Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
I tend not to be very good at instant analysis, so you'll forgive a 24 hour delay in posting a few thoughts on Barack Obama's remarkable speech on race. I agree with Ezra Klein, that the speech's unique force (I, like a lot of people I know, found myself crying at points) derives from its sheer honesty.
It felt like Obama was transgressing the norms of campaign discourse during the speech by directly discussing the narrative of the campaign itself. When he spoke about speculation that white men would vote for John McCain, I sucked in my breath, feeling as he was violating some sacred taboo. A presidential campaign is theater, and the conventions of that theater is that you suspend disbelief, stick to the script and don't break the fourth wall. But in discussing the role that race plays in his candidacy, it was almost as if in the second act an actor just stopped reciting his lines, walked to the stage's edge and talked to the audience about his life. The subversive nature of this rejection of convention is part of what made the speech so gripping to me, and so powerful. It was risky, and made him vulnerable, but his very ability to note the stage and lights that surrounded him, the rituals of the theatre, the clips playing on the news and the exit poll archeology that searches for racial divides, imbued him with wisdom. It made him seem as if he truly has perspective on the surreal craziness that is a presidential campaign. And it displayed to me what is his most appealing character trait: an ability to step outside of one's own vantage point while remaining moored to a set of certain core principles.
As he walked through the history racial resentment as seen from both sides of the black/white divide, I was reminded of the mythical Greek figure of Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes. After coming upon snakes copulating, Tiresias was transformed into a woman, and spent seven years in a woman's body before coming once again upon snakes mid-coitus and being transformed back into a man. When Hera and Zeus were arguing about the question on whether the man or woman derives greater pleasure from sex, they sought out Tiresias to resolve the debate. Tiresias, much to Hera's displeasure, answered that it was women, and was struck blind by Hera in a fit of rage. To compensate him for his loss of sight, though, Zeus bestowed the gift of prophecy upon him.
Barack Obama seemed to me, yesterday to be an American Tiresias. His exotic name, alien upbringing and skin could be, in the context of American politics, as crippling as Tiresias' blindness. But ultimately it is that same background, the subjective experience of life in white and black America that is the source of his prophetic power. When summoned as it was yesterday, it is something to behold.
Congress is out on spring break until the end of the month, so here at J Street we won't be posting our regular weekly previews and round-ups of legislative action.
If the economy is the "number-one issue" in this current election, here at TBA, Barbara Ehrenreich and William Gates, Sr. are arguing that a better way to frame it may be inequality.
In 1982, someone on Forbes' list of the richest 400 people held an average wealth of $400 million. Today, that figure is $3.9 billion.
As Gates noted--to scattered chuckles from the audience--it's far past time for Americans to break our committed faith in the link between merit, virtue and wealth. Sheer nonsense, he says. If you're wealthy, he notes, "a basic reason…is that you were born in America," benefited from certain public investments, and got lucky upon the way. Which is why when you die, you owe it to your country to pay some of that luck forward.
Maybe it's been my choice of panels, but thus far, the events I've attended here at Take Back America have felt curiously subdued. Under the pall of the plummeting economy and the Iraq War's fifth anniversary, there's not much people seem to feel that sanguine about. "Crisis is opportunity," said Rob Johnson yesterday. But in light of how neither Clinton or Obama look poised to take on Wall Street (given the contents of their campaign coffers), and how narrowly focused the left has been for years on simply kicking Bush out of office, according to Johnson, "Right now, progressives aren't prepared to seize that opportunity."
What surprises me more about TBA, though, is the complete lack of programming that directly addresses the criminal justice system. There are few institutions that better represent the entrenched nature of race and class in America, or do more to replicate those inequalities over time. And even at a minimum out of political self-interest, I'd think TBA would be more engaged with the issue (nationwide, 5.3 million have lost the vote because of felony convictions--a figure that may very well have cost the Democrats the White House in 2000). One of TBA's organizers tells me that the schedule filled up too quickly with groups representing other issues, but that absence still seems like a conspicuous oversight.
946 references to Obama's ties with Rezko. 352 references to McCain's ties with lobbyist Iseman.478 references to Farrakhan's endorsement of Obama.123 references to the McCain-Hagee relationship.
Also, in absolutely inane op-ed today, Roger Cohen--voila! has discovered that Obama has a half-brother in China. Cohen evidently here is taking on the heavy responsibility of trying to preemptively deflect right-wing attacks on Obama because to date, "not enough has been written about Obama's family." (Hasn't he read the book? Or a newspaper over the past year?) I'd like to think there's some kind of knotted logic that makes the not-very-sensational fact that Obama has a half-brother who lives in China an even plausibly credible news hook, but if it's there, I'm not seeing it.
Camilo Mejia, speaking just now at TBA. (Quickly transcribed as he was speaking, so it may be imperfect):
When you go half way around the world to brutalize a country, the pain does not stay in Iraq. It's an atrocity-producing situation...It is not inherent in human nature to kill, so you have to dehumanize the enemy. You don't kill Ahmed father of two, taxi driver who likes soccer. So you call him hajji, you call him raghead. You have all these names that are part of this strategy to turn human beings into killing machines. The problem with that approach is, number one, the cost to the people of Iraq. But also the dehumanization cannot be turned off when we get home. In order to survive the mission we dehumanize the enemy. When we came home and try to reconcile the person who did those things on the war front with the person here trying to be a brother, a friend or father. It is almost impossible to do that, because we are not the same person anymore. We are finding the necessity to rebuild ourselves.