by Whet Moser
I'm wondering if my inability to get particularly aggrieved about TUCC pastor Jeremiah Wright's "God damn America" comments is a cultural thing, specifically a Southern thing. I just started C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History, and this passage, I think, is relevant:
"American opulence and American success have combined to foster and encourage another legend of early origin, the legend of American innocence. According to this legend Americans achieved a sort of regeneration of sinful man by coming out of the wicked Old World and removing to an untarnished new one. By doing so they shook off the wretched evils of feudalism and broke free from tyranny, monarchism, aristocracy, and privilege--all those institutions which, in the hopeful philosophy of the Enlightenment, accounted for all, or nearly all, the evil in the world. The absence of these Old World ills in America, as well as the freedom from much of the injustice and oppression associated with them, encouraged a singular moral complacency in the American mind. . . .
"How much room was there in the tortured conscience of the South for this national self-image of innocence and moral complacency? Southerners have repeated the American rhetoric of self-admiration and sung the perfection of American institutions ever since the Declaration of Independence. But for half that time they lived intimately with a great social evil and the other half with its aftermath. . . . It writhed in the torments of its own conscience until it plunged into catastrophe to escape. The South's preoccupation was with guilt, not with innocence, with the reality of evil, not with the dream of perfection. Its experience in this respect, as in several others, was on the whole a thoroughly un-American one.
"An age-long experience with human bondage and its evils and later with emancipation and its shortcomings did not dispose the South very favorably toward such popular American ideas as the doctrine of human perfectibility, the belief that every evil has a cure, and the notion that every human problem has a solution. . . . In that most optimistic of centuries in the most optimistic part of the world, the South remained basically pessimistic in its social outlook and its moral philosophy. The experience of evil and the experience of tragedy are parts of the Southern heritage that are as difficult to reconcile with the American legend of innocence and social felicity as the experience of poverty and defeat are to reconcile with the legends of abundance and success."
I think this has a lot to do with the appeal of Obama, and why he so often invokes the ghost of the "tiers-mondiste politically correct America-hating radical" Abraham Lincoln. If I could have bet money that Obama would start today's speech on race with Lincoln, I'd be a bit richer (depending on the lenience of the judges). Lincoln was a Southerner by the grace of God (actually, he was as Appalachian as anything, if we're to go by his mountain accent, yet another layer of American weirdness) and a Yankee by Providence, to the extent southern Illinois is the North. His bleak appraisal of America's sin, though directed at the South, is imbued with Southern tragedy; his hope against hope that such sin could be redeemed is quintessentially American.
Obama, as the biracial son of an immigrant and a Kansan progressive, who grew up in the foreign and recently-foreign climes of Indonesia and Hawaii, is both of and not-of America's dark history, and I think he responds to the Lincoln who was part of and separate from the South's original sin. That's why I believe him when he says he both understands and rejects--not so much rejects as believes we can overcome--Wright's comments. That's basically what today's speech was about.
I'm not saying this to lionize Obama--he's an adept politician and a strong candidate for national office, and it's pretty much impossible to get to that point without compromising, without doubletalk, without being a player. Running for president is not something sane people do. To borrow my favorite of Wright's controversial phrases, riding dirty is involved; Lincoln was more compromised than people like to remember, for reasons historians are still trying to wrap their heads around. I already have my reasons for skepticism, and if more comes out, I'll be disappointed but not exactly surprised. (Update: Here's a good long piece on Obama's use of petition challenges to knock off early local opponents. He's not soft-batch.)
This unusually complex controversy says a lot about the Obama phenomenon. What it says about Obama as a potential leader of the free world and administrator of the federal government I have no idea. This isn't about position papers and legislative accomplishments; it's about history, sin, and Providence, and it would be a mistake, at this fascinating moment, to resume the compulsory game.