A plea for a politics of complexity

The major theme of Sen. Barack Obama’s speech was much larger than race, and he made a variety of strong points.

Last Tuesday morning, Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech which was billed in advance as a “major speech on the issue of race in the campaign.” This speech came on the heels of the release of video clips of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, expressing incendiary statements which had the potential to undermine Obama’s campaign. I am not going to reiterate all of them here, just turn on Fox News or CNN if you’re interested – they’re running them on a loop.

As an Obama supporter, upon hearing Wright’s statements, I must confess that I felt a palpable sense of anger – not at Wright but at Obama. True enough, I do not agree with most of “Wright’s worst hits.” However, not being a particularly religious person, I usually find myself in disagreement with the sentiments uttered by most religious leaders – so for me this was nothing new. Instead, I was one of undoubtedly many Obama supporters who thought these clips showed a political miscalculation on Obama’s part. Even if he had not heard the particular statements in question, did he not realize the kind of reaction Wright’s rhetoric would evoke in a lot of Americans? Why had he not kicked Wright to the curb sooner? How, given this country’s fraught racial baggage, did he think he could run for the presidency with Wright so closely linked to him? It was with this mindset that I went into Obama’s Tuesday speech. I was looking for answers to these questions.

Not only did Obama give me the answers I was looking for, but in doing so, his speech did something much larger than simply speak about race. At its core, the speech was a plea for a politics of complexity. By this, I mean that Obama chose not to take the easy way out. He chose to not simply give a speech which addressed the narrow issue of Wright’s remarks but instead to give one which addressed every American’s complex relationship to those around them – particularly when it comes to the issue of race.

Reiterating his “unequivocal” condemnation of “the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy,” Obama then began to explain why he could nevertheless not “disown him.” He argued that these statements represented only one part of a person who, like all of us, is much more complex than the way he has recently been portrayed. As Obama said, “He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.” Then, in the emotional crux of the speech, Obama argued that he could “no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

The importance here is that Obama uses Wright to force us to confront not only our own complex individual relationship to race but also to our own nation’s complex history of race relations. Just as Wright, his grandmother – and for that matter every single one of us – is not reducible to our worst imaginable narrative, neither is the nation itself. Thus, while the nation’s history contains a horrendous ongoing legacy of racial injustice – one which Obama details in the speech – it also contains the possibility that a black man could “run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old.” Both of these national narratives exist at the same time just as contradictory qualities exist within all of us. It is not an either/or proposition but rather a both/and one.

The question now is whether or not the public is ready for this speech and the politics of complexity it represents. As Americans we too often want to think the best of ourselves and the worst of others – both individually and collectively. Obama is asking us to do something much harder: to acknowledge that our existence is more complex than this. This is not something people running for president normally do.

Moreover, the question must be asked whether such a politics of complexity is even possible with the existence of an elite political media (both mainstream and conservative) that is quite literally invested in a politics of simplicity. Simply put, easily digestible campaign narratives, especially ones regarding racial polarization and conflict, sell well and are easy for anyone to discuss – thus requiring low overhead for high return. Obama himself acknowledged this “media problem” throughout his speech, most poignantly at the speech’s end when he argued that we could continue to “tackle race only as spectacle” in an endless string of narrative distractions where “nothing will change,” or, we could say “not this time” and instead talk about the reality of race as it is currently lived in the United States – a reality that includes “crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.”

Obama’s is a bold gamble. In an era where very few will read or see his full speech, one wonders if his politics of complexity will get lost in an endless string of sound bites through which most Americans will digest his speech. Moreover, if the American people do access the full message of the speech, are they ready for it or will they still focus narrowly on Wright’s remarks as I worried at the beginning of this column? In presidential politics, we have been beset by a politics of simplicity for some time now – a politics of the trivial which has achieved its zenith under President George W. Bush. We are conditioned to think this type of politics is inevitable – that we cannot break free from it.

I’m not sure if we can, but I’m convinced more than ever that we have to try. Obama’s is the only candidacy which offers us the possibility of trying and, thus, the possibility of repudiating the politics of simplicity which has dominated our recent political history. In the end, the speech was larger than Obama, it was about what he could represent: the idea that as individuals and as a nation we cannot and should not be reduced – that we are complex and that our politics should reflect this complexity.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]