Obama and Community

I share Ross’s mild annoyance with the leftward bent of Obama’s speech, but to complain much about this seems obtuse. Obama is not a conservative, never has been, so it’s obvious the political ideas that animate his candidacy won’t be either. In fact, the sections where he mentioned the standard policy-arena topics of jobs, health care, and education seemed perfunctory. Indeed, with a little bit of a mix and match in those passages, and a few tweaks elsewhere, I could very nearly imagine an innovative young conservative giving the same speech.

More generally, I was struck by how much the speech addressed race in the broader context of community, allegiance, and personal loyalty. His argument relied essentially on the notion that most everyone is and should be connected to an extended family, one that includes all types, some of whom we might disagree with—even be repelled by, on occasion—yet the connections remain. These connections present difficulties at times. As we’ve seen, they be inscrutable or downright offensive to those on the outside. Yet to hold onto these connections anyway is understandable, reasonable, and human. The choice to do so is, in fact, the very essence of community, especially of those larger communities bound together by something larger than a particular, rigid ideology.

This seems to me to be the key passage:

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

The community, in other words, is not a monolithic organism, but a vast ecosystem. With a little bit of fiddling, this could be an argument from a conservative for sticking by the evangelical community in which he was raised despite having serious disagreements with them. Race matters, he’s saying, but as an aspect of culture and community, of association and upbringing. With this speech, Obama managed to effectively repudiate the most radical ideas with which he’d been associated, yet not disown the community from which the cam. In the end, it was Obama’s choice to illuminate this distinction, in his characteristically elegant manner, that made the speech work so well.