Kenji, thanks for the props last week—looking forward to continuing our conversations here and elsewhere. Since we basically agree on the Obama speech, I wonder what you thought of Christopher Hitchens’ characteristically energetic denunciation of same. As you can guess from my previous posts, I think he was wrong to argue that the speech was nothing more than a cynical political ploy—there were safer ways for Obama to deal with the Wright scandal and he chose one that was, by and large, courageous and honest. But do you think Hitchens did make a few fair points as to the poisonous relationship between race, religion and politics? Such as:
- Obama almost certainly did choose the “controversial” Rev. Wright in order to gain street cred in the poor and segregated black communities of Chicago. Whether this was nothing more than cynical political calculation or a combination of that and a sincere and laudable desire to learn more about the mores and attitudes of a community he felt connected to by race but had had little exposure to is debatable (I think it’s the latter). But having done so, he had to let a lot of crazy and incendiary talk slide and now it’s come back to haunt him: He can’t defend Wright because some of what Wright says is indefensible, and yet he won’t renounce Wright because the community that Wright (to some extent) represents is one that Obama genuinely cherishes and cares about. I don’t blame Obama for this, but isn’t it too bad that “street cred” in the black community comes from alliances with demagogues like Wright?
- Isn’t Hitchens right to bemoan the tight interweaving of black political activism and religion, as epitomized by the so-called “liberation theology” of which Rev. Wright is a practitioner? Isn’t it bad for the black community and for civil rights struggles that so many black political leaders and intellectuals are either ministers or speak in the cadence and use the logic of religion (I’m thinking of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson—all ministers—but also of people like Cornel West who one would think was a minister from listening to him, so completely has he mastered the charisma of the black preacher)? Hasn’t being dazzled by what Max Weber would call the “charisma” of the preacher, the magical thinking of scriptural analogy and the habit of turning political conviction into religious dogma kept black political thought mired in a destructive mind set of grievance and indignation? Yes, yes, I know people will rejoin: “what about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.?” but perhaps he was the exception that proves the rule? Or perhaps the desire to imitate MLK has led too many black leaders to exaggerate the most conspicuous, but perhaps not the most important, aspect of King’s persona—that the charismatic man of faith.
- The upshot: It’s not race but religion that should worry us with respect to the Obama/ Wright connection. Obama is no racial demagogue, but demagoguery is an ever present risk for someone who relies as much as Obama does on charisma in direct imitation of the revivalist preacher. Obama is wise and intelligent enough to offer us sound policy based on reason and analysis, but he too often defaults to “inspiration” when faced with tough questions (this is the real importance of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “it takes a president” comments several weeks ago, and one of the few instances where I have agreed with her in a dispute with team Obama.) If we are to realize the ambition that so many of us think Obama’s candidacy represents—not to get beyond race but to find a new and more productive way of engaging it—then don’t we need to move beyond religious, mystical and so-called “prophetic” approaches to what are, in the final analysis, social policy questions?