Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Hate The Messenger

Christopher Hitchens penned an article in today's Slate, questioning the choice of Rick Warren to officiate at Barack Obama's inauguration, and winds up taking some heat for it in the Fray. Hitchens is a hater, by a rather mild definition of the term. He's an entertaining, intelligent and articulate hater, but he's a hater nevertheless. And this tends to color people's perceptions of his message, sometimes even to the point of derailing it completely. But there's really nothing wrong with his reasoning here. The idea that Rick Warren is perhaps too polarizing a figure for the inauguration is a valid one. Having him officiate at the ceremony may be a purely political move, but the uncynical (and/or perhaps the overly cynical) may come to the conclusion that Obama is using the Warren choice as a way of subtly telegraphing an intention to create an administration that favors those the Warren favors, at the expense of those he disfavors.

It's a reasonable fear, even when it's not accurate. Punishing people for not voting "properly" is a common American conspiracy theory. You'll likely remember accusations that the Bush administration hung New Orleans out to dry after Hurricane Katrina as a way of punishing the city for being a Democratic stronghold. And part of the whole point behind wedge politics is the pursuit of votes from some demographic or the other by promising to send "opposing" demographics into the political wilderness. Obama's "change" rhetoric or none, there are going to be those who understand it to be business as usual, and in modern American politics, that's been coming to mean choosing sides.

You could make the point that Warren's pursuit of a mono-cultural America (in which everyone is an evangelical christian) should be considered more inclusive than exclusive, but there are those for whom such a conversion would never be acceptable, and Warren's rhetoric does lend itself towards the idea that such types are illegitimate, in much the same way that Mitt Romney appeared to make common cause with more mainstream christians by openly questioning the bona fides of non-believers as citizens (it was rumored that Bush senior had more directly said as much, back in the day, but the alleged quote was never substantiated), and perhaps indirectly hinting that it would be allowable to curtail their rights for the good of the nation.

Hitchens also raises the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, implying that this is a similar situation. When Wright pontificated on America's culpability in the deaths of Japanese civilians in World War Two, and loudly exclaimed "God Damn America," people (well, okay, Republicans) were outraged. But, more importantly from a political standpoint, they saw then-candidate Senator Obama's continued attendance at services to be a validation of what they saw as a hateful message - and one directed primarily at them. But if this is true, isn't the selection of Warren by the President-elect a validation of Warren's seemingly low opinion of Jews (for instance)? It would seem, if people are going to be consistent (which, to be honest, they often aren't) that it would be. But most of America isn't Jewish - so if Rick Warren is going to say that Jews "are of less worth and littler virtue" than themselves, it's more easily overlooked. Of course, as with any charge of institutional hypocrisy, this is a hard thing to prove. Wright's critics and Warren's supporters could each number in the millions of people, and still have no overlap between them.

But Hitchens is right to note that "Barack Obama['s...] job is to be the president of all Americans at all times." Surrounding oneself with people who are willing and able to publicly establish hierarchies of worth and virtue doesn't work towards this. An Obama administration, while striving for inclusion, is going to have to keep in mind that some people are going to make assumptions about who he views as his enemies by reading into his list of friends. And so, choosing people who don't give others cause to feel excluded is a good idea. (One would think that Obama would have learned this from the Wright dust-up.) The fact that the bearer of this message may be a hater doesn't make it any less true.

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