19 March 2008

Varieties of politics: Barack Obama and Queensland

Two contrasting events, one from the USA, the other from Queensland.

Barack Obama

In the wee small hours of this morning my attention was grabbed, and held, by a speech by Barack Obama as it was broadast live on CNN.

Read the transcript or, better still watch the video.


...it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action, that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.

On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation -- that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain.

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice.

Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America, a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?

And I confess that if all that I knew of Rev. Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.

He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine, who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth -- by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, "Dreams From My Father," I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note -- hope! -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.

"Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope -- became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.

"Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish -- and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. 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.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.

Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork.

We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.

And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.

Is there a politician (or anyone) in Australia who can speak like this?

Politics Queensland (old and new) style

From today's Australian :

Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie has performed his most spectacular backflip by accepting a $200,000-a-year job representing the state Government in the US only months after he declared he would not take any government position.

Mr Beattie's successor as Premier, Anna Bligh, announced his appointment yesterday as Queensland's Trade Commissioner to North and South America, starting on June 1 and based in Los Angeles.

At the time of his resignation in September, there were rumours Mr Beattie would be appointed the Queensland government representative in London, but in December he told a Queensland newspaper he had turned down the position.

"I will not be accepting any government positions at a state or federal level. This is to avoid any unfavourable perceptions of deals or otherwise," Mr Beattie reportedly told The Sunday Mail.

Ms Bligh also yesterday announced the appointment of former transport minister Steve Bredhauer - a close personal friend and factional ally - to be Queensland's special representative to China and Vietnam.

As a public servant, Mr Beattie will be part of Trade Queensland, whose recently appointed general manager is Rob Whiddon, who was Mr Beattie's chief of staff for the 11 years he was premier.

Mr Beattie had previously, as part of a complex factional deal, appointed one of his former ministers, Bob Gibbs, to the position he will now hold in Los Angeles.

Andrew Fraser puts the appointment in (a bipartisan) context with some trenchant but fair criticism:

One of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's last acts in the dying days of his premiership in 1987 was to appoint Tom McVeigh Queensland's agent-general in London. McVeigh had been one of his strongest supporters in the "Joh for PM" push.

The plum posting followed several other political appointments from the Bjelke-Petersen government, including postings for former Country Party minister Wally Rae, as well as John Andrews, a public servant who did the redistribution that helped keep the National Party in office.

This is the dubious tradition that Anna Bligh has continued after it was resurrected by no less a person than Peter Beattie himself. It is the political insider's "jobs for the boys" (and girls too, now), for which the taxpayer has to pay. Handing out appointments to your political opponents as well as your former colleagues only insults the intelligence of the electorate.

Queensland is alone among the states in maintaining a heavy overseas presence. The Queensland foreign affairs empire is again a throwback to the days of Bjelke-Petersen, who never trusted the Canberra "socialists" to adequately represent Queensland's interests. Hence the appointment of political mates, the sort of cronyism that was supposed to disappear from Queensland when the Nationals lost office in 1989.


For Bligh, the Beattie appointment is an appalling black mark. There's no real reason for a state to have such a heavy overseas presence, and even less of a reason to staff them with former politicians.

As for Beattie, you wonder if he has any spine left after all those backflips. But saying less than three months ago that "I will not be accepting any government positions at a state or federal level" and then signing up for this shows the very elastic nature of the man's ethics. Little wonder that people get disillusioned with politics and, especially, politicians.

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