Barack Obama’s response to the outrageous views and statements of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah A.Wright Jr., was that he should not be tagged with “guilt by association.” In addition, his surrogates and supporters quickly joined to recite the full gamut of distracting, misdirecting, and irrelevant defenses — that the pastor doesn’t really mean what he says but uses material to stir up his congregation, whites do not understand the context of the statements, he is permitted these views because of the oppression blacks have endured, if Obama was seeking any other job these statements be irrelevant so ignore them here, only a few of the Reverend’s statements are possibly objectionable, if Obama was white this would be a non-issue, this is not the first time a candidate has been burned by an endorsement, Bush and Reagan visited Bob Jones University, John Hagee has endorsed McCain, Wright is off the campaign now so case closed and so on.
First, the “guilt by association” approach admits guilt. It merely argues over who is guilty. Therefore, any in depth analysis of the virtues or truth of Reverend Wright’s charges is clearly a waste of time. Little could be clearer on its face than the racism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism spewed by the pastor. The only issue is whether Obama shares in any of this guilt.
The defense rides on the notion that “association” is an insufficient connector between the pastor and the candidate. In law, this defense is often sensible. We typically require significant evidence of connection between parties to pass guilt from one party to another but what constitutes significance depends upon the case. In many other cases, however, the defense does not work. Being members of the same organization can often do the trick. Under the recent Sarbanes-Oxley laws, a CEO can be charged with the offenses committed by a junior officer if he should have been aware. In conspiracy cases, one member of a conspiracy can be guilty of the offenses of another merely by agreeing to be in the conspiracy even if the former was completely unaware of the specific acts of the second and would not have intended those acts himself.
Despite the fact that Obama chose the “guilt by association” phrase and prides himself on his law degree, this is not a case at law. Nonetheless, our law shows us that there can be substantial relevance to and consequences from various forms of “association.”
Pundits are raising many of the relevance arguments. Some are pointing to Obama’s own speeches saying that words are important. Others are turning the racism charges around; charging that Obama is being protected from normal scrutiny into his associations by the pass he gets from being black. Unfortunately, as with Geraldine Ferraro, they are subsequently skewered in the public square.
The relevance, above and beyond all, is that associations do count. Whenever we evaluate others for any reason we consider associations of some form. Judgment of another never occurs in a vacuum. A person’s heritage, his family, his friends, his job, his extracurricular activities, educational institutions he attended, organizations he supports and so forth (including the lack of any of these) not only gives us a wide array of information from which we judge each other; we can not avoid utilizing this information.
And a great deal of Obama followers have been failing to accept what is right in front of their eyes. Obama had stated in a February debate “The implication is that the people who have been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional” as a joke to convey that of course that is impossible. And the public bought the joke. Similarly, when Obama or his surrogates assert that this is merely “guilt by association,” the public seems to buy it as well. The hypnotic instruction seems to be that as long as Obama can stand up and offer a counter statement that takes the focus off of him, we can still believe in him.
Nonetheless, Obama’s connections with the reverend are considerably close and meaningful. He calls Wright his “uncle” and a “sounding board.” He chose the pastor as his “spiritual advisor” who helped him “find Christ” and included him, until now, in his campaign. He has been a member of the church for roughly twenty years. He had the pastor oversee various personal occasions including his own marriage and children’s baptisms.
He has involved Wright in his political life. The title “Audacity of Hope” came from Wright. He only made any attempt to appear to disconnect from Wright following his decision to run for President.
Conversely, Wright has involved Obama as well. Wright referred to Obama in one of his diatribes of which we have been made aware: “Barack knows what it means to be a black man controlled by rich white people.” It seems the reverend knows Obama quite well. Is he telling us Obama is like the other cheering congregants who clearly accept and identify with the picture Wright paints of blacks?
And, as reported recently on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Obama and Wright had one or more conversations in which they agreed that Obama might have to distance himself from Wright in a national campaign. Which — directly and clearly — calls into question Obama’s sincerity in supposedly distancing himself from Wright. If he planned to distance himself from Wright during the campaign it is logical to infer that Obama plans to embrace Wright again after it.
It is difficult to trust Obama’s responses. He has tried to frame the issue as concerning these specific “statements” of Wright’s, as if these are rare utterances that occurred outside of Obama’s presence. He says he hadn’t heard these statements and repudiates them and that now that he has heard them he does reject them. He has even tried to suggest that what he has heard from Wright over twenty years is simple talk about helping the poor and Jesus and so forth, subliminally suggesting to his consuming audience that the typical Wright speech is similar to any decent sermon that could be heard across the nation. It is simply disingenuous to assert that a man filled with these points of view accompanied by the rage that flows out of him in these appearances gives no hint in any of the services Obama attends or in their frequent “uncle-nephew,” “spiritual advising,” or “sounding board” interactions.
What is even more incredible is the notion that any person of reasonable judgment could walk into that church over twenty years and not know exactly what is being communicated, the radical far left bias of the pastor, and the rage-filled leanings of the entire congregation. The joy and excitement seen throughout the congregation does not come forth only after brute sublimation. This reverend knows exactly what to say to elicit that response and it is and has been exactly his job to do so. It is far more likely that these hate America views are central to what holds the entire church together rather than simple incidental slips of a pastor’s private views which were inadvertently leaked. If the Obamas are so completely in the dark as to this pastor’s sentiments, they have no judgment whatsoever. The more likely reality is that they know exactly what is happening and that is why they have been supporters for years.
Wright’s statements also give a fuller picture to Michelle Obama’s comment that she had never before been proud of America. Having Wright as one’s teacher of what America is would destroy anyone’s pride in their country. The problem, then, is that we run the risk of electing a couple whose understanding of America should probably bar them from even taking a White House tour.
To oversimplify Shelby Steele’s extremely valuable theory in A Bound Man, Obama is in the untenable position of having to keep the real Obama hidden from the public. In short, it is part of the negotiation arrangement Obama has chosen with whites — that of what Steele calls a “bargainer” — in which whites turn over power to Obama so long as he does not in any manner use his blackness as a means to make whites act as if they feel guilty. Yet in a presidential campaign, it is virtually impossible to stay hidden.
Obama has done a great job to date in hiding behind his mesmerizing speeches, his charm, his affable humor, and gentle persona, just to mention a few of his gifts and tactics. He loves to claim he is a bringing in a new politics and is “transcending” the old. It sounds wonderful to his deluded audience yet what he transcends is merely his being tagged with exactly who he is. “Transcendence” is most often used by him as an escape, an excuse to wiggle away from some charge. Yet, as he approaches nomination, much is starting to leak out. It is precisely for this reason that Obama’s associations are all the more relevant and need to be amplified. They are precisely the best window into what is behind his curtain.
While much of the media has allowed Obama to hoodwink it by limiting the issue to Wright’s “statements,” Obama has further responded by emphasizing that he wants to be judged by who he, Obama, is, not by Wright’s utterances. Sounds fair enough. Yet, as with most of Obama’s rebuttals, it is simple obfuscation and diversion. The very issue surrounding Obama is the inability to decipher who he is. Absent significantly more concrete evidence, his associations give us some of the most meaningful insights.
This election — like every other — is a near constant flow of surrogate verbal slips followed by candidate disassociations from or condemnation of the surrogate. As if the skill most valuable for the Presidency is adeptness at damage control and how quickly one can appear to distance themselves from some problem. (This is hardly a skill that will prove useful in dealing with Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Demonstrating that he has cut himself off from Wright is a dangerous distraction from the true import of Obama’s decades-long relationship with Wright. Should the public accept such an argument, however, it only demonstrates how invested it truly is in supporting Obama’s “bargainer” mask as Steele describes.
Obama has reportedly made the intriguing joinder “My friends, we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. I hope you’ll join me as we try to change it.” Wright’s statements may have clarified much of what Obama has meant by “change” this entire time that he has stayed vague and hidden.
Simply put — Obama is guilty; by association and otherwise. He needs to open up in large fashion and show who he really is. Simple one-liners to distance himself are insufficient, given the volume of questionable associations. The problem, as Steele has astutely analyzed, is that by doing so, he will likely upset the deeply hidden bargain he has made with white America.