Obama: another go

This post began as a comment on my previous Obama post which consisted of a trivial post by me followed by some great content from commenters. I was thanking Tim Lambert for his comments and the links he provided – to Charles Murray of all people, but it all got away from me so I’m exercising the poster’s right to promote his own comments and start a new thread (in mitigation I think I can say I do this very rarely).

Charles Murray’s comments are right on the money in my opinion. We have to listen. Now I’m not claiming some special hearing skills so that I know I’m right and others are wrong. They might be right. The only real question is that given how little any of us know, what should be our approach? Should we be inclined to create the space in which we might end up knowing – but in which we might also be very disappointed.

The problem with ‘reading against the grain’ as Ken Parish is doing is that any politician must learn to speak and behave in a kind of way that must make the suspicious even more suspicious. I really wonder what kind of politician would impress Ken – I’m talking here about politically successful politicians, as I think there are better professions you could go into if you want to be a glorious failure – the most obvious one being religion. Politicians are forever being forced to choose between what they regard as noble ends and taudry means. I doubt very much that either Obama or Hilary Clinton really thinks NAFTA was bad for America. But they say it to win votes.

The thing I like about Obama is that mixed in with the inevitable (and unattractive) compromises and vanity – was there ever a good politician who was not vain? – there seems to me to be a genuinely new sensibility. Does that mean I won’t get ripped off by Obama? No it doesn’t. I feel ripped off by Noel Pearson in the sense that he led me to expect more of him than what sometimes emerges in his more tawdry ‘what side are you on’ contributions to The Australian. But it doesn’t lead me to go back on my opinion of his Griffith Review article as a marvel (if an unnecessarily wordy one.) Noel Pearson’s pioneered a new sensibility about race in Australia, showed considerable courage in doing so and good on him.

The thing about Obama is that I see him reaching for just what he says he’s reaching for – ‘a new kind of politics’. Of course he might not be. Of course it might all be spin. But I think the speech on race is evidence of what he’s reaching for. Clive Crook says it for me.

In my previous post on the Wright affair I called Obamas first line on the matterI wasnt present when he said those thingsa transparent evasion. I was very glad to see no trace of that in the speech:

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely just as Im sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

Rather than pretending he was unaware of Wrights views, he confronted them:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm werent simply controversial. They werent simply a religious leaders 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 Wrights 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 two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

That seems to me exactly right. But having criticised his pastor so frontally, Obama then had to explain why he nonetheless has remained a member of his church and evidently holds the man in such high regard. He did this toofirst in a very personal way, but then in an explanation that broadened out to touch on the main themes of his campaign.

Why did he decide to defend himself in this way? Because it was the only way to be true to himself, not just to tell the truth but in fact to ‘come out’ about his blackness. (have a listen to this excellent session on Blogging Heads for a bit of an explication of what I mean). I’m not sure why the hard heads, the ‘principles’ first people don’t find that highly admirable. He’s also coming out as an intellectual – as someone naive enough to think he can get away with telling the truth with all the tensions that it (necessarily) embodies. At least Charles Murray likes the spectacle, even if it won’t lead him to grace Obama’s campaign with his vote.

As for me? I’m more concerned that Obama’s enemies have managed to corral him into a very nasty dilemma from which he may not emerge politically in tact. Listening to the blogging heads fellows discussing it – and they’re a lot closer to it than me and most readers, it sounds like ‘coming out’ as a black man, as a man who can understand the rage of his brothers is quite likely to end his chances of becoming President. In that sense I’m rather disappointed in him for too rashly clinging to the ends and being insufficiently attentive to the means – which is mainstream politics. I’m feeling now that he’s likely to emulate one of America’s most attractive serial failures as a Presidential candidate – fellow ‘intellectual’ Adlai Stevenson. (When someone congratulated Stevenson that “all intelligent people in this country will vote for you.” he replied,”that’s not good enough. I need a majority.” A self fulfilling joke!.)

How realistic is my ‘naive’ interpretation of Obama – the one in which I take him at his word (and at the same time make all the excuses that are necessary to forgive him his trespasses)? I’ve no idea really. The whole thing could be a straight con – all calculated to do the best he can for himself in the most naked possible way. Even then, given that politics is essentially about the constant tradeoff between political means and ends, the great politician is really an alchemist. It’s amazing how rarely we can know who’ll turn out any good in politics.

Who would have thought that wayward, whiskeyed Winston would win World War II? That Bob Hawke’s giving up the booze really did mean he was about to give us the best years of his life (before he went back to the booze). That Lincoln would be a great president, even though he was an odd mix of despondency, inaction and reluctant improvisation. That Paul Keating after promising so much would have been such a lousy PM. That the ludicrously vain Don Dunstan would not only have been able to succeed as a politician despite his uncompromising refusal to deny his homosexuality (we’re talking about the late 1960s here folks), but that he would become the great Premier that he was? That Jeff Kennett would care about good policy, that John Howard would care so little.

So of course I might be riding for a fall. Of course Obama might be a phoney – though the greater risk is that he just won’t be any good. They say this about Carter of course, though his circumstances were about as difficult as one could imagine so I think a good deal of his poor reputation is the result of bad luck rather than bad management. But I’m a fan of Carter’s. I’m in awe of the fact that not too many years before he became President he took off from his farm and became a fool for Christ, knocking on random doors in the mid west asking people if they’d let Jesus into their lives (I haven’t let Jesus into my life in case you’re interested).

The same kinds of things were said when Carter reached for his ‘new way of doing politics’. That he was a phoney, just another spinmeister etc etc. But I think his experiment was worth trying and that his post-presidential life has also shown him to be the man of substance he was.

I think that unless there are clear signs of real danger we have to try to be open to such things, and to welcome them – experiments as they are.

And of course we might get ripped off. But then one is at least as likely to get ripped off by the hard heads, by the people who play it by the book.

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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

I admire Tony Blair and still think he was an excellent PM (despite a badly wrong call on Iraq), who achieved extraordinary amounts in dragging the British Labour Party into the late 20th century and REALLY forging a new kind of politics that merged neoliberal economic management with social democratic values via third way mutual obligation.

I admired Bob Hawke as PM and had no problem with his vanity, and I admired Paul Keating as Treasurer though not PM. I don’t think I have unrealistically utopian ideas about what politicians could or should be.

Obama might yet turn out to be an excellent leader. We won’t know until he’s tested. At the moment all that any of us knows is what Obama says and how he says it, because he really doesn’t have a significant track record to assess. When you and apparently many others hear him, you hear someone you hope/believe is a great and sincere orator with genuine aspirations to forge “a new kind of politics”. When I hear him I hear a used car salesman. One of us is probably wrong, or more likely he’ll turn out somewhere between these polar opposite evaluations. But in both cases we’re reacting to subjective impressions of mere words and demeanour. I don’t think there’s much more than that to be said and I don’t think it’s possible to say who is right and who is wrong, although it’s interesting that our respective visceral reactions to him are so opposite.

Rex
Rex
13 years ago

It’s very hard for us to judge a used car before we buy them too. But we still buy them.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

Fortunately I’m not in the market at the moment, but if I was I certainly wouldn’t buy a used car from someone who struck me as an oleaginous spiv.

Disraeli
Disraeli
13 years ago

Obama is truly one of the great orators if not the greatest of our time.

I believe, like you, his speech on race was brilliant.

People such as Ken are missing the point.

A ‘typical’ politician would have let the ‘minister’ be eaten by the wolves.

Only a great man could have both shown how profoundly he disagreed yet at the same time how he would still be his friend. this has never occured to me but has to two friends of mine.

We know too from his work in the State legislature that he attempts to practice what he preaches.

He can be roundly criticised for his economic policies not not on this unless you just do not like the man. in that case it merely reinforces your belief.

Alastair
Alastair
13 years ago

“A typical politician would have let the minister be eaten by the wolves. Only a great man could have both shown how profoundly he disagreed yet at the same time how he would still be his friend. this has never occured to me but has to two friends of mine.”

Well said Disraeli.

I agree with Nicholas. Obama inspires hope of real change. He comes across to me as heartfelt and sincere. I hope that he still has a chance of becoming the next US President.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

It seems that those who are impressed by Obama are instinctively prepared to cut him a lot of slack, while those of us who aren’t judge him by rather harsher standards.

For me, Obama’s racism speech and the events leading up to it encapsulate his unprincipled slipperiness. He claims that he had never heard (or heard about) Rev Wright’s specific inflammatory, racist, anti-American statements (inter alia blaming the US government for September 11) that recently hit the headlines but admits that he heard similar ones over the years, presumably not quite so extreme as to require forthright condemnation. However, he admits that when “these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign”. He says that he then condemned Wright’s remarks, but it must have been rather sotto voce because the condemnation seemingly didn’t hit the national media until the issue became a major controversy around 14 March. It’s not possible to be certain that this is a lie, but it doesn’t sound all that credible.

However, even if you feel comfortable with those events, I fail to see how anyone could feel comfortable about his use of his grandmother in his now famous racism speech on 18 March. Suggesting he threw grandma under the train (as Steve Sailer did) is rather mild if anything. Obama seeks to excuse his own failure to disassociate himself from Wright or to condemn him more forthrightly and sooner, by equating Wright’s conduct to that of his own grandmother:

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.

Now, I acknowledge that it’s conceivable though highly unlikely that Obama is referring to a completely different event than the ones recounted in his autobiography (what sort of wanker reckons they’ve lived enough and know enough to write an autobiography at the age of 34?) and summarised by Steve Sailer. However, even if that’s true, the most that can be said is that his aged grandmother privately expressed to her own most intimate family members a fear about an aggressive black beggar accosting her for money, when she wouldn’t have had that reaction if the beggar had been white. There is no comparison whatever between that situation and Rev Wright, who on Obama’s own admission preached inflammatory, racist and anti-American sermons to large black congregations over a period of years (including blaming America for 9/11). For Obama to suggest otherwise is repugnant in the extreme, and I can’t understand how generally sensible people like Nicholas Gruen could think anything else.

Moreover, and by Obama’s own account, neither he nor his father were present when the begging incident took place. Thus, neither is in a position to dismiss the grandmother’s reaction as stemming from racism. They don’t and can’t know how large, threatening or aggressive the beggar was compared with any other beggars she might previously have been accosted by, for an old woman in the situation in which she found herself.

For example, I was accosted by a large Aboriginal beggar only last Saturday at Parap markets, a very populated location. He was much younger than me and much larger, and referred to me as “granddad” (what an insult!). He demanded money aggressively, and when I said “no” he asked “why?”, again quite aggressively. I was momentarily slightly anxious, despite being a bloke who could probably have defended myself if pushed, and in a situation where others would have quickly intervened if the situation had escalated. Was my momentary fear motivated by racism? I don’t think so. Was Obama’s grandmother’s? I don’t know and nor does Obama, but I seriously doubt it.

For Obama to use this incident to exculpate himself from blame over Rev Wright is contemptible.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

As Ken has said, the exact correspondence between the story in Obama’s book and the one he told in his speech is irrelevant, that was a strawman that Tim brought up and in no way detracts from the use of his grandmother as human shield.

Since the Rev Wright has been compared to Jerry Falwell (who made idiotic comments about S11 similar to Wright’s comments about AIDS being a white man’s invention to kill blacks) perhaps a good analogy would be if George Bush had defended Falwell by referring to how ‘my grandmother used to express her dislike of her gay neighbours and hence by extension all gays because they liked to play Kylie at full blast on Friday nights’.

Alastair
Alastair
13 years ago

I’m sorry but isn’t it a good thing that Obama doesn’t believe that people in his own family are above criticism? How do some of you know, as claimed, that Obama’s white Grandma didn’t give her full support to Obama airing that story?

Obama was being open and honest. He was telling a personal heartfelt story explaining how you still love and care for family members, even if they have views which you find abohrent.

I think those making this case against him are being technical and are mising the big picture.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
13 years ago

I’m with Nicholas, Disraeli and Alastair on this. Whatever Obama turns out to be (and as everyone acknowledges, this will remain a mystery until and if we get to see him in action), this particular disagreement seems to me based on a misreading of Obama’s speech.

As Nicholas says, he’s not aiming to exculpate himself, nor to throw anyone to the dogs. He’s trying to show that life and people are complex, that good is mixed in with bad in all of us and that in forming our judgements — if and where we must — account should be taken of this complexity. I don’t see that mentioning the racial fears and prejudices felt by his grandmother dishonours her in any way. It’s simply a concrete, and therefore more powerful, illustration of the fact that such feelings have long been, and still are, part of the fabric of American life. His point is precisely that acknowledging these sorts of uncomfortable facts should not mean that we have to jettison people, to leap to hasty judgements. As he immediately goes on to say “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

More importantly, having been forced by the media reaction to explain his relationship to Wright, he clearly decided to use the example of Wright (and of his his grandmother and indeed the controversy surrounding Ferraro’s remarks) to open out into a wider discussion of race in America. I’d guess he’s long pondered whether to seriously delve into this loaded issue. This furore over his pastor left him with only two options. To dump the man or to try to be true, to properly explain, with all the attendent risks. This comment at Obsidian Wings sums it up nicely:

My fear was that Obama, in opting to give the speech, was giving into the trumped up and bogus frenzy. While I knew this specific controversy would pass, my more general fear was that Obama the candidate and president would be pressured to twist in the Beltway winds.

But he didnt do that. He forcefully distanced himself from Wrights words, but spoke movingly and unapologetically of his connections to the man. He didnt run and hide in Kerry/Daschle-esque cowardly fashion. He stood right up and said, yes, hes my friend. He cast him as mired in the old world, to be sure, but he didnt give into the Russert-style pressure to do some sort of Maoist confessional disavowing all association with the man.

Perhaps Obama is a charlatan and his persona and platform are merely carefully calculated acts. Still, the fact that he chose to take the hard choice over the Wright controversy surely bolsters the hope that he may be at least something like the image he portrays. Certainly, for now at least, taking that chance seems preferable to trudging the tired, sad, failed old roads offered by Clinton and McCain.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“grandmother used to express her dislike of her gay neighbours and hence by extension all gays because they liked to play Kylie at full blast on Friday nights

In this example, grandmother should clearly be hailed for her prescience……..

“That the ludicrously vain Don Dunstan would not only have been able to succeed as a politician despite his uncompromising refusal to deny his homosexuality”

He was a remarkable guy but he was never out as a politician. He actually divorced his first wife and married his second while he was Premier. It was her death in 1978 (and the impending publication of a book that featured his relationship with another man – which he famously deemed a “farrago of lies”) that precipitated his resignation as Premier. When he did eventually begin to publicly acknowledge his “difference” (in the 80’s) he framed it as bisexuality rather than homosexuality.

There’s arguably a parallel here with Obama. Dunstan was flamboyant, glamorously progressive and a breath of fresh air but the fact that he was ostensibly married with kids provided a kind of comfort zone within which the burghers of Adelaide were spared the necessity of focussing on their Premier doing unspeakable things with some bloke. While rumours were rife, they could be put down to Don being a bit different…..

Equally, given his eclectic and attractively exotic origins, Obama might be a safe African-American option for those who might have some trepidation about the historical baggage pertaining to a more traditionally framed Black politician.

And Im in agreement with Nicholas on his interpretation of Wright-Grandmagate

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

Which creates a major problem for us voters .

One which the Americans generally solve by voting for people who have previously governed…

This is the first race I can recall in which there is not even an executive candidate. McCain comes closest solely by virtue of age – hence perhaps simultaneously his greatest strength and weakness.

saint
13 years ago

The thing is, the likes of Falwell and Robertson etc would apologize when they would make outlandish intemperate remarks. Wright does not and hasn’t.

And I thought Obama’s ‘my grandmother was a racist’ speech was abysmal, appalling – even if some thought it was politically astute.

I’d trust a used car salesman over Obama at this point. Used car salesmen at least don’t believe their own spin.

Mark U
Mark U
13 years ago

The US presidential campaign is largely about personalities, unlike Australian elections. So I can understand why Ken and others find it odd that Obama mentioned his grandmother. But it is odd in the same way that Americans are obsessed about a candidates religion in the first place and therefore even expect a candidate to be responsible for the statements of his minister.

When I listened to the speech, the mention of his grandmother did not seem out of context and did not seem designed to defend the statements of Reverend Wright. He was not saying “my white gran is a racist so it is OK for the black Reverend Wright to make inflammatory remarks”. What he was saying is that it is possible to profoundly disagree with the views of people you love, but that does not mean that you cut them out of your life. And that the bigger picture is the need for the US to open a further discourse about racial issues if they are to move forward. In that respect, the overall speech impressed me and the criticisms are nit-picking.

I see Obama as someone who has a better overall vision than McCain or Clinton. Whether his vision is just “snake oil” as Ken seems to believe or something more “honest” as Nicholas believes remains to be seen. Either way, he seems to be offering a bit of inspiration and he could not be less substantial than the current incumbent. If he chooses good quality people around him he should do a reasonable job.

More generally, an athiest could never be president of the US, whereas in Australia we have historically regarded a person’s religious beliefs (let alone what their ministers of relkigion say) as unimportant. Hawke was an athiest and no-one seemed to mind; while Rudd’s emphasis on his Christian beliefs is a relatively new phenomenon for an Australian PM (and one that makes me uneasy).

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“But I think Im right in saying that he never denied his homosexuality.”

In fact he frequently denied rumours of any non-heterosexual impropriety, during his political career, most famously in 1979 when “It’s Grossly Improper” was published alleging that Dunstan not only had a clandestine lover – John Ceruto – but that he’d put him on the public payroll. “A farrago of lies” insisted Don. The authors were of course right on both counts and they never worked in Adelaide again :)

It’s a mark of his enduring aura that the memory of this has faded into the broader narrative about his bravery – audacity as Nicholas accurately puts it – in tackling a huge range of social issues – homosexual decriminalisation etc and that’s probably the way it should be. These days, I often hear people talking about Don being our first out gay politician.

I certainly don’t think that “blame” accrues to him for not being upfront about it -it was the temper of the times. No politician would have survived such a disclosure (most would think very, very carefully about it now) and anyway, he had wives, children, the whole messy nine yards of the 1970’s closet…..but it’s interesting how memory moves to fit the historical legacy.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“…….and in the Governor’s Mansion in far off Little Rock, Arkansas, the young state governor was avidly absorbed in, “Felicia – the Political Memoirs of Don Dunstan………..”

Greg
13 years ago

Reading Obama’s speech confirmed for me that I was correct to cast my primary ballot in his favour. The description of his grandmother’s fear of black men was not a story of aggressive panhandling but an example of a far more generalised irrational prejudice as divisive in his family as Wright’s remarks were divisive in the community, and being used divisively by Obama’s opponents. I don’t think Ken and others objecting to it really understand the history of race relations in America. Which is why the speech resonated so strongly with me. Clinton could do something similar with the gender gap, but race is a much bigger elephant, and neither she nor McCain can address it. What Obama’s speech did in setting out the terms of engagement with race is tremendously important.

Obama is a striking orator, and that’s a good thing. In fact, I’d say that it shows his leadership qualities. There are important questions about his policies, but less so insofar as they reflect on leadership. Anyone can come up with policies, even extreme, nation-changing stuff. Ron Paul had some, but he turned out to be far less of a leader than anyone else on the GOP side. Spurring policies into action is more a matter of inspiration than of legislative draftsmanship.