by Jeremy Young | 3/24/2008 06:51:00 PM
[Note: this essay was originally published at HNN, and is cross-posted at My Left Wing, Open Left, Politics and Letters, and Wild Wild Left.]

In her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula K. LeGuin writes of a fictional utopia whose perfection is made possible by a terrible secret: the imprisonment of a child in the most horrifying conditions imaginable. When the residents of Omelas learn of this devil’s bargain, they face a stark choice: accept a lifetime of guilt-ridden pleasure, or leave the city, never to return. Some choose to stay in Omelas, trading their moral compasses for personal happiness. Those with courage are the ones who walk away.

In America, there is a place very much like Omelas. It is called the Democratic Party. Unlike the Republicans, who generally celebrate their political extremists – think of Mitt Romney cheering Ann Coulter, or John McCain courting the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee – the Democats have a pathological fear of being identified with their party’s more radical elements. In order to prove their moderate credentials, they periodically call upon one of their presidential candidates to publicly humiliate a fellow Democrat. The chosen scapegoat, like the child of Omelas, is usually someone who belongs to an unpopular and underprivileged group, or who has expressed radical views. Strategists argue that this process is necessary for the party’s nominee to win over moderate voters, who apparently require the spectacle of public shaming in order to accept a Democrat as a responsible citizen.

Perhaps the first victim of this bizarre ritual was Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was tapped by 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern as his running mate. After the media reported that Eagleton had been treated for depression years earlier and had undergone electroshock therapy several times, McGovern held a press conference and announced that he was "a thousand percent" behind his running mate. Yet less than forty-eight hours later, Eagleton was out – sacrificed to American intolerance of victims of mental illness.

For the principled McGovern, throwing Eagleton to the political wolves was an uncharacteristic lapse forced upon him by the party establishment. But over the years, many less-scrupulous Democrats have gone out of their way to provoke such ritual humiliations. None has been more dramatic than Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Sister Souljah moment,” an iconic interaction whose name has come to encompass the entire genre of Democratic scapegoatings. Sister Souljah, an African-American R&B artist and strident political leftist, had given a regrettable interview after the Rodney King riots in which she had uttered the phrase, “If black people kill black people everyday, why not have a week and kill white people?” While sharing a stage with Souljah at an event hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, Clinton slammed Jackson for even having Souljah on the program, ludicrously comparing her words to those of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. The ploy worked: Clinton’s poll numbers received a much-needed boost on the back of the hapless Souljah.

Sixteen years after Bill Clinton singled out an angry and powerless young woman for public shaming, the Clintons still believe in the importance of Sister Souljah moments. Weeks ago, Hillary Clinton urged Obama during a debate to "denounce" and "reject" supporter Rev. Louis Farrakhan. In doing so, she reified the ritual scapegoating that has persisted within the Democratic Party for over thirty years – and ignored that ritual’s dark subtext. The Sister Souljah moment was not simply a feel-good morality statement, it was a stark warning to radicals like Souljah: if you utter extremist statements, you will be shunned and hounded from public life. Sister Souljah moments have a chilling effect on public discourse that should raise the ire of all lovers of free speech. Nevertheless, they are – or were – a staple of Democratic politics.

Until Barack Obama walked away from Omelas.

I could write perhaps a half-dozen separate essays on the ways in which Obama’s stunning speech on race last week broke new ground for a presidential candidate. But the aspect of the speech that stands out most clearly to me is Obama’s passionate defense of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – a man who had been caught shouting “God damn America!” in a televised sermon. “That isn't all that I know of the man,” Obama declared in the ringing tones which have become his signature. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. … He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Writers on both sides of the political divide have bemoaned Obama's decision not to scapegoat Wright. On the left, blogger and Clinton supporter Jerome Armstrong charges that “Obama needed to throw Wright under the bus and run him over a few times.” Similarly, conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson laments that Obama's speech "has sanctified the doctrines of moral equivalence" and embodies "the rejection of any consistent moral standard." I could not disagree more. Obama did not endorse Wright’s inflammatory comments by refusing to reject the man himself; far from it. Instead, he declared that our common humanity transcends our political differences. For Obama, there should be no more denouncing and rejecting of people with unpopular opinions, no more public humiliations or Sister Souljah moments. Obama’s speech was not a defense of the indefensible, but a bold appeal to pluralism and tolerance the likes of which has been little heard – and much needed – in our public sphere of late.

In the past, I have bemoaned Obama’s lack of political courage, his unwillingness to stand up for what he believes if doing so placed him in political jeopardy. No longer. By defending Wright at grave risk to his own political future, the Illinois senator has finally shown courage befitting a President. In doing so, Obama has become more than the man with the silken tongue and the audacity of hope; he has vaulted into greatness. If candidate Obama is willing to stand up for his unpopular friend against the winds of political expediency, my hopes are high that President Obama will perform a similar service for his shattered country.

LeGuin writes of the ones who walk away from Omelas, “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. … It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going.” I do not know where Obama is taking us in his rejection of the politics of scapegoating, but I have a feeling it is going to be glorious.



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Anonymous Sansouci on 3/25/2008 1:28 AM:

I agree his acknowledgement of and refusal to deny his relationship to Rev. Wright and his prinicipled explanation of his complex relationship to the African American community, are signs of a rare qualities in American politicians. Obama showed character and integrity, characteristics which used to be seen as important for our leaders to have.


Blogger Heather on 3/25/2008 9:03 AM:

It's a well thought-out essay, but I have to respectfully disagree with some of your points. Obama pulled off an amazing feat of political savvy: he fulfilled the Democratic blood-lust you speak of without offending either of his core constituencies. Obama moved very quickly to distance himself from the pastor, both physically and ideologically. Wright was removed from the campaign, has been out of the country and unavailable for comment throughout the crisis; you probably aren't going to be seeing the two of them on a podium together any time soon. Further, in the days leading up to his speech, and even during the speech, Obama marginalized Wright by comparing him to a dotty old uncle who shoots off at the mouth after a big Easter dinner. He paid homage to Wright as a man, a friend, and a spiritual adviser, but then rather condescendingly rationalized Wright's more radical statements as relics of a bygone age. He plotted a course between not offending his African American constituency and quelling the fears of his white consistency, but I don't think he actually broke new political ground.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 3/25/2008 9:43 AM:

Heather, you make good points. I'm trying to treat the speech as a phenomenon separate from the rest of Obama's conduct, which may be overly generous to Obama. A lot of Obama's recent conduct, including his firing of Samantha Power and his removal of Wright from his campaign team, have seemed to reinforce the politics of scapegoating. In The Speech he backs away from that, and I want to give him credit for doing so. But you're right that it doesn't present a complete picture of his actions.


Anonymous Geschichte Grad on 3/25/2008 11:01 AM:

Great piece, Jeremy. You've highlighted something from Obama's speech that I hadn't even thought of: his defense, albeit oblique, of free speech. Obama disagrees with what his former pastor said, but he doesn't disagree with the pastor's right to say it. Perhaps we'll get something out of President Obama (fingers crossed) that we haven't had in a long while: honest, thoughtful, open political dialogue.