Speaking of progressive instincts, five weeks ago the New York Times published an article on Obama's "search for faith"
that greatly increased my esteem for the man. From the article:
Twenty years ago at Trinity, Mr. Obama, then a community organizer in poor Chicago neighborhoods, found the African-American community he had sought all his life, along with professional credibility as a community organizer and an education in how to inspire followers. He had sampled various faiths but adopted none until he met Mr. Wright, a dynamic pastor who preached Afrocentric theology, dabbled in radical politics and delivered music-and-profanity-spiked sermons.(...)
Still, Mr. Obama was entranced by Mr. Wright, whose sermons fused analysis of the Bible with outrage at what he saw as the racism of everything from daily life in Chicago to American foreign policy. Mr. Obama had never met a minister who made pilgrimages to Africa, welcomed women leaders and gay members and crooned Teddy Pendergrass rhythm and blues from the pulpit. Mr. Wright was making Trinity a social force, initiating day care, drug counseling, legal aid and tutoring.
I am about as secular and generally irreligious as someone comes, but that Obama's connection to his faith arose in the context of left-wing activism and preaching somehow still makes me feel a personal connection with him. It reminds me of how my entrance to politics came not though mainstream electoral work, but through the social justice movement that was often steeped in the ideals of the so-called radical left. Further, a ministry such Wright's Trinity Church would be quite normal in my long-term area of residence, West Philly, where anarchists are still commonplace, Republicans poll in the single digits, and one can still see the MOVE house that was bombed by the city
(in fact, when I first moved to Philly in 1997, I lived on Osage avenue). Obama's background and spiritual path connect to areas of the country like West Philadelphia in a way that few, if any, national politicians are able to do. It just isn't the sort of neighborhood that one often sees portrayed accurately, if portrayed at all, in our national mass media. Obama, however, I think would understand it quite well. On both a cultural and personal level, that means a lot to me.
This is also why I sometimes just don't "get" Obama. The contorted, insider view of politics that I described in my post on Edwards below
is about as far from ordinary life in West Philadelphia as one could possibly imagine. Yet, often times, Obama seems to buy into that mentality. Despite what I intuit to be his utterly progressive core stemming from his work as a community organizer and the way he found his faith, often times his proposed policies seem decidedly neoliberal, his occasional left-wing straw man rhetoric feels like it targets residents of West Philadelphia, and some of his campaign associates seem to be establishment of the worst sort. In many ways, it is almost the exact opposite of my questions about Edwards, whose past voting record was quite neoliberal, but his proposed policies now sound extremely progressive.
The whole situation feels very difficult to sort out. The progressive choice between Edwards and Obama seems to be in no way clear to me. In both cases, there seems to be a disconnect between past and present, policy and rhetoric, instincts and action. What is the real Barack Obama like? What is the real John Edwards like? I honestly don't know, but I currently lean toward Edwards. Let me emphasize that I lean
toward Edwards. When I watch the lengthy Obama vs. Edwards discussions on MyDD, mostly I am stunned by just how vehement and certain so many commenters appears to be of their choices. In many ways, it reminds me of Fattah vs. Nutter for Philly mayor (both of whom were representin' West Philly). As the campaign went on, so many supporters of one candidate or the other were just so damned certain that the other candidate was the devil incarnate, that I wondered sometimes if I was reliving Kerry vs. Bush arguments on non-partisan message boards. After a while, it all struck me as truly absurd. Figuring out where someone's political instincts truly rest is not an easy game, and I think we should all maintain more open minds and personal senses of fallibility in our judgments on this front than we have to date. After all, if there is one common characteristic of Edwards and Obama, it is that they have both clearly changed during their political careers, and always seem to be engaged in a learning process. I'd like it if we all acted same way.