Obama has pushed back liberal critics who believe he made a mistake inviting Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Warren has provoked anger among liberals, especially GLBT advocates, because he has opposed gay rights measures and has likened same-sex marriage to statutory rape, incest and polygamy. Warren also compared abortion to the Holocaust.
Despite the outcry over Warren, Obama defends his decision on the grounds of diversity. He argues that including Warren is consistent with his belief in creating space for all views:
I've . . . said . . . that it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues. . . .[W]e're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere . . . where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.As a presidential contender, however, Obama took a very different position after "shock jock" Don Imus made racist and sexist statements regarding the Rutgers women's basketball team. Liberal activism, public anger and fear among advertisors led MSNBC and CBS radio to drop Imus, who crudely described the basketball players as "nappy-headed hos."
During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that's how it should be, because that's what America's about. That's part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.
Obama's position on Imus differs substantially from his current statements regarding Warren, which advocate the tolerance of "noisy and opinionated" voices. Rather than treating Imus as someone with whom liberals should "disagree without being disagreeable," Obama instead insisted that broadcasters give him the boot:
I understand MSNBC has suspended Mr. Imus . . . but I would also say that there's nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group. And I would hope that NBC ends up having that same attitude.Ironically, Obama appeared on the Imus show twice before the controversy happened, but he vowed never to return.
Obama also had strong words condemning the content of Imus' statement. Although he expressed an appreciation for freedom of speech, Obama argued that:
[Imus] didn't just cross the line . . . . He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America. The notions that as young African-American women -- who I hope will be athletes -- that that somehow makes them less beautiful or less important. It was a degrading comment. It's one that I'm not interested in supporting.And instead of choosing to focus on commonalities rather than differences, Obama asserted that: "As a culture, we really have to do some soul-searching to think about what kind of toxic information are we feeding our kids."
My noisy and opinionated analysis: I do not think I am stretching things here by arguing that GLBT people are probably as offended by Warren's comments, which compare their relationships to pedophilia, incest and polygamy as black women were offended by the Imus "nappy-headed hoes" slur. Furthermore, the linkage of gays and lesbians with pedophilia is one of the most pernicious and degrading of all homophobic slurs and is as serious a problem for young GLBT people as racist and sexist slurs are for children of color. Nevertheless, while Obama became the first candidate to call for the firing of Imus, he has not only invited Warren to participate in his inauguration, but has defended the choice against liberal criticism as an act of nobility.
What could explain Obama's different approaches? I imagine it has a lot to do with these two statuses: "presidential candidate" versus "presidential-elect." In order to win the Democratic primaries, Obama had to appeal to a liberal base dominated by women and black voters. But as president, his audience is much broader and far more moderate-to-conservative. I have not seen any polling data on this issue, but I assume that most of the public agrees with Obama.
It also helps him that the GLBT community is a much smaller demographic than blacks and women, that the public, including most Democrats, opposes same sex marriage, and that none of the mainstream media will likely give much airplay to his inconsistent positions. In other words, he has shifted positions because he can do so without hurting himself politically (Christal Phillips said this a long time ago). If anything, he could possibly gain a few supporters by "dissing" gays.
For the record: I never cared whether Imus lost his job, but I thought that progressives should have directed their activism to structural issues rather than choosing to respond passionately to every idiotic "racist du jour" (see Beating Up Imus and Other Idiots: How “We” Construct Racism). The same arguments could apply in this context, but Warren, unlike Imus, has the ear of the president-elect. I think the stakes are somewhat different. Nonetheless, I have not advocated that Obama rescind Warren's invitation to appear at the inauguration. Instead, I have analyzed the legitimacy of GLBT anger and the broader politics at play in the controversy.
Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:
The Fallacy of Obama's "Diversity" Defense: Rick Warren's Views Already Have a Place at the Table
Embracing Uncle Good-But-Homophobic: Why "Reaching Across the Aisle" to Rick Warren Does Not Feel Safe to Everyone
New Obama Drama: GLBT Groups Upset That Rev. Rick Warren Speaking at Inauguration
Reactions to Reverend Rick Warren from My Blogger Buddies
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Hold Your Breath
Stonewalling on Don't Ask, Don't Tell? No Action Until 2010
Robert Gates as Obama's Secretary of Defense: "More of the Same" for Gay Rights?
Would Obama Have Won If He Were Black...and Gay?
Anti-Gay Group Thanks Obama, Seeks to Exploit Black Homophobia to Constitutionalize Bigotry