In Response To Hitch On Obama


He's my friend and I respect him and he's entitled to his view that Obama is a cynic and a self-serving fraud, but allow me to write where I think Hitch is being unfair. Item One:

Looking for a moral equivalent to a professional demagogue who thinks that AIDS and drugs are the result of a conspiracy by the white man, Obama settled on an 85-year-old lady named Madelyn Dunham, who spent a good deal of her youth helping to raise him and who now lives alone and unwell in a condo in Honolulu.

This seems to me to elide too many connections, i.e. it's too cheap a shot. The point Obama was making in referring to his grandmother, whom he evokes with great vividness and love in his first book, written long before he ran for any office, is that we are all full of fear and anger. The anger that Jeremiah Wright still harbors from the indignities of the 1950s and 1960s is not without reason even if it is wrong; and the fear that his own grandmother has of a black male stranger on the street is also not without reason even if it is wrong. And Obama - who doesn't make the comparison as directly as Hitch implies - says he loves both and that both have a point but that both need to overcome their fear. More: he shows in his book that his grandmother did overcome that fear in many ways, while it is clear that he believes Wright, in some instances, still hasn't. I also don't think you can fairly hear or read Obama's speech and believe he was somehow saying that his grandmother's racial fear was as objectionable as Wright's racist outbursts. He doesn't denounce it in anything like the same terms. These are nuances, but then that speech was indeed nuanced.

Item Two:

I assume you all have your copies of The Audacity of Hope in paperback breviary form. If you turn to the chapter entitled "Faith," beginning on Page 195, and read as far as Page 208, I think that even if you don't concur with my reading, you may suspect that I am onto something. In these pages, Sen. Obama is telling us that he doesn't really have any profound religious belief, but that in his early Chicago days he felt he needed to acquire some spiritual "street cred."

Again, if you read those pages and the totality of the book and Obama's account of his own faith in many other contexts, you will see this passage as a confession by Obama of some of the non-spiritual motives he had for seeking out an authentic black experience as he saw it in Chicago. He is not telling us his own faith isn't real, and it is absurd to read the book and infer that. In fact, what is remarkable about the book is that Obama is able to show how his mixed motives were at one point overwhelmed by sincere religious faith. What strikes me about that is its human honesty, not its cynicism.

Now Hitch, of course, believes that all religious faith is contemptible and a fraud. I don't. And I think Hitch's healthy skepticism toward all forms of uplift, political and religious, has a very important place in our culture and in Western freedom. I would not expect Hitch to feel anything but visceral revulsion to an Obama sermon. And I don't like some of the messianic tinges to the Obama movement much either. But I think Obama's foreign policy proposals in the wake of the Iraq debacle, the resort to reason in his dialogue, and his recourse to to civility and to complexity in an age of ugliness and soundbites more than counter-balance this redemptive temptation.

Of course, I cannot see totally into a man's soul, Obama's or anyone else's, and I cannot know for sure that he is pure of motive. That he has confessed that he has not always been pure of motive is for me a good sign, not a bad omen. Perhaps Hitch is right that all of this is some gigantic fraud in which the most sincere matters of faith and family are being cynically used for pure politics. We can only look at a man's words and actions and self-explanation, and do our best to make a judgment.

This is my judgment. I do not believe Obama is a cynical fraud, a closet anti-Semite, a believer that white people are evil, a man who holds that white men gave black people AIDS, or is so empty that his own beloved grandmother is just another vehicle for his self-advancement. I do not believe his faith as he has tried to express it is phony or cynical. I do not believe his refusal to disown Wright is a function of politics, but a function of human loyalty and love, which can often transcend or even be empowered by that loved one's flaws, and even malice. Do I wish Obama had never known Wright? In one sense, yes. In another, no. It is partly what makes him who he is - a bridge in some extremely troubled currents.

Hitch predicts I will soon be proven wrong, that the mask will soon be ripped off, and great disillusion will sink in again. Maybe it will, and I will be forced into another humiliating confession of misjudgment. There's a vital place in the discourse for such skepticism as Hitch's - and I'm not looking for a savior (I have one already, thanks), just a way forward. But when skepticism lacks the willingness to listen and to grant, even for a moment, the benefit of the doubt to a man whose message is, in tone more than substance, an antidote to our current national and international crisis, it is, I think, missing something important right now. It is getting very close to cynicism.

One of us, I guess, will at some point be proven wrong, or, more accurately, less right. All I can say is that I doubt Hitch will be particularly thrilled when the Clintons move in for the carcass of what was and remains the audacity of hope.

(Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty.)