Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Swiftboating

So, it begins. The Rev. Jeremiah Right is being trotted out as Obama's swiftboat. This takes me back to the original swiftboating. Here's the analysis that should have been done then, and it applies now.

Let's assume the worst is true, that is, that Barack Obama's primary connection to this church is along the axis of the criticism Rev. Wright delivers about government and politics from the pulpit. What is actually going on here?

Black preachers' polemics are comforting to people who are angry, frustrated and hurt by racial injustice in this country. When angry and frustrated people can share such in a group setting of speeches and prayers rather than acting it out through physical violence or destruction, peace is made. That may not be the only thing going on, but it is part of it.

This is not black and white. I live in a black neighborhood, a mix of African immigrants and African-Americans. They have legitimate grievances. This country is supposed to be about giving mankind an opportunity to speak freely and air grievances.

You know what else? You do know. We all know. This country is not just a force for freedom and justice on this planet. That's not just because honest mistakes are made. The USA is a mix of good and bad just like everything else is. Look at the world. This is how it is. Those who have grievances against us are not simply hiding behind some flimsy argument in order to justify doing us harm. They have legitimate grievances against us.

Our collective inability to admit mistakes and issue apologies is our greatest threat to our own national security. The best defense against terrorism is the strength to formally say "we were wrong, we're sorry." This country, which denies access to medical care to millions, incarcerates hundreds of thousands for addiction, and participates in unknown numbers of other mistakes, will not be able to assert itself as the moral force it once was until it can deal with the nuances of human behavior, which means that mistakes are made, apologies are due, and the public peace requires a reasonable tolerance for accepting being offended. The US government needs to be held to the same standards. We don't need to assert this notion that we are faultless and divinely-inspired in order to be strong.

I sat in many a church pew when I was growing up hearing all kinds of offensive and over-the-top inappropriate rhetoric spewing from some self-impressed preacher's mouth. I don't remember any of it. I'm sure Senator Obama is in the same shoes. He is a man who struggled with finding and refining his identity as an African-American most of his life. I'm not surprised that he found a connection to that culture in church, most upper-middle class African-Americans do as well.

But being willing to listen to a polemics about pain and oppression is good training to be President. We need someone who can hear an argument without being immediately convinced by it. This is the entire reason that GWBush doesn't like to "debate himself." Being unwilling to balance and manage conflicting, even paradoxical, points of view is not a sign of strength, it is arrogant, aggressive and assertive, but not strong.

So, this is the bloody and violent politics that has to stop. We shouldn't require that Obama denounce his pastor in order to be President. He already has, but it's not right. If sitting in Rev. Wright's pews truly had the power to motivate someone to harm the US government that would have happened long ago. We'd have hoards of hooded US terrorists blowing stuff up and assassinating officials right now. It's not rhetoric that causes terrorism, Rhetoric is the little blue tulips decorating the icing on the cake. Violence and injustice causes terrorism, and more often that not the terrorists target the wrong people out of their own biases of ill-will and political myopia.

Have you ever noticed that terrorism flourishes best in environments with no freedom of speech and association? People who can freely speak and associate get into stupid and petty arguments, but the more the public order, the more those arguments become verbal and transactional (finance).

So, in 2004, the suggestion was made that Sen. Kerry's Vietnam experience was less heroic than claimed. Ask someone who has been in combat. It probably was, but one must evaluate that in the context of the awareness that combat is confusing and complicated, an overload of sensory input occurs, and there simply aren't ways to ever really know what happened. We tell a nice story because we need to stay hopeful to pursue our collective goals, but the facts are a mix of bravery and cowardice, good and evil, smart and dumb, and it all depends upon which fraction of the facts you attend to. You can tell any story and it will be "true."

This is the way Sen. Kerry's swiftboating is analogous to Sen. Obama's. It presumes an underlying simplicity of analysis that simply doesn't exist. There's too much going and too little of it is under Senator Obama's control to draw any conclusions germane to his qualification to be the Democratic Presidential nominee from the speeches and writings of his pastor. Yes, it would be nice if it were that simple, but it is not.

Further, it is violent and mean-spirited. What kind of people are we, really?

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