Matthew Norman: The audacity of treating voters like adults

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The Independent Online

Wherever the coming months lead along the serpentine and endlessly captivating trail to become the 44th President of the United States, something unforgettable and potentially transformative happened in Philadelphia on Tuesday. A major Western politician talked about the most enduringly incendiary issue of the past half century as if he were addressing adults. If Barack Obama's speech on race has passed you by, find 37 and a half minutes to watch it on YouTube and judge for yourself whether you've ever seen one like him in your life.

This was the last speech Obama expected, much less wanted, to make. Until now his run for the White House was predicated on his status as the candidate who transcended race. When Bill Clinton tried, with nauseating cynicism, to paint Obama as a cuter Jesse Jackson in South Carolina, he kept schtum. When Hillary paid poisonous homage to the Swift Boating idiocy about him being an Islamic sleeper, referring to him as a Christian "as far as I know", he let it go. When his wife Michelle made the ill-judged comment, born of racial resentment, that she'd never felt pride in her country until it embraced her husband, he turned a blind eye.

For a Presidential candidate perceived as black, regardless of the half of his gene pool that is white, race is the most radioactive of all electoral substances. So his natural instinct was to bury it in reinforced concrete. But when video footage emerged of his Baptist pastor, Jeremiah Wright, thundering "God damn America", and describing 9/11 as "America's chickens coming home to roost", ignoring it would have constituted an embossed invitation to destruction by association.

If any politician in this quandary would have felt obliged to address the matter (as Mitt Romney did, cravenly and poorly, over his Mormonism), none but Obama could have found the words he did, let alone the audacity to utter them in the certain knowledge that they might damage him irreparably.

What Obama did was talk with astonishing candour about what every mainstream politician in memory has, for the most compelling electoral rationale, chosen to sugar-coat and sanitise. He both condemned the pastor's "most offensive words", and asked non-black America to accept that the roots of Wright's generation's lasting fury lie in Jim Crow and the toxic racial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. He would no more disown this batty honorary uncle, he said, than the white grandmother who worships him, yet makes remarks about fearing black men and gives voice to crude stereotyping that has made him cringe.

Some, who were otherwise blown away by the speech, found this exposure of a frail elderly relative's casual racism distasteful, and perhaps they have a point. If there was one assonant passage, this was it. Even so, doesn't it also strike a resonant chord? Is there one of us who hasn't heard friends or family make disturbing remarks without storming out of the room and ostracising them? Have you never heard the word "coon" or "schvartzer" or "yid" or "Paki" or "chink" or "nip" from someone you continued to love despite their odious opinions and choice of words?

Is there a black or brown person in middle age and beyond who doesn't burn with anger about white colonialism, and fizz with rage about the limiting of opportunities that persists to this day? Is there a white person in an Anglo-American city who hasn't felt a pang of alarm, and possibly resented themselves for it, on glancing round at nocturnal footsteps to see a young black man? Or isn't irked and fatigued when Ken Livingstone's auto-response to apparently well-sourced attacks against a black adviser is to dismiss it as racially-motivated smear?

These are the things we know but dare not publicly discuss, and this is what Obama addressed so unflinchingly on Tuesday ... the granite reality that, for all the improvement in tolerance and understanding over recent decades, a chasm remains that cannot be bridged by pretending it doesn't exist. This conspiracy of silence is the delusion of the cartoon fall guy who walks off a cliff and stands in thin air, smug and static, for the few seconds until gravity kicks in.

When Obama spoke of white resentment at affirmative action handing jobs to apparently less qualified black candidates, I gasped. This may be an acceptable subject in fiction (the impeccably liberal CJ Cregg touches on it in The West Wing), but it isn't what voters reared on Pepsi commercial platitudes about the American Dream wish to hear. Knowing this better than anyone, Obama was effectively saying, "This is what I know, and this is the truth I will ask you to confront as your President. If you elect me, it will be on my terms. If you don't like it, vote for someone else."

And they very well might. The moronic bullies of Fox News may, as Obama suggested, play the Rev Wright on an endless loop until the election. Huge swathes of white voters may, as he also foresaw, cleave tribally to John McCain regardless of his policies. The nuances of this speech, delivered not in inspirational preacher mode but in the cool, discursive tones of the constitutional law teacher he was, might whoosh over enough heads to achieve what Bill couldn't by fatally boxing him into the black candidate role he hoped to avoid.

Experience teaches us never to underestimate the disdain for intellect of an electorate which returned George Bush to power. In The West Wing, Jed Bartlett won by refusing to disguise that he was the smartest kid in the class, which to some degree is what Obama also did on Tuesday. But life, alas, seldom imitates idealised art.

And yet what an opportunity this is for the United States. Here, as YouTube will attest, is a candidate of great intelligence, sober judgement, palpable integrity and real moral courage who offers not facile optimism, as many have misunderstood it, but its polar opposite... a direct challenge to America's better, braver nature.

Change is difficult and even excruciating, he was saying, but the sine qua non of self-improvement is moving beyond fatuous news cycles that inflate the significance of whether he was in the pew when the Rev Wright raged away; and deflate the importance of confronting the inter-racial suspicion that underscores both Wright's anger and Obama's grandmother's fear, and thus perpetuates the evils of ignorance, poverty and segregation.

Barack Obama talked to Americans on Tuesday, as I said, as if they were adults. He did unto them, to adapt a closing line from a speech the commentator Andrew Sullivan called deeply Christian, as he would have them do unto him. Whether Americans have the capacity to respond as adults, or whether they cling to the comforting blanket of sideshows like the ranting Rev Wright, will go as far as anything towards deciding the Presidency.

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