The Corner

The Dangers of Symbolic Thinking

It seems one reason both Wright and Obama are in this mess is they share a way of thinking about themselves and their respective projects. Obama expressly said that Wright represents the “black community.” Wright says an attack on him is an attack on the “black Church.” Obama often suggests that a vote for him is a vote for “change” and for moving beyond division and discord and all bad things. And while he’s wisely refrained from expressly saying that his skin color is the medium of exchange for this grand world-historical purchase, that’s certainly been the subtext for him and the plain text for many of his supporters. (And, to be fair, Hillary is nearly as bad when she talks about being the first woman president, though the fact she  talks so much detail and is so much worse a speaking in lofty rhetoric ties her to the ground a bit more).

The problem with this sort of thing is that people aren’t abstractions, they cannot in fact “personify” anything, not really. Voting for Obama may be a sign of change, a harbringer of change, a catalyst for change, but Barack Obama is not in fact Change with a capital C anymore than Jeremiah Wright is  the “black church” made flesh. He’s a man. They’re both men, regardless of what their rhetoric suggests.

It’s not surprising that Obama, who surely sees himself as the incarnation of Something Big, would be seduced by the tendency to describe others in the same terms. If Obama had resisted the temptation to turn the Wright episode into a profound meditation on Race and Other Big Things and instead stuck with something more humble (like the crazy uncle stuff and his own failure to recognize Wright’s extremism) he wouldn’t be in so much trouble. But  he’s set the terms of the debate, saying that Wright is the black community so his explanations and maneuvers sound weak and self-serving. 

I think the Christian Right understands this dynamic  a bit better than most of us because so many of fundamentalist or evangelist spokespeople have been exposed in embarrassing ways. What’s interesting is how liberals, journalists and other non-members of the Christian right think these sorts of scandals demonstrate the rottenness of evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity, but actual subscribers to these views and members of these flocks tend to understand that the man is different than the message, save of course in the case of Jesus.


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