Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Was Anyone Listening?

I watched Barack Obama’s speech on race today and came away very moved. He eloquently explained the context of some of Rev. Wright’s so-called controversial sermons, the context which still informs much of the African American experience today. And he showed he understands the anger and frustrations of white Americans, too, the millions of working class people who “don’t feel privileged by their race”:
Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

(I hope everyone reads the whole speech--that’s what these links are for, after all.)

These aren’t bumper-sticker plattitudes or political slogans; this is a plate of cold, hard reality. That Barack Obama understands this tells me he is a candidate who listens to people, not just lobbyists and corporate cronies. That doesn’t mean to say he never engages with the power elite, but I sense a fundamental understanding about the average American's experience that I don’t get from GOP elites like President "working three jobs is uniquely American” Bush.

But to me the money quote came at the end. Obama attacked the politics of division at its source: the punditocracy, the media, the talking heads and talk radio blowhards:

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. [...] This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This is a message that resonates with me. It resonated with me when John Edwards spoke a similar message, and it resonates with me now. It's a social justice message, and that will always appeal to me because as a bleeding heart liberal I believe that is the best and highest function of government.

But was anyone listening? All of the talking heads I saw after the speech were focused on Obama’s “repudiation” of Rev. Wright. No one touched on the heart and soul of his speech -- that we’re all facing the same problems regardless of race, and they can only be solved if we work together.

Instead, everyone discussed this speech in purely political terms; CNN’s Heidi Collins even asked: “Will they see politics here? Or sincerity of the heart?” Yeesh. Is it habit or just stupidity? Always the horse race. No one dares even touch the content, save the safe angles related to politics, campaigning, and controversy.

These are the people driving our public narrative. Were they even listening?