Sunday, March 23, 2008

Obama: "A More Perfect Union"

Barack Obama
On race and America...
(Image from CNN)

I have finally listened to Barack Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech.

While I do not entirely agree with every specific point that he makes, for he is more to the left than I am, I nevertheless sat transfixed by a nearly forty-minute experience of powerful political rhetoric, and I mean that in the good sense of the word.

I don't ordinarily have much patience with political speeches, but I found myself responding to Obama's extraordinary speech somewhat as one of my Berkeley mentors did to Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention:

Hearing Obama give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was one of the most electrifying experiences of my political life. "Who is this person?" I thought. How is it possible for anyone today to formulate the very best of the American tradition in such eloquent terms? . . . . What impressed me during the last long year of campaigning was not so much his stand on particular issues . . . ; it was the way Obama framed where we are today and how we can move to a better place. In other words, what I first heard in 2004 has only become clearer in the past year: Obama, like no one I have heard in a very long time, understands our political tradition, how it has been distorted in recent years, and how we can return to it at its best.
Those are the words of Robert Bellah, written for the Catholic magazine Commonweal (March 14, 2008, Volume 135, Number 5).

While I also do not agree with Bellah on every political issue -- for instance, we have differed in our analysis of the roots to the Islamist attack on America on September 11, 2001 -- he is a friend, and I share with him a wholehearted response to Barack Obama's eloquence.

How, you may ask, can I wholeheartedly respond to these eloquent words of Obama, given his refusal to personally jettison Reverend Wright, who has uttered such inflammatory words?

Because Obama is right on this point.

If we don't choose our friends on the basis of ideology, if we don't select whom we will draw near and whom we will keep at arm's length on the basis of political correctness -- regardless of views leftist or rightest, whatever we consider 'correct' -- then we must acknowledge that we have people whom we love, people who have loved us and given us help and hope, who nevertheless hold views that we cannot accept.

That, I think, is what Obama was saying about Reverend Wright.

One of my great-grandmothers denigrated African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, utterly unlike my unprejudiced grandmothers reactions. Should I have jettisoned my prejudiced great-grandmother for that? She herself had married a man who was half-Cherokee and often commented on the injustice of America toward the American Indian.

Whose lives are not riven with such contradictions of the heart?

Now, that might sound like special pleading, but let me emphasize that I had left my judgement on this particular case in abeyance until I had listened to what Obama had to say, and in listening, I found myself nodding in response.

Does this mean that I'd vote for Obama this fall if he should be the Democratic candidate? Perhaps not, for I don't agree on everything that he says that he stands for -- restrictions on international free trade, for example -- and I'll never reveal my vote anyway, for reasons previously noted here at Gypsy Scholar, but I will acknowledge that Obama's unifying words appealed to my better nature.

Not that I expect that reason to be particularly compelling to others...

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At 12:34 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I have seen a few blogs where they thought Obama threw his grandmother under the bus. Of course they didn't like much else about the speech.

I do think that there are so many nuclear families that don't have the unique relationships with an extended family, so they wouldn't understand that apparent contradiction.

I like the speech, but I think that it may be the end of his candidacy. I have been anxious all along. There has been so much venom in the blogosphere in regards to most of the candidates.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

BTW I used the same quote as you from Dreams from My Father in my last post.

You would see that I am not pleased by some of the responses to Obama's speech.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've been so busy of late that I've neglected other people's blogs. Thanks for calling attention to your post on Obama's speech.

I have heard one of the reactions that you mention -- the one about "throwing his grandmother under the bus."

I didn't have that impression of Obama's words at all. My understanding was that he couldn't imagine jettisoning any of these people, whether Reverend Wright or his grandmother.

Your point about extended families is well taken. It's also true of small towns, where one has friendships with all sorts of people holding views that differ from one's own. Or of churches, where one disagrees on some things with fellow members and even with one's pastor, yet one remains because the church is also a sort of family.

Not that churches never break up, but that's as painful as a divorce.

Anyway, we'll just have to see how this speech affects Obama's stature. I found his words impressive for their ability to tie his personal story to the story of America and the need for reconciliation in a manner both emotional and intellectual.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a coincidence. I watched that speech last night on Youtube. Overall, I thought it was very well written and delivered, each word carefully chosen in an attempt to bridge the racial divide and acknowledge the viewpoints of all Americans. The thing that annoyed me about the speech was his emphasis on his white family roots. He seemed to be telling white Americans, "See, I'm not so black, I don't hate white people." I found it insulting and unnecessary. I don't think white voters will find him any more appealing because of his biracial identity.

I don't worry about the extreme views of members of Obama's inner circle. He has been embraced by the Democratic elite, who will keep him and his administration, if he is elected, close enough to the center. Republicans, however, are sharpening their knives, looking for anything to use to tar and feather Obama as a radical, anti-American.


At 11:28 PM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Would you feel the same way if he spent 20 years at Fred Phelps's church?

At 2:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Politics does not much interest me, and, so, I did not listen to Obama's speech. Still, despite my best efforts, some of the Wright-Obama matter has reached my attention, and I do not think that jettisoning the person of Wright is the issue. As a matter of fact, it is especially if Wright the person is not (to be) jettisoned that the issue which comes to the fore is whether Obama confronted Wright - personally - in order to possibly make apparent to Wright how he might (likely) have strayed from the important teaching of keeping love central in one's thoughts, words, and deeds. Christians like to insist that, despite much history suggesting otherwise, their religion stresses (an emphasis often described as "unique") just such a necessity for and to love. The snippets of Wright's remark which have garnered so much attention do not indicate any regard for the teaching to love, but, then, those are just snippets. Do Wright's public speeches/sermons ever focus upon the difficult issue of love? Or, does Wright merely foment because of concern for the sake of certain socio-economic groupings and conditions? Love is much more than concern; concern is an inadequate substitute for love.


At 5:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I didn't have the same impression that you had on the issue of his white relatives, but otherwise, we seem to have had similar impressions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott, I don't know. What does Phelps preach about?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, I think that the central question here is what Obama believes. I read his first book and formed a positive impression of him. He seemed honest in addition to being highly intelligent, and I liked his manner of presenting things.

I've only listened to a couple of his speeches, and only relatively recently -- half of his talk in Martin Luther King's church (until You Tube froze) and the entirety of his talk on a "More Perfect Union." So, I wasn't influenced by his rhetorical eloquence, just by what I had read about him.

I suppose that your point is correct, that we ought to discuss controversial issues with our pastors if we disagree with them, but I find that I ordinarily just dissent silently.

Anyway, I've never gotten the impression that Obama shares the views of Reverend Wright on the US government, the AIDS virus, or other controversial points.

But if he does, the evidence will surely come out in the next several months.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does Phelps preach about?

Google Fred "God hates fags" Phelps.

I wouldn't put Jeremiah Wright and Fred Phelps in the same basket. As Barack Obama correctly noted in his speech, the anger of blacks like Rev. Wright, who grew up in the era of segregation and has had to fight for equality all his life, is understandable. Phelps' hatred of gays is not. Gay people had never anything to Fred until he started picketing the funerals of gay people like Matthew Sheppard. Nevertheless, Jesus preached and modeled forgiveness. No true Christian should harbor hate or resentment no matter how justified.


At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, that guy. I'd still have to know more about Phelps. He strikes me as someone whose church, message, and actions are all centered on hatred of homosexuals. It looks like an obsession. I'd certainly wonder why someone would stay in his church, but I'd also still want to hear the reason.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 AM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I guess I would put Wright and Phelps in the same basket. For more information, Trinity United Church of Christ (the congregation in question) outlines their beliefs on their website, along with some "Talking Points" apparently written by Wright.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I would suggest Roland S. Martin's blog, The Roland Report.
His blog has the text of one sermon and audio of the sermons, along with a little commentary of his own. Instead of sound bites, one can hear what he said in the context of the sermon. Martin places these sermons in the place and time, which I am not sure the youtube videos do.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott and Hathor, thanks. I'll try to take a look at those sites.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clearly, Obama's speech resonates with many people - he's very good.

I do find that the Wright issue for me has created an acid test that he failed before he addressed it. The test : his unwillingness to challenge or retire from intimate engagement with this person who apparently was quite open about his most repugnant beliefs.

It is correct to call to into question his use of other people (including grandmother and America's hypothetically prejudiced uncles) to excuse his participation with this organization as well as his friendship with Mr. Wright.

Further, over the course of 20 years, a marriage, baptism, and visible influence of Mr. Wright on the formation of the Obamas ('Audacity' book title drawn from a lecture from Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama has never seen fit to challenge the worldview of his pastor or withdraw from tht church.

After all, while one cannot avoid association with racist uncles, one can choose to change! the church in which he finds himself or choose another place of worship.

Pax, Miguel B.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Miguel B., thanks for the comment.

Yes, there is a difference, in that one cannot choose one's relatives, but can one's friends.

But I'd argue that as a general principle, one should not jettison one's friends.

In this case, Obama's distinction between dismissing Wright's views and dismissing Wright is sufficient for me. I realize that not everyone will agree.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:15 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I don't think that many people get that Obama had to use his grandmother as an example. I think there was a need for others to see the hurtfulness he experienced, even though it wasn't intentional. Does anyone think a child upon hearing that his grandmother feared people who looked like him, might not be affected? It was probably the moment he found out his grandmother was a flawed human being.

I can't say that this was really how he felt, but I had several moments like that, an action by my grandmother that made me feel undeserving.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I recall the same grandmother story from his book, so Obama wasn't saying something in the speech just for the political moment.

What I got from his anecdotal illustrations was that he understands both sides.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this case, Obama's distinction between dismissing Wright's views and dismissing Wright is sufficient for me. I realize that not everyone will agree.

I agree. The reason why Obama distanced himself from Wright's remarks, but not Wright himself, is that Wright's views are shared by many African-Americans. If Obama is going to bridge the chasm that divides us, he must be willing to dialog with respected community leaders like Wright.


At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, that's certainly part of it, though I was thinking only in terms of Obama's friendship with Wright.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the longstanding close relationship between Obama and Wright is the primary reason why Obama won't dump Wright. However, consider how Obama could develop a warm friendship with someone who espouses such strong views that are shocking, even offensive to whites but not so outrageous to blacks, including Obama? While Obama may disagree with some of Wright's opinions, I don't think he is offended by them the way many white Americans are.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Am I still talking to Sonagi?

Anyway, I'm guessing that Obama became friends with Wright through converting to Christianity in Wright's church, but I don't know the details. I don't recall Obama explaining that in depth.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:45 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

anonymous 8:42,
You are right.

I think it is hard for some people to understand the difference between anger and hate or even rage. I wouldn't think that Wright hates America or white people. I think I am rather a typical black person. I also don't think that Wright or his congregation are as ideological as some would think. Actually what makes them Christians is probably in line with the Church of Christ.

We do have a right to our anger.

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suspect that Obama encountered a lot of anger toward whites in his social work among blacks in Southside Chicago, so the positive messages in Reverend Wright's church probably impressed him a lot more than the negative ones.

I'm merely speculating, of course.

I ought to re-read Obama's story of his conversion, but I recall that it seemed to have come fairly soon after he began attending there. He didn't provide many details, however. What he did reveal showed a lot of emotion as he found himself surprised to be in tears.

I'm again speculating, but I suspect that Obama felt that he had finally joined the black community in joining Wright's church, for he had always felt himself a bit of an outsider prior to that time, it seems to me. That might explain why he stayed with the church, along with the fact that he met his wife there.

I don't have any impression that Obama shares the disputed views that Wright holds. I attend a church here in Seoul, and I don't always agree with the minister's views, just as many Christians continue to attend churches where they may disagree with their ministers on specific topics -- e.g., homosexuality or feminism.

I guess that this issue will come up repeatedly, but a week can be a long time in a campaign, so a lot can change...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:01 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...


His words are only inspirational if you believe him.

I don't.

And his staying under the preaching and counsel of Jeremiah Wright gives me good reason to not trust him.

Can he have stayed there and not accepted the philosophy of the church and its pastor as his own?

I doubt it.

And I would wager the vast majority of Americans doubt it as well.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daddio, I guess that I do trust Obama, probably because I read his first book and found him refreshing for his openness despite being a politician.

That doesn't mean that I agree with him on every political issue, of course, but I've noted this point already, so I won't bore people with further protests of difference.

If Obama has been dishonest, then the fact will certainly come out in the campaign, much as Hillary's survival under 'sniper fire' in Bosnia turned out to be a typical Clintonian misrememberation . . . or something like that.

Jeffery Hodges

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