Saturday, April 5, 2008

Obama and M.L. King

Martin Luther King Jr. died at age 39; today, the 40th anniversary of his death, is the first time he has been gone longer than he lived. Figures such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have tried to claim his place on the American stage. But at most they have achieved fame and wealth. What separated King from any would-be successor was his moral authority. He towered above the high walls of racial suspicion by speaking truth to all sides.

Now comes Barack Obama, a black man and a plausible national leader, who appeals across racial lines. But to his black and white supporters, Mr. Obama increasingly represents different things....

While speaking to black people, King never condescended to offer Rev. Wright-style diatribes or conspiracy theories. He did not paint black people as victims. To the contrary, he spoke about black people as American patriots who believed in the democratic ideals of the country, in nonviolence and the Judeo-Christian ethic, even as they overcame slavery, discrimination and disadvantage. King challenged white America to do the same, to live up to their ideals and create racial unity. He challenged white Christians, asking them how they could treat their fellow black Christians as anything but brothers in Christ.

When King spoke about the racist past, he gloried in black people beating the odds to win equal rights by arming "ourselves with dignity and self-respect." He expressed regret that some black leaders reveled in grievance, malice and self-indulgent anger in place of a focus on strong families, education and love of God. Even in the days before Congress passed civil rights laws, King spoke to black Americans about the pride that comes from "assuming primary responsibility" for achieving "first class citizenship."

Last March in Selma, Ala., Mr. Obama appeared on the verge of breaking away from the merchants of black grievance and victimization. At a commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, he spoke in a King-like voice. He focused on traditions of black sacrifice, idealism and the need for taking personal responsibility for building strong black families and communities. He said black people should never "deny that its gotten better," even as the movement goes on to improve schools and provide good health care for all Americans. He then challenged black America, by saying that "government alone can't solve all those problems . . . it is not enough just to ask what the government can do for us -- it's important for us to ask what we can do for ourselves."

Mr. Obama added that better education for black students begins with black parents visiting their children's teachers, as well as turning off the television so children can focus on homework. He expressed alarm over the lack of appreciation for education in the black community: "I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs were something white. We've got to get over that mentality." King, he added later, believed that black America has to first "transform ourselves in order to transform the world."

But as his campaign made headway with black voters, Mr. Obama no longer spoke about the responsibility and the power of black America to appeal to the conscience and highest ideals of the nation. He no longer asks black people to let go of the grievance culture to transcend racial arguments and transform the world.

He has stopped all mention of government's inability to create strong black families, while the black community accepts a 70% out-of-wedlock birth rate. Half of black and Hispanic children drop out of high school, but he no longer touches on the need for parents to convey a love of learning to their children. There is no mention in his speeches of the history of expensive but ineffective government programs that encourage dependency. He fails to point out the failures of too many poverty programs, given the 25% poverty rate in black America.

And he chooses not to confront the poisonous "thug life" culture in rap music that glorifies drug use and crime. Instead the senator, in a full political pander, is busy excusing Rev. Wright's racial attacks as the right of the Rev.-Wright generation of black Americans to define the nation's future by their past. He stretches compassion to the breaking point by equating his white grandmother's private concerns about black men on the street with Rev. Wright's public stirring of racial division.

And he wasted time in his Philadelphia speech on race by saying he can't "disown" Rev. Wright any more than he could "disown the black community." No one has asked him to disown Rev. Wright. Only in a later appearance on "The View" television show did he say that he would have left the church if Rev. Wright had not retired and not acknowledged his offensive language.

As the nation tries to recall the meaning of Martin Luther King today, Mr. Obama's campaign has become a mirror reflecting where we are on race 40 years after the assassination. Mr. Obama's success has moved forward the story of American race relations; King would have been thrilled with his political triumphs.

But when Barack Obama, arguably the best of this generation of black or white leaders, finds it easy to sit in Rev. Wright's pews and nod along with wacky and bitterly divisive racial rhetoric, it does call his judgment into question. And it reveals a continuing crisis in racial leadership. What would Jesus do? There is no question he would have left that church.

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Obama may get out more voters

Even as he fends off Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest, Senator Barack Obama is already turning his attention to the general election, and to an ambitious plan to reshape the American electorate in his favor. Bringing new voters to the polls "is going to be a very big part of how we win," said Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, in an interview. "Barack's appeal to independent voters is also going to be key."

Hildebrand said the campaign is likely to turn its attention and the energy of its massive volunteer army this fall on registering African-American voters, and voters under 35 years old, in key states. "Can it change the math in Ohio? Very much so," he said. "If you look at the vote spread between Bush and Kerry in 2004 - we could potentially erase that."

President George W. Bush carried Ohio by about 119,000 votes in 2004, winning the state despite a massive, expensive Democratic effort to mobilize voters there. And there's some reason for skepticism that Obama can do better than Senator John Kerry and his allies. Every four years, Democrats claim, and reporters write, that a massive voter registration and field operation will reshape the electorate in their favor. In recent years, they've been matched or bested by the Republican National Committee's targeted outreach to likely Republican voters. "It's something that Democrats have tried," said Bill Steiner, the Republican National Committee's director of strategy. "The 2004 election kind of speaks for itself, particularly in Ohio, where that was a big fear."

But there are signs that this year could be different. In the Obama campaign, youth turnout and Internet-based organizing - so often promised, and rarely delivered in the past - have been made real. And the first black nominee could reach deep into the large non-voting tracts within the African-American community.

"There's the potential here to change American politics for a while. Under-35 voters are just so overwhelmingly Democrats. Getting them registered is a simple, important, not-easy part of that - and Obama can," said Jim Jordan, a consultant who ran the independent group that headed Democrats' national field operation in 2004, America Coming Together. "And the voters who do register will actually vote. African-American voters, under-30 voters will be hugely self-motivated. They'll get to the polls in numbers that aren't typical for new registrants, and they'll do it on their own, on top of the strong turn out mechanics that the Obama guys will surely bring to bear."

Michael Slater, the deputy director of the non-partisan Project Vote, also said he found the Obama campaign's hopes of a dramatic increase in the participation "very plausible" for younger and black voters, groups, he said, which are under-represented in the electorate. "There's a long history of a lot of hype not delivering on election day," he said. But in this case, "there certainly is a great potential for an African-American candidate to appeal to some voters who have been out of the electorate."

Obama's massive, smoothly integrated volunteer organization has been a mainstay of his campaign. It has been central to his success in caucus states such as Minnesota and Idaho, where a volunteer army - organized online - preceded and noticeably bolstered his staff's organizing efforts, helping to build the huge victory margins that have made him the frontrunner.

His voter registration efforts have drawn far less attention. But they were there from the start. When Obama toured Iowa last February in his first campaign swing, his campaign brought along voter registration cards. As the race there heated up, voter registration became a quiet focus, with registration drives in colleges and even high schools that helped drive Obama's victory.

South Carolina, Hildebrand said, was the site of another intensive effort. "A great case study for voter registration was the South Carolina primary, where we dramatically expanded the African-American vote and dramatically expanded the youth vote," he said. "It was such a big part of getting us to that 28-point margin of victory."

Another high-stakes voter registration drive just concluded in Pennsylvania, where the deadline to register as a Democrat and participate in the primary was March 24. The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that more than 234,000 voters have either newly registered as Democrats or switched from other parties, and the state hasn't finished counting the new registrations.

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An open letter from Lionel Chetwynd

Dear Senator Obama:

I have now read and reread your speech, understanding you take this to be a "teaching moment," I have applied myself to its lessons. But some questions have arisen and I need a little more clarification.

You tell me Reverend Jeremiah Wright's horrendous remarks will take on a different meaning if I will but contextualize them and understand he has seen terrible things in his time, a burden shared by all African-Americans. A fair proposition; from Kant to Auden and beyond we learn we define by comparison and only by internalizing can we grasp true meaning. So I have done precisely that: looked inside myself to understand how hatred might need to be contextualized.

I did not have to look far. I remembered how, as a boy, I sat at the Passover Seder with my sister's Polish-born husband and the remnants of his family. The remnants of five families to be precise, for the 12 weary souls around that table were all that remained of what had once been 300. The others - their loved ones, their sons, their daughters, their hopes and dreams - were gone, their lives consumed by zyklon-b gas, their mortal remains wisps of smoke from a Bchenwald chimney. These people, who had seen and suffered so much, read of my ancestor's deliverance from Egypt exactly as the Bible instructed: in the present tense, as if it happened to them. "For with a mighty hand the Lord thy God raised thee out of Egypt and brought you from slavery to freedom."

But as they spoke - or really whispered such was the fear and holiness of the moment - they were not conjuring up Egyptian slavery as a present experience but recalling the horrors they themselves had witnessed, murder on a scope once unimaginable and only made possible by perverted technology. Though their Yiddish was foreign to me, I picked up the odd word. When they spoke of the Concentration Camp guards, they called them the Ukrainians. When they remembered the betrayal of their neighbors, I could distinguish the word Pole. But above all, it was the Germans, the hated Germans. The Hun. The Devil's Scourge. And I was filled with a righteous hatred. Had I, in that moment, the power to end the life of every German on earth, I might have well done so. That is a shameful thought. I am humiliated by the memory. But perhaps, in context, you can understand my homicidal rage and forgive me, and should I have chosen to preach that doctrine in a place of worship and stir an audience to its feet as it cheered my righteous fury, I trust you would offer me the fig leaf of "context."

As the Seder ended, my brother-in-law, seeing my rage, put his arm around my shoulder and asked what troubled me. I stammered the best explanation I could. He smiled, "Don't be a fool," he said, "the Germans left so many of us dead and stole the joy from so many that remain. So now you want to give them the final victory by allowing your own life to be consumed and twisted and deformed by the same hatred? Leave it to them. That's why we, at this table, forgive. Not forget, but forgive. You just heard how Moses told the Israelites not to celebrate the death of the Egyptians in the Reed Sea. Learn." But his words were empty to me.

A few years later, work on a particular film took me to Munich, and as I drove past the road signs to Dachau, past Hitler's favorite spot, "The English Gardens," to my suite at the Bayerischof Hotel (where The Fuehrer himself once stayed) I was physically ill. I couldn't stand to hear the German tongue, nor bear to see Germans smile, and when I noticed a man in traditional Bavarian dress I again felt my homicidal anger rise. I survived that trip, came back to the safety of my blessed America, promising never to return to part of the world that was home to alien races who had destroyed so many people just like me.

Sometime after that, I was invited to participate on a panel on "Hollywood and Stereotypes" sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. It was against my instinct, but a good friend had asked I participate and so I did. It began with a clip from Hollywood movies picturing stereotypical Germans and ended with the famous moment in Casablanca where the French stand and sing "La Marseillaise". What a crock, I thought, Senator! After all, the short story upon which the film was based was set in Marseilles where the French were happily arresting Jews for transport to their own concentration camp at Drancy. Besides France had yet to apologize for her diligent rounding up and deportation of Jews even after the successes of D-Day. And yet they considered themselves victims which meant never having to say they were sorry.

My first co-panelist to speak was a young woman, a German filmmaker. She spoke of how growing up as a German she felt ashamed and humiliated whenever it was necessary to admit her lineage and how her life was about working to ease her shame. It was pure self-hatred. Senator, by some strange alchemy I heard myself explaining to her the mantle of guilt did not fall upon the shoulders of her generation. In fact, I found myself describing Germany's honest attempt to come to terms with the horrors committed in its name. I spoke of all the things they had done from which the French, the Ukrainians, the Poles had run. How they taught in their schools the truth of their actions, how they policed their civil society and punished words or acts that had echoes of that time, how they worked tirelessly to make reparation to those survivors not stamped out by their hobnailed boots. They had sought atonement. That is not say anti-Semitism and anti-Semites did not persist in Germany. Of course they did, as they do everywhere. But they are no longer the soul or intent of the German nation, they are seen for the abhorrent aberration they truly are. Mind you, Senator, the "new" Germans did not ask for forgiveness; they knew this was not within the power of humankind and could only be given by the grace of God. They acted out their atonement from pure understanding of what had gone before.

And in that instant I realized my hatred was unjustified. The "context" was false. I was nursing the anger for my own psychic advantage and not because the current state of humanity or my own experience gave it justice. And I shed my anger. And when another film project took me to Germany, my journey was completely different. I'm not saying as I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kimpinski in Munich I couldn't help but imagine it filled with SS Officers enjoying the fruits of their murdering conquest. Of course I did. But I also understood the young Germans around me could not be held to that account. When one of my colleagues, also Jewish, made a derogatory remark I engaged him, and with surprising ease found he agreed it was time to let go. I threw away the comfort of context, spoke the truth to him. And it freed me. Now, this is not true for all Jews, Senator; some still dwell on that bitterness, and you would say, understandable, given the "context." Perhaps. But they are not our soul or intent. They are a past generation and we do not look to them for leadership. We teach redemption. We try to hold them to some form of account.

That is the teaching opportunity I hoped you would evoke: not explaining Wright's outrage to me, but explaining his outrageousness to him. That's how we'll reach the postracial era: by no longer justifying ourselves with what was, instead speaking to what now exists. Not deny the past, but recognize that's what it is: past.

You say you are devoted to Reverend Wright because he brought you to Christ. I can only imagine how powerful a relationship that forges. But, my imperfect understanding of the Christian Faith tells me you can do him an equally magnificent service: You can help bring him back to Christ. Show him redemption and salvation lie not in the satisfaction of doing little dances in a pulpit while you slander good and decent people. Teach him that great leadership and Christian love abjures the very filth - and I pick that word deliberately - that he spews on an apparently regular basis. After all, Senator, you know our government did not invent the HIV virus to kill African-Americans. You know, Senator, this is not the United States of KKK America. You know the truth of 9/11. At least you should. Both you and Michelle have benefited mightily from the new spirit that has come to America in the last two generations. I thought you were part of that. I thought you were post-racial.

But in your silence, in your justifications, in your facile instruction to contextualize, you seem just a more presentable version of those dreary self-promoters, Sharpton, Jackson, Bakewell and the rest. Surely this is not you. Please, Senator, be brave. Lead. From a position of honesty where context is our daily reality, not drawn from bitter memories, no matter how justified they once might have been. Deny Jeremiah Wright your comfort of "context". Be Presidential. To all Americans.


McCain on Obama

Republican John McCain Thursday portrayed his possible Democratic presidential election rival Barack Obama as a national security neophyte who was dishonestly misrepresenting him on Iraq. Intensifying his assault, McCain questioned Obama's plan to leave a "strike force" of US troops in the Middle East after an eventual withdrawal from Iraq, and accused him of being "disingenuous" about his own Iraq stance.

Obama, who has pledged to end the war in Iraq in 2009, if he is elected, said this week that he would leave enough troops in the country to defend the US embassy, along with a strike force in the region to hobble Al-Qaeda. "I think somebody ought to ask what in the world he's talking about, especially since he has no experience or background at all in national security affairs," McCain said in an MSNBC interview.

McCain also hit out at Obama for claiming he wants to wage a 100 year war in Iraq, saying he was deliberately taking his remarks about a South Korea or Japan-style multi-generational peacekeeping presence out of context. "Senator Obama is being disingenuous, because he knows better."

In a Fox News interview, McCain said Obama was being "dishonest." "No one could have interpreted that exchange as me saying that we are going to be in a war for 100 years. And so for Senator Obama to interpret (it) that way is obviously willful distortion." ...

Arizona Senator McCain, on a week-long biographical tour, is turning increasing fire on Obama, apparently positioning for a general election showdown, should the Illinois senator finally triumph over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in their drawn out nominating contest.

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1 comment:

John Von Hollen said...

More racist comments from Rev Wright:

"America is founded on genocide"

"the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government"

"the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously"

Why can't Rev Wright be more like Martin Luther King who got three letters of commendation from the White House and served in the Marines and Navy before going to Seminary? Why do so many blacks feel anger towards whites? It is not like they were forced to come here.

Obama is only going to get elected because of white guilt just like Jesse Jackson and all the other black presidents. Being black just makes it so much easier for them.






Just kidding, I got them reversed. Those quotes at the top were from MLK. Rev Wright served in the Navy and Marines defending this country and received three letters of commendation from the president.