Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama the cultist?

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Obama has now made his speech (see here and here). Mickey Kaus parses and arrives at some conclusions.
More disturbing news about Obama and how he's let other people define him. It just reinforces the point that he's not ready for prime time. There's no indication that Obama shares the inflammatory views of his pastor and the fringe causes associated with his church. But if so, a large question mark hangs over him and his future as a national political figure: why is he associated with such people?*

Is he black enough? Obama remains what he was a few months ago: a questionably "black" candidate - although he wasn't anointed as such until Oprah endorsed him and all the white middle-class liberals rushed out for a look - a political portrait one-quarter or one-third filled in, the rest question marks and blank spaces.

You can see further comment here and here. It's a reminder that much of what passes for "progressive" politics in the West today is a thinly veiled mishmash of hate, conspiracy theories, and juvenile rage. The last thing it represents is progress. It's not about this or that policy; changing those merely leads the hate-mongers to shift their target to something else. Pay attention to the music, not the lyrics. It's the detritus of yesteryear's alliance of the New Left, radical Christian churches, and the mythical "Third World."

Obama has spent most of his adult career with one foot in this fringe swamp of the self- and America-hating left. It is this issue - not the silly rumors about his being a Muslim - that should have been out in front for discussion all along. What's striking is Obama attempts to rationalize his pastor's screeds; these are the feeble excuses of a cult member trying to defend the cult guru.

Off to the races. How serious is Obama about these cult beliefs? Many people have simply assumed that he's fully into it. But there is another, more likely, possibility. Obama's biography looks like a younger Colin Powell: a man of mixed racial background whose life circumvented the main traumas of segregation and desegregation and is comfortable around both white and black culture. Someone in this position has some powerful advantages, but also lives a painful dilemma. One way to resolve it is to play the game, "Are You Black Enough?", and pay your "race dues." That seems to be the case with Obama and the angry Pastor Wright. There's probably an element of cynical calculation involved, but this aspect of Obama's biography also reflects a genuine personal dilemma. For more along these lines, see this by Matthew Yglesias and this by David Bernstein.**

For American liberals, this fiasco is another case of getting burned by their left-leaning political slumming. They get entranced by the slogans, then wake up the next day in a place they didn't expect. The saving grace this time is that they have plenty of forewarning. What's happening now is a striking case of post-facto rationalizing by the supposedly ultrasmart, but in reality very provincial, people with fancy degrees who've been caught - again - with poor judgment and self-deception. It's something they seem good at. It certainly makes all the portentous hairsplitting about, say, Romney and Mormonism, look asinine.

If Clinton wins Pennsylvania (which she probably will), she will have won all the swing states, and all but one (Illinois) of the large states. The Democrats would be crazy not to nominate her. Clinton has a better than even chance at the nomination, one that is growing every day. She is certainly the candidate in a better position to take on McCain. Obama's candidacy is about to enter a terminal tainspin, and by May or June, everyone will be wondering what the fuss was about.†

Paging Senator Obama. Meanwhile, whether Obama will turn out to be a flash in the pan or a national politician of real significance remains open. This election will not decide it. Both he and the voters need another election cycle or two. Certainly, 20+ years of national politics lies open to him. The result hinges on his self-definition, something he hasn't yet taken a stand on. If Obama resolves his dilemma the right way, he can escape the self-ghettoization of identity politics and become a serious national politician. If not, then not.
* Mark Steyn asks the same question in a different way here. Curiously, Oprah left this church quite a while ago - which only makes the question sharper.

** If he experienced this dilemma, Colin Powell resolved it by becoming career military.

Probably the main motive for angry cults and cult leaders - like Pastor Wright and Louis Farrakhan - is just this dilemma faced by a formerly oppressed minority moving from ghetto to mainstream. The upside is obvious: the minority is no longer held down by legally restrictions and social prejudices and can participate in society like everyone else. The less-discussed downside is obvious from the emergence of the black underclass that started in the late 1950s and still lingers: it's the embarrassing problem of washing your dirty linen in public. American and Caribbean blacks have been from the start a semi-submerged distinctive subculture with only faint connections to Africa: they're far more New World than Old. The major step toward a more just society started when whites started acknowledging this fact. But when a semi-submerged subculture moves into the mainstream, everything is now on view, both strengths and warts.

A telling fact: angry identity politics cults emerge after the oppressed minority achieves some enhanced freedom and opportunity, not before. The origins of the Nation of Islam are not in the 19th-century South, but the mid-20th-century North - Detroit, to be exact, where founder Elijah Muhammad picked up, among other things, Henry Ford's nasty rantings about the Jews. Similarly, contrary to the fantasies peddled by Wright, he and Obama and his congregation are not poor and oppressed: quite the contrary, they're dizzy with freedom and opportunities even their parents could barely imagine. Living next door to the underclass neighborhoods of Chicago, ringing with drug pusher gunfire, makes clear every day that some of the newly freed are making poor use of their new freedom. Conspiracy theories are attractive to people in such situations - they appear to explain everything and distract everyone from harsh facts.

The case of American Jews demonstrates the point in a different way. Although there have been identity demagogues amongst us (Rabbi Kahane being the best-known), the success and acceptance American Jews have enjoyed in the last 60 years greatly limit their appeal.

† Keeping insufferable television journalists in our faces 24/7? Was that the point?

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