Thursday, March 27, 2008

The US Elections: The Wright Stuff

So much has been written and said about the speech Obama gave that morning in Pennsylvania on March 18th that it sort of boggles the mind.

Well, it boggled my mind, at least.

Now that some time has passed and we're back to simpler issues (such as Clinton's amusingly fictional heroics at Tuzla), I guess it might be time to try and give a few comments of my own.

The first - and very obvious - thing that caught my attention is how differently the speech was viewed by the commentators. As a result, they initially reminded me of the blind men examining their elephant, all of them coming up with surprisingly self-confident conclusions that were often partly true and always partly wrong.

Here are two quotes which illustrate this. The first is from a piece written by Andrew Sullivan for The Atlantic Magazine:

"(...) I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history."

The second is from Charles Krauthammer's article in The Washington Post:

"The question is why didn't [Obama] 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."

Huh? Are these two people actually talking about the same thing? How did Obama manage to give what was a relatively compact speech and end up with something "we have all been waiting for for a generation" and reveal a "scandalous dereliction"?

Well, as mentioned, the elephant answer is the first to spring to mind. To paraphrase John Godfrey Saxe: each disputant, it seems, is railing on in apparant ignorance of what the other means. They're prattling on about an elephant they're not able or willing to look at in total.

I have come to believe, though, that this answer doesn't quite cut it. It's true as far as it goes, but it ignores a very basic fact: however diametrically opposed the reactions to the speech at first seem to be, there is also an underlying similarity.

Consider for a moment Krauthammer's outrage at Wright's words "God damn America!"

And now compare it to the the final part of the Andrew Sullivan article:

"Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right - and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country's history.

I love this country. I don't remember loving it or hoping more from it than today."

Isn't Sullivan in effect saying: "Listen to Obama. Isn't this a great country?" And isn't Krauthammer saying: "Don't listen to that crazy anti-American pastor! This is a great country!"?

Taken that way, don't they - in essence - have a similar starting point? The fact that they nevertheless totally disagree is not because their approaches are different. It's because they apply the same approach differently. Sullivan is enthralled with what Obama said because, for him, it exemplifies America's greatness. Krauthammer is appalled by what Wright said because he feels it disavows that greatness.

The underlying notion is, however, identical: the perceived notion of the inherent greatness of America. And since America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, Americans are great too.

Americans, to put it another way, have the right stuff. To quote Tom Wolfe:

"(...) and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even – ultimately, God willing, one day – that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself."

America is great; Americans are great: it is this idea, it seems to me, that is ingrained in both Sullivan's and Krauthammer's minds. And it's hardly surprising: it is, after all, ingrained in the minds of the vast majority of Americans. Children are basically force-fed it every day as they pledge their allegiance. Sport fans enact it with their invarying cries of "USA! USA!" at every international competition. And again and again, it is evoked at times of difficulty, most recently by John McCain in his first presidential election ad ("Stand up! We're Americans and we'll never surrender!")

But this is also, perhaps, the very idea that invites comparison between commentators like Sullivan and Krauthammer on the one hand, and those reputedly wise men and their elephant on the other. Unlike the wise men, though, Sullivan and Krauthammer aren't really blind; instead, they choose not to see. In his outpouring of love for America upon hearing Obama's words, Sullivan chooses to essentially ignore the fact that it is America that not only has given but still gives rise to the dark anger of Wright; in denouncing Obama, Krauthammer chooses to ignore those that are willing to work towards bridging a very real divide, and that one of them - by some rather miraculous twist of fate - has a very real chance of becoming president.

And because of this, it seems to me that this idea - this notion - of the right stuff, and the delusional but ubiquitous idea that it has already been attained, is preventing America from truly dealing with the Wright stuff. And from becoming - ultimately, God willing, one day - great.

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