Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Is a politics of sanity possible?

This is a post inspired by the recent Obama-Wright controversy, so I may as well start out by saying what I think of Obama's recent speech. Not essential to the post--I'm going to end up talking more about religion than race--but too hard to write around it, so here it goes: it was an average speech. One any politician could have produced. Didn't even have Obama's usual smooth shallowness. The stuff that everybody was focused on--Wright--was word salad. Wright's nutty comments are described as "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." When did the word "crazy" become too short? He didn't have to give the Michael Reynolds fantasy version of the speech, but a little more bluntness would have been appreciated. Obama could have said "crazy" without (what is now the popular phrase) "throwing Wright under the bus;" try "it's disturbing to see someone you know well and generally admire buy into ideas that crazy."

The general comments on race were better. Didn't quite resonate with me--my generation is more nearly over race than Obama's (not that we're entirely over it, if we were, I would have heard an Obama-fan friend talk about how great it is that Obama's black). I can think of it, though, as a nice perspective from an older generation. On the other hand, "great"? More like all in a day's work for the sharper observers of modern society. (The TVTroes entry hype backlash may explain part of my reaction here.)

Oh, and then there's this other facet of the speech, which, well, let me quote Ross Douthat here:
Of course John Derbyshire is right that Obama’s vision of how America ought to transcend our racial divisions is essentially left-wing, with whites and blacks joining hands to raise taxes and government spending, while uniting against their common enemy, the wicked axis of corporations, lobbyists and special interests.
And Amba:
I think Rezko is all you have left.

UPDATE: Oh, that and -- the easy populism, the class warfare.

It was the race part of the speech I thought was powerful, brave, and original. The redistributive liberalism, the Dem boilerplate, not so much.
I won't say the first thing that comes to mind here, for fear of being too hard on the guy, but I will say it seems rather unreflective of Obama.

Final comment about the speech: if this post gets any real attention at all (and it may not), it will include Obama fans who think there must be something wrong with me for not being impressed by it. This, I take it, shows just how screwed up our public discourse is. And that's what I really want to talk about.

You see, there was a point when I noticed how association with racism could just torpedo a public figure's credibility. I thought to myself: why couldn't we do that with religion? Not treating belief in God like racism, no, but treating the belief that everyone who disagrees with you goes to hell like racism--that seemed like an obvious move. I voiced the idea as best I could here, but started noticing things that should've clued me in that it wouldn't work. One example was in my post What's Wrong with Ann Coulter?, where I said "When I first encountered her, I took it for granted that the problem was she was making outlandish claims on flimsy rationales," but "Somehow, some people seem to have gotten the notion that the issue with people like Coulter and Goldberg is just that they're so rude." I described other observations in my post Against Whining. Other things I haven't noted here--like how some atheists, when presented with the claim that atheists have no reason to be moral, don't respond that this is a stupid bit of philosophy, but rather complain about how darned offensive it is.

What I had imagined doing, based on how we deal with racism, was a politics of sanity, where crazy beliefs are embarrassing to public figures, and more than anything people are forced to discuss their crazy beliefs, rather than hiding them for discussion only by the initiated (the official policy for the Scientology doctrine of Xenu, and a policy which seems to have been adopted informally by many Evangelicals for Christian doctrine). I still believe getting crazy beliefs out in the open is a good thing, but have realized the tools of national-level politics are too crude for the task.

For starters, it's too hard to get the loudest voices in these debates to talk about whether a belief makes sense, rather than whether it's offensive. This came out pretty well when Hagee endorsed John McCain. The secular flak McCain got for that was exactly the kind of thing I had wanted to see, and I quickly switched my support to Jon Stewart. I did notice that Bill Donahue got involved, though, and Donahue is no supporter of open discussion of whether religious beliefs make sense. Donahue is the guy who called Bill Maher the biggest bigot in the country. I wasn't excited to be associated with that.

Other things came up as the Hagee thing and the Wright thing played out in parallel. In both cases a candidate had gotten himself entangled with a nutcase, claimed to reject the nutcase's views, and a lot of people still wanted blood. At that point, there was nothing sensible for the candidates to do: they could either let things be with brief comments, hope it all goes away (McCain), or make a so-so speech for everyone to debate with great vitriol (Obama). Via Hemant's place and Sullivan's place I saw what were to me baffling complaints that Obama was facing an unfair double standard. I don't know about the MSM (don't pay enough attention to them), but in the places I hang out McCain got hit pretty hard for Hagee, and people were in fact more inclined to let Obama off the hook. Other people have noted the strange connections between the Wright kerfluffles and the Religious Right including Frank Schaeffer and, of all people, Mike Huckabee.

What's clear about all these cases is that nobody, no matter how good or bad their intentions were, succeeded in advancing the debate about race or religion. Everything was too bound up in attacking or defending whatever political figure was involved. On top of that is the way everything boiled down to offensiveness. Not only does talk about offensiveness not advance the debate, it sets it back. It lets people with nutty beliefs convince themselves that they're a-okay, as long as they aren't "offensive." I've talked to more than a few Campus Crusaders who go to great lengths to insist they aren't to be compared to the street preachers who come through town, even if they couldn't name an actual point of disagreement with what the preachers say.

So I've given up hope on the kind of politics I wanted. We can have a politics of attacks, defenses, whining, and offense, but politics appears to be no place for sanity.


Stardust said...

but in the places I hang out McCain got hit pretty hard for Hagee, and people were in fact more inclined to let Obama off the hook

This I do not understand. Liberal atheists will crush Republicans into the ground with criticism over this "endorsed by god" crap, but when a Liberal is far too fundie, we are supposed to vote for them and have "faith" that a miracle will come.

No miracles are going to come from Obama. And as far as his connection with the crazy pastor, the pastor preached at that church for more than two decades, Obama sat through many a sermon, Obama has identified Wright as his spiritual mentor. He may have asked Wright to step out of the limelight of the campaign, but he has not disassociated himself from him, or the church which obviously supports the things Wright beliefs and preaches from the pulpit about. And as far as not knowing anything about it, Obama HAD to know if he really is as close to Wright as he claims to be.

So I've given up hope on the kind of politics I wanted. We can have a politics of attacks, defenses, whining, and offense, but politics appears to be no place for sanity.

That about sums it up. I am totally disgusted by it all.

Great post. I think this reflects the feelings of a lot of voters.

Vinny said...

my generation is more nearly over race than Obama's

You are a very bright young man Chris. I think you are almost as smart as you think you are, but not quite.

Hallq said...

Stardust: on the first comment you quoted, just remember that the places I hang out may not be the ones you hang out in, so don't be surprised if you don't understand.

Vinny: I'm tickled by your comment generally, I may have a new way of introducing myself to people. But what do you mean to say about the quote specifically?

Vinny said...

But what do you mean to say about the quote specifically?

As the years have passed, I have found that I understand some things much better than I once thought I did. On the other hand, there are things I thought I understood quite well which, it turned out, I really didn't.

Questions related to race are the kind that have tended to fall into the latter category.