Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rick Warren versus Don Imus: Obama's Inconsistent Positions


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.

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.
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."

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

9 comments:

madamab said...

This Obama quote caught my attention:

...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.

Interesting how he overlooks the misogyny of Imus' comment, and how Jon Favreau, after showing the most disgusting disrespect to Senator Hillary Clinton, is still employed with the Obama Administration.

Denigrating women is fine with Obama, but racial slurs are unacceptable.

Well, at least the guy is consistent in his double standards.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Madamab - he did mention his daughters, in a reference that I believe referred to misogyny.

tcandew said...

Thank you for pointing this out, I'd forgotten about his comments regarding Don Imus.

But I did remember his comments about Reverend Wright!


Here's what he said about Rev Wright.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barack-obama/on-my-faith-and-my-church_b_91623.html?page=7&show_comment_id=11987900#comment_11987900

http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/30/america/29textobama.php

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"Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit."
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"His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate"
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"They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today."
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"It is antithetical to what I am about. It is not what I think American stands for."
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"But what I do want him to be very clear about, as well as all of you and the American people, is that when I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything that I'm about and who I am.

And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign's about, I think, will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country."
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"But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS, when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century, when he equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.
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as I said over at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/12/20/6624/5125/920/675395

Apparently conspiracy theories about AIDS, praise of Minister Farrakhan, and comparing U.S. wartime campaigns with terrorism is enough to get a good old fashioned rebuke live on cable tv. That stuff contradicts everything that [Obama's] about, [he] finds that stuff appalling "And [those comments] should be denounced" because "It is not what I think America stands for."

But.. what of the man who equates gay marriage with pedophilia?

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"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 is about. That’s part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated
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Apparently in 'Obama's America' a man who holds dispicable, hateful, anti civil rights, anti human rights views against gay people represents just another valid viewpoint in the great marketplace of ideas. A man who actively funds programs designed to turn gay people into heterosexuals... a man who equates gay marriage with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy... THAT MAN represents a legitimate part of the diverse, noisy, opinionated, magic of America. Not only that, the man who equates incest with gay marriage is worthy of the honor and global validation that comes with giving the invocation at the inaguration of the first African American President in U.S. history.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Ok - so compared with those statements about Wright, the Imus thing looks like a compliment. Obviously it's about politics. I do not slight him for this. My mission is to get everyone on board with the idea. There are still some who doubt - like the people who view the Warren invitation as a pure act of benevolence and humanity.

Nell said...

madamab--you beat me to it! My immediate reaction to Obama's comments regarding firing any staff member who made inappropriate racial or ethnic slurs was to compare it to his unwillingness to take similar action in the Favreau matter. Jon Favreau and his unidentified colleague simulated a sexual assault on a woman (the fact that it was Hillary Clinton is only secondary) and posted a photograph of that simulation on FaceBook. If he worked in the private sector and posted such a photograph depicting a female co-worker, he'd be fired.

IMO, Imus got into hot water for his racial slur ("nappy-headed"), not for his sexist epithet ("ho's"). Women are called far worse every day in the media with complete impunity.

Darren, while I disagree with you on the Favreau affair, I am enjoying visiting your site which I discovered only a few days ago.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks Nell. And welcome to the site. My only thing with the Favreau incident is that I think we should respect Clinton's wishes. I imagine that if she wanted something to happen, it would have.

Page W.H. Brousseau IV said...

Ok, he did compare gay marriage to incest and pedophilia marriage, howver, in the case of what is legal under law he is correct in that they are not permissible.

His point isn't one of hate but concern, if "marriage" only means between adults how could the state outlaw marriage relating with incest or polygamy/molygamy?

I'm not making a point on gay marriage just on the term marriage and the state's right to define it, maybe the state shouldn't define it at all.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Page. Welcome back! He did more than use these other "relationships" to reference the illegality of same-sex marriage. He said that they were moral equivalents.

The question you raise -- how can a society maintain prohibitions of incest and polygamy if they allow same-sex marriage raises a slippery slope argument. I tend not to like those types of arguments because they (1) suggest that no distinction exists from the thing "desired" and the things "feared" and (2) fail to tell us why things that are already permissible do not place us on the slope.

What do I mean? Slippery slope arguments in this context assume no possible way to distinguish same-sex marriage from polygamy or incest; they also fail to tell us why permissible marriages -- like heterosexual marriage -- do not place us on the slope either. I can think of a lot of ways in which same-sex marriage differs from incest and polygamy (or at least reasons why we forbid the latter). And in many ways, permitting HETEROSEXUAL marriage places us closer to incest and polygamy than same-sex marriage; in fact, most societal incest and polygamy are opposite-sex.

Perhaps you are right -- get rid of state involvement altogether. I have argued for this in other contexts. I think attaching benefits strictly to marriage or to romantic relationships is a bizarre way to organize society.

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