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Embrace the double standard

Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, is angry at Obama and at those who cheered his speech. We (I not only cheered, I wept) are guilty of accepting a double standard because, says Jacoby, if our clergyman had said the hateful things that Wright did, we would not have sat quietly in our pews for twenty years. Yet, we are willing to give Obama a pass. Obama not only should have objected to Wright’s words all along the way, he should have left the church or worked to get Wright fired, just as Jacoby would have done if his rabbi had said equally awful things.

I know Jacoby’s synagogue. It’s in my neighborhood. I’ve been there. It’s lovely. Airy. Light. It’s in Brookline, a terrific part of greater Boston. Jacoby’s synagogue’s got comfortable seats, pretty ornamental touches, and a well-dressed, affluent, overwhelmingly white congregation.

The notion of a double standard assumes, in an odd way, a single standard. The criticism only makes sense within contexts uniform enough that our moral judgments should be the same. If I condemn a Democratic governor for paying for sex but excuse a Republican congressman for the same offense, then I’m guilty of applying a double standard.

But Jacoby apparently didn’t hear what Obama said in his fearless, epochal speech. Who is this “we” who applied a double standard? Our glorious union is nevertheless imperfect because it is riven by divisions deeper than we are comfortable acknowledging. The racial division is so deep that politicians never talk about it except in platitudes so empty that they function as lies. Now Obama has.

If we apply a single standard, we are denying the fact that synagogues in Brookline are very different from African-American churches in Illinois. We can, and should, express our strong disagreement with the particularities of Wright’s sermons, but if we stop there — and every political advisor in the land would have urged Obama exactly to stop right there — we will continue in our fantasy that there is a single culture, a single set of values, a single set of assumptions, a single view of history, a single vision of the future, a single set of constraints, a single set of opportunities for all in our imperfect union.

Obama is asking us to do what is perhaps hardest. What it takes adults to do. Obama’is speech asks us to embrace difference and simultaneously to transcend it. That’s why Obama presented contexts that not only helped us white Jews in Brookline understand why a Black pastor might say such things, but also acknowledged how African-Americans can seem to white folks who don’t see why they should be disadvantaged for crimes they did not commit.

Unless we accept double, triple, multiple standards, we are invisible to one another, and thus to ourselves. The thoughtless insistence on a single standard is unseemly and unhelpful, especially when it comes from those who live in privilege for whatever reason.

Jeff, you and I live in what is pretty much a white part of Boston. As far as I can tell, Brookline has made little progress in integrating itself in the twenty years I’ve lived there. We’re stalled. Stuck. Now, who did I hear talking about this just yesterday?

What a tragedy it would be to throw away the hope Sen. Obama presented us yesterday. It, at long last, gives us a way forward. [Tags: ]

8 Responses to “Embrace the double standard”

  1. “What it takes adults to do.”

    bravo, david.

  2. Yes, I found Obama’s speech moving and also very adult. Thanks for articulating that.

  3. I may be over simplifying, but I understand that the sin Wright committed was to suggest that US foreign policy might have had something to do with 9-11. Well like it or not, I’m afraid it probably did.

  4. […] David Weinberger summed up the speech the best for me: […] Obama is asking us to do what is perhaps hardest. What it takes adults to do. Obama’s speech asks us to embrace difference and simultaneously to transcend it. […] […]

  5. I think you might want to read Jeff Jarvis on this subject. At first it seems that Obama is reasonable and certainly his presentation is great. As John Stewart said last night, he speaks to us as adults… how novel. But Jarvis points out that Obama’s tolerance is not unlike someone staying a country club that only accepts white people. Have a read:
    http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/03/18/obama-explains/

  6. jarvis lives in fear.

  7. Your comments about churches and synagogues reflecting the values of their communities is right on target. Trinity UCC serves a community that bears so little resemblance to Brookline that it could be in a different world. Just a quick look at the list of ministries provided gives a hint of how much different:

    http://www.tucc.org/ministries.htm

    Most affluent suburban congregations have little need for computer centers or high school counseling programs, but they have been an important service for the Trinity community for decades. Membership in a church community goes much deeper than what the pastor might say from the pulpit.

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