Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama, Race, and History

In today's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer offers a denunciation of Obama's recent speech on race relations that is exemplary of its reception by many Americans. According to Krauthammer, the speech is a "brilliant fraud." This judgment hangs on two points. Firstly, Obama asserts a false "moral equivalence" between the private sentiments of his white grandmother or leaders like Harry Truman (who was known to use racial and ethnic epithets) and the public sentiments of Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, Obama confuses "the moral difference between the occasional private expression of the prejudices of one's time and the use of a public stage to spread racial lies and race hatred." Secondly, Obama relies on what Krauthammer calls "white guilt" in falsely contextualizing Wright's speech: "By context, Obama means history. And by history, he means the history of white racism....But Obama was supposed to be new. He flatters himself as a man of the future transcending the anger of the past as represented by his beloved pastor."

These arguments will no doubt be persuasive to many white Americans who are shocked at the level of anger expressed in Jeremiah Wright's sermons. This is unfortunate, as Krauthammer mischaracterizes Obama's assertions and offers up an analysis built on flawed logic. What strikes me as most objectionable in Krauthammer's analysis is his misuse of history. On the one hand Harry Truman's racial views may be dismissed as "the prejudices of his day," while on the other any attempt to explain black anger as a response to white racism is invalid. This is clearly a double standard. By contrast, Obama's speech expressed a much more nuanced and coherent historical sensibility:

"Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety...The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright."

Obama does not claim, as Krauthammer would have him do, that Wright's attitudes are the natural product of white racism. He does, however, admit that Wright's "bitterness and bias" are an organic gauge of the state of public discourse in the black community today; not in the sense that all or most blacks agree with Wright, but that a critical portion of the community is at least willing to overlook his biases in assessing his leadership. In other words, to use Krauthammer's phrase, Wright was guilty of no more than expressing "the prejudices of his time." Thus Obama "could no more disown [Wright]" than he could "disown the black community."

Still, Krauthammer's argument about the moral distinction between "public" and "private" expressions of racially charged sentiments might be cited by way of rebuking Obama. This ignores, however, the ways in which the nature of "public" and "private" discourse changes over time. Harry Truman might have felt constrained in the expression of his views in ways that Jeremiah Wright did not, but this is more a gauge of the historical state of race relations than the moral status of either man. One fair test might be to search for a genuine moral equivalent, for a white leader that Americans revere despite his or her
publicly expressed views on race.

In a speech in Springfield Illinois, the "Great Emancipator" Abraham Lincoln declared, "There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races ... A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation." In his debates with Steven Douglas, Lincoln asserted, "...I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people...There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality..."

These sentiments are naturally abhorrent to our present-day sensibilities, and despite being tolerated in the political discourse of the nineteenth century were, in absolute terms, as morally deficient then as now. Do such realities invalidate the present-day reverence in which Americans hold Lincoln? Are we wrong to build monuments to him, place his picture on our currency, to count him among the greatest Americans who have ever lived? I would argue not, and Barack Obama would agree. What he indicates, however, is that to be American is and was to inhabit a social reality that chronically and violently distorts our orientation towards issues of race, no matter what side of the racial divide we inhabit (or whether, like Obama himself, we stand astraddle that divide). There are many points on which one might protest the comparison of Jeremiah Wright to Lincoln, but in this one respect they are equal: in their problematic orientation toward questions of race (and here one must note that Wright has not, to my knowledge, said anything as personally disparaging of whites as those remarks about blacks quoted above) they are equally American.

Barack Obama launched his campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Illinois, on the steps of the same state house where both he and Abraham Lincoln served as legislators. Obama speaks with frequent pride about his historical connection with Lincoln, and wrote with passion about the inspiration he draws from Lincoln in an essay in Time. In assessing Obama's response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, one must ask what a reasonable response would be if one were to confront Obama with the words of Lincoln's Springfield speech (of which Obama himself evinces being aware). Would anything less than a complete denunciation of Lincoln and repudiation of Obama's former praise amount to a betrayal of the black community? Or, could he reasonably reject and denounce Lincoln's abhorrent statements while persisting in his judgment that Lincoln had been "our greatest president?" If one accepts that the latter response to Lincoln's flawed legacy would be understandable, it is difficult to explain why Obama's current response to the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright is not.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Obama on Iraq

Of late there has been a concerted effort to cast Barack Obama's position on Iraq as inconsistent, naive, or politically cynical. Most recently Michael Gerson claimed that where John McCain won his party's nomination for resisting "overwhelming pressure," Obama will only win the Democratic nomination "because he surrendered to that pressure." By Gerson's telling, McCain's support of the surge showed political courage, whereas Obama's continued support of a phased withdrawal in the face of the surge's effects both contradicts earlier positions he articulated and amounts to mere pandering to the supposed Democratic "anti-war" base.

Smoothly plausible as arguments like Gerson's may be, none amount to more than political spin when put to the least empirical test. No one, least of all John McCain, can claim to have possessed a crystal ball or to have been perfectly consistent in his or her policy advice on Iraq. Where in 2003 McCain expressed confidence that the war would be brief in duration and would virtually pay for itself, today he preaches the need for firm resolve and stoic sacrifice. No doubt he and his supporters would insist that his analysis has changed rightly and naturally as conditions on the ground in Iraq have evolved, and that this is no more than the strategic wisdom of any leader concerned for the security of our Republic. There is little to dispute in such claims, except to point out that any such explanation for Senator McCain's changeability with respect to Iraq applies equally to Senator Obama, a fact that commentators like Gerson would seem to hope we will ignore.

In fact, the basic strategic principles underpinning Senator Obama's orientation toward the Iraq war have remained unchanged since his now famous speech opposing the war delivered in October of 2002: "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Obama has always understood, in ways that McCain and Clinton seemingly do not, that the US has never been in control over how the Iraq conflict has evolved. All pundits and leaders have been in the position of making inaccurate predictions and changing policy prescriptions precisely because there have been few or no criteria by which one might judge what the short- and long- term effects of applying US power might be. Iraq's destiny has always been in the hands of Iraq's people and Iraq's leaders, it has never been in the United States' power to do anything more than catalyze forces already at work in Iraqi society at large. Those forces are so entropic and so volatile, moreover, that even Iraq's most firmly entrenched social and political leaders cannot confidently predict how the political terrain will shift and change from one month to the next. It is thus utter folly to imagine that any US plan will effect transparent outcomes.

McCain's call to remain in Iraq for "one hundred years" still clings to the myth of US omnipotence- any outcome we imagine may be achieved if only we Americans summon the resolve to accomplish it. Such sentiments make for good copy, but one can only stand amazed at the strategic folly of an aspiring US president tying himself to such an unequivocal threshold of success. By equating withdrawal with defeat, McCain has narrowed all of his strategic options to one- remain in Iraq irrespective of the harm or benefit the US presence might cause. To do otherwise would be "surrender."

By contrast, Obama's strategic position has always centered on the pragmatic core of the policy problem rather than symbolic superficialities like the false choice between "withdrawal" and "staying the course." As he said in July of 2004, "The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster." It is this problem, and not some abstract notion of "victory," that has been the focus of Obama's policy advice since his speech of 2002. Obama has argued consistently that the viability of the Iraqi state itself, and not some permanent US presence in Iraq or other symbolic benefit, must remain the focus of US policy efforts, and that to that end eventual disengagement from Iraq is our best and clearest course. Many scoff at Obama's position as naive, but after five years and tens of thousands dead and wounded on all sides such scorn says much more about the deep-seated ethnocentrism of US leaders and pundits than it does about Obama's judgment.

John McCain has undoubtedly been catapulted to the head of his party's ticket by his support of the surge. In January McCain's stance seemed as prescient as that of Obama's 2002 speech in defiance of the war itself. But as the months drag on, there is less and less cause to believe that the surge is the magic bullet that will forestall "the failure of the Iraqi state." Obama cannot claim to possess a crystal ball any more than McCain, but he can claim to have correctly perceived the limits of American power going in to this conflict. In other words, he is among the few American leaders to have predicted just how unpredictable this policy endeavor would prove to be. In that light, Obama's call for a phased withdrawal may be no more sure a solution to the crisis than John McCain's exhortation to stoic resolve, but it is likewise no less sure. Moreover, it recommends itself by virtue of two facts: 1)it has not as yet been tried in the course of this five-year tempest; 2)it is the considered analysis of one whose judgment has proved remarkably wise thus far.