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January 21, 2008

Condemning Louis Farrakhan, Smearing Barack Obama


The only things Barack Obama and Louis Farrakhan have in common are that they’re both black, they’re both famous and they’re both based in Chicago. Oh, and one of them knows someone who knows someone who sort of knows the other.


The connection between the men, however superfluous, became an election issue last week when Richard Cohen, a generally liberal op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, penned a truly noxious column in which he wondered whether Obama could pass the “Farrakhan Test.”


Why’s that? Because the candidate’s church in Chicago publishes a newsletter, and the daughters of the church’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., are its editors. Last year, that newsletter gave an award to Farrakhan, the leader for the past few decades of the Nation of Islam, and a man known for not-so-savory comments about white people broadly and Jews specifically. Cohen’s complaint is that Obama has not done enough to forcefully condemn an award given by the daughter of his pastor in a newsletter likely read by a few hundred people a year ago.


Never mind that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the two men have never met and have no relationship to one another. Considering that, and that Farrakhan is said to be in poor health, it’s unlikely he would have much of a voice in an Obama Administration. The connection is at least three degrees and a year away, a year Obama has spent running for president and dealing with issues more important than, say, what someone wrote in a church newsletter.


The implication, however, is obvious: Despite all appearances and despite everything either man has ever said or written, Barack Obama is Louis Farrakhan. They’re all alike, in other words. A more unfair, nonsensical, and (let’s face it) racist political argument is quite hard to imagine. It’s a combination of a couple of the worst impulses in recent American politics, including guilt by extremely tenuous association and – a particular pet peeve of mine – the “will you condemn this” game.


Under the rules of the game, liberals (it tends to only be used on them) are required to condemn, immediately and loudly, any outrageous statement by any other liberal, at all times, and failure to do so immediately “raises troubling questions” about the liberal and his/her fitness for office. Whether the person making the “outrageous statement” is a figure of consequence, or someone the liberal in question even knows, is totally immaterial. The goal seems to be to get liberals condemning each other as much as possible.


I’m used to seeing this garbage from people like Sean Hannity. But Cohen, a left-of-center columnist who’s usually reasonable and really should know better? It’s just plain ugly. (For what it’s worth, Obama’s campaign issued a statement the day Cohen’s column appeared stating that the candidate wishes to “strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan.")


After Obama’s opponents were done trashing him with the Muslim/madrassah smear – though as recent emails have shown, they’re not done with it at all – they began hammering away at his church and specifically some of the controversial things said from the pulpit by Wright. It’s ridiculous enough to simultaneously trash the same man as both a stealth Muslim and a radical Christian black separatist, especially when all of his sayings and writings indicate he is the furthest thing from either.


And besides, I’ve been to services and studied with quite a few rabbis over the years, and I’m sure if you combed through their years of writings and sermons, a few of them have probably made some controversial statements. But should I be made to answer for them? What about someone who one of their daughters once gave an award to?


In a fascinating piece last week about Obama that ran in Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper, titled “The Church of Obama,” Jonathan Raban wrote that Obama has been influenced by both the very left-wing church that he attended and the very right-wing University of Chicago law school, where he taught for years, two institutions only a few miles from each other. To anyone interested in truth, nuance and shades of gray, it’s clear that Obama has been shaped by many different strands and currents of thought. There’s a lot more evidence in Obama’s record of that than of, say, anti-Semitism or religious extremism.


A footnote: Nearly a year ago, in March, when the Obama’s-church controversy was first introduced, I wrote in this space that “Just as Republicans ran against John Kerry in 2004 by pretending he was Michael Moore, the strategy of the Hannity right for ’08 is apparently to pretend Obama is Louis Farrakhan.” I was only wrong about one part – that the one doing the attacking, along with numerous bloggers, is a liberal columnist on a liberal editorial page.  


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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