19 December 2008

Dear Mr. Obama

I've been skeptical of most (not all) of Barack Obama's cabinet appointments, and even aghast at a few, but I've never felt "betrayed" by him, since he's been honest all along about his moderate views and his "pragmatism" (generally a support for minor changes to the status quo), and I do think it's worth waiting to see how he and his cohorts govern before giving up completely on anything resembling optimism. Obama's better than Bush or McCain and he's not another white guy, so I was quite happy when he won the election. I keep my standards for politicians low, and that way I can occasionally be pleasantly surprised. Idealists are always disappointed and depressed; honest cynics now and then have to admit that humanity isn't entirely dreadful.

But the choice -- not Obama's alone, but he's said he supports it -- of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration really pissed me off. No softer words can encapsulate the annoyance, frustration, and real anger that I have felt about this since it was announced. Part of the strength of my feelings is annoyance at myself for letting my guard down, for buying into some of the symbolism of this inauguration, for wanting and expecting more from Obama than I've ever wanted or expected from a politician before. For letting my standards rise a couple of millimeters.

Since I had let myself slip into believing the symbolism, I thought I might as well go whole hog and actually join the discussion happening at the Obama team's website, change.gov. Those of us who felt the inclusion of Rick Warren in the inauguration to be not just a "bad decision" but a nausea-inducing kick to the gut can let our voices be counted, and perhaps even read. Here is what I wrote:
The choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at President Obama's inauguration is appalling not because of Warren's opinion about a ballot initiative (even if it was one that hatefully took rights away from people) or his apparent belief that homosexuality is a disease needing curing -- the choice is appalling because of the symbolism.

The inauguration is not a conference or a summit where ideas are tossed around and debated; it is a symbolic moment, one that, in this instance, for good or ill, will resonate for many years. The belief that not-primarily-heterosexual people are not equal to primarily-heterosexual people is not a simple opinion deserving respect and equal consideration any more than the opinion that another group of people is subhuman deserves respect. The invocation for this profoundly symbolic event will now be given by a man who believes -- and who acts upon his belief, encouraging other people to join him in it and to create laws based upon it -- that a group of people are, because of who and how they love, less deserving of equal human rights than he is.

Millions of people voted for Mr. Obama because they believed in equal human rights. Millions of people voted for Mr. Obama because the symbolism of his presidency would offer, they thought, a new hope for a more just future for all people. The invocation at the inauguration should have been an opportunity to strengthen and extend that symbolism, to encourage people to act for justice. Instead of encouraging "tolerance" of hatred and spite and ignorance, the invocation should have encouraged us toward a greater understanding of what it means to seek a better world for all people, regardless of who they pray to (or don't), what they look like, where they're from, who they love. It wasn't specific policy proposals that caused the widespread passionate support of Mr. Obama, it was our belief that he held a more generous view of his fellow human beings than do such people as Rick Warren.
It was written quickly in the heat of the moment, and I tried not to sound like a kook, which can be difficult at times. Hopefully, it won't just be kooks like me writing in.

6 comments:

  1. Matt, I think your letter to Obama is eloquent and well worded. You don't sound like a kook at all. Bravo. (C Gidney)

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  2. You most certainly did not sound like a kook.

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  3. The sad thing is that I think this is indicative of the kind of decisions Obama will continue to make. His most fervent supporters note that he is practicing here what he practiced during his election campaign, this tactic of "unity."

    People think Obama has transcended party politics, but he's really immersed in them. He's refused to defend the marginalized (gays, Muslims, black fathers, etc.) before, instead trying to show how good of a sport he is in the eyes of the religious right and the Republicans. All the while, he pays lip service to more progressive ideals and claims to support LGBTs. Here is his chance to prove to LGBTs, after the sour experience of Proposition 8, that he will not tolerate a virulent bigot giving the invocation at his inauguration, and he's refusing to rescind his invitation. Tsk, tsk.

    During his campaign for presidency, I noted several instances of Obama playing both sides of the political spectrum to achieve presidency and here, he's at it again, being a shrewd, opportunistic politician and veiling it with cheery rhetoric about how America has to come together or else nothing will get done. Does anybody realize how much he capitulates, how much he gets on his knees for conservatives before doing anything for progressives?

    The selection of Warren, the rationalization for selecting Warren, and even the rationalization for Obama to even choose Warren are all absurd and do not make the least amount of sense at all. I'm convinced that there are a lot of people out there who refuse to be skeptical and who put too much faith in Obama to act alone. This is the complete opposite of what was supposed to happen: that the millions who fought to get Obama elected would be the same millions who would pressure Obama in the right direction and not have him ensnared in opportunistic politics. (Although I'm a bit more cynical and think Obama was already ensnared since the primaries).

    Time will tell, but this is not a good start.

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  4. I'm going with the theory that the Obama team is looking a half dozen moves ahead on the chess board. I'm hoping this seemingly insane decision will have some other use to be revealed later.

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  5. I'm starting to think that the only intelligent response to modern politics is cynicism. The system is designed mostly to keep in the traditional power players and prevent any substantive change.

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  6. It has been disappointing to see Obama disappoint his most fervent supporters with decisions like these. However, I'm tempted to ignore decisions that don't directly translate into policy. You might remember Obama's support of the FISA compromise with the same sort of disgust.

    And to Alex as well: On divisive issues like gay rights, I am inclined to think his invitation to Warren is actually *better* for the cause. Don't forget that he specifically addressed gay rights in his acceptance speech, which I take to mean that he's serious about progress in this arena. Giving both sides a voice will be more effective in silencing the flame-throwing rhetoric that has defined the political climate of the last 8 years, than 'taking revenge' by cutting off the voice of the religious right altogether. In this sense, Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do: i.e. be a uniter, not a divider :)

    Also, 'hate-mongerers' on the right do not see themselves as such. They believe they are doing a good and respectable thing. They feel the 'Christian way of life' is threatened by homosexuality, and for Obama to go on the offense will only heighten their paranoia and cause them to respond with equal ferver. If religious right is not angry, they won't organize, and without organization they lose political clout.

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