I’ve listened to several speeches over the last year by Barack Obama and read the transcripts to a few others and what strikes me the more I read and understand what the candidate is saying is the truly revolutionary nature of his campaign and that he is dead serious about turning this country leftward – radically leftward – in all areas of government and private life.
Now Americans by tradition are a mostly centrist bunch. We are extremely wary of politicians who promise dramatic change unless the times call for it. Even then, we rarely slip too far to the right or left – befitting a mature, responsible citizenry of a republic. Reagan may have been the most ideological president of the 20th century but no one can say he didn’t compromise to get most of what he wanted. Pragmatic conservatism was the order of the day with Reagan presiding over a revolution in the way people looked and felt about government.
But Obama comes from a different planet than Reagan. And you can start noticing the differences when Obama first graduated from college and, like many young people, began searching for something to give his life meaning:
He went to socialist conferences at Cooper Union and African cultural fairs in Brooklyn and started lecturing his relatives until they worried he’d become “one of those freaks you see on the streets around here.”
They had good cause to worry about Obama’s radicalism. You can trace his journey to the hard left by looking at his early employment record. Graduating from Colombia in 1983, Obama went to work for the staid, establishment capitalist concern Business International Corporation.
He didn’t stay there long. He moved on to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) – one of a network of Ralph Nader creations that boasts a consistent anti-business record of achievement – with mixed results.
But he must have been searching for something else – something that could get him more directly involved in radically altering the system. In 1985, he found just what he was looking for; he answered a help wanted ad for a position as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) of the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC) in Chicago.
There are several different takes on Obama’s experience as an organizer. This hagiagraphic piece in US News paints a saintly picture of Obama – a selfless, hard working, mainstream black man only wanting to help the poor.
The reality was a little different. Trained in the Saul Alinsky method of organizing, Obama became quite adept at bringing the resentments and rage felt by African Americans against the white establishment to the surface:
He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.”
It was during these years as a community organizer that Obama apparently met and befriended (or was befriended by) a young, passionate, radical priest named Father Michael Pfleger who was making quiet a name for himself as the youngest pastor in the Archdiocese of Chicago, ministering to a mostly African American congregation at St. Sabina’s on the south side. The two struck up a friendship that continues to this day.
What is it about Pfleger that attracted the young Obama? Was it Pfeger’s attempt to bridge the black experience in the protestant tradition with that of the Roman Catholic Church? This piece on Pfleger from 1989 shows that 1) the good father hasn’t changed much; and 2) why Obama may have been drawn to the then young priest:
But St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side is not the typical black Catholic church. Ebony wood carvings, Ashanti foot stools and kinte cloths make the altar area look more like an African art gallery. Banners of red, black and green, the colors of African liberation, hang from the rafters, along with excerpts from the Black National Anthem. A 20-foot mural of a black Jesus looms over the altar.
Mass usually lasts two and a half hours, in which Father Pfleger assails racism and intolerance.
Recently, he defended Father Stallings. ‘’The cardinals say, ‘You’re mad,’ ‘’ Father Pfleger said, his voice rising. ‘’You’re damn right I’m mad. And I need to be mad. We need to be mad. There comes a time when you can’t be satisfied waiting and waiting and being told changes come from within. You can’t change it from within if you’re not in the room that’s making the decision. If you got no power, you can’t do nothing.’‘
For a young man seeking to internalize his black identity in a white world, it is no wonder Pfleger and Obama hit it off.
But beyond what Pfleger could do for his soul, Obama recognized Pfleger as a comer in the Byzantine world of Chicago politics where preachers and moneymen hold hands with politicians and political operators to grease the wheels of commerce, charity, and corruption.
The power relationships in Chicago depend on two things; one’s ability to shake the money tree in order to get what you want and the equally important knowledge of where to go and who to see to shake that tree. There are literally dozens of foundations and community groups that dispense grants to help neighborhoods and Father Pfleger utilized this network of grant givers to slowly build something of a secular community empire that attempted to affect the lives of his parishioners and residents of his neighborhood at the most basic of levels. After school programs for kids, workshops on how to work with a landlord to fix the plumbing, a program for seniors on medicare – the list of good deeds done by Pfleger in the community – with a little help from his political friends – is nearly endless.
Pfleger’s political power base was his south side church and the network of community groups that dotted the political landscape of the nearly powerless African American ghetto in that part of town. His incendiary rhetoric had already brought him to the attention of radical preachers like Jeremiah Wright while he showed his political skills by tapping south side politicians for grants to fund his community outreach programs.
Pfleger is a very serious Christian and takes the words of Jesus Christ at their most literal. I have speculated before that one thing that attracts Obama to radicals like Pfleger, Wright, Ayers, Dohrn, and James Meeks is their utter and total certainty in the righteousness of their cause. And if you listen to Pfleger for five minutes, there is no doubting the man’s sincerity about making whitey pay for centuries of oppression.
I will have more on Pfleger in an article I am writing for another publication. But for now, we can simply ask ourselves why we should think Obama has changed his stripes from the radical community organizer, admirer of radical priests and preachers, to this supposedly centrist, non ideological creation of the presidential campaign.
I find it hard to believe he has altered his basic political beliefs from the far left idealism of his youth. And I find it equally difficult to believe that eventually, someone in the media is going to ask him to reconcile the two faces of Obama – the radical agitator and the smooth, adroit “post partisan” candidate for president.