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WorldWatch - March 23, 2008 - Answers about Obama - The Ornery American

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card March 23, 2008

Answers about Obama

So much nonsense about Reverend Wright and Barack Obama. Isn't it obvious to everyone that this is only a big deal because the Clintons want to play on white voters' racial fears?

Obama has never said or done anything to suggest that he shares any of Wright's offensive views. But I still hear people saying, "If he could associate with the man for twenty years, he must have heard some of this, and it's bound to have rubbed off."

So let's look at Wright's comments and see what they mean, and then at Obama's reaction and see what that means, and then I'll give you the final, absolutely true answer about how much difference it should make in deciding how to vote.

And then, just for good measure, I'll take on a comparison between Hillary's and Michelle Obama's senior theses, and, because my goal is to be profoundly useful to the world, I will tell you what is significant in these papers and what is not.

Reverend Wright

Reverend Wright made some outrageous comments, but keep some things in mind:

1. He is of a generation of black Americans who have every right to be angry and unforgiving. Just because white America would like to be forgiven does not mean African-Americans are obliged to do so.

2. He was speaking in a black church to a black congregation, not acting as spokesman for a presidential campaign.

Let's dispense with the "G-- d--- America" line first. He's a preacher. He can use the word "damn" and it isn't swearing. He can invoke the curse of heaven when he feels it's appropriate. I don't like that he said it or why he said it, but when a preacher damns something, it's different from other people saying the same words.

I was bothered by the "Jesus was a black man" line. Jesus most assuredly was not a black man, he was of the people living in Palestine in the first generation of Roman occupation. They're not black now and they weren't black then.

But then I remembered all the pictures of Jesus I grew up with -- the light brown hair, gently waving down to his shoulders, the white white skin -- and I realize that for centuries, white Christians have reimagined Jesus as a German or Belgian. Why shouldn't blacks have the same privilege?

The point where I thought Rev. Wright went too far was the insane charge that white people -- the U.S. government in particular -- created the HIV virus in order to kill black people.

This is a blood slander, charging a deliberate campaign of genocide -- and not only does Wright have no evidence, it is not even possible to synthesize any virus at all, let alone one of such complexity, given present technology.

But with this vile charge, Wright reveals the game he's really playing. The overall message of his preaching is this: Black people, nothing that is going wrong in your lives is your fault, and there's nothing you can do about it except get mad at white people.

No, he reassures them, Africans aren't dying of AIDS because of their own irresponsible sexual behavior, it's a white conspiracy. Therefore black people don't have to change in any way -- it's all someone else's fault.

A responsible message would be the Bill Cosby message: No matter whose fault it is, nobody's going to fix things unless we fix them ourselves. So if we keep engaging in self-destructive social patterns, that's our foolish choice.

Instead, Wright's anger is really just another way of flattering his congregation. Making them feel complacent. For which Wright gets paid.

It's just like famous 19th-century New York minister Henry Ward Beecher (whose sex scandal was the model for The Scarlet Letter). He's the one who invented the phony idea that there was a gate in the wall of Jerusalem called "the Needle's Eye," which was so low that camels had to kneel to get through it.

He did this because his congregation was very rich, and Jesus said that it was as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

How could Beecher make his congregation feel like good Christians without giving up their obscene fortunes? By explaining that all Jesus meant was that rich people had to kneel (conveniently, at his church) and they'd get into heaven with their money.

But there never was such a gate in Jerusalem. And a kneeling camel can't get through any gate, since camels can't, or at least won't, move forward on their knees. What Jesus plainly meant was it's impossible for rich people to get into heaven, and Beecher couldn't deliver that message and keep his job.

Wright, like Beecher, finds it safer to tell his congregation lies than to tell them to get on the stick and change their lives and their culture.

So my disdain for Wright's preaching is strong. However, I'm not in his church so it's none of my business. There are plenty of other black preachers telling their congregants the same lies and giving them the same excuses -- but there are plenty of white preachers telling lies to their congregations, too.

That's just how it is in denominations where the people who don't like the preaching can change churches or fire the preacher.

Obama and Wright

The real issue is: Should we be suspicious of Obama because of Wright's teachings?

Obama has made it plain that he rejects Wright's racially divisive teachings. But he is tied to Reverend Wright by bonds of friendship that transcend doctrines.

They are friends. Reverent Wright and Obama worked together trying to make life better for poor blacks in Chicago. Wright was part of Obama's spiritual awakening and of his search for an identity as a black man. Obama hardly knew his father. Wright took on some of that role in his life.

It's not as if Wright has been accused of a crime other than saying things that make white people mad. I'm a white person. It makes me mad. So what? Wright's not running for president; if he were, I wouldn't vote for him.

Here is my question to those who think Obama should have broken off his friendship with Wright over Wright's offensive statements:

Do you want as President the kind of person who would deny and abandon his closest friends in order to win that political office?

Think about your family. Has your father or your mother or a grandparent or a sibling ever said something you thought was appalling and embarrassing? Do any of them hold opinions that you disagree with?

If your answer to any of those questions was yes, did you respond by breaking off all contact with them and denying your connection with them?

Sure, Obama called for Don Imus to be fired over his "nappy" remark -- he didn't know Imus; Imus was not his friend. It's easy to call for the destruction of a stranger.

But a friend who is as close as family? If you repudiate someone like that just because he said something embarrassing, you aren't much of a friend, are you?

I think Obama's behavior has been impeccably correct and completely honorable. Obama wants to be President of all the people of America, white and black. But he's not going to suck up to angry white people by repudiating one of his closest friends. Good for him.

Isn't it actually quite refreshing to have a candidate behave that honorably?

But if you insist on requiring that he completely separate himself from someone who has said offensive things, then what about a candidate who remains closely connected to someone who has committed crimes and done things that offend just as many Americans?

I speak of Hillary, who persists in her connection to an admitted perjurer who defiled the oval office with antics that would embarrass a randy college student (at last after he got sober and/or grew up).

Yet people actually honor Hillary for standing by her husband -- and, by the way, joining him in lying about his opponents and never apologizing for her own false charges.

What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose -- if you think Obama should separate from Wright, then you should be calling for Hillary to divorce Bill before she becomes President. After all, we wouldn't want to re-contaminate the White House with such indecency, would we?

And this time Bill would have way more free time. (Though less access to the oval office.)

It's all nonsense. I hope a candidate does not have to abandon his friends to become president. All he has to do is assure us that he does not share his friend's offensive opinions -- which Obama has done -- and demonstrate that he has never acted upon those ideas -- which Obama has also done.

That issue is closed as far as I'm concerned. If I hear anymore nonsense about this from any of you, I will reach an ugly conclusion about your real motive. No, I won't assume you're a racist, I'll assume something almost as icky: That you're a Hillary supporter.

Michelle vs. Hillary: The Senior Thesis Smackdown

All during the time Hillary was First Lady (not President, despite her claim of experience), Wellesley College kept her senior thesis under lock and key. They invented a rule that anyone could access any senior thesis except one by a sitting President or First Lady.

Princeton University was prepared to extend the same favor to Michelle Obama when people asked for her senior thesis -- without even waiting for her to become First Lady. But when reporters asked the Obama campaign about this, they did what Hillary should have done sixteen years ago: They simply provided the press with a copy of her thesis.

Since the press is not uniformly in support of Hillary, some reporters began clamoring for Hillary's senior thesis, after all these years. And guess what? She's no longer First Lady. So Wellesley allows you to see her thesis. You have to go to their archives. You can't photocopy the whole thing. But you can read it and copy bits of it.

So now I have read the conclusion of Michelle Obama's and of Hillary Clinton's senior thesis, and I can tell you that the results are significant and important for this election.

Not because of the content of their theses, however. These were seniors in college! They have a right to learn a few things afterward, to change their minds. Or do you think you should be judged your whole life by what you thought and said in college?

Let me point out my own sorry example. The election of 1968. Nixon vs. Humphrey -- but with George Wallace spoiling things by mounting the most important third-party challenge in my lifetime (I was born in 1951).

Fall of 1968, I had just turned seventeen. Definitely not a senior. I was a white kid raised in communities where I never saw black people, and while I had been aware of George Wallace as a segregationist governor of Alabama, I was ignorant of what that really meant in people's lives.

Segregation was over, I figured -- the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts had determined that -- and now Wallace himself was declaring that he was no longer in favor of segregation, implying that he'd just been doing what the people of Alabama elected him to do. So in my youth and ignorance, all I saw was a populist candidate running a third-party challenge.

I completely bought into the "not a dime's worth of difference" slogan and yes, on my college campus I took part in the Wallace campaign, manning the American Independent Party table by the student union building for a few hours one afternoon and attending a couple of meetings.

But the non-student adults working with his campaign creeped me out. It made me uneasy that people like that were Wallace's supporters. By the time of the election I had drifted away.

Within a couple of years I had learned a little more and was deeply embarrassed at my naivete and stupid enthusiasm. I changed my mind completely. Now I have a deep aversion to bigotry-centered populist demagogues -- one thinks, for instance, of the leaders of the anti-amnesty movement. (I'm thinking of Pat Buchanan and, to my disgust, my fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney.)

But if you look at what I was doing in college, there's no denying it, I was a Wallace supporter in September and October of 1968.

Does that youthful stupidity mean that I cannot ever get credit for growing up and changing my mind? I hope not.

That's why, to me, the opinions Michelle and Hillary had as college seniors aren't even interesting.

Michelle Not Racially Divisive

But let's lay one canard to rest right now. The only way you could read Michelle Obama's paper and think she was being even the tiniest bit racially divisive is if you want that to be the opinion people get about her. In short, only Hillary supporters could find anything wrong with this paper.

Michelle's major was African-American Studies. Her paper was a study of the degree to which black Princeton graduates identified with the black community. That's not racial divisiveness, that's the scholarly field she was in!

She sent out questionnaires and got back enough responses to yield interesting, if inconclusive, results. In the questionnaire she used questions that revealed her ideas, at the beginning of the study, of what marked one's degree of identification with black culture.

Using those markers, she reached the conclusion that during their years at Princeton, black students tended to identify more closely than ever with the black community, but a few years after leaving school and taking part in the white-dominated mainstream culture, their degree of identification was much less.

This is about how blacks in that time and in that place saw themselves vis-a-vis the real racial divisions in our country. But her study was not divisive, it was observational.

Hillary's paper, on the other hand, was about radical community organizer Saul D. Alinsky, whom she got a chance to meet and interview. Writing in the late 1960s, Hillary was just feeling out her newfound radicalness and so she was sympathetic to Alinsky's causes, though not worshipful of him.

The funny thing is that not being allowed to see this paper made anyone who knew the topic wonder what she wrote that was so awful. When you actually read it, you really don't see anything more than youthful hero-worship combined with a terminal longing to be cool.

It's About How They Think

So the actual subject matter of both papers is really quite innocuous, in my opinion.

But that doesn't mean they're irrelevant. On the contrary, they are both very informative. I don't care what these two women believed in college. But the methodology and the manner of writing tell us a great deal about how they analyze and process information -- how they think.

What they think can change, but the way their brains work is almost certainly locked in stone by that age. In short, we can tell from these papers how smart they are, how open-minded, how incisive, how analytical.

I'm not talking about trivialities like spelling. They were educated at different times and were supervised by different professors. Both wrote these papers before spell-checkers and neither paper was written on a computer.

Hillary's spelling is better; Michelle Obama has faux pas like "occurances" instead of "occurrences." But this is no surprise at all, given the deemphasis on spelling in the years between their papers. Hillary is of my generation: We were taught to spell. And maybe one had a better proofreader than the other.

I'm talking about ability to think, and Michelle Obama's paper reveals her to be keenly analytical.

What I love is that in the process of her study, she realized the shortcomings of her methodology and the inadequacy of her initial assumptions. She writes quite clearly that the markers of commitment to the black community that she started out with -- liking black music, eating black food, etc. -- might not have been appropriate, and if she had it to do over again, she'd use different standards.

Not only that, but she ended with suggestions for further studies that should be conducted to get clearer, more useful results. She also speculated intelligently on why she got the results she did, and on what it really means about black students at Princeton.

On point after point, her analysis was incisive; yet she also introduced most of the major doubts that her study could arouse. In short, she had a true scientific attitude, with ego almost entirely removed from the process.

From this thesis, I see the youthful Michelle Obama as smart, honest, open-minded, humble, and determined to find out the truth regardless of consequences.

Then I read Hillary's conclusion, and I was stunned. It's not just that her opinions are all over the map, usually without any kind of evidentiary justification. It's that she can't seem to write a paragraph that makes any kind of point.

It's a chaotic mess. What does she think of Alinsky? One moment she seems to think that his enterprise was valuable and important; the next, that he was untrustworthy and unreliable and not a clear thinker. What does she think of anything? She seems to be looking down on everybody.

And then it all comes clear. There's only one consistent theme that is expressed throughout Hillary's paper. It's all about how smart she is, how superior to everybody and every group she mentions. She can mock this and that because she stands on a higher plane than they do.

Instead of being an earnest seeker after truth, like Michelle, Hillary writes as if she knew "the truth" and if the reader is smart, the reader will know it too.

But in the pages that I read, Hillary shows no competence whatsoever at rational analysis, at self-questioning; she writes pretentiously, but very, very badly.

If you aren't very analytical yourself, you can come away from her paper thinking what she wants you to think: Wow, wasn't Hillary Rodham, like, smart and cool?

But if you hold her to any kind of rigorous standard of scholarship and thought, her paper is an embarrassment. It's not that she's dumb, it's that she's glib and assumes that whatever she happens to believe is the smart thing.

If I got a paper like Michelle Obama's from a college student today, I'd be impressed. She'd get an A -- after she corrected the spelling errors.

But I'd hand Hillary's back to her and say, "Now go do some research and analysis and figure out what you think before you start writing your real thesis. This one is a waste of everyone's time."

Michelle Obama is not running for President. But she is running for the office -- First Lady -- that Hillary claims is the very best qualification for being President eight years later.

I can tell you right now that if Barack listens to his wife the way that Bill claims to have listened to Hillary, President Obama will have a far smarter pillow-talk adviser than President Clinton ever had.

And that, my friends, does matter.

Bill Clinton married pretentious ambition. Barack Obama married the smartest woman he knew.

Slam dunk for Obama. Meaningless dribbling for Hillary.

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