Friday, March 28, 2008

Barack Obama on Race

It took awhile, but yesterday I found the 45 minutes to watch his Philadelphia speech on race, given last week. You can find it on Youtube, but it seems there's an uninterrupted online version here. (Thanx, Rattling).

It's a fine speech, and will rightfully be referred to over and over for many years.

Not particularly important but nonetheless surprising to me, someone who often does public speaking, is Barack Obama's ability to talk well and at length with very little recourse to text. It's there, beneath the view of the camera, but observe how little time his eyes stray down to it, and how much time they spend making eye-contact with his audience. Not many people can do that.

He respects his audience by speaking to them in an intelligent manner. He's not unique in this, as some pundits seem to think, but it's good. He made this speech at an uncomfortable moment in his campaign, and it's impressive that rather than escape into platitudes he chose to confront the issues head on, in a thoughtful and well informed manner; he is, quite simply, interesting to listen to.

His thesis about the imperfection of the Constitution and even more, of the reality it tried and still tries to inform, is convincing. Yes, the framers of the Constitution decided to live with the glaring hypocrisy of slavery, and eventually hundreds of thousands pf people paid for this decision with their lives - but the Union survived its infancy, and is still around to be further perfected; as Obama says near the end, while it will never be perfect it must be perfected. His descriptions of the essence of religious services and religious behavior in Black churches rings very true and convincing, even if not totally novel, and he's right to create that context for the statements of Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Other strands of his speech left me less convinced. There has to be more to explain the obstinate longevity of the black underclass in America than the story of persecution, segregation and racism, not that any of that story is fictional. I come from a nation that spent far longer than the American blacks as a persecuted minority, indeed one which at times was persecuted for its relationship to the most fundamental essence of its surrounding society (Christianity), and which nonetheless never allowed itself to wallow in self pity nor to achieve less than its full potential because of the persecution. Nor can I subscribe to Obama's ideas about "lobbies and corporattions" that bear responsibility for much of what is wrong about America, nor for his suggestion that somehow dealing with them will heal anything. I suppose there must be corporate excesses in America, but I doubt they're the source of most evil. Corporations are made up, often, of hard-working men and women who are doing their best to get on with life. Finally, I am not convinced that the number of fearful Americans - of any race - is anywhere near what Obama makes it out to be. He was right, and very impressive, to tell about the apprehensions of some whites (he at one point calls them "immigrants") who are challenged just as blacks are; I ask myself, however, if Americans in general are really as insecure and apprehensive about their future as he makes them out to be. (And if so, I ask myself, why? For all it's vast imperfections, America is probably the richest, and most benign large society in the history of mankind).

Having said that, however, I disagree with those of Obama's critics who split hairs about the degree to which he repudiated or didn't repudiate the defamations of his reverend, or that he shouldn't have compared the reverend's public words with his grandmother's private ones. All true, and all not very important. The same goes for his managerial abilities and experience - not very great, apparently.

One of the most important jobs of the top leader of any country, certainly one as important as the United States, is to lead and explain where he (or she) is trying to lead to. Even the greatest of world leaders in the 20th century, Winston Churchill, was a pretty awful manager, as he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his long career. His greatness lay in recognizing the evils of Communism and Nazism long before everyone agreed with him; in refusing to make any compromises with Hitler even in 1940 when Hitler wanted an arrangement, and even at the cost of war; and in his eagerness to support even Stalin if that's what was necessary to beat Hitler.

Barack Obama shows signs of that kind of leadership, at least in the most crucial of internal American issues. If I have yet to make my mind about him, it's not for those internal issues, on which I'd support him. My hesitations stem from the fact that the president of the United States is not only the leader of his (or her) country, he is also the closest one can get to being the leader of the world. And the world is a troubled place these days.


Anonymous said...

Yaacov: With all due respect, stick to Israeli politics. Obama's speech on race was widely praised by the left-wing elements in the MSM who devoutly wished that the very Reverend Wright would have simply faded away. He didn't and he won', in part due to Obama's missed opportunities during his speech.

It was, as we say in the States, Obama's "Sister Souljah" moment--but he blew it. The speech could have been spectacular had he simply denounced Wright, quit the church and addressed in universal terms issues of human dignity which Wright so egregiously violated in his sermons.

Instead, Obama widened his own disaster. The reason is simple: Obama's prospects rely on the independent voter, who had heretofore taken him at face value as a "post-racial" candidate. No Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton race baiting for him; no black, white, no yellow, no brown---just human beings.

But Wright (whose church Obama belonged to for almost 20 years) revealed another side to Obama--that of Black Liberation Theologian.

What Obama accomplished in his speech was to toss away his "post-racial" appeal in exchange for a self-coronation as the latest generation's African-American seer on race. No problem--race is America's greatest albatross, and many generations will pass before we lose our need for seer on race.

But a candidate with national aspirations cannot allow him/herself to be defined as a mono-ethnic or single race spokesperson. Our country is simply too diverse to permit it. (And I'm not just referring to whites here. A careful analysis of Democratic primary polling results reveals that Obama has a serious problem with Hispanic Americans.)

Don't be deceived by the celebrations of Obama's speech that you' may have been reading in various elite U.S. newspaper outlets. It's not representative.

Both he and HRC have been steadily shrinking relative to McCain in genuinely vetted national polls. Moreover, since the Wright controversy broke, HRC has been gaining in Pennsylvania, whose all-important primary is next month.

It comes down to this: Obama had a chance but then unwisely cornered himself as another spokesman for the black community. A talented and able one, yes, but one that is currently striking the great and vital center of American politics as wholly unpersuasive.

Anonymous said...

Even the greatest of world leaders in the 20th century, Winston Churchill, was a pretty awful manager, as he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his long career.

I do not know what you mean by "Manager" - Churchill made mistakes, but to the best of my knowledge he knew how to manage a bureaucracy and get it working exceptionally well. In my experience a skill that deserves great praise. Even though the Iraq war was probably mission impossible to begin with it probably would have profited from a little basic knowledge in the administrative field and the adherence to rule no. 1: never operate with a divided leadership.
Therefore: Obama is good looking and nice to listen to but when where and how have his administrative skills been honed? Always keep in mind: A person at the top who does not value administration highly will not surround himself with experts in administration. Obama as well as his wife always make me feel uncomfortable because they remind me of German SozialarbeiterSpeak, which is certainly uplifting as DreamerSpeak generally happens to be but deny that self-reliance could be a virtue