In the United States today, presidential campaigns are a race to define the competition in the most negative terms possible. George Bush, Jr. prevailed twice by framing Al Gore as condescending prevaricator and John Kerry as an elitist with a dodgy past in the Vietnam War. Both charges rested on lies and distortions, but in the modern media campaign that's beside the point.
To their shame, the U.S. news media does not carefully subject base allegations to careful scrutiny. Instead, the media--with too few honorable exceptions--circulate nasty charges without checking them for accuracy. Then they judge the candidates by how well they respond to the charges. The process is circular, dishonest, and demeaning to all involved.
In the firestorm that now burns around Obama and Rev. Wright, the most dubious assumption of all is that somehow Wright says what Obama really thinks. According to this logic, Obama can establish his integrity only by denouncing Rev. Wright. But this is a form of guilt by association, a phenomenon that Stanley Fish has usefully analyzed in an online New York Times column on Obama and former Weatherman William Ayers.
Of course, if you want to know what Obama thinks, you can explore his record in public life and his books. And I know of no examination of either which suggests that Obama the elected official thinks the way Wright does--not in the past and certainly not since Obama's justified criticism of Wright's remarks at the National Press Club.
Obama had many reasons to be in Wright's church for so long, but as far as I'm concerned the matter is one for Obama, Wright and God. The rest of us can more usefully ask what Obama has done as a public man. And there he has distinguished himself as a unique individual who understands whites better than most blacks and blacks better than most whites.
But the subtleties that come out of that experience don't always play well in the mudslinging that passes for political debate these days. And it is much easier for cable television stations to produce this day's denunciation than to actually report the truth about a candidate's history.
As Fish observed in an online column for the New York Times,
The odd thing is that the press that produces these distractions and the populace that consumes them really believe they are discussing issues and participating in genuine political dialogue. But in fact they have abandoned genuine political dialogue and have committed themselves to a conversation that differs only in subject matter from conversations about Eliot Spitzer’s and David Paterson’s sex lives. It’s not politics; it’s titillation clothed in political garb