Thursday, December 18, 2008

More On Obama's Pick of Warren and the Left's Response

Since Obama announced that Rick Warren would be giving a prayer at the inauguration, the left blogosphere has been absolutely outraged. A bit of the focus has come on the fact that there's any religious presence at the inauguration, but the majority of the anger and even vitriol has been based on the fact that Warren is extremely conservative when it comes to abortion and gay marriage (which he likens to pedophilia, among other things). I commented in Erik's post yesterday that I thought the presence of Warren in the grand scheme of things was really being overstated, particularly given that Joseph Lowery is also going to be offering a prayer. Lowery's a well-respected civil rights leader and is in favor of gay marriage, and he will be giving the benediction at the inauguration. and going through the various blogs today has really confirmed that. However, this latter fact has apparently completely avoided the left blogosphere today, as everybody has singly focused solely on Warren.

Michael Berube had a particularly unique take on it, discussing the symbolic importance of picking Warren, even if it means nothing in terms of Obama's actual plans for civil rights for the LGB&T community. I fully agree that the pick of Warren is very disappointing, and I agree with Berube that the symbol of Warren is most certainly a kick in the teeth to the LGB&T community and to many of the left-wing progressives of the party who are waiting for Obama to at least throw us a bone. But I wanted to repeat and expand on my comments to that post.

Symbolically, the pick of Lowery does not undo the insult to progressives and the LGB&T community that picking Warren created, but it's not like that's the worst insult either group will ever face. Still, in terms of symbolic power, Lowery is as powerful if not moreso than Warren for what he represents - a Civil Rights leader who was a figurehead in the struggle from the 1950s onward providing the benediction at the inauguration of the first African-American president? That's a mighty powerful symbol, too. And let's not forget, it's the benediction, not the introduction - if we remember any prayer (which I doubt we will - anybody remember what Billy Graham said at Clinton's inauguration in 1992? Or who even gave the prayer at Bush's in 2000, and what that person said? Of course not - it's the policies, not the inaugural prayers), it very well may be Lowery's prayer that has more time to linger, and it's not like he won't have some personal involvement in that day at the emotional level that could really make his prayer resonate. And I'm willing to bet that, as a leader for years involved in historical struggles, he's a better speaker than the author of some crappy, poorly-written, "feel-good-about-yourself" evangelical book. As I've said, if we're talking about symbols, we certainly can't try to read the tea leaves of the Warren pick and what it "tells us" about Obama while completely ignoring Lowery - that just skews the views of this whole issue, which is, unfortunately, exactly what I think has happened in the progressive blogosphere today.

Indeed, I think the left's vitriol focused on Warren and the complete ignoring of Lowery's presence has had the unintended consequence of giving Warren more symbolic power than he deserves and than Obama intended. I’m not saying the pick was without symbolic power before we all started discussing this and condemning Obama so broadly. But by ignoring the “other” (sorry for lack of a better term) of Lowery, in some ways Warren’s message is getting even stronger shrift. Instead of saying, “Well, Warren’s a pain, but at least there’s Lowery, too,” we’re so vehemently against Warren that it becomes an even richer symbolic force. There is no "pro gay-marriage" voice in the left's discussion today, no tempered "well, it's tough to say, because there are conflicting messages" - instead, there is an anger that has left me rather stunned, given that, at the end of the day, it's a prayer, not an amendment or an executive order.

To be clear, I agree that it’s an insult to the LGB&T community, and I’m disappointed in Obama’s picking of Warren. But the left has been so narrow-minded in this "story" (if it even is really much of a story), I think it has done a great disservice, not necessarily to the progressive part of the Democratic party (though maybe to that, too,) but to Lowery and to Obama. Obama has proven time and again that he's not an idiot, yet the left has bestowed so much symbolic power on Warren in its vitriol today without any thought to Warren or what the symbolic power of his presence means, that it's really disappointed me. Maybe I'm naive, but I expect this kind of response from the right, not from the left.

Still, I can't wait for January 21st, when we can worry about actual policies, rather than who is making a public appearance at an (admittedly historical) public performance.