Final Words About the Speech

This is meant as a wrap-up of reaction to Obama’s speech on racism. From now on, I hope to focus on other issues, other ideas.

That speech has taken on a life of its own, and deservedly. As Scott Horton says, quoted below, “It is the sole extraordinary moment of this entire campaign.”

By way of setting the stage — stacking the deck might be a more candid metaphor — here’s a quote from a reply to the speech by conservative pundit and one-time Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan.

A Brief for Whitey

America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

I must admit, I never thought of it that way before. Black “folks” might never have known Christian salvation if their ancestors hadn’t been captured in Africa and brought here as slaves. We could call it “vigorous conversion,” the first phase of compassionate conservatism.

Praise Jesus, brothers and sisters, praise Jesus.

Let us leave Mr. B. to his troglodytic musings, and edge toward the left side of the page. Here’s part of a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Peggy Noonan, who was Ronald Reagan’s speech writer. She’s as even-handed as you can get on the editorial page of WSJ.

A Thinking Man’s Speech

I thought Barack Obama’s speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to. It was clear that’s what he wanted, and this is rare.

Noonan had more good things — and a few bad — to say about the speech, some of which are quoted by or are implicit in this column by Scott Horton of Harper’s, which brings us to the left side of the page.

No Comment

The punditry today increasingly is a pumpkin patch. It’s filled with intellects of an exceptionally low wattage. In fact the cable networks have developed a predilection for clinical chatterboxes—people who can fill the silence with noise, without much concern for its worth. And most of them follow a simple agenda of carping at and attacking the political figures who oppose their political turf. This has proven a frightful degeneracy for political dialogue in this country, which, more than ever, needs to be squarely engaged with the major issues that the country faces. Race relations is indeed one of those issues. The hyperbolic sermons of a retired pastor, the misstatements of campaign surrogates, the bigotry of ministers who have endorsed a candidate are terribly peripheral.

As comedian Jon Stewart put it, “Obama spoke to us. . . as adults.” It’s something we’re not used to. Noonan makes precisely this point. “The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech can be found in two words, endemic and Faulkner. Endemic is the kind of word political consultants don’t let politicians use because 72% of Americans don’t understand it. . . As for Faulkner — well, this was an American politician quoting William Faulkner: ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ This is a thought, an interesting one, which means most current politicians would never share it.”

Obama reflects confidence, not doubt, in the nation’s ability to surmount its woes and reclaim a position of moral authority and leadership among nations. His criticism is targeted at the current political leadership, not at the nation. Still, Noonan’s criticism expresses a fundamental truth about the American self-perception and the need for any successful leader to craft a message in which the reaffirming overwhelms the critical. Taken as a whole, Obama’s speech accomplishes that. It is the sole extraordinary moment of this entire campaign.

Other aspects of the speech were taken up by E. J. Dionne, at the Washington Post, who emphasizes Obama’s argument that blacks and whites need to stop talking to themselves, and talk to each other.

On His Own Terms

The man who, by parentage, is half black and half white took it upon himself to explain each side’s story to the other. Obama resembled no one so much as the conciliatory sibling in a large and boisterous family shouting: “Please, please, will you listen to each other for a sec?”

One of the least remarked upon passages in Obama’s speech is also one of the most important—and the part most relevant to the Wright controversy. There is, Obama said, a powerful anger in the black community rooted in “memories of humiliation and doubt” that “may not get expressed in public, in front of white coworkers or white friends” but “does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. … And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.”

Yes, black people say things about our country and its injustices to each other that they don’t say to those of us who are white. Whites also say things about blacks privately that they don’t say in front of their black friends or associates.

There is more I planned to post here, but for some reason, WordPress right now won’t recognize the code. For now, that’s it. I’ll have more to say on this topic, but for the immediate future, there are other dragons to slay.


4 thoughts on “Final Words About the Speech

  1. have to admit i clicked on the buchanan “brief for whitey” link because i couldn’t quite believe he actually said that. my god, what an ugly, ignorant and hateful essay. polar opposite of obama’s speech.

  2. You hit the nail right on the head, Phil. Buchanan is a ridiculus, egotisical jerk. I’m sure that Obama will win.

  3. I’m sure Pat Buchanan came by his myopia honestly, in childhood. The attitude behind is views is all too common. The crux of it is here:

    Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream.

    It’s obviously never occurred to Buchanan that if they had not been kidnapped and brought to this country as slaves; had they not been held in slavery for generations; had they not been denied education; had they not been denied the freedom to move west and make a better future for themselves as millions of whites did for generations, that black Americans wouldn’t have needed all those government assistance programs so disproportionately.

    Had whites not forced Africans to come here and be held in such a way that their families and culture were compromised or destroyed, African Americans probably wouldn’t be so disproportionately represented in our scandalously oversized prison population, either.

    The sad, painfully apparent truth is, Buchanan is ignorant, and to borrow a term from Don Rumsfeld, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

  4. You know my thoughts on the Obama speech so I won’t get into that again. It was right. Right in time, right in content, right in tone, just plain right.
    My comments here concern Mr. Buchanan and specifically how great the African and African Americans have had it here. He’s right.

    In my work as an archaeologist in the American South I have had the opportunity to find and work on numerous slave quarter sites. The characteristics signature of these sites is unique. By that I mean there is a very specific type of artifact assemblage to look for when doing an archaeological survey. It takes a special “eye” to find them because they are unlike any other site type.

    The first clue is the paucity of materials. Typically the artifacts a person finds when they first encounter a quarter site includes a very small scatter of a few odd ceramic shards, maybe a couple of hand wrought or cut nails, perhaps a button, and occasionally a small piece of potash windowpane. These kinds of finds are often written off by archaeologists as nothing but a small trash scatter, however a little more work in that location will reveal that there’s more to the site than casual discard. More odd pieces of ceramic will be recovered, more buttons, some bottle glass fragments, and maybe some burned bone fragments from the cooking pot.

    Interestingly the bottle glass recovered will date to a later time period than the ceramics – generally by several decades. This is usually because the bottles used by the inhabitants are contemporaneous with the occupation of the site. In contrast the ceramics are 20-30 or more years old and normally we don’t find matching sets of dishes like we do at the main plantation house or overseer’s sites. This is generally believed to be the result of the slaves receiving the odd hand-me-downs when the mistress of the plantation purchases a new set of whatever tableware is in fashion at the time. So they’re consuming whiskey or medicines, when they can, from new bottles and eating off of old dishes. They could also be picking up discarded empty bottles to use for storage. Whatever the reason, this is the pattern.

    The bones we find are typically large joints like feet, knee joints, etc. There is usually very little bone recovered at these sites. Often the meat consumed includes a large percentage of wild game. The primary ration consisted of a large portion of grain; either rice, corn meal, or some other filler.

    As for the structures themselves there is typically very little evidence of them left in the ground. Often they were small (10×12 or so) and were built of log with a dirt floor or a rough hewn plank floor. Seldom do we find evidence of a window. The chimney is often a mud and stick structure stacked against the house. The evidence of it is found in the form of clay daub that becomes hardened by the fire. There is often also a subfloor pit used for storage and covered over with boards. These were often referred to as “hidey holes” – a place where they could hide goods from the overseer or master.
    The location of the quarter sites is unique too. They are often placed near a water source such as a small stream or spring. The ground is often rocky and sometimes a little swampy. Generally it is not tillable land. The site is most often very near to the large open upland fields where the slaves worked.

    So, without getting into great detail about the sites it is clear that these are unique places – places that clearly afforded the residents with all the best society could offer. They had nice dishes – maybe a little old and chipped and often lead-glazed but nice. They had meat – maybe not the best cuts and maybe they had to go hunt or trap their own to meet their daily needs, but maybe it was leaner and better for them. They had grains – which are good for a body, right? So what if it made up about 70% of their diet? They didn’t have to worry about keeping windows clean or about a child breaking them. They had nice log homes, which are making a comeback in today’s market, indicating how ahead of the times they were. They lived near work and had short commutes – there may have been a lot of mosquitoes and a muddy floor but they had plenty of water to boil to make it potable. It was important to be close to work too because it was usually dark coming and going to the fields – don’t want anyone tripping over anything along the way. And mostly they weren’t encumbered with a lot of worldly goods that they had to worry about. Nothing worse than being sold off to another plantation and having to say goodbye to your family and then having to carry a lot of junk, especially with you hands shackled.

    So clearly Buchanan was right. What lucky folks to be brought here in the lap of luxury and to be given such an opportunity in this great nation where all men are created equal.

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