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.