Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Message for Obama: Children of Light Need to Wise Up

For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. Jesus, Luke 16:8

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus, Matthew 10:16

Do not cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Jesus, Matthew 7:6

Deceivers, yet true. Reinhold Niebuhr

A worthy politician needs to keep a proper balance between two sets of perspectives: 1. idealism and realism, 2. principles and pragmatism. Idealism without realism will end in cynicism and passivity. Pragmatism (doing whatever works) without principles leads to a naked struggle for power guided solely by self-interest.

1. Proper idealism means devotion to the true and the good, but not in a naive way that assumes mere moral suasion is sufficient to win the day. Ideals must be connected to interests and perceived needs. The power of the civil rights movement resided in the coincidence of justice and self-interest in black people. A few saints may prefer the interests of others to their own but not enough of them can be found to populate a mass movement. Idealism must be tempered by realism -- a recognition of the way things actually are in this world where people tend to prefer their own wants to the needs of others and seek present rewards for themselves rather than sacrifice for the present and future good of all.

2. A good politician, where good means both successful and devoted to justice, must be anchored in moral principles and a quest for the common welfare. Principles have to be flexible enough to conform to what can actually be achieved. Politics is the art of the possible. An idealistic politician cannot exercise power in behalf of justice without being elected. Devotion to justice must be tempered with wisdom about the way the world actually works. Principles without pragmatism yields no success. Success at all costs means a quest for power for its own sake rather than power as the necessary means for attaining good ends.

I think this is what the three quotes I began with add up to. The children of light must learn the ways of the world from the children of darkness without losing the light that guides them. They must be worldly wise like serpents as they battle the evil forces without losing their innocence and their ideals, remaining harmless as doves. They must even be seen as agreeing on some points with the children of darkness while in this deception remaining true to their fundamental moral principles and the quest for justice. It is foolish to give pearls to pigs, since they cannot possible appreciate them.

I learned politics in the segregated South of the 1930's and 40's. Candidates for governor of Georgia who embraced integration from the left got a few thousand votes, as did the extreme white supremacists on the far right. Any moderate who could be perceived as compromising segregation in the slightest was damned by his opponent -- usually successfully. So we either got strict white supremacists or moderates who pretended to be more orthodox than they were in order to get elected so they could do something for black people within limits of of the pragmatically possible. I never faulted the moderates for espousing white supremacy as long as I believed they would actually be better in practice than their rhetoric suggested, i. e., were deceivers yet true, wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, making use of the wisdom of the children of darkness in order to let in some light. It would have been foolish for an integrationist politician at heart to espouse this notion to white voters in Georgia in 1940, for they could no more understand this crazy idea than pigs can be awed by a precious pearl.

All this has become fresh with the mess Barack Obama finds himself in dealing with his "bitter" comments and the harm Wright. has done without doing wrong to Wright. He has not been at his shining best recently. Three brief comments based on the words of Jesus and Niebuhr.

1. Before he announced his candidacy for president, he should quietly have left the Wright church. If he didn't know about the extremist comments he now denounces, why didn't he? He should have known that the mean machine of the Republicans would make a "Willie Horton" event out of it. It is the kind of thing the blood-thirsty, audience-hungry, ratings-driven media loves-- controversial, emotional, involves conflict, and can be simplified, presented visually, and repeated endlessly.

We social gospel liberals with some knowledge of black liberation theology can understand and appreciate most of what Wright said, but trying to get a sympathetic response from white audiences generally is not a challenge to undertake in a political campaign, which the media translates into simplistic, distorting thirty-second summaries. Wright seems to me to be stuck at about 1970, and Obama cannot afford to repeat that fight as a politician in 2008.

2. He should not have offered a psycho-social analysis of the working class -- a muddled one at that -- to a privileged group in private in California. Didn't he know that nothing is private any more and that his words were toxic?

3. In his press conference today (4-29) he went further in disassociating himself from Wright than before. Why didn't he do this earlier? My theory is that Obama is a man of integrity who previously tried to include in his explanations all the nuances, complexities, and ambiguities in the situation. That is fine for a professor in the classroom -- which he was -- but not in a political campaign. I wanted to see more passion and some simple statements, e. g., "I have had it with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright." He used some strong language, but he appeared calm, controlled on TV. although reporters present on the scene said he was visibly angry. In any case, he should have thrown Wright under the bus earlier -- if he wanted to maximize his chances to be president, and I, for one, earnestly want him to be.

In Plato's Myth of the Cave the freed prisoner who has escaped into the realm of light, truth, and goodness from the dark cave where he could only see fleeting shadows on the wall was not able to make them out at all after returning to the dark cave and thus faced derision from the unenlightened prisoners because the enlightened one was not as good as they were at interpreting the shadowy figures on the wall. Want to know what this Myth means? Start over with the quotations from Jesus and Niebuhr.