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Stuff White People Like

By Ben Kessler

Jesus taught me to love the hell out of my enemies.
--Jeremiah Wright

It takes an extraordinary faith in Barack Obama to believe, in early April of 2008, that Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president is somehow doomed. We can recite primary results and rattle off probable scenarios all we like, but the truth is that the media are running this show. No idiocy should be deemed impossible.

Four years ago, the young, idealistic Left flipped for Howard Dean—and then he flipped, so they really flipped, and filled the internet with techno remixes of his Scream. He went from our nation’s potential healer to howling mental patient, before he even had time to catch his breath. His supporters’ wide-eyed admiration turned seamlessly to hilarious disdain, almost as if the change had been orchestrated by an expert DJ.

Puff-up-and-puncture: It’s a trick the media excel at when it comes to Left candidates. I am not claiming that there’s a conscious conspiracy here, just trying to trace some inevitabilities of capitalism. The end of the Hollywood writers’ strike did little to end early-’08 Obamania. The media practically willed the backlash into being by prematurely accepting Obama as the “presumptive nominee” while hailing him in absolutely hysterical terms. Then they lurched in the opposite direction, ostensibly in response to overwhelming popular demand. As of this writing, media pros can say they’re doing the people’s will when they dig up dirt on Obama.

Some words now on the dirt that stuck: No one who has spent a considerable amount of time in any humanities department at a private university in the U.S. has any right to dis Jeremiah Wright. At his worst, he only states more concisely, if less politely, than most the fundamental principles of the academic Left. No professor at NYU, though, got my gooseflesh rising as Wright did when I watched on YouTube the famous Christmas sermon where he rails at “a country, and a culture, controlled by RICH WHITE PEOPLE!” Some media folk have defended Wright by praising only the part of him that would seem to overlap with Chomsky. The plain truth in that sermon goes unsung.

I didn’t vote for Obama over Hillary when I had the chance, and I’m more cautious than some people I know about making more of the man than his achievements appear to warrant. But I feel that Obama’s March 18 speech was a great Improbable Moment in American political culture. It could easily have gone a different way. Obama had a Scylla: the Dean Scream, a loud self-loving flameout, and he had a Charybdis: Bill Clinton, Sister Souljah, ‘92. He not only avoided both, but he also—finally!—used the moment as a mirror and held it up to some of Rev. Wright’s rich white people.

Make no mistake: The Speech was primarily aimed at the media. Look at the language: “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.” Seen up close, the word choice is odd. “We can play”: Well, no, “we” can’t. We can’t control what is played on national news broadcasts, and neither can Obama. Here he’s addressing those who do make those decisions, drawing them close with a first-person plural so he doesn’t have to shout as Howard Dean did. If Obama’s guess is right and these folks still have some normal human susceptibility to shame, they might not even realize that they’ve been humbled until his words have done their work.

Even among Obama’s supporters and advisors, there is insufficient understanding of how radical this “we” can be. Empathy, when it’s real, isn’t far from epiphany. There should be a shock of recognition in it that gives it a kick. Identity politics as it’s understood in contemporary American media/academia, however, is practiced from behind the mirror. From that privileged position, the “smart” set delivers its judgments on fairness, history, and social justice. Obama’s speech probably could have done more to underscore the political sophistication of the unprivileged…but if the last 50 years (at least) of pop music hasn’t demonstrated that, then what will?

One line in the speech in particular got to me: “Your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.” Democracy’s contradictions made Dean flip out and Kerry flip-flop, but Obama seems to quaff them. He drinks them in so deep, they’re even in his dreams. I wouldn’t classify what I’ve got as “Obama fever,” exactly, but I’m more than a little hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a new phase of identity politics, one that dispenses with the pseudo-scholarly shibboleths in favor of the following principle:

Either everyone’s pain matters to you, or no one’s does.

From April, 2008