US right: wrong on Obama

Kanishk Tharoor
20 March 2008

Barack Obama's speech on race this Tuesday is already being hailed in quarters of American public opinion as one of the finest pieces of oratory in the country's history. The embattled Democratic presidential candidate turned the pitfall of his relationship with the volatile Jeremiah Wright into a transcendent meditation on the role of race in American society and politics. Few politicians of his stature and exposure have ever dared venture into these dusty corridors of the country's identity. And few will ever be capable of both the eloquence and the probing seriousness that Obama mustered in speaking the previously unspoken (YouTube video below).

As Michael Tomasky observed in the Guardian, the speech was perhaps too brilliant for its own good. But it is a measure of its impact that the bastions of conservative thought have been unable to respond to the newness of Obama's remarks. With their knives out and the table laid, conservatives were ready to carve up the expected, feeble "distancing" act. Instead, dinner was cancelled, and Obama, resplendent in his best smoking jacket, held court in the drawing room.

Take, for instance, the bludgeon and dudgeon of FoxNews' popular "O'Reilly Factor". The grating Bill O'Reilly led both programmes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with "Talking Points" on Obama's address. In the first, O'Reilly had the grace to praise the speech, but then asked quite curiously if "Obama's deeds matched his words" (curious in so far as the words were quite significant deeds in-and-of themselves). O'Reilly's answer was predictably "no", but only because Obama refused to appear on FoxNews. The following night, O'Reilly touched on the speech again, but only as a platform to launch a bizarre and misplaced attack on the aging Jesse Jackson. O'Reilly trotted out the familiar straw-men, failing entirely to engage with the substance of Obama's speech, probably because he didn't know how.

Nor did Dean Barnett of the neo-conservative The Weekly Standard seem to be able to parry the speech's real thrust. Barnett missed the point altogether.

Obama brilliantly answered a question that virtually no one is asking... What the analysts who are gushing over Obama's sentiments regarding race relations are missing is not only did Obama fail to accomplish the mission he needed to, he didn't even really try. He made no attempt to explain his relationship with Wright and why he hung around a man who habitually offered such hateful rhetoric. Obama instead offered a non-sequitur on race relations.

Only blinkered, wishful thinking could think of race in this context as a "non-sequitur". One of the great victories of Obama's speech is that he rose above the foam, addressing the intrinsic problems that on one level frame race relations and on a lower level generate the kind of media frenzy that made Jeremiah Wright a household name.

Never mind that Obama did more than adequately "explain his relationship with Wright" – in unflinching, human terms. Never mind that Obama's relationship to Wright should not be the preoccupation of a country mired in war, debt and division. Never mind that no Republican leaders are expected to account for their flirtations with Armageddon-seeking evangelicals. Obama cut through the chaff to address the question that should have been confronted long before. That the question was unasked is not an indictment of Obama, but of a polity (and an intelligentsia) that continues to choose fluff over fact.

One need look no further than Byron York's meek effort in the conservative National Review for an example of this kind of stilted attention. Clearly unsure of how to respond to Obama's weighty speech, he proceeded to cull quotes of support for Jeremiah Wright from members of the speech's audience, and tar Obama by association – scabrous hackery at its most desperate.

The grey lady of the right, the Wall Street Journal, seemed more equipped to weigh the import of Obama's Philadelphia address. Its editorial on the speech sought to slice through "super-structure" to a material "base" of sorts.

The Senator noted that the anger of his pastor "is real; it is powerful," and in fact it is mirrored in "white resentments." He then laid down a litany of American woe: "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off," the "shuttered mill," those "without health care," the soldiers who have fought in "a war that never should have been authorized and never should've been waged," etc. Thus Mr. Obama's message is we "need unity" because all Americans are victims, racial and otherwise...

And the cause of all this human misery? Why, "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favo[u]r the few over the many." Mr. Obama's villains, in other words, are the standard-issue populist straw men of Wall Street and the GOP, and his candidacy is a vessel for liberal policy orthodoxy -- raise taxes, "invest" more in social programs, restrict trade, retreat from Iraq.

Obama's speech about race was, in effect, about material realities and histories, which he dwelled on particularly in minutes 18-22 and 28-32. Obama insisted that Wright's "anger" and the sense of alienation amongst American minorities (and other groups) was not only "real" but derived from real conditions and events. Suggesting that there are tangible culprits – the WSJ's scarecrow audience of "Wall Street straw men" – does, yes, have a whiff of the "populist" about it. But by speaking in historical and economic (and not just social) terms, Obama has set out a bolder political project, one in which a clear vision of race in America is not simply a box to tick, but an integral and necessary part.

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