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Posted by on Mar 20, 2008 in At TMV | 34 comments

‘Our Current Polity,’ Redux

In yesterday’s discussion, I attempted to clarify one of the mischaracterizations of Obama’s speech Tuesday re: race in America. That mischaracterization was simply this, that Obama attempted to excuse Rev. Wright by suggesting that “all blacks and all black churches hate whites and [are] racist.”

That is clearly not what Obama said — and after revisiting Obama’s actual words, plus some healthy debate, at least one commenter conceded the point. She then added two more reservations to the mix, both of which I’d like to address in full, because they are similar to reservations voiced elsewhere by others.

The first of her reservations centered on what she perceived as a “missed opportunity”:

… [Obama] could have said that he can’t disown the person of Wright (nor the person of his grandmother) but he can (and must) disavow their racist views. That would have made a stronger point (sort of the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ meme) and would have underscored what I think is his true belief: that we have to accept that some blacks and some whites still harbor resentment which shows up as racism, but we don’t have to consider those attitudes are actually acceptable any longer. We have to tell people like that that we understand their feelings but their feelings will have to be put aside in order to move on from the past.

Later, she wrote:

I see that he came close, but missed the mark – particularly by saying that he could not disown Wright or his grandmother – but then not going on in the same section of the speech to explain what he meant by that.

I’m not sure how to define “the same section of the speech,” but seconds after his remarks about Wright and his grandmother, Obama said:

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not.

An estimated five minutes (out of a 45-minute speech) earlier, Obama had this to say about Wright’s YouTube comments:

… the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems …

Then again, an estimated six minutes after his Wright-Grandma comments, Obama said, referring to black anger:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

The second reservation expressed by the aforementioned commenter involved the years between Wright’s remarks and Obama’s renunciation of them. Why didn’t Obama speak out sooner? Why did he wait until it was a problem for his campaign? Or, as the commenter put it:

… what I see missing is Obama not taking responsibility for having waited until now to condemn the ‘controversial’ remarks. By not explaining that, he comes pretty close to excusing that, as though we all understand that we should just tolerate views like that because we understand where they come from.

I’ll admit: This point bothers me, too, and it’s more difficult to explain. Accordingly, here, I rely on personal experience.

I had an uncle, one of several. He made some remarkably vile, racially insensitive comments during the years I knew him, including voiced displeasure about sharing a birth date with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he was also one of two uncles who — on weekend leave during World War II — defended a black man who was being harassed by a white man. He was also a loving and gracious man to family and friends, immediate and extended. He was also a man who — in his dying days, hastened by lung cancer from years of heavy smoking — experienced many points of contrition and confession, and (I like to hope) redemption.

If my uncle were still alive today and we were both high-profile figures, I seriously doubt I would proactively and publicly condemn his racist remarks. Certainly, if asked about those remarks, I would make it clear that I don’t agree with them and find them reprehensible. But I think I would also, if pushed, refuse to disown my uncle, because much like Obama with Wright, I had seen the entirety of the man my uncle was, not just his occasional, careless, hurtful, inexcusable statements.

Maybe it’s a stretch to apply my experience to Obama’s. But I also think that’s precisely what Obama is encouraging us to do; to find common experiences and build on them.

None of this is to say I’m a 100% Obama fan. I’m not. I disagree with much of what he proposes and I’m (once again) leaning toward McCain for the general election. But in the context of this particular speech, and the way Obama handled this issue, I couldn’t be more impressed or more in agreement.

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  • It really doesn’t matter what he said. If you watch TV, read the internet and papers, people who don’t like him only selectively remember what supports that and the people who do did the same.

    Politics as usual.

  • CStanley

    Well, that’s a sadly pessimistic view, awinters. Sure, there are people who only hear what they want to hear, but I honestly think this is a historic opportunity to discuss race more openly and honestly than we ever have before. So ignore the people who truly have their fingers in their ears, but don’t dismiss all criticism of Obama’s speech as though it all falls into that category (I’m not saying you’re necessarily doing that- but you imply it when you act as though there’s no point even having the discussion.)

    • CS – I agree, but in my conversations with others it sounds to me that people have heard completely different speeches. To me it was a positive speech with honesty that might have been a little uncomfortable at times, but overwhelming positive and forward looking.

  • justinpgardner

    Sure, there are people who only hear what they want to hear, but I honestly think this is a historic opportunity to discuss race more openly and honestly than we ever have before.

    I agree that this is a good chance. So let’s hold EVERYBODY’s feet to the fire so they don’t sidetrack the conversation with statements that are clearly false.


  • CStanley

    Pete, thanks for the followup and for highlighting my questions/criticisms.

    The thing is that the two issues are comingled for me; yes, you can point out that there are sections of the speech where Obama said the right things. But then when you consider my second point, those sections come across like politically expedient excuses.

    The reason I specifically suggested that it would have worked better for me if he’d included something about ‘disavowing’ in the same section (by that I meant, the same paragraph- within that same thought being expressed) as the “cannont disown” part is that this would have shown precisely where he draws the line and why. He’d have then been more clearly showing that he means what he says in those other parts of the speech- that he sees the need to disavow the views EVEN WHEN he can’t disown the person holding the views. Do you get my point?

    And here’s someone who’s a greater authority than me, who apparently felt the same about the missed opportunity:,1,5615767.story?track=rss

    And I think you’re anecdote about your uncle explains why you’re inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but you’re leaving out the context here. Wright is of one school of black Americans, and he promotes his views to a pretty wide audience. He’s a follower of certain black theologians who promote black separatism (those theologians, incidentally, are sadly given accolades by certain academic institutions.)

    I think what some people are seeing here is that the existence of those philosophies, and the excuses being made for those who promote them, are one of the main barriers we need to cross in order to become the postracial society that we desire to be. In that sense, Obama’s close association and complicity in Wright’s promoting the ideas (complicity by default, since there’s no indication that he ever publicly challenged the ideas that Wright promotes, and in fact Obama equivocates about how much he was aware of them) is a problem. It speaks to judgment and leadership that he didn’t speak up until he was forced to.

  • CStanley

    Meaning what, Justin? I fully agree that the initial blog post that inspired this discussion should be critiqued, and several people have discussed the conclusion that was drawn which they found inconsistent with the speech as a whole. I’ve stated my opinion about that as well, and I’ll ask you to note that the initial person who wrote about his conclusion stated it as “his opinion”. He draws one conclusion, you draw another, and everyone is free to disagree with no need to insinuate some baser motivation at work. Fair enough?

  • mikkel

    I don’t think that the media/internet is necessarily a reflection of most people, for good and bad.

  • PaulSilver

    It is not a very engaging story for someone to have always held the same position on an issue. But when someone changes direction from their original trajectory, the cause of that shift is compelling. Obama could have continued on the path of angry black men, but he consciously chose to be more unifying.
    The conversation Obama is inviting us all to have is how we can chose to follow our better angels towards understanding and reconciliation.
    How can each generation be more tolerant and inclusive?
    Part of the Liberal take on this issue is that people tend to be less open to new thinking when they are in various stages of poverty, scarcity, and fear. I don’t fully grasp the conservative remedy to conflict other than survival of the fittest.

    • Paul – That was what I got from Barry’s first book. He was experiencing that angry black man as a youth because of some his experiences here in the states and he examined the concepts of black nationalism and made a conscious decision to reject that and find another way. However, before that he had already formed a familial bond with someone and you don’t toss that aside because they don’t move ahead with you. But sound bites or not, that Rev. Wright sounds crazy.

  • justinpgardner

    Not to be smart, but it means exactly what I said.

    If I say “It’s my opinion that X is true,” when the facts clearly show the opposite is true, then people should hold my feet to the fire. Nobody should be able to cloak clearly false information inside of opinions, and then be given a pass because it’s now considered an “opinion.”

    And when this “opinionization” of the facts is not just an isolated incident, but part of a broader trend, questioning attention to detail and baser motivations like intellectual honesty is absolutely appropriate AND necessary, especially in the moderate blogosphere.


  • CStanley

    No, sorry, justin, but that’s not fair. In essence, you’re saying that since YOUR opinion is that the facts disprove X, that no one else could possibly believe otherwise and they’re intellectually dishonest if they say they’ve come to a different conclusion.

    Getting back to the specifics here, the ‘commenter’ connected the dots in this way:
    1. Obama stated that he cannot disown Wright because that would be the same as disowning the black community as a whole.
    2. This implies that the black community as a whole believes the same as Wright.

    After some reflection, though my initial interpretion was similar to that, I now have modified it a bit like this:
    1. Obama stated that he can’t disown Wright because that would be the same as disowning the black community as a whole.
    2. This means that either Obama thinks that all blacks believe as Wright does, or that they sympathize with Wright’s views enough that they don’t want a black politician to publicly denounce those views, or that Obama meant that he can disavow the views but not disown the people who hold the views.

    Since Obama didn’t specify which of those it was, it’s still a problem to me. I agree with Pete that other parts of the speech attempt to convince us that the correct interpretation is #3, but there’s still a disconnect there and the other parts of the speech aren’t as convincing as it would have been had he been more clear on that one point.

    Now, you are free to have your own opinion about the interpretation, as is Pete, as is everyone else. But it’s you who is confusing fact with opinion; the facts are the actual words Obama spoke, and the opinions are about whether we believe that his words explain and justify his actions over the past 20 years or not.

    • justinpgardner


      No, it’s not my opinion. It’s what’s contained within the text for everybody to see.

      Here’s the portion of Obama’s speech we’re talking about…

      As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

      I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman 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.

      Also, I’ll remind you of something you said in the same thread that I took issue with…

      Don’t you folks agree that there are SOME comments that can’t be made OK by context?

      Yes, I do agree. And therein lies my whole point.

      No amount of context can defend an opinion that parses Obama’s statement as meaning he thinks the Black community as a whole hates America, hates whites and hates Jews. None.

      Also, no amount of context can defend an opinion that states Obama admitted he was at the church during the “YouTube Sermons.” And if we’re going to have this conversation in earnest, I think you need to address this specific point, because it’s probably the more damning of the two.

      But let’s stop for a moment and try to find some common ground here with a pretty easy challenge.

      Since you think my charges of intellectual dishonesty are unfounded and unfair…do you think that MVDG would ask Obama if he thought the entire black community hated America, hate whites and hated Jews? And I’m talking about asking him in an open forum TO HIS FACE. Because if that’s his opinion, if that’s how he truly and honestly parses that statement, he should have absolutely no problem asking that question.

      If that’s the case, if he would actually ask that question to his face, I’ll rescind my charges of intellectual dishonesty and say I’m wrong. The same goes for the opinion that he was at the church when Wright made the YouTube Sermons. I’m willing to meet both you and Michael halfway on this one.

      What do you think?

    • justinpgardner

      Sorry C, I responded to the wrong thread. Still trying to sort this Disqus system out. See above for my comment to this one.

  • CStanley

    awinters: Obama didn’t have to toss aside the familial type of relationship he had, but he did (IMO) have an obligation to toss aside the spiritual mentorship part of the relationship, and the political connection (making Wright the head of his campaign’s religious outreach.) He also, IMO, had the obligation to remove his daughters from the influence of a philosophy that he says he rejects, but that part goes to the more personal rather than a public obligation.

  • CStanley

    Your points about context are valid ways to rebut the argument being made, but they still don’t prove the intentions or intellectual dishonesty. You think that the facts of the speech so strongly disprove his conclusion about that statement that you don’t find it possible (or not plausible?) that he is wrong rather than that he’s willfully twisting the meaning of the phrase in question.

    Would he ask Obama to his face? I have no idea. Would I? Yes. I’d do it more respectfully- I’d simply ask Obama to clarify it, and explain why I feel there’s a need to clarify it.

    Now, on the other part- I thought I did already explain my thoughts on whether or not Obama was present at the time. My opinion is that his defense is an overly lawyerly one which parses the meaning of ‘being present’. If he used the fact that he wasn’t there for the PARTICULAR comments that have surfaced on YouTube as his reason for not speaking out or walking out, then we’re still owed an explanation of why he didn’t do so in response to the comments that he now admits that he WAS present for.

    Clear enough? What he said about not being there could be 100% accurate, but now that he’s saying that he certainly did hear controversial remarks being made, the defense that he gave has fallen apart and the ball’s in his court again to explain why the comments he sees on tape were bad enough that he’d have walked out, but apparently he heard OTHER remarks which were controversial but….what? It’s simply not very believable that he heard ONLY remarks which rose to the level of controversial but not to the level of completely unacceptable.

    • justinpgardner

      Concerning context, I find it plausible that Michael could have misinterpreted what Obama said given that English isn’t his native language. However, what I know of Michael is that he’s very smart and his grasp of English is extremely good, so I don’t find it at all plausible that he actually listened to Obama and honestly drew from the senator’s words that he was suggesting that all blacks hate America, hate whites and hate Jews. So I’m putting a stake in the ground on that.

      However, I put out an olive branch, and I appreciate the fact that you’d ask Obama to clarify instead of what Michael was claiming. Again, I find his remarks particularly indefensible because they’re so pointed, and I’d still like to hear if he’d actually ask Obama exactly those words to his face if he had the chance. And if he would, we both know he would never actually get the chance to ask Obama that, so he needs to say that as the title of a post, not buried in the comments section. Because people needs to know he believes that. They need to see a title of a post that asks, “Obama says all blacks hate America, hate whites and hate Jews?” At that point, he’s being intellectually honest because he’s actively asking the question in open forum, not just playing the “he called me a racist” card.

      Concerning what Obama DID sit through in Wright’s church, Wash Post columnist Eugene Robinson followed up with him after the speech and he clarified that what he meant is that Wright used salty language when referring to members of his own race and specificially how they treat women, their kids, etc. Basically, Obama was suggesting that Wright was pulling a Bill Cosby of sorts, using the N word, etc. So if you don’t believe Obama, that’s your business. But at that point, it’s simply guessing on your part, and that’s not a very moderate way of approaching an issue.

      However, you’re still just addressing your thoughts, not Michael’s, and I’ve asked you specifically what you think about what he said. We both know full well that he EXPLICITLY claimed that Obama admitted to being in the church when Wright made the YouTube Sermons. Either concede that Michael is wrong or defend him. I understand what you think about it, but now I’m asking for something very specific about what Michael said. What’s your answer?

  • I personally believe that anyone that takes up residence in a chruch for 20 years that preaches this kind of rhetoric and filled their now professionally redone website with highly questionable Rhetoric certainly is not the man who has been preaching to us from his political pulpit.

    If you swim with sharks your either really stupid or your a shark.

    His faith is extremely important to him. He says so. His church is extremely important to him. He says so. His congregation is extremely important to him. He says so.

    I don’t. He does.

    Therefore if all that is true and the facts are that the church preaches this kind of rhetoric then one must bring into question just how honest he is being in those really flowery and uniting speeches.

  • Guest

    Christine — with all due respect, I don’t think there’s as much room for interpretation as you suggest.

    The words are direct and clear. No hidden meanings or vaguely suggestive allusions. Obama condemns Wright’s hateful comments, but he can’t condemn the whole man, because the whole man is more love than hate in Obama’s eyes; which is Obama’s same view of/approach to society; his same view of/approach to his church. More love than hate. More right than wrong.

    I just don’t understand how anyone can read Obam’s very clear, very direct words and come away claiming they say something they don’t say. If your claim is the words don’t say enough, OK, maybe they don’t. But to claim the words aren’t clear and direct — well, I have to be honest and say I agree with Justin here: I find that reaction intellectually dishonest. I don’t find you intellectually dishonest, just this particular reaction. I’m sorry.

  • GeorgeSorwell

    I just don’t understand how anyone can read Obam’s very clear, very direct words and come away claiming they say something they don’t say.


  • CStanley

    Pete: the reason that I find that room for misinterpretation is that the ‘correct’ words in his speech don’t match up with his actions over the last 20 years. If he does in fact believe that the beliefs of Wright represent a harmful distortion, then it was important for him to have done something- to disavow, if not disown.

    And if he’d clarify it the way I’d want him to- he’d also have to admit he was wrong to not do so all along. And that really is the basis for my interpretation of the speech in this way. It’s not that the correct words weren’t there- but that his actions haven’t matched up with his words, and a personal relationship with Wright isn’t a good enough reason for that if he really believes (as he’s saying now) that Wright’s beliefs are harmful.

  • CStanley

    To clarify my personal opinion- if I had to guess, I’d say that Obama probably does believe he should have stood up sooner. But if he’d admit that now, he’d have to admit a flawed judgment or lack of courage in not doing so until he was forced into a corner.

  • Guest

    Christine — fair enough. I would agree that his actions, or lack thereof, outside the speech are subject to different interpretations. And while I can disagree with your interpretation of those actions, I can’t claim my interpretation is any more accurate, only that I believe it!

  • CStanley

    OK…see, now we can agree to disagree! It’s all good.

  • justinpgardner

    Man, I’m really not liking this Disqus commenting system. You’d think there’d be threading with a “comments 2.0” system like this, but if I reply to something CStanley said, it appears far below the actual comment, with no indentation.

    Plus, how did her comment that appeared 3 hours ago get pushed to the bottom here? There’s no way you can follow this thread in any logical manner.

    This is screwy…

  • Obama didn’t have to toss aside the familial type of relationship he had, but he did (IMO) have an obligation to toss aside the spiritual mentorship part of the relationship, and the political connection (making Wright the head of his campaign’s religious outreach.) He also, IMO, had the obligation to remove his daughters from the influence of a philosophy that he says he rejects, but that part goes to the more personal rather than a public obligation.

    That’s a pretty amazing thing to say given that you’ve probably never even listened to an entire sermon by Pastor Wright, or met him in person. You’ve got what, 2 soundbites to by?

  • CStanley


    Sorry, I don’t pretend to be a mind reader. Michael said what he said, and he can choose to either defend it or deal with the fact that you’re going to criticize him for not defending it. I think it’s a bit bizarre that you’re complaining that I’m not being drawn into some sort of game here; if I didn’t know better, I’d feel as though I was being baited into a blog flame war.

    You see, my whole argument against Pete’s initial post which quoted MVDG, and your arguments about it, Justin, is that I understand disagreeing with Michael’s take on the speech but I think it’s wrong to impugn his motives. So no, I will not do what I have already said that I don’t think you should do. My answer to whether or not Michael is wrong is that I think he got it partly right- he’s right to say that one interpretation of that statement is that all blacks are racist, but he’s not right to imply that this is the only possible interpretation. But there’s a big difference between getting something wrong (or partially wrong as I think it is in this case) and deliberately getting it wrong.

    As for guessing about whether or not to believe Obama- are you not guessing when you give him the benefit of the doubt? And to me, if I’m going to try to determine whether or not I believe that response, I’m again going to fall back on looking at the whole of the man’s life and actions. I’ll probably have to read his books so that I’m not relying on second hand accounts- but from what I’ve been told, in one of his books he talked about experiences with black nationalists and the initial pull toward that and then rejection of it. So, given that, I just really have a hard time believing that he didn’t know more about Wright’s beliefs than he’s letting on.

  • CStanley

    Chris www: Actually I’ve read some longer excerpts from Wright and some of Cone’s work that he bases his theology on. How about you?

  • I don’t even disagree with the comments from Wright that are being replayed over and over again on TV. The delivery was crass, but I think the spirit of what Wright said has the ring of the truth to it.

    I don’t think of either of us should have the temerity to say Obama can’t associate with Wright given what little we can know about Wright, outside of the media caricature, and their relationship. If there was any indication that Obama consults Wright or follows the line of thinking you say is so damning, then I’d agree you have a point. But there isn’t.

  • CStanley

    ChrisWWW: he can choose to associate with whomever he chooses. But those choices have consequences, it’s as simple as that. I mean, if you find Wright’s statements compelling, then by all means, join his church or one like it. But don’t expect a majority of Americans to vote for you for POTUS. And I presume, too, that you wouldn’t make the speech that Obama just made, in which he called those attitudes wrong and divisive.

  • They may be divisive, and Obama may believe they’re wrong. Either way, I don’t believe those comments or his association with the man who made them should disqualify him from becoming president.

    It’s a trumped up controversy, just like the one over Pastor Hagee & McCain (even though that got almost zero news coverage). If you want to decide who to vote for based on petty garbage like this, by all means do so, but don’t fool yourself into believing you’re making an informed decision because of it.

  • CStanley

    Yeah, you’re right, chris. I’m glad that no one on moderate blogs bought into the nonsense that McCain accepting the Hagee endorsement was a big deal or anything.

  • GeorgeSorwell

    Yeah, you’re right, chris. I’m glad that no one on moderate blogs bought into the nonsense that McCain accepting the Hagee endorsement was a big deal or anything.

    CStanley, Chris didn’t say that. He didn’t say “no one bought into the nonsense”. He said people who bought it are fools.

    Now, I think Chris is being naive about what is going on. Still, he could be right–maybe I’m a fool for thinking McCain’s embrace of Hagee matters. These points are arguable.

    But his comment is on the exact same screen as your misrepresentation of it.

    Do you think we don’t know how to read?

  • CStanley

    No, George, I’m quite sure that everyone here knows how to read. I’m also fairly sure that the vast majority of readers know sarcasm and hyperbole when they see it too (especially because it turns up in a large percentage of comments here, but for some reason you’re suddenly unable to grasp it in my comment?)

    I’ll refrain from noting that your comment connected to dots so that chris is calling Shaun Mullen a fool….;-)

  • GeorgeSorwell

    C Stanley–

    I’m sure you did your best. If you’re satisfied with your answer, so am I.

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