Obama, Wright, and the Problem of Nutty Friends:

I've been reding Jim's posts on Obama and Wright as well as chatter here and elsewhere about Obama's acquaintances with Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. The comments to Jim's posts have been quite interesting also (at least to me). So I thought I'd throw another log on the fire.

I have no inside knowledge of any of this, but here's my impression as to what is going on. I think that much of this commentary is quite unfair to Obama and somewhat misplaced. One issue that has arisen, for instance, is whether Obama's criticism of Wright following his news conference is sincere or not. Another is whether Obama should have done more to "distance" himself from Ayers and Dohrn or denounced them more publicly. Based on what I've read, I think these are unfair to Obama.

By all indications, Obama seems like an extremely decent guy. Everyone who I have talked to who has ever known him personally says that he is a decent guy. He seems like the kind of guy who tends to look for the best in people, rather than the worst, and seems like the kind of guy who is quite ready to forgive the foibles and nuttiness of friends and relatives. I have no reason to know for sure whether this is true, but seems consistent with what I have observed.

I suspect that all of us have friends, relatives, and colleagues who are basically good, conscientious, and kind people, but who have some political views that are pretty nutty. I have an uncle who in 1999 liquidated all of his assets and converted them to gold coins then moved to a remote undeveloped part of Hawaii because he was so afraid of Y2K and that martial law was going to be imposed on the United States. I have a friend who is a self-proclaimed anarchist environmentalist anti-globalization activist. I'm sure that Alan Greenspan didn't agree with everything that Ayn Rand believed and I know a lot of friends of Murrary Rothbard didn't agree with a lot of what he wrote. And just recall all the hubbub about Ron Paul's old newsletters.

Moreover, there is the problem that based on my experience it seems like some people just get nuttier as they get older. From all appearances this may describe Jeremiah Wright, but I'm sure many of us have cranky relatives who this describes as well.

So what? So I think that when it comes to dealing with friends with nutty political views we are friends with them despite their nutty opinions not because of them. When I hear someone go into a diatribe about how the income tax is unconstitutional, how civilization is going to be ruined by global warming, or some other such thing, usually all I do is sigh, roll my eyes, and try to change the topic. If someone is 95% normal (or even admirable) and 5% nut, so long as they keep their nuttiness out of my face most of the time I don't go out of my way to argue with them, correct them, or make a big show out of denouncing them. Why argue with a crazy person? This is especially so if someone is an old friend from way back who I knew in a completely different context of our lives. I think that this is what Obama may have been alluding to when he referred to the fact that Sen. Coburn is his friend despite his apparent view that abortionists should be given the death penalty--Obama is friends with Coburn despite his views on that issue, not because of his views on that issue (leaving aside whether that is an accurate description of Coburn's view). It seems obvious to me that that Obama wasn't seriously comparing Coburn to Ayers (as some have suggested) but simply trying to use an analogy to suggest that he respects and works with Coburn despite what many people believe to be a pretty nutty view.

So, if I had to guess, when it comes to Wright's more inflammatory statements it sounds like Obama seems like the sort of guy who probably pulled the "sigh and roll your eyes" approach. I also suspect that the nutty stuff we are hearing about was not the steady diet served up by Wright, but rather occasional statements or sermons here and there sprinkled in among normal church preaching. Perhaps Wright has gotten more radical or frequent with his rants as he has gotten older. So maybe Obama had to roll his eyes more frequently too.

Friendship is not necessarily based on someone's political views, no matter how goofy or even hateful, especially if the person is not sticking their views in your face all of the time. It is also appropriate not to be friends with someone whose political views you abhore, especially if they are flamboyant about it. But whether someone holds mainstream political views is not the basis on which acquaintances are built. If you have a sincere affection for someone built up over many years, you tend to forgive their occasional lunacies. Especially if it is a person who you came to respect, admire, and befriend many years before, perhaps when that person was not nuts. To me, I don't necessarily see it as a flaw in Obama that he hasn't made a big show of denouncing Wright or Ayers until he was forced to. I do think that he probably is fed up with Wright from the standpoint that he has tried to treat Wright with the respect that he sees owed to a longstanding pastor who is now making a public embarrassment of himself. He has tried to be patient with Wright in hopes that Wright would sober up, but instead Wright just keeps pouring it on, at which point Obama says "enough." So it seems reasonable to me that Obama has been largely sincere through this whole process, first in trying to give Wright an opportunity to clean up his act but then to say "enough" when Wright refused to do so.

As I said, Obama seems like quite a decent guy. I'm not going to vote for him because of his policy views but he still seems like a decent guy. He has a lot of tolerance for nutty political views, but anyone who hangs around academia or any political movement will certainly have friend and acquaintances who have nutty political views. If you are a basically decent and compassionate person you try to look for the best in people and work with everyone, not throw aside friends just because you don't agree with their political views. Moreover, if you have a friend who has idiotic political views you don't run around adding to his embarrassment making a public spectacle out of denouncing those views, but instead I would think that you would hope that the guy would wisen up.

Thus, I also don't think it is fair to ascribe much of any of these relationships to Obama because I haven't seen any shred of evidence that he condones or agrees with any of the views expressed by Wright or Ayers (his wife may be a different story). On the other hand, I do find it somewhat implausible for Obama to imply that he didn't know that Wright held and expressed some nutty views or became more of a nut over time.