Obama and Wright: Different Worldviews
"We did not have to go through any of the violent upheavals that Europe was forced to endure as it shed its feudal past. Our passage from an agricultural to an industrial society was eased by the sheer size of the continent, vast tracts of land and abundant resources that allowed new immigrants to continually remake themselves." Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 55
Jeremiah Wright summarized the difference between him and Obama in his interviews last weekend as, "I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for office."
But there is more to it than this.
Rev. Wright is an unapologetic African American preacher who has no hesitation speaking the truth in the best of the religious prophetic tradition. He uses the word "imperialism." He talks about "oppressors" and "oppressed" and "God's desire for a radical change." He says, accurately, that "you cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you."
Barack Obama, as is clear from a close reading of "The Audacity of Hope" and a review of his Democratic Party political career, is all about rising up within the world of the Democratic and Republican parties, the corporate duopoly. And if you are committed to that political world and becoming President through it, it is not surprising that you would do things like whitewash U.S.history, as the quote above does. Genocidal policies toward Indigenous people, the hideous reality of slavery and Jim Crow, the invasion of Mexico and takeover of much of its territory, even the Civil War and Reconstruction: nowhere in Obama's book does he address these truths of our history.
Obama said at his April 29th press conference where he broke with his pastor of 20 years that, "What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for. And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. . . so where I start hearing comments about conspiracy theories and AIDS and suggestions that somehow Minister Farrakhan has been a great voice in the 20th century, then that goes directly at who I am and what I believe this country needs."
It is true that a handful of statements made by Wright in response to questions from the press at the National Press Club gave them an opening to caricature him as too radical, too out of touch with the U.S. political mainstream, the political mainstream that Obama has been laboring mightily, for years, particularly over the past 16 months, to steer in a somewhat more progressive direction.
It is also true that, faced with near-certain, continued media attention on the Obama/Wright relationship, Obama needed to address the "worldview" differences between them, which are real. But was it really necessary for him to use words like these in doing so: "divisive and destructive," "the spectacle that we saw yesterday," and "a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth"?
Obama said that "when you start focusing on the plight of the historically oppressed, you lose sight of what we have in common. . . it doesn't describe properly what I believe, in the power of faith to overcome but also to bring people together."
If he truly believes that he's different in this way than Wright, then he didn't read all of Wright's National Press Club speech, or he deliberately discounted major parts of it, like this conclusion:
"The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God's children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals. . . Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them. We retain who we are, as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us; they are just different from us. We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred or prejudice. And we recognize for the first time in modern history, in the West, that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles and different dance moves; that other is one of God's children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness just as we are. Only then will liberation, transformation and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals."
Barack Obama has made a genuine effort to run a different kind of campaign, one which is more issue-oriented and less about the divisive and dishonest personal attacks that often characterize what passes for "political debate" in this country. But in this case, the case of Rev. Wright, Obama has failed his own test. The corporate media has made him bend his principles.
If Obama wins the Democratic nomination and if he wins the Presidency, which I continue to hope he does as the best candidate when compared with Clinton and McCain, we can expect to see more examples of Obama rejecting consistently progressive positions. Hopefully, he will feel that it is incumbent that he follows through on much of his generally progressive campaign rhetoric and fights for generally progressive government policies. But like Jeremiah Wright, we need to be prepared, no matter who is elected President, "November 5th, I'm [we're] coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people."
Government of, by and for the people: that must be the objective. We aren't going to get it on November 4th, 2008, but if we don't lose our critical consciousness, if we don't defend indefensible positions, if we speak truth to power, whether Democrat or Republican, and if we keep working to find the ways to come together into a powerful, grassroots-based, multi-cultural independent progressive movement, we can make progress this year toward that long-term objective.
Ted Glick is active in the climate movement. He is a supporter of Cynthia McKinney's Power to the People/Green Party Presidential campaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org