Barack Obama’s unusual campaign has just led to one of the most unusual speeches in American political history. The purpose of the speech is to set his own political controversy into the largest possible context — to zoom out, as it were, and make it appear as though the disgusting remarks of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, are the merest speck, a mere glancing moment in time in the centuries-long history of American race relations. He begins with the drafting of the Constitution, skips forward in time top Wright’s remarks, moves back to the legacy of segregation, and onward into the horrific populist present, with black people and white people suffering horrors untold in what he says is a great country but what he intimates is a giant piece of wreckage.
In Obama’s telling, Wright must be understood not as a standard-issue race provocateur of the Left, an entertaining spouter of vicious nonsense, but rather as a synecdoche — as someone who within himself contains the entirety of the African-American experience. We can judge him, yes, but we cannot judge him too harshly, because what he is, we all are. Within the walls of Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ is black America writ small and large: “the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger…..The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and the successes, the love, and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”
And Wright, at the head of this flock, may speak in ways “that rightly offend black and white alike,” but that is due not to his own noxious ideas, or to his anti-American Leftism, or even to his sense of what his pulpit audience wants to hear, but is rather the voice of black America singing. “I can no more disown this man,” Obama says, “than I can disown the black community.” Just as he would not disown his white grandmother, “who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” So a white racist grandmother and a black racist preacher “are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
Obama’s remarkable use of rhetoric may lead people to grade on a curve, to imagine that there has been a breakthrough in American history merely because a black politician is willing to acknowledge that things have changed for the better in this country:
The profound mistake in Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was [sic] static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity of hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
The eloquence of the speech will almost certainly mask Obama’s sophisticated effort here to condemn and not to condemn, to say something but not say anything, to sound clear while being extremely unclear. A denunciation that does not denounce, a condemnation that is full of love — as a former political speechwriter, I will acknowledge I am lost in admiration of the anti-sophistic sophistry on display in every syllable of his text.