The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Location: Palms - L.A, California

Saturday, March 22, 2008

When You Only Hear What You Want to Hear

(you're tone-deaf...)

Well, as feared a few days ago, people may have heard Obama's speech, but they sure as hell didn't listen.

People read what they wanted to into the speech. OK, that's inevitable to a degree. But to so utterly conflate theology with politics - or refuse to acknowledge the salience of race - is simply denying reality. Moreover, when you do get into the politics of all this: you find so many examples of hypocrisy and/or double standards that they'll spin your head out of orbit.

Look, Obama's approval of Wright's theology and the gratefulness he feels towards the preacher for helping him find spiritual peace, does NOT mean that he approves of the man's politics. This connection only exists in the minds of those who want it to be there. This guilt by association thinking is the opposite of the speech: simplistic, myopic and insular.

Furthermore, it's lazy: since few care to find out more about the church in question. Even a smidgen of research would show that Trinity United Church of Christ is not a hotbed of extremism (in fact, it is progressive on issues like gay rights). If you believe that Obama would join an extremist church, stay there for TWENTY years and then hope he could "get away with it", I've got a bridge to sell ya...

On the issue of race: it's clear to me that some people can't overcome their own prejudice. They watch the endless loops of Wright screaming "God damn America" on television, and then get their "analyses" of Obama's speech from the same channels that peddle these loops to begin with. Where was the journalism over the years, decades, centuries, describing a church like this, a preacher like this? This is what we get as consumers? Thanks, but no f^%*%^king thanks. It's pathetic.

Have you heard of Margaret B. Jones, aka Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer?

If not, read this and weep. A case like this shows how far removed the white community is from any black reality. Yet, they are willing to believe whatever their malicious prejudiced or bleeding liberal little hearts tell them...

Let me conclude with what "real" pundits have to say. In the mainstream media, Nicolas Kristof of the NYT has excellent points to share: "The outrage over sermons by Mr. Wright demonstrates how desperately we as a nation need the dialogue about race that Mr. Obama tried to start with his speech on Tuesday. Many well-meaning Americans perceive Mr. Wright as fundamentally a hate-monger who preaches antagonism toward whites. But those who know his church say that is an unrecognizable caricature: He is a complex figure and sometimes a reckless speaker, but one of his central messages is not anti-white hostility but black self-reliance."

And the same paper's Roger Cohen reflects on his youth in South Africa, on how being white in a racist state, informs his take on all this: "The unimaginable South African transition that Nelson Mandela made possible is a reminder that leadership matters. Words matter...The unthinkable can come to pass. When I was a teenager, my relatives advised me to enjoy the swimming pools of Johannesburg because “next year they will be red with blood.” But the inevitable bloodbath never came. Mandela walked out of prison and sought reconciliation, not revenge. Later Mandela would say: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Over at the Huffington Post, former Religious Right leader Franklin Schaeffer puts the religious and other aspects into a wider perspective: "I think there is reason to hope. There are decent people out there who have refused to go along with the smear-by-association campaign. Mike Huckabee defended Obama. McCain said we can't blame Obama for his minister's words. Not everyone on the right is stooping as low as the Clintons and the right-wing media scavengers. Obama is worth fighting for. He is worth losing old friends for. History has thrown America an unlikely lifeline. Do we have the decency, the sense, the last glimmer of sanity needed to open our hearts to change?"

Finally, the most interesting take on all of this, Charles Murray's. Charles who? The man behind the infamous Bell Curve, that's who!

Writing on the National Review's online forum for its own writers, the Corner, Murray actually professed to like the speech. He is no liberal, and as he make amply clear, would never vote for Obama. But he was deeply saddened by his friends' and peers' reactions to his approval of what Obama's speech was really about:

My Last Word on Obama, I Promise. [Charles Murray]

To all my friends and people I admire who have completely befuddled me with their reaction to Obama’s speech: Speaking or writing about difficult race problems is different from speaking or writing about any other public policy issue. If you take a position on the Iraq war or health care, you will attract reaction from people who say you’re crazy, but they will be responding to what you actually said and, more or less, to how you actually meant it. The same is not true of race. Text that deals with a difficult racial issue is like a Rorschach ink blot. People project onto that text—project their own experiences, anxieties, angers; all the emotions that go into thinking about race, which means all the emotions that exist. You can weigh every word of your text. You can rewrite it until you think there is absolutely no way that a fair-minded person can fail to understand what you said. And they will not only fail to understand it, they will accuse you of saying exactly the opposite of what you said.

“Murray just has hurt feelings about The Bell Curve,” I hear from the bleachers. Well, yeah. But the problem generalizes to everyone who tries to be honest about race, and now it has happened to Barack Obama. Take, for example, the treatment of his reference to his white grandmother. Of course you can go after him in all the ways that people have gone after him—if what you want to do is go after him. But suppose you approach Obama’s text under the twin assumptions that (a) he is trying to communicate with you, and, (b) your obligation is to make a good-faith effort to understand his meaning. I read what he said about his grandmother, and his words left me in no doubt about two things: He really loves his grandmother, and he was saying something important about race that I recognized from my own experience. I bet many of the people who have slammed him recognize it from their own experience too. The guy was being honest, and he was being right. What the hell more do you want?

Ah, but he was trashing his grandmother for political purposes, he was equating what she said with the much more terrible things that Rev. Wright said, blah, blah, blah. Yes—if you insist on interpreting what he said purely as an exercise in political positioning. No, if you go to his text with the intention of trying to understand what Obama thinks about race.

I understand how naïve it is to read a presidential candidate’s speech as if it were anything except political positioning, but that leads me to my final point: It’s about time that people who disagree with Obama’s politics recognize that he is genuinely different. When he talks, he sounds like a real human being, not a politician. I’m not referring to the speechifying, but to the way he comes across all the time. We’ve had lots of charming politicians. I cannot think of another politician in my lifetime who conveys so much sense of talking to individuals, and talking to them in ways that he sees as one side of a dialogue. Conservatives who insist that he’s nothing but an even slicker Bill Clinton are missing a reality about him, and at their peril.

I can’t vote for him. He is an honest-to-God lefty. He apparently has learned nothing from the 1960s. His Supreme Court nominees would be disasters. And maybe he is too green and has lived too much of his adult life in a politically correct bubble. But the other day he talked about race in ways that no other major politician has tried to do, with a level of honesty that no other major politician has dared, and with more insight than any other major politician possesses. Not bad.


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Blogger twoberry said...

Just a wonderful blog. And thanks for the link to Schaeffer, which I'd been trying to find all morning. I blog at if you want to come over and meet me.

7:24 AM  

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