way people in their community have been treated over the years, and are still being treated. The fact that 1 in 15 African-Americans is in prison is astonishing, regardless of their culpability, and you are in a fantasy world if you can't imagine how that would color your perception of this country. How many times have you been roughed up by the police for no reason, or had your consititutional rights violated? I think African-Americans essentially live in a separate culture -- sometimes enviable, sometimes not -- which is pretty much unknown to us white guys.

Frankly, it would be almost strange for an African-American of Rev. Wright's age to not carry around a fair amount of racial baggage. But Obama's younger, and has the advantage of having benefitted enormously from those who came before him and cleared the way. As a result, I don't think he's carrying around the same bitterness.

Lastly, based on the few snippets I saw on the news, Mr. Wright's sermons didn't seem that far out of whack. What exactly do you take issue with, aside from some little bites taken out of context spoken ad-lib by an impassioned preacher? I mean, I got news for you, the country is "controlled by rich white people". Whether we should feel guilty about that is another matter.

In the end, I think I would place more trust in a President-elect that is somewhat dissatisfied with his country, than one who is proud of it all times and loves it blindly.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 18, 07:41:00 AM:

Maybe Obama enjoys listening to radical crackpots. Think of it as being able to reach across the aisle.  

By Blogger Christopher Chambers, at Tue Mar 18, 02:46:00 PM:

What has Rev. Wright said that most African Americans (including Colin Powell and excluding humonculi like Condi, loonies like Clarence Thomas or bought off hacks like Armstrong Williams) haven't said or thought about America, 9/11, etc.? It flows basically from being black in a nation like this one, with its sometimes schizophrenic and often brutal history? I suppose you have a reason to comment on it and attack Barack...but you have zero standing. Sorry. It's any more complicated than that, so please heed the advice...  

By Blogger Alexis, at Tue Mar 18, 03:55:00 PM:

If Jeremiah Wright were a white man and said the same things, he would become a major political power broker in a city such as San Francisco just like Jim Jones did with his People’s Temple. The theological and rhetorical similarities between Jeremiah Wright and Jim Jones are eerie. There’s a real market for self-righteous frauds who indulge in anti-Americanism.

If a white political candidate were to hail from People’s Temple or the Church of Satan, the public reaction to his close relationship to his pastor would be equally intense to any blowback Barack Obama is experiencing now. Unfortunately, Barack Obama played up a mythical role as a race healer, with the ironic effect of creating new grievances.

To say that the remarks of Jeremiah Wright accurately reflect the real opinions of black people is to effectively say that black people simply aren’t interested in being citizens of the United States. Unless Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are repudiated by a majority of black people, the dream of integration is over.

For the first time in my life, I am questioning the wisdom of my life-long opposition to segregation. While I don’t believe it’s true that most black people don’t want to be fellow citizens, the main reason I don’t believe it is because I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe in the dream of Martin Luther King in an American future where one is judged by the content of one’s character and not by the color of one’s skin. Yet, if one can no more reject Jeremiah Wright on the basis of his character than reject the entire black community, adios. Let’s hope Mr. Obama is rejected as the race hustler he is.

Sadly, I would be surprised if major race riots didn’t commence on the evening of November 4 if or when Barack Obama loses.

As it is, perhaps Barack Obama’s anthem can be “Joy to the World”.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog,
He was a good friend of mine,
I never understood a single word he said,
But I helped him drink his wine.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 18, 04:31:00 PM:

I read Obama's speech, and all I see is some black guy playing the race card. And I listened to Wright. If they want my vote, and want to convince me they're not just the average angry black, one step from his Crib Tattoo and violent crime, or one more guy who got into a good school BECAUSE he could check the black skin box, then they're going to have to show me more.

I still see a lack of leadership within the black community, and a total lack of accountability. Slavery in America ended with Lincoln, but the 'chains of persecution' live on in the hearts and minds of the lazy who want someone to blame for their own failings. Does slavery take other forms? of course. But bitching about Mr. Whitey instead of telling the shiftless to get up off their asses, denounce the black lifestyle, and contribute isn't winning the day. Most of no more African than the average Caucasion is European.

And CC ... advice from you is laughable.  

By Blogger Chris, at Tue Mar 18, 05:42:00 PM:

So,I guess the story from Obama supporters is that since black people were once persecuted systematically, they are allowed to construct an alternate narrative with which to live their lives. When that narrative is exposed as blatantly racist, we should just shrug it off as blacks being blacks.

Isn't this segregation? Why would blacks want to be held to a lower standard than whites? Are we really supposed to understand that they are so fragile that they should be allowed to indulge in repugnant behaviors if it makes them feel better?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 18, 09:39:00 PM:

I just want to state for the record that when I posted the above last night, I didn't know he was going to give a speech on the topic today in Philly!

But allow me one response:
Saying that the history of African-Americans should be a non-issue is like saying it doesn't matter who your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were -- what they did with their lives, and what they passed on to you. That seems like an attitude more typical of my hippy, liberal parents than the kind of conservative thinking I expect to find here.  

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