March 29, 2008

Quickie NCAA Trivia: Name the last 16-seed to win a game at the men's NCAA basketball tournament. While you're guessing, here's a rare live recording of a song that Bob Dylan wrote but did not release until well after this band covered it:


March 26, 2008

Travels With Sinbad: Turns out Hillary had a good explanation....

March 24, 2008

The Speech [Pt.2]: Of all the passages that have received attention from last week's speech, none have generated more discussion, or controversy, than these:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.


And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
The latter portion emphasized above, the reference to his beloved grandmother, was the portion that moved me the most, almost to tears. It reminded me of people in my own family, people that I loved, who said callous and insensitive things about people of other races and ethnicities. It brought to mind friends, people who have been generous and kind to me, but whose opinions on occasion have been narrowminded and extreme. It's no wonder that The Speech seemed to overwhelm writers as disparate as Andrew Sullivan and Peggy Noonan. Even a lapsed Catholic like myself has deeply engraved in his psyche that adage best-suited for our morally complex world: "love the sinner, hate the sin." It was a Christian speech, in the most positive sense of the word.

But it's also the portion that has made Obama's critics and foes the most uncomfortable. How dare he draw a moral equivalence between his aging pastor and his octogenarian grandmother, they say. Or, on the other hand, they argue that there's nothing wrong with a white woman muttering cringeworthy "racial or ethnic stereotypes" to her young, black grandson, whether they be about African Americans, Jews, Chicanos or any other non-white group. In fact, more than a few quite disingenuously omitted the last portion (about the racial and ethnic stereotype utterances) in order to stack the deck against Obama, changing the context of the speech.

It's clear that the same portion of The Speech that I found so moving made others protest a little too much. We cannot have an honest dialogue about race in this country unless we are willing to shine the spotlight on ourselves, and our own engrained beliefs. For a woman to subconsciously fear a black man who passed her on the street may well be grounded in a rational fear of crime, but it's also based on the same belief system that in the youth of Obama's grandmother forced African Americans to drink from different fountains and to be redlined from suburban neighborhoods.

It's the nightmare vision preached by the Dixiecrats of yore: if given freedom, black men will rape white women and steal your wallets. It should sound just as ugly coming from Barack's grandmother as it does coming from a James Eastland or a Norman Podheretz. But it was also a sentiment shared not long ago by Jesse Jackson, a fear of young black men, of street gangs and drive-by shootings. Without recognizing both facets, one can't begin to have an understanding of the issue.

In the end, no one ever believes that the stereotypes we possess of others are bogus. There is always some way to rationalize, to believe that while others are irrational bigots, we argue in good faith. The easiest thing for those who don't want to have our prejudices challenged is to caricature, to say that Obama "threw his grandmother under a bus," to use the right's favorite cliche, or that he drew a false "moral equivalence" between the two sets of prejudice, to use the odious stalinoid phrase most favored by those who wish to stifle any debate (since, after all, nothing can ever truly be the "moral equivalent" of anything else).

It is to his credit that Obama chose the examples he did to illustrate the dilemma. Had he ditched his pastor, as some have suggested, and only repudiated the paranoia of some African-American pulpits, it might have played better among swing voters in Ohio and Florida and what-not. But The Speech would not have moved anyone, and it have been just another cheap "Sista Souljah" moment, an attempt by a pol to play to the middle. Sometimes, it's "the middle" that's the problem, and by evenhandedly addressing the issue, rather than skirting it, he nailed his landing.
The Pot Calls the Kettle: Is there anyone with less credibility in attacking Barack Obama for his relationship with his pastor than Christopher "David Irving is not just a fascist historian, he's a great historian of Fascism" Hitchens? I suppose if Rev. Wright had denied the Holocaust, Hitch would have been right on board...after all, wasn't it Hitchens who asserted just four months ago that Hanukkah "celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness"?
Last Week: I took last week off, for the most part. Every year, I take a break during the four days that comprise the first two rounds of the NCAA Tourney, and this year, I had two major deadlines at work that had to be completed at the beginning of the week, so no blogging got done. That meant perhaps the most discussed speech by an American politician in my lifetime was not covered on this blog, and my two cents weren't added to the national debate. I suck.

Looking back, it's clear The Speech was an unqualified benefit to Obama's candidacy, at least in the short term. After a campaign where he didn't seem to be doing much to challenge the American voter, beyond the fact that his very existence is a "challenge" to the majority, and where his strategy seems to be mainly focused on running out the clock and winning on points, Thomas Dewey-style, in his battle for the nomination, for him to give a speech on the Great National Issue which exposed him on many different levels to future attacks was ballsy. The momentum in favor of Hillary Clinton which was manifesting itself in sizable leads in Pennsylvania appears to have waned. He is the presumptive nominee again.

The Speech also accomplished another important step, one that could have caused long-term bleeding in the Fall: it innoculated him from any subsequent revelation concerning the controversial statements of his pastor. You may recall that the big to-do in the days just preceding the Speech was whether he had been in attendance when Rev. Wright had made one of his more controversial statements. It turned out he'd been in Miami at the time, but the use of YouTube would have made it inevitable that speculation over his attendance at other gatherings where Rev. Wright had let fly with one of his stemwinders would have harmed his campaign.

Admitting he had been in the audience on other occasions where his pastor had made controversial statements that he disagreed with lessens the impact that such speculation will have. And if it's a question about whether it's appropriate for Senator Obama to have a minister who is also a sharp critic of America, the same question would have to be asked of some of the religious leaders who are close to Senator McCain, such as John Hagee. It is undeniably racist to have one standard that punishes a black politician for belonging to a congregation led by an angry jeremiah, and not one that subjects white conservative politicians to the same standard for associating with gay-bashing extremists who see the current war in the Middle East as a precursor to the extermination of all non-Christians.

Obama's gift, in his eloquent sermon last week, was to allow us to put all of our own relationships into context. If it is racist to judge Obama, and certain black churches, by one standard and McCain and white fundamentalists by another, it is also incumbent on liberals to accord the same dignity to people like Hagee and Robertson, to look beyond the words and deeds we find objectionable and to attempt to see why it is others are inpired by them. In sum, we should give the same benefit to those we violently disagree with that we give to those we love whose sentiments are equally objectionable to us. For those of us who had become skeptical of Obama as an "engine of change," last week gave us a refreshing chance to reappraise his candidacy, and in a way favorable to him.