Saturday, May 3, 2008

Failing to Understand the Significance of Wright

Bob Herbert thinks that the brouhaha over Rev. Wright is about race:
We’ve allowed the entire political process in what is perhaps the most important election in the U.S. since World War II to become thoroughly warped by the histrionics of a loony preacher from the South Side of Chicago.

There’s something wrong with us.

Race is like pornography in the United States — the dirty stories and dirty pictures that everyone professes to hate but no one can resist. But I suspect that even porn addicts get their fill sometimes.

The challenge for the working press right now is to see if we can force ourselves past the overwhelming temptations of Wright and race and focus in a sustained way on some other important matters, like the cratering economy, metastasizing energy costs, the dismal state of public education, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure or the damage being done to the American soul by the endless war in Iraq.
I beg to differ.

As we explore the eigenspace of modern politics, we come across several different dimensions that map pretty well onto the familiar "liberal/conservative" label. There's the "big government/small government" axis. There's the "justice/freedom" axis. There's the "hawk/dove" axis.

But there's another dimension that gets somewhat less attention. All American candidates have to decide whether our society is fundamentally sound with perfectible flaws or fundamentally flawed, requiring revolutionary changes. Which side you come down on will influence your entire philosophy of government and agenda. If you think the US is basically OK, you're liable to tweak policy, subject to slow, carefully crafted compromise. If you think the US is fatally flawed, you're going to want to impose revolutionary new programs.

Needless to say, the odds of things going horribly wrong with the latter greatly outweigh the former. But revolutionary changes can never be ruled out. Societies certainly manage to wedge themselves into states where they've so departed from optimal government that revolution is necessary. You just want to be really, really sure that you've diagnosed things correctly when you choose the revolutionary path.

It's obvious that Rev. Wright believes that the US is fundamentally flawed. He believes that we're an unjust--even evil--society. This has nothing to do with race. It is a purely political judgment. Wright's racial experience has certainly influenced that judgment. But the end result is a political philosophy, not a a racial one.

There are very few mainstream politicians that adhere to the "fundamentally flawed" philosophy. The obvious reason for this is that the electorate doesn't believe in it. John McCain clearly believes in the perfectibility of the Union. Even Hillary Clinton, despite a few reflexive tendencies, believes that we can make needed changes while coloring inside the lines.

Barack Obama has been deliberately ambiguous on this topic. On the one hand, he professes great faith in the American people. He exhorts them to get involved to solve the nation's problems. That sounds like a "perfectible if flawed" outlook. But on the other hand, he thinks that the Washington political establishment is fundamentally flawed. This sounds trivial (and I daresay we've all grumbled about the same thing), but I can't think of a way of changing politics in Washington without revolutionary change. I'm not a fan of revolutionary change.

The electorate senses this ambiguity in Obama's core political philosophy and it makes them uncomfortable. The reason l'affaire Wright has such legs is that it provides, by association, more evidence that Obama may be more of a revolutionary than an evolutionary. That's important data for the electorate. It has nothing to do with race. Until Obama clarifies his position with a credible argument that he could be as close to Wright has he was and still disagree on this fundamental point, this won't go away.

Nor should it.

No comments: