Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wright Off

While I've largely stopped paying attention to the farce that the contest for the Democratic nomination has turned into, I can't help commenting on the Rev. Wright controversy and Obama's response to it.

The general consensus, at least among Obama's critics, seems to be that in finally coming out and explicitly condemning Rev. Wright for his ridiculous remarks Obama is going against his natural inclination in deference to public opinion polls. He is, in other words, playing politics - choosing to distance himself from a figure who has clearly become a political liability - and that his 'real' feelings were those expressed in his earlier response to the Wright controversy, when he distanced himself from some of Rev. Wright's more extreme ideas, but refused to condemn the man himself.

It seems to me equally plausible, however, that the opposite is true. In particular, it seems to me that the truth about Obama may be both better and (politically speaking) worse than the conventional interpretation would suggest. This is pure speculation, obviously, but my suspicion is that Obama is precisely the kind of person who's intelligent enough to be able to separate the content of religion from the power associated with it, and use the latter while ignoring the former. In other words, Obama may not have paid attention to / been outraged by Rev. Wright's ideas not because he agreed with them, but because he (Obama) is not the kind of person who takes anything a preacher says seriously. I mean, it's all nonsense, isn't it? How is believing that AIDS is part of a conspiracy against black people any sillier than believing in, say, immaculate conception? Obama wasn't sitting in that church because he wanted to get spiritual or moral guidance or anything like that, he was sitting in that church because being seen as part of that community would get him votes.

The trouble, of course, is that there's no way Obama could ever admit this, even if it were true. No matter how many votes he may lose by being associated with Rev. Wright, he'd lose a great deal more if he were to declare, for instance, that he isn't a religious person, that he sat in church because it was part of engaging with a community and he didn't give a toss what some silly preacher was saying. I personally find the idea of a US President who has no religious faith whatsoever extremely appealing, but I suspect that any candidate who openly admitted this would be dead in the water. So the myth of spiritual guidance and close ties to the faith must be maintained, even at the cost of associating with Rev. Wright.

Seen in this (entirely hypothetical) light, it's Obama's earlier response to the Wright controversy, however skilfully delivered, that is, in fact, the more 'political', which is to say the less sincere. What Obama was trying to do, under the guise of taking a balanced, measured perspective, was to play both sides - appease voters appalled by the specter of Rev. Wright without alienating those who might see a strong repudiation of Rev. Wright as an ungrateful betrayal, an attempt on Obama's part to divorce himself from the very roots that are the source of their support for him.

The irony here is that Obama may be the victim of his own eloquence: because his initial response to the Wright controversy - which may have been just a wishy-washy attempt to pander to multiple constituencies at the same time - came across as so genuine, his more recent stand on the issue (if one may call it that) has come to be perceived as weak and reluctant, a compromise driven by calculative necessity, rather than what it may really be - an expression of the man's true feelings, relieved of the need to try and soft-pedal the issue by either the realization that the more 'political' strategy was untenable, or a sense that the Rev. had made himself enough of a pariah so that he could be repudiated without causing much damage.

Again, I emphasize that this is all speculation - I'm not saying (because I obviously can't prove) that any of this is true, just that it provides a counterpoint to the usual interpretation of Obama's actions and an alternative storyline that fits all the facts but gives us a completely different picture of the man himself than the one the media has been giving us.


Space Bar said...

As far as Wright is concerned, Obama would always have been damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

I just don't get this method of election, really. It's just wasteful and prolonged and deadening.

gawker said...

"Obama wasn't sitting in that church because he wanted to get spiritual or moral guidance or anything like that, he was sitting in that church because being seen as part of that community would get him votes."

I disagree. Obama joined the church in 1980 well before he was thinking about getting any votes. A more plausible explanation would be that a black church is more of a community meeting-house where people gather around once a week just to catch up with each other.

It's like how I often consider going to a theater to watch a Bollywood flick not because I like Bollywood flicks but just to be around other Indians.

But then I remember that I don't particularly like being around other Indians.

km said...

space bar: what exactly is being wasted in this method of election?

Cheshire Cat said...

It's also been touted (by Chrsitopher Hitchens, for instance) that Obama went to church because his wife told him to. She seems the no-nonsense type. By this logic, we'll be getting a de facto female President and a de jure black one. What's not to like?

More seriously, the reason why Obama's more recent position is perceived as inauthentic is simply because his articulation of it sounded inauthentic. I don't know if you actually saw the speech - there was so much hesitancy to it, very uncharacteristic of Obama. Contrarily, he was in his element while giving the race speech. He might have had a deep affection for Wright, and been shocked by Wright's disloyalty.

In general, atheists find it difficult to believe that theists might actually be serious about their beliefs. If there's someone in this election who seems uncomfortable playing the faith card, it's McCain, not Obama.

Falstaff said...

sb: I don't know. What's the alternative?

gawker: I don't know that his having joined the church in 1980 proves anything. If he was planning on running for political office at some point, then being a visible and involved part of the community made sense. Especially if his ambitions at the time were more local.

Though again, this might be because I personally have trouble imagining any motive for wanting to be part of a community except the quest for power.

cat: Ah, but if my hypothesis were true it would make sense for him to make the second speech look forced and fake, wouldn't it - so as to keep trying to appease the people who might be offended by his repudiation of Wright.

It's not that I have trouble accepting the idea that people take their silly beliefs seriously (after all, one accepts it of Rev. Wright) - I have trouble taking seriously the idea that one can tell anything about a career politician's actual thoughts / feelings by what he or she says / how he or she acts. And let's not forget that this is the man who made the now infamous 'bitter' comment - which hardly suggests devotion.

That said, I'm quite willing to believe that I'm wrong and the traditional view is the correct one. Though the idea that Obama might actually take religion seriously is one I find depressing.

Anonymous said...

I think you are just providing two extremes: he doesn't believe at all but goes to church for vote-gathering/power reasons or he is a religious nut who goes to church and believes everything the preacher says. The truth may be somewhere in between. My mother, for instance, goes to church every Sunday. But I would hardly classify her as a religious nut. She believes in God, in religion and so on but hardly listens to the preacher who unfortunately gives his sermons because he has to (most people are sleeping through the sermons at any rate). She likes the feeling of community, both physical and virtual, and part of that price is going to church regularly, as dictated by the religion. At the same time, she is highly skeptical of excessively religious people or of some of the attitudes that the preachers hold.

Obama may have joined the church for reasons that have little to do with vote-gathering. Churches provide a strong sense of community and he may have wanted that. Many people like that sense of community (in fact Dan Gilbert shows that religious people are happier than non-religious people and speculates it might be as much about the community as about religion specifically). I'm not sure what's hard to believe in that.

Do I detect a whiff of the false consensus effect in your writing?


Falstaff said...

n!: Of course I'm setting up an extreme position - deliberately so. My point is that the extreme non-religious story is just as plausible as the extreme religious one.

Also, when I say he's non-religious, I mean pretty much what you say - that he pays little attention to what the preacher is actually saying and / or doesn't take what he says seriously. That doesn't preclude his believing in God, but believing in God has little or nothing to do with believing in religion.

As for false consensus - see "this might be because I personally have trouble imagining for wanting to be part of a community except the quest for power". I've already TOLD you I'm operating on false consensus.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but I disagree with you that Obama is separating the content of religion from the power it represents. I'm arguing that the division may not be as clear cut: Obama may take most or all of the religion seriously without taking this specific preacher seriously on every single matter. In other words, Obama may believe in the Immaculate Conception but not in Wright's preaching about AIDS. You have a good point about what separates the two beliefs - it could simply be that one belief is more deeply entrenched and central to the Christian identity than the other.


Cheshire Cat said...

Just because two positions are both extreme doesn't mean they're equally plausible or equally absurd. Here's why I think your theory is rather more far-fetched than the conventional one. If Obama only looks at religion as a stepping stone to power and the Presidency, wouldn't he have chosen a less controversial pastor than Wright? Here's a guy whose USP is collegiality and consensus-building, and he goes and picks one the most divisive preachers around... It's not as if he had no choice in the matter. Either Obama has a hidden self-destructive streak, or he was so deeply moved by what Wright said in his sermons about religion that he was willing to tolerate, even excuse, all the crackpottery and conspiracy theories...

justanotherindianpoet said...

The whole Wright saga has pretty much destroyed the squeaky clean image that Obama was trying to project to the voters.

An article that I read in Newsweek summed up the whole democratic campaign (from both sides) succinctly:

"... It helps to be able to take a punch and deliver one - even sometimes, a sucker punch. A certain familiarity with life as it is lived by normal Americans is useful; a distance from the elite precincts of academia, where unrepentant terrorists can sip wine in good company, is essential. Hillary Clinton has learned these lessons the hard way; Barrack Obama thinks they are 'the wrong lessons'. The nomination is, obviously, his to lose. But the presidency won't be won if he doesn't learn that the only way to reach the high-minded conversation he wants, and the country badly needs, is to figure out how to maneuver his way through the gutter."

Of course, this was before he won NC and gave what was almost an acceptance speech for the convention (which was mirrored by Hillary Clinton's seemingly indicative concession speech at Indiana).

So, we can say that the hard knocks that Clinton has delivered to the Obama campaign only helped accelerate the kind of politics that he will often encounter on his way to (and inside) the White House.

justanotherindianpoet said...

Umm, it should have been 'has only helped accelerate his learning of the kind of politics that he will often encounter on his way to (and inside) the White House.'