Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Ezra Klein is right. The power of that Obama speech -- the power of the candidate himself -- is traceable to a characteristic so rarely seen in politics: honesty.

As I listened, I was reminded that, for all of the left-generated criticism of Obama as "not progressive enough" (do you remember how common that was back in the Fall?) -- there is simply no way a Dennis Kucinich or a Ralph Nader (both of whom I admire greatly) could put the issue of race on the table so deftly, respectfully, and forcefully.

Whether you think race is our crucible issue as a nation is up to you, of course. I happen to think it is.

Klein also rightly points out that the speech was pretty measured and formal -- not the dramatic stump oratory that Obama is well-known for. But can you imagine the mindset it must take to be able to execute a delivery like that under such intense political pressure? I don't think I heard him trip over his language once (though, since we were getting Thandie ready for school, I probably didn't hear every single word). How many of us would even be able to think clearly in those circumstances?

The man is unflappable -- and not the "idiot's haze" unflappable of a George Bush. No, this is the good unflappable -- the kind that says "I'm patient enough to work things out with you in an open and respectful way. Let's not be deterred by the bullshit."

Ironically, one measure of the speech's success is the fact that the right wing critique of Obama is spinning out of control in response to it. You know the subtext by now: these folks reeeeaaaaally want to run against Clinton in the Fall. I suspect that they thought they had finally found Obama's fatal flaw -- and until now much of the mainstream response to the Wright controversy may have supported that conclusion. To watch that slipping away... well, it must be pretty goddamned frustrating.

But I hope you'll forgive me if I say I don't care.


godoggo said...

I didn't watch the speech (no TV), but some of the quotes I've seen are consistent with one of the ways I view race problems: they're largely a matter of people fighting over crumbs. Meanwhile, we have 2 ostensibly liberal candidates proposing to fix our wretched health care system by subsidizing private insurers, rather than doing away with them, or at least providing an alternative. And their main disagreement is whether or not to force people to pay through mandates, rather than the way government normally forces people to pay: through (progressive) taxation, which would allow us to tap into the ever-increasing proportion of our wealth that is in the hands of the super-rich. And this is a structural problem in a way that race is not.

OK, I'm trying to come up with a pithy way of explaining that last sentence, but coming up blank for the time being, but I'll assume you know what I mean. However, I'll note that Obama's candidacy is itself an indicator that the race problem is slowly improving, whereas, as I noted before, the candidates' approaches to healthcare are evidence of the intractability of financial self-interest.

By the way, my thoughts about race (perhaps surprisingly, in view of my comments above), are very influenced by Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America: A History. Although I disagree with his libertarian analysis - at least in its extremity, though I think there is a certain amount of truth to it - as history, its demonstration of the widely-varying rates at which various groups have managed to overcome racism in America, is reason for optimism.

Basically, his analysis goes like this: the rate at which various immigrant groups rise in America is determined largely by the culturally-derived "human capital" with which they arrive in America. These cultural traits are determined by the conditions under which they lived prior to arrival. Survival strategies that were suitable to those previous conditions will be variously suitable to life in America, and the level of this suitability with determine the rate of their financial rise and cultural adaptation. Furthermore, there's a circular relationship among this cultural suitability as a group, financial standing as a group, and attitudes toward the group. In the case of Black people, the time of "immigration" might variously be set as their arrival from Africa r their emancipation from slavery, the end of Jim Crowe or their move from the rural South to the urban North. As I said, this is at best partial explanation, and I know that Sowell has a reputation for being pretty selective with his data (for example, I've seen some pretty convincing refutations of the anti-minimum-wage arguments that pepper the book), but he does provide a lot of useful information to back up his arguments, for which reason it's worth a looksee. But I digress

godoggo said...

...I realize on second look that that synopsis seems awfully harsh. I didn't intend to put forth an argument; just recommending a thought-provoking and informative book.

Andrew Durkin... said...

No problem, that was interesting, as always.

This question of whether everything turns on class, or whether everything turns on race, is complicated, obviously. Maybe I'll figure out a way to explain why I think it's the latter in a subsequent post.

For the time being, let me just say that I think it's the underlying fear of difference / fear of "the other" that both drives and rationalizes (on a deep psychological level) the economic stratification of this country. And I don't think progressive economic reforms (certainly not a progressive tax system) can be implemented until there is a wider a recognition of that problem, and a commitment to fixing it.

Racism is the ultimate form of selfishness -- not only failing to see something from another's point of view, but failing to see them as truly human. Until we can create a genuine sense of community and social responsibility in this country, I just don't see how economic reform is possible. People have to be ready to share. By nature, bigots don't share.

godoggo said...

Anyway, I finally watched the speech last night (except the last few minutes, which youtube refused to play). I'd actually never seen a whole Obama speech before, and the little bits I'd seen had left me sort of baffled by his reputation as a speaker. But that was marvelous - and quite unlike anything I've heard from a politician before.

James said...

Ok---here is the problem:

These are all insightful views and thoughts; complex thoughts. But this is not a debate about race/ism in America. This is a narrative spun by our corrupt media. The narrative is that Obama is a racist, McCain is strong on national security and that Hillary is a total bitch. So, whatever fits into that runs on the 24 hour news. It KILLS me that Obama is now losing ground in so many states as a result of this unbelievable manufactured story. This "pastorgate" story has been front page news for 3 weeks now. When will it end? Fuck this media that we have. George Bush is the worst president I can imagine. The president of torture, the president of lying for political gain, the president of cronyism, etc. When people protest, they have to stand in "free speech zones." And people who call for his impeachment are ridiculed by the press. He gets a free pass every single day in the media. In the end, we get the president we deserve I guess, and it makes me unbelievably angry.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey James, nice to hear from you --

I totally agree that the media has dumbed this down, as they dumb everything down. And I totally agree that the Wright story itself is way overblown -- I'd actually go further and say that much of the content of the so-called "controversial" statements was actually legit, however it was expressed. And of course I totally share your deep disgust with Bush.

But in a way, all of these details help to make that Obama speech even more remarkable -- it was, I believe, a model of intelligence in the face of stupidity, bravery in the face of cowardice, equanimity in the face of rabidity. And despite the careful presentation, he was clearly throwing down a gauntlet -- do we have what it takes to climb out of this hole we've created? Or are we going to make the same mistakes, all over again?

Nobody knows where this is going, but this is a real opening, a real possibility. Someone is finally trying to raise the bar.