The Corner

Mother of All Cultural Battles

Thanks to the verbal stylings of Hugh Hewitt, Mark Steyn, and Barack Obama, I got to bed way too late last night. Here’s what I was listening to, and here’s the transcript. (Focus on the first third.)

After listening to these autobiographical excerpts from Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, read out loud by Obama himself, I’m left with the conviction that, in the 2008 election we are facing the mother of all cultural battles. E.J. Dionne thinks the political culture wars are over. Well, I’ve been rebutting “end of the culture wars” declarations for eight years. They always prove out wrong. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, we’re certain to see a huge cultural battle in 2008. But it’s now evident that even a Hillary campaign would be tame by comparison to the cultural confrontation flowing from an Obama nomination. The transformation of the 2008 campaign into a full-fledged cultural battle is what is really emerging from the Jeremiah Wright flap.

A president who identifies with Malcolm X? A man who grew up alienated from ordinary American life and determined to avoid becoming a “sellout” by hanging with Marxist professors and radical feminists? In his commentary, Mark Steyn highlights Obama’s alienation — the fact that even his many radical gestures never felt quite satisfying. Yet it’s important to emphasize that Obama’s inability to feel fully satisfied by radicalism wasn’t overcome by rejecting radicalism. On the contrary, when Jeremiah Wright came along and offered himself as a substitute father figure, Obama overcame his alienation and embraced leftist organizing and Wright’s radical sermons in earnest. Obama finally grew up when he threw away his alienated radical pose and embraced the real radical thing instead.

I was only half joking when I “defended” Jeremiah Wright by substituting his name for Franz Fanon in some post-modern claptrap. Fanon — the international version of Malcolm X — is famous for his paens to the healing psychic powers of anti-colonial violence. Now it turns out that Obama himself really did sit around reading Fanon, and the sort of gibberish Marxist professors write in praise of him. What’s more, while I merely substituted Jeremiah Wright for Fanon in some postcolonial prose, Obama made this move in real life. Wright was Obama’s Fanon-like father figure, turning Obama’s fake radicalism real.

Even the Clintons can’t compare with this sort of rearing in sixties-leftism and academic radicalism. This background guarantees a huge cultural dimension to the campaign. Pre-Wright, it looked like an Obama nomination would avoid the refighting of the sixties Hillary would inevitably bring. Post-Wright, post-Dreams, etc. it looks as though Hillary and Bill were only the warm-up act for the great culture clash of 2008.

Conservatives may think the revelations of Obama’s formative radicalism and his relationship with Wright are sure to sink him. While they may ultimately have that effect, the outcome is by no means certain. Contrary to liberal denials, Obama has been damaged by the Wright affair. Yet it’s also true that association with leftist and academic radicalism is no longer disturbing to large segments of the country.

The Democratic left now believes that the United States is ready for a genuinely “progressive,” paradigm-changing president. They are not abandoning Obama, and are not even fully capable of seeing how damaging Obama’s background and underlying worldview seem to many (although they are worried enough to try to cover for him). But the country is changing and we can no longer be certain of the impact all these revelations will have. What I do think is obvious at this point is that cultural issues will not be a sideshow in 2008, but very much at the center of things. And if Obama should win, the culture clash of the Clinton and Bush years is sure to go on at full blast.

Right now the media, and the Obama campaign itself (same thing, I know), are desperately trying to avoid having Obama characterized as the ultra-liberal he is. But the cultural dimension of the campaign is going to kill all that. There is just too much consistency between Obama’s lifelong radical sensibility and his ultra-liberalism on policy issues to fool the public about who he is and what he wants.