Obama, Contexts, and Bailouts.

March 16, 2008

Obama, Contexts, and Bailouts.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, March 16, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: The Stephanopoulos panel discussed the controversy over Barack Obama’s relationship to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As cable TV watchers know, there are tapes of excerpts from Rev. Wright’s sermons circulating, for which Obama is being called to account. George Will said that publicizing Rev. Wright’s rhetoric “strikes at the heart” of the message of the Obama campaign, because the Obama campaign is based on a post-racial statement: America is moving beyond the divisions of race, has moved beyond the divisions of race, needs to move beyond the divisions of race.

Newman: Well, which is it? You can’t say all three.

Salit: Will’s description would be Obama is saying I have and America needs to…

Newman: Obama adds: And I can lead that. But it’s still there.

Salit: Still, the critics are asking, “Does he support these remarks or does he not support these remarks? That’s what he has to account for.”

Newman: And the answer is he aims to change the political and social climate in this country which produced those remarks. That’s his position. And he’s asking: Do you want to support that or not? A lot of the people who are creating the brouhaha, if you look carefully at who they are and what they’re saying, don’t want to change that climate.

Salit: And we see that very frequently in politics. The response to Obama, either explicit or implicit, is OK, that might be what you’re trying to do. But, in order to have the standing to do that, you have to be willing to say, “I repudiate his remarks.”

Newman: He has. And he’s trying to change the climate in which those remarks, those sentiments, are ever-present. That’s how you try to do something about things that you don’t like or denounce. You try to change the world which gives rise to them. That’s what he’s doing.

Salit: His critics, a number of whom were on the Stephanopoulos show today, said ‘Well, Obama knew this was going to come, why didn’t he do more to “get ahead of it”‘? I think it’s a funny question. When he announced his campaign, Obama rescinded an invitation to Rev. Wright to give the benediction at his announcement.

Newman: That’s what he did to get ahead of it.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: What can I tell ya?

Salit: Donna Brazile was quite smart and sympathetic to Obama.

Newman: Yes, she said some very smart things on that panel. What everybody else was saying was, in my opinion, remarkably stupid.

Salit: First of all she makes the point that these questions are difficult to address in a single sound bite because you’re talking about a complex set of issues, not least of which is the role that the black church, including the radical black church, has played in providing inspiration and also a kind of salvation, a relief from the suffering in day-to-day life.

Newman: And, moral leadership. Much moral leadership has come from the black church.

Salit: She says Obama’s narrative is a narrative of reconciliation. The prior generation of black leadership was oriented more towards recrimination – her word – and the politics of recrimination don’t exactly fit into Obama’s narrative. That’s what he’s trying to move beyond. Obama’s story is I’m trying to change the political environment. I’m trying to change the political circumstances which produce the kind of recrimination that Rev. Wright was giving voice to. Is Obama telling that story effectively?

Newman: In my opinion, not yet. But we still haven’t given him time to do so.*

Salit: Yes.

Newman: He’s still busy doing all the appropriate presidential denouncements of this and that. We have to give him time to offer an accounting of the bigger situation. But frankly, I think that has to happen with lots of other black leaders stepping forward. The thing that Donna Brazile said that I felt most responsive to was ‘You don’t know the kinds of things that are said in the black churches.’

Salit: True enough.

Newman: Rev. Wright looks like a pacifist compared to much of what gets said – and that includes Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, because when they’re preaching to their people, they feel their people have a need to hear some of these things. Take some of Rev. Wright’s comments, for example. Should those things be denounced as anti-American? Well, in my opinion, to do that is to take the entire context out of the picture. Most black people aren’t anti-American. But when they’re looking at things in certain contexts, in certain settings, they can connect with an experience of having been belittled and abused in America. They don’t always look at things in this way. They look at things, as we all look at things, in a multitude of ways.

Salit: And in multiple contexts.

Newman: Perfectly sane women executives will retire to the rest room and when chatting together in the rest room will refer to a male colleague or boss and say That SOB is only interested in looking at my legs. That doesn’t mean that that’s the totality of who they are.

Salit: That doesn’t make them “anti-men.”

Newman: And it doesn’t mean that they don’t leave the rest room and at the next meeting try to find the right answers to the financial and management problems of the firm. They do all of those things.

Salit: Right.

Newman: But that’s a component of who they are. And they do that in the appropriate context.

Salit: Right.

Newman: What’s really happening right now with Obama is that there are people who are trying to shift contexts and make it sound as if Rev. Wright not only advised Barack to go in this direction, and perhaps he did, but that Rev. Wright himself speaks this way at every meeting that he was ever at.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: And that’s nonsense. That’s the racialist insult, that Rev. Wright doesn’t have the capacity to recognize the difference between being at a mixed meeting of black and white city council people, where you talk one way and then going to the church ten minutes later and you talk to an all-black crowd of followers another way. He’s more than bright enough to figure out how to do that. As are white people and Asian people and Puerto Rican people and everybody else.

Salit: Right.

Newman: The insult is, if he says this kind of thing, that’s the totality of who he is, that’s his absolute core. Well, we don’t have absolute cores. We have multiple ways of seeing things and giving expression to the things that we see with sensitivity to the context in which we’re uttering them.

Salit: George Will held forth on how outrageous and insensitive the remarks by Rev. Wright were. Later on, he says ‘Oh now we’re getting a look at what Liberalism-in-Charge looks like, because the Democrats and the liberals have cultivated this hypersensitivity in which all groups operate on the basis of the wrongs done to them.’ I guess Will feels the perceived wrongs done to him are in a different category than the perceived wrongs done to others.

Newman: His position is intellectual hyperbole. It’s nonsense. What exactly is hypersensitivity to chattel slavery? Please define what that’s supposed to mean to me. I’d like to hear that. Look, if what’s being said is that we, as a country, have to continue to grow with respect to the racial divide, to make fundamental changes even now to continue that growth process and do it in a way that minimizes our back-sliding and which involves changing how we talk about these issues, of course that’s true. And if you think that, you should be supporting Barack Obama, because that’s what he’s saying. That’s what his whole campaign is premised on. The people who say he should have foreseen all this stuff, well, they might as well say he should have run a fundamentally “black” campaign as opposed to the one that he’s actually tried to run, because that would have taken care of all his problems.

Salit: Right, because then he wouldn’t be vulnerable to being accused of “really being a black candidate.”

Newman: Exactly. And, right about now he’d be playing bridge with Dennis Kucinich. But instead, he runs a campaign which stimulates the country, which is “post-racial.” But that doesn’t mean we still don’t live in a world in which racialism is present and that’s what has to be changed.

Salit: People want to make it seem as if there’s an easy way of doing this. But, I don’t think it’s very easy.

Newman: We don’t live in a world in which it’s easy. If we did, then there’d be no reason for anybody to be listening to Barack Obama.

Salit: I wanted to go back and underscore the point you made about black leadership needing to speak out on this.

Newman: Yes. I want to see where they are on this. I heard a little bit from Donna Brazile and I was pleased by that. But I don’t see a lot of other black leaders even being interviewed about it. Actually, it’s remarkable. I haven’t seen Jesse Jackson all over the cable shows or Al Sharpton all over the cable shows.

Salit: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was interviewed by Stephanopoulos.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: An extraordinary measure was taken over the last 48 hours, in which a bailout of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan Chase was organized under the auspices of the federal government. It’s the first time that a corporation in the capital markets was bailed out in this way. Paulson was trying to minimize the importance of this. Stephanopoulos asked him a question about whether this portends more significant government intervention into the private sector but Paulson didn’t want to address what he called the “moral hazard” implicit in the bailout. His position was We have a situation with Bear Stearns. We need to intervene on this and to take care of this.

Newman: What Paulson could have said, if he had spoken a little bit more directly, was that the answer depends on whether this works or not.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: It was really a tautological interchange. But, this situation is serious. That said, what we can deal with is what presents itself at any given time. That’s all we can deal with.

Salit: Paulson was making the “don’t get your panties in an uproar” case. The institutions that are set up to deal with this will work, and we’ll work our way through that, and they will work. I thought there was also something of that in Nancy Pelosi’s narrative relative to the Democratic nominating process.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: She says, don’t worry, the institutions that we’ve put into place to deal with this will work. We will have the nominee before the Democratic convention and let’s not all get super-worked up about this. We’ve got two great candidates and it’s going to work.

Newman: What would you expect to hear from the institution in question?

Salit: Hellllllpp!!! Only kidding. But isn’t it true that the fact that the institutions are having to say they can handle these new situations is indicative of something? At the very least, of an erosion of public confidence in their ability to do that?

Newman: Yes. The country and the world as a whole, economically speaking and in a lot of other ways, are going through some fairly substantial transformations.

Salit: Right. And that raises questions about whether and to what extent institutions that are in place can manage those transformations and shape those transformations in a positive way.

Newman: Yes, which is to say to deal with these transformations short of a revolutionary rejection of some or all of those institutions.

Salit: So when we started talking about the Bear Stearns situation you said this is serious.

Newman: Yes, it is serious.

Salit: Do you react to the discussion about what to call these things? As when Stephanopoulos asked Paulson if this is a recession?

Newman: There are official technical definitions of what a recession is. That hasn’t happened yet. Will it turn into a recession over the next months or so? Well, it might, it might not. Whatever you call it, these are serious economic difficulties and different forces are trying to deal with it.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

* Senator Obama presented a more detailed discussion of these issues in a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, March 18th.