March 19, 2008

Well OK Then

Barack Obama yesterday gave the bravest, most honest, most comprehensive and accurate explication of contemporary racial politics I have heard any politician give in my lifetime.

First, let's acknowledge that it's a little absurd and disappointing that the candidate felt a need to speak at all. I understand the desire to publicly distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, but it's disgraceful that such a need is pressed upon him but not upon John McCain, whose affiliations with not one but two overtly bigoted religious figures — one of whom, televangelist Rod Parsley, he has called his "spiritual guide" — could peel paint off the walls in any house of decency. Nevermind that, impolitic tone aside, nothing Wright said was actually, well, wrong. Can it really be news that, comparatively speaking, the black experience in America is an embittering one?

Nevertheless, Obama managed to fashion a rejoinder to Wright and to Wright's critics at once. And it was a capacious one, making room for the richness of American perspective on racial politics. Obama hasn't so much seen something new as he's managed to articulate the state of race relations, and race politics, in America at this moment in a way that gives credence to every point of view, and even every emotion, without the caricature or condescension so endemic to our public discourse. He has been candid without being spiteful, optimistic without being blithe. He treated this most mistreated subject with clarity and with dignity.

And in doing so, he's laid down a gauntlet — not this time for his Democratic competitor or even for McCain, but for citizens. For voters. It is the gauntlet of maturity. There is no guarantee the gauntlet will be retrieved; any honest American must, with sadness, concede this. But there it lies, where it did not the day before. And I don't mind saying that I became an Obama fan today. He transcended the politics I have known for my entire life with this speech; he spoke to me as an adult, as a student of history, and as a person of conscience. That's what I'm after in leadership. It is, in the end, a simple thing.

I hope we'll take up this implicit challenge. I hope Obama will be the Democratic nominee, and I hope I'll have the chance, along with millions of others, to vote for him come next November. I hope the level of rhetoric in the campaign will be raised from here on out, and I even dare to hope that McCain will be called to give a similar accounting for his religious compatriots (and I'd dearly love to hear it if he does).*

* And then I'd like to see Jon Stewart, whose pervasive affection for McCain remains mysterious to me, try to spin it as a character asset, or failing that as plain old comedy gold.

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