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The Communitarian

(Cross-posted from TAPPED.)

My first reaction to reading the text of Obama's speech on race and Rev. Wright was that it was too long and defensive. And echoing in my ears was still the insistence of a colleague on the subway this morning that "white people don't want to hear a long lecture about the complexities of race. They want to feel good about themselves." (In other words, they want to "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.")

But it was a very good speech, in part because it was delivered in such a relatively flat and straightforward way, and because just when you thought he would dodge a point (even having read the text), he stepped up and dealt with it. I've really appreciated that each Obama speech has become slightly more mundane, workmanlike, and thus presidential, because you can't build a long campaign and a presidency on incandescent moments.

Like Ed Kilgore, I'm continually fascinated not by the content of Obama's religious experience but by how he got there. Most politicians talk about religion from the perspective of having been raised in families that are somewhat more observant than they are as adults, so they are elevating religion from their childhood and their parents or grandparents. Others, like George W. Bush, found in religion a private salvation. Obama's experience is unlike either one, and frankly unlike anyone's I know: His work as an organizer led him to the church, the church was the heart of the community in which he was working, he became religious because of his commitment to social change. It was neither personal, nor familial, but part of his forming an identity, but not just as an individual, as a member of a community. And thus, race, his public life, and religion are intertwined in a way that they are not for most people, even people whose social values and work originates in their faith.

Kilgore comments that this "won't make a lot of sense to those Americans who view church membership as an expression of consumer choice, and ultimately, of the spiritual discrimination and good taste of the religious consumer." Indeed, this was the viewpoint of my colleague this morning -- if you don't agree with what you hear in a church, go to another church. But Obama's analogy to family answered that about as well as could be answered -- the church wasn't serving just a personal function for him, it was situating him in a community in which he had chosen to live and work -- and work on behalf of.

I'm mystified when people talk about Obama as if he were pure ego, as if he believes that the "Barack Obama brand" itself delivers change. He is in fact the most deeply communitarian politician (in the sense of Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor's point that our identities cannot exist outside of our of social interactions and networks) I have ever seen. His identity -- as African-American, as Christian -- is chosen and it is chosen because it situated him within a community.

For Sandel and others, "communitarianism" was a critique within liberalism to the overly "atomistic" and legalistic view of identity of rights-oriented liberalism and particularly John Rawls. There was an attempt in the 1990s to build a kind of political movement around the idea, and Bill Clinton adopted some of the language, but it didn't really go very far, partly because, as Paul Starr writes in Freedom's Power, "it has at best been a supplement or corrective to tendencies within liberalism." But in Obama that supplement or corrective can be quite substantive, as I thought was shown in Alec McGillis's comparison of Obama and Edwards in their approaches to poverty -- for Edwards poverty is about not having enough money, and the solutions are economic, including helping people move to where jobs are, where Obama was attracted to comprehensive efforts to rebuild community, including the non-economic aspects of life.

In today's speech, community played a role of lifting the question out of the stale argument about identity politics, and remind us that it's about much more than who's black, who's a woman, who said something that might be considered racist, who has an advantage because of their identity. One's identity is indeed the sum of your experiences and social interactions and where you situate yourself in a community. I thought Obama basically did that for everyone in his speech: himself, Rev. Wright, his own white grandmother, and even Geraldine Ferraro.

I guess I liked the speech a lot more than I thought I was going to on first read.

-- Mark Schmitt

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 19, 2008 | Permalink