Topic: Professions & Institutions
Sen. Obama, Rev. Wright, and the Ethics of Association
Sen. Obama, Rev. Wright, and the Ethics of Association
The inflammatory public statements of Barack Obama’s long-time pastor, advisor and friend have raised several important and difficult ethical questions involving integrity, the obligations of leadership, and fairness.
1. Fair and unfair criticism; False analogies
When the conduct of public figures become the target of criticism, they or their supporters will frequently counter with defensive characterizations of the accusations designed to belittle their fairness and legitimacy. Two of them evoke the campaign waged against Communists by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and later by Senator Joe McCarthy: “witch hunt” and “guilt by association.” The third is of more recent vintage: “swiftboating,” referring to the orchestrated attacks on Senator John Kerry’s military record and patriotism during the 2004 presidential campaign. When you hear a public figure complain that he or she is the target of one of these three supposedly dastardly tactics, “watch your wallet,” as the old saying says. The descriptions are usually being misapplied, and often as away to disguise real ethical problems.
“Witch hunt,” for instance, suggests a hysterical rush to accuse punish the innocent for imaginary crimes, as in the infamous Salem witch trials. There are three necessary ingredients before this description is apt: hysteria, innocence, and fiction. (There were no witches, you know.) Though playwright Arthur Miller famously locked-in the comparison between the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s with the Salem trials in his classic play, “The Crucible,” “witch hunt” wasn’t even correctly applied there. The anti-Communist fervor approached hysteria, and innocent Americans were caught in its web. But there were indeed Communists infiltrating labor unions, the U.S. government and elsewhere. Roger Clemens’ lawyer has referred to the accusations of steroid use against athletes as “a witch hunt.” No, it’s not. Steroids aren’t fiction; they are real.
“Swiftboating” is much in vogue these days, especially by Democrats, as short-hand for a furious partisan attack on a candidate based on distorted or manufactured evidence. This description doesn’t even accurately describe the original Swiftboat commander campaign, in which a group of Viet Nam veterans challenged the qualifications of Sen. Kerry. The first and most famous part of the ad series, in which the Swiftboaters questioned the legitimacy of Kerry’s war honors, was indeed unfair and deplorable. But the second part, in which Viet Nam veterans described how Kerry’s over-the-top statements before Congress accusing American servicemen of atrocities led to their mistreatment in Viet Cong prison camps, was absolutely fair and legitimate. If an accusation is based on fact rather than rumor or opinion, it isn’t “swiftboating.”
Then there is the second of the McCarthy Era tactics, “guilt by association.” McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were both fond of using “association with known Communists” as conclusive evidence that an individual could not be trusted. People were blacklisted or fired from jobs solely because friends, spouses or relatives were or had been members of the Communist Party. The key word here is “solely.” When Barry Bonds supporters cry that Bonds is the victim of “guilt by association” because his long-time personal trainer and childhood buddy, Greg Anderson, is a confessed steroid-pusher, they are being disingenuous or ignorant. If Anderson was just a close friend of Bonds and people used that fact to conclude the player was a steroid abuser, that would be McCarthy-style “guilt by association.” But Anderson was Bonds’ trainer; the fact that he typically gave his clients steroids legitimately focuses valid suspicion on Bonds. So does the fact that Bonds continued to employ Anderson, knowing about his steroid connections, as well as the fact that while Bonds was training with Anderson, he began to resemble the Incredible Hulk.
Close associations with certain individuals are not conclusive, but they obviously aren’t irrelevant. Associations can lead to reasonable assumptions. A professional basketball referee who hangs around professional gamblers, for example, is going to make NBA officials nervous, and rightly so. A state governor who likes to associate with prostitutes might be doing so because he’s interested in their policy opinions, but probably not. Even so-called “odd couples” seldom are as different as they might like others to believe. Lots of movies about the famous “gunfight at the OK Coral” have suggested that the close friendship between shady gambler-killer “Doc” Holliday and good-guy law man Wyatt Earp told us nothing about Earp’s character except that he wasn’t judgemental about his pals. But the real-life Earp was a gambler and killer himself. Think about it: are your close associates people whose values and conduct you deplore?
2. Rev. Wright and Barack Obama
The furious efforts by the supporters of Senator Barack Obama to dismiss criticism of his long-time support of Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. as a “witch hunt,” “swiftboating” and “guilt by association” are based on fallacies and historical sleight-of-hand. Senator Obama’s continued association with Wright and his church during decades while Wright’s repeated his anti-American, anti-white, paranoid rants from the pulpit raises serious and well-founded questions about, at best, the candidate’s judgement, and at worst, his core beliefs. Obama has based his thus-far epically successful quest for the presidency on impassioned calls for an end to racial and partisan divisions in America. How, then, could such a man embrace as his spiritual mentor and advisor a pastor who has .
Obama has offered several answers to this, ranging from weak to disingenuous to barely credible. When the Farrakhan honor raised eyebrows in December, Senator Obama attempted to deflect the issue by saying that while he disagreed with the award, he assumed the award was “based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders.” Nothing in the award narrative from the church suggested that this was so. As the most prominent member of the congregation and a representative of an entire state of blacks and whites, it was inappropriate for Obama to brush aside his church’s salute to a black racist, whose most offensive speeches made Rev. Wright sound like “Mr. Rogers” by comparison. In February, he responded to queries from Jewish leaders about Wright’s various anti-Semitic comments by comparing Wright to “an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don’t agree with.” This is not a respectable or sufficient answer. As someone who actually had two “old uncles” prone to racist comments, I can testify that I limited my contact with them so I had to listen to them as little as possible. I did not voluntarily sit in their audience for more than an hour every week for twenty years.
Now, as Obama has finally been forced to repudiate Wright’s most outrageous, racist and anti-American statements, he has done so while claiming that he never heard Wright express any such opinions in person, and that he first heard of the controversial nature of some of Wright’s sermons in early 2007. Senator Obama said that if he had heard these sermons, he would have protested to Wright and if he persisted, quit the church. This is a complete defense, if true. It is, an objective observer would have to conclude, very, very, very unlikely. It would require that Wright either is leading a double life, espousing reasoned, fair and judicious points of view while giving spiritual advice and having social interaction with his most famous fan, and then turning into a fire-breathing, white-man hating, America-bashing bigot the second Obama is out of earshot. Is this remotely plausible? Even if it was true, how could Wright utter so much racist and anti-American bile in videotaped sermons attended by Obama’s friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners and never have his words travel back to the Senator or his wife? It is, so far, unprovable as such, but this has all the earmarks of a lie.
3. The Ethical Problems and the Rationalizations
The threshold ethical misconduct is Rev. Wright’s public speech. Because of his position as a pastor and a community leader, his words have influence and power. The comments about American racism are exaggerated, extreme and demonstrably untrue; his comments about AIDS are irresponsible and factually unsupportable; his comments about America are unfair to the country, its public servants, its history and its legacy. The most likely results of such incendiary words is to deepen the distrust between the races, undermine community, good will, and reconciliation, and to foster bigotry, hate and ignorance. Wright’s conduct cannot be excused, and the defenses mounted on his behalf are weak rationalizations. Colbert King, the distinguished African American columnist for the Washington Post, argued on a television program that Wright’s comments were a common example of “venting” by ministers in black churches, expressing the community’s frustration with social injustice by over-the-top rants. But commonness is not an excuse for wrongful behavior, and neither is frustration. A white minister or public figure could not claim “frustration” as a justification for repeated hate-speech. King’s argument amounts to a claim that African- Americans are permitted a measure of racist speech against whites without the same accountability as racist whites must face. I am not aware of such a raced-based ethical exception, nor is one justified, fair or wise.
For its part, Trinity United Church of Christ has defended its former minister with some dubious rationalizations of its own. “Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite,” said the Reverend Otis Moss III, the new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. Yes, and Seinfeld comedian Michael Richards had a 30 year career as a stand-up comic and actor before one videotaped 30 second racist rant had him condemned as a virulent racist. Reagan cabinet member James Watt was run out of town for one politically incorrect joke. One vicious, hateful statement can be sufficient to mark a public figure as irresponsible and a promoter of false values, and Wright has made more than a few. He is rightly judged on his abuses of his position and influence, not just on the times he used them well. In another statement, the church listed all of Rev. Wright’s many social projects and accomplishments, as if these excuse his spoken words. They do not; they are, in fact, irrelevant to them. Many bigots and hate-mongers do good things too. That neither excuses their hateful speech nor gives them additional license to engage in it.
Senator Obama’s own ethical problem is two-fold. By continuing to support Wright and belong to his church, Obama gave credibility and status to racist communications. This he did in a high-profile manner. He was married in the church; his children were baptized there. He contributed, according to reports, more than $20,000 to the church under the leadership of Wright. With 20 years of active membership, he cannot deny his own accountability for the activities of the prominent head of the religious organization. Imagine the fate of a white candidate similarly involved in an anti-American, segregationist organization. Membership in a restricted membership golf club has been sufficient to generate violent opposition to white public officials, and properly so: one cannot voluntarily belong to and pay dues to a racist organization and credibly claim that one does not support its policies. Yet this is exactly what Obama has done for twenty years. Even though he has now repudiated Wright’s statements, the two decades of silent support rank as unethical conduct completed and unexplained.
Obama’s second problem is one of integrity. He is running for president based on values that his minister, spiritual advisor, and mentor explicitly rejected for many years, with Obama’s implicit support. The Senator says he didn’t know. If that isn’t true, the principles and values he says are so important now weren’t important enough then for him to find another church. If it is true, if he knew so little about the man he claimed was a role-model and inspiration and was so inattentive that he managed to ignore so many shocking public statements, there is reason to question his competence and trustworthiness.
The Wright matter is serious, and supporters of Senator Obama, the media, and all those, like the Scoreboard, who feel that a strong black candidate for president would be a wonderful thing for the country, should not rush to put it aside. Some have attempted to minimize the issue because it has been leapt upon by conservative talk-show hosts. Just because they are frequently bitter, doctrinaire, unfair, dogmatic, mean-spirited, myopic and uncivil doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. In this case, they are correct to raise questions about questionable conduct.
Some media members have exhibited exactly the kind of free-pass mentality regarding Senator Obama and Wright that the Clinton campaign has complained of. When CNN began discussing new developments in the story, Anderson Cooper actually apologized for delving into the issue of Wright and Obama, implying that it was just another “politics as usual” episode distracting from “the important policy issues.” This was either rank incompetence, willful Obama bias, or both. A presidential candidate, especially one running on Obama’s themes, who continued to participate in an organization led by an outspoken racist and anti-American demagogue is a critical matter by any measure. Integrity, honesty and principles are as important in an election as policy positions. And for that reason, we have not heard the last of the saga of Barack Obama and Rev. Wright.