Thursday, March 20, 2008

Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union

It was billed as a 'major speech' on race in America. You can watch it here; the text is here. It's an impressive speech, though I think comparisons to Dr. King's I have a dream speech are a bit over the top.

John Stewart devoted a segment of his show to the speech, and had this to say at the end of it: "At 11am on Tuesday Obama spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."

Let me note blog reactions from a couple of Desi students in the US:

Animesh: Won't it be nice if someone talked to Indians about caste, religion, and region-based differences like this :).

Patrix: If you wonder why a desi student like me who has hardly spent time in the U.S. understand about race relations fraught with discrimination and prejudice, then try and contextualize Obama’s speech in an Indian context as well. Just simply replace blacks with Muslims and whites with Hindus and you’ll find plenty of common ground in the way religion (and now caste) is ingrained in Indian politics. I’m sure you will nod your head when Obama talks about opinions within a particular community against another expressed in hushed tones while being politely deferential when with others. You might remember a certain relative or even your parent who agreed that Muslims deserved to be taught a lesson in Gujarat or how Babri Masjid deserved to be torn down.

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If you want a bit of humour aimed at Obama's message of 'change', you should be heading over to Onion.

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Thanks to Saurabh, Animesh and Anonymoustache for the pointers; all the links above have been shamelessly stolen from their posts.


  1. Anonymoustache said...

    ---"though I think comparisons to Dr. King's I have a dream speech are a bit over the top"---
    Obviously, I beg to differ.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Check this rebuttal by a conservative:

    The Speech: A Brilliant Fraud

    By Charles Krauthammer
    Friday, March 21, 2008; Page A17

    The beauty of a speech is that you don't just give the answers, you provide your own questions. "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes." So said Barack Obama, in his Philadelphia speech about his pastor, friend, mentor and spiritual adviser of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright.

    An interesting, if belated, admission. But the more important question is: which"controversial" remarks?

    Wright's assertion from the pulpit that the U.S. government invented HIV "as a means of genocide against people of color"? Wright's claim that America was morally responsible for Sept. 11 -- "chickens coming home to roost" -- because of, among other crimes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (Obama says he missed church that day. Had he never heard about it?) What about the charge that the U.S. government (of Franklin Roosevelt, mind you) knew about Pearl Harbor, but lied about it? Or that the government gives drugs to black people, presumably to enslave and imprison them?

    Obama condemns such statements as wrong and divisive, then frames the next question: "There will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?"

    But that is not the question. The question is why didn't he leave that church? Why didn't he leave -- why doesn't he leave even today -- a pastor who thundered not once but three times from the pulpit (on a DVD the church proudly sells) "God damn America"? Obama's 5,000-word speech, fawned over as a great meditation on race, is little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.

    His defense rests on two central propositions: (a) moral equivalence and (b) white guilt.

    (a) Moral equivalence. Sure, says Obama, there's Wright, but at the other "end of the spectrum" there's Geraldine Ferraro, opponents of affirmative action and his own white grandmother, "who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." But did she shout them in a crowded theater to incite, enrage and poison others?

    "I can no more disown [Wright] than I can my white grandmother." What exactly was Grandma's offense? Jesse Jackson himself once admitted to the fear he feels from the footsteps of black men on the street. And Harry Truman was known to use epithets for blacks and Jews in private, yet is revered for desegregating the armed forces and recognizing the first Jewish state since Jesus's time. He never spread racial hatred. Nor did Grandma.

    Yet Obama compares her to Wright. Does he not see the moral difference between the occasional private expression of the prejudices of one's time and the use of a public stage to spread racial lies and race hatred?

    (b) White guilt. Obama's purpose in the speech was to put Wright's outrages in context. By context, Obama means history. And by history, he means the history of white racism. Obama says, "We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country," and then he proceeds to do precisely that. What lies at the end of his recital of the long train of white racial assaults from slavery to employment discrimination? Jeremiah Wright, of course.

    This contextual analysis of Wright's venom, this extenuation of black hate speech as a product of white racism, is not new. It's the Jesse Jackson politics of racial grievance, expressed in Ivy League diction and Harvard Law nuance. That's why the speech made so many liberal commentators swoon: It bathed them in racial guilt while flattering their intellectual pretensions. An unbeatable combination.

    But Obama was supposed to be new. He flatters himself as a man of the future transcending the anger of the past as represented by his beloved pastor. Obama then waxes rhapsodic about the hope brought by the new consciousness of the young people in his campaign. Then answer this, Senator: If Wright is a man of the past, why would you expose your children to his vitriolic divisiveness? This is a man who curses America and who proclaimed moral satisfaction in the deaths of 3,000 innocents at a time when their bodies were still being sought at Ground Zero. It is not just the older congregants who stand and cheer and roar in wild approval of Wright's rants, but young people as well. Why did you give $22,500 just two years ago to a church run by a man of the past who infects the younger generation with precisely the racial attitudes and animus you say you have come unto us to transcend?

  3. Anant said...

    I don't see how this is a rebuttal to the Obama speech. This article seems mainly to dwell on Jeremiah Wright.

    Having said that, the problem with the whole discussion is that it has reduced the reality of the condition of African-American people to something that is not objective, but to the subjectivity of mere attitudes and feelings. It does not address the question of how a person who has no money in his or her pocket or is born into a poor family, indeed as probably half of all African-Americans are can ever get out of that situation. I don't know how changing of attitudes can fix this. Indeed, it diverts attention from deprivation to discrimination. Not that discrimination is not a problem, but the discussion is a diversion from the centrality of deprivation as the defining problem.

  4. Anonymoustache said...

    Like Anant said, I don't see how the conservative spin-rant is a rebuttal of Obama's speech.
    Obama was trying to point out where the frustration and resentment comes from --on either side of the issue. Moreover, he made a superb point, in that one should strongly denounce divisive comments, but not let them be the sole definition of any person, and summarily reject that person, esp one who has a lot more to his story. Exclusionary behavior closes doors and solves nothing.
    Besides, the conservative hacks are nowhere to be seen when candidate after GOP candidate openly embraces hatemongers like Falwell, Robertson,and their ilk. They go and speak at Bob Jones or Liberty or Regent madrassas ...errr..."Universities" and much of the dialogue in these setting is consistently divisive and hateful; to women, to blacks, to immigrants, to gays, you name it. Go see the post-9/11 comments by all these conmen of god.
    Anyway, putting aside that hypocrisy, back to Obama's speech. What is most impressive is that he had the guts to bring back to the surface the truth behind the divide; and the way to begin to get past it. Throwing the pastor under the bus, apologizing profusely for bad judgment influenced by worship-induced pressure---or some such other escapist crap---would have been the politically expedient thing. Instead, he chose to take this issue to re-open a discussion on something that most leaders glide over, time and time again; and put his political future on the line in the process. Making progress on this issue takes realization on both sides---and responsibility on both sides, starting with blacks---he clearly mentions that. He doesn't make it all about white guilt---that is a patently false spin on his speech. He said of his pastor that he embodied the good and bad that was representative of the people he had served for so long. He didn't duck black accountability; but he did boldly address that Tony Snow/O'Reilly prejudiced take that "race is not an issue anymore---anyone who uses it is only looking for a handout"
    The issue of race is complex, and Obama made a detailed, somewhat nuanced, attempt at addressing it in an intelligent way. No one has come close to doing that in recent memory, certainly not on so prominent a stage.
    And BTW, he did return the focus to the economic foundations of this divide and, as I saw it, tried to focus on 'deprivation of opportunity' as one of the key points to address. Which was his basis for uniting some of these problems as not just black problems but problems faced by blacks, whites, hispanics and everyone living in oppressive economic conditions.

  5. Abi said...

    Anonymoustache: My comment about the comparison is not about the content; it's about the style of delivery. A bit of online reading tells me that Obama's speaking style could soar as high as that of Dr. King. It's possible the measured tone in Obama's speech was a deliberate choice.

    Anon: I don't quite get why a 'convicted' neocon's views -- which have proved to be so disastrous for the US and, indeed, for the world over the last so many years -- should get precedence over those of far saner and far more neutral commentators.

    Anant, Anonymoustache: Thanks for adding a bit more analysis to this discussion. Yes, deprivation of opportunity must be central to any discussion; as Anonymoustache points out, Obama did weave it into the talk, and he did that in a way that brought all folks together. It is an impressive performance.

  6. Anonymoustache said...

    Thanks for the clarification, and I'm glad to contribute in some way to such a discussion. I agree with your speculation on tone of the speech, and do believe that the measured tone was a conscious choice---and a good one IMO. People like Farakkan, Jackson, Sharpton etc who have spoken 'for' the black community for years had adopted many of the the expansive/forceful/preaching speech mannerisms of Dr. King, but failed to back that up with substance. Indeed they have done the black community harm than good on more than one occasion. So I think that many people tend to (even subconsciously) tune out that style, to a degree.
    I think Obama realizes that he has to save that delivery for certain occasions; but on a serious talk on race, he may have felt that deviating from this style (although he is much more like Dr. King in spirit) may have been conducive to having a more attentive audience.
    Thats all conjecture on my part.