Guilt by Association: Obama and Wright


A few weeks ago Stanley Fish wrote this in his column Think Again:

Renunciation of a position you no longer hold and now consider to be profoundly in error may be helpful to your psychological health. Renouncing a group from which you have broken away may serve the useful purpose of warning others away from the dangers you have now escaped. Denouncing is a bit different. Usually we denounce our opponents, not our friends or associates or loved ones (unless we are living in a totalitarian state where denunciations are offered as proof of loyalty). So it seems overly dramatic to denounce a supporter because he or she has uttered an opinion you find distasteful. Better to say something mild and nuanced – I don’t agree with that, but I’m not going to turn my back on someone because of a few unfortunate remarks – and get on with the real business at hand. That is what Obama did in his justly praised speech.

These days Obama has shifted gears. Certainly, Wright has said some um..unfortunate things in the last few days. Today’s NY Times editorial says it all:

In the last few days, in a series of shocking appearances, he embraced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. He said the government manufactured the AIDS virus to kill blacks. He suggested that America was guilty of “terrorism” and so had brought the 9/11 attacks on itself.

The first two claims caused me to raise my eyebrows, the last claim is pretty boring at this point. Certainly, given the symbolism that 9/11 wields such a claim would make a slick politician like Obama rather nervous. Of course, Jean Baudrillard was accused of justifying terrorism when he wrote in a November 2001 article in Le Monde and reprinted as The Spirit of Terrorism:

Because it was this insufferable superpower [i.e. the US] that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all. That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream of the destruction of so powerful a Hegemon —-this fact is unacceptable to the
moral conscience of the West. And yet it’s a fact nevertheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to cover it up. In the end, it was they who did it, but we who wished it.

However, Baudrillard aptly defended himself from angry accusations that his comments were nothing less than anti-Americanism or worse, a legitimation of terrorism:

I do not praise murderous attacks — that would be idiotic. Terrorism is not a contemporary form of revolution against oppression and capitalism. No ideology, no struggle for an objective, not even Islamic fundamentalism, can explain it. …I have glorified nothing, accused nobody, justified nothing. One should not confuse the messenger with his message. I have endeavored to analyze the process through which the unbounded expansion of globalization creates the conditions for its own destruction.

Maybe Obama could have taken that type of tack, responding to each claim one by one as he did in his earlier speech about the “complexities of modern life,” but of course not, it’s the middle of a increasingly nasty race for the nomination. As Maureen Dowd writes in her column today:

At the very moment when his fate hangs in the balance, when he is trying to persuade white working-class voters that he is not an exotic stranger with radical ties, the vainglorious Rev. Wright kicks him in the stomach. In a narcissistic explosion that would impress Bill Clinton, the preacher dragged Obama into the ’60s maelstrom that he had pledged to be an antidote to. In two days worth of solipsistic rants, the man of faith committed at least four of the seven deadly sins — wrath, envy, pride and greed (book and lecture fees?) — while grandiosely claiming he was defending the black church.

Obamba seemed to be pissed off, not for Wright’s silly comments, but by the pastor’s suggestion that Obama was a phony: “What I think particularly angered me,” Obama said, “was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks was somehow political posturing.” And later: “If Reverend Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well, and based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either.” Here’s Obama again: “I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this,” he said. Obama has made it clear that if Wright speaks out again, he will not represent the Obama presidential campaign. The real problem, as Dowd writes, is race baiting:

It is an injustice, a legacy of the racist threads of this nation’s history, but prominent African-Americans are regularly called upon to explain or repudiate what other black Americans have to say, while white public figures are rarely, if ever, handed that burden. Senator John McCain has continued to embrace a prominent white supporter, Pastor John Hagee, whose bigotry matches that of Mr. Wright. Mr. McCain has not tried hard enough to stop a race-baiting commercial — complete with video of Mr. Wright — that is being run against Mr. Obama in North Carolina. If Mr. Obama is the Democratic presidential nominee, we fear that there will be many more such commercials. And Mr. Obama will have to repudiate Mr. Wright’s outbursts many more times. This country needs a healthy and open discussion of race. Mr. Obama’s repudiation of Mr. Wright is part of that. His opponents also have a responsibility — to repudiate the race-baiting and make sure it stops.

Yes, agreed. However, the very fact that Obama has to repudiate Wright’s comments, as if we are so stupid that we can’t tell the difference between what Obama says and what Wright says, or we think that because Wright and Obama are associates (or look alike), they must have the same opinions. The talking heads on Fox News and CNN help to produce such “problems” when they have Wright as a guest and ask deliberately mean-spirited and more to the point, loaded questions. This only serves as a smoke screen so that–as Fish suggests also–the voting public actually thinks they are debating serious issues and in turn, taking part in a genuine political dialogue when in fact genuine political dialogue has been left behind favoring instead a conversation that rivals the supermarket tabloids.

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