It's been a couple of weeks now and people are still talking about The Speech, meaning Barack Obama's about race. How often does a political speech stay in our thoughts this long? Usually it's forgotten as soon as it's delivered, if not while it's being delivered. This one was different. How many other speeches in this campaign year do you still think about? How many others do you even remember? What speech of John McCain's or Hillary Clinton's can you recall?
How account for the staying power of The Speech? Maybe because it dealt with race not from without but from within, and invited not so much applause as thought - and response. Maybe because it was so personal. Barack Obama wasn't speaking about race as a politician or sociologist or some vague do-gooder might do, but as a person - a person who had made some deliberate choices about his own racial identity.
The impetus for The Speech was to explain one of his choices: Why had he stuck with a pastor who'd said such appalling things? Many of us have faced similar choices: Do we walk out of church when the preacher says something we disagree with, and keeps saying it? Do we disown him, make a scene, separate ourselves from the community? Or do we just sit there, maybe talk it over with the minister later, write him a letter, or what?
I can identify. I go to a Reform Jewish temple, and someone once described Reform Judaism, all too accurately, as "the Democratic Party with holidays." There are times when the ideological agenda can get mighty thick.
I remember going to a Chanukah service at which some of the temple's religious school students were reading papers in defense of abortion. And not just defending abortion but almost lauding it. You'd think it had become a sacrament.
I sat there thinking: This is choosing life? This is what we're teaching the young? Hitler didn't kill enough of us, now we're going to kill our unborn? At least Pharaoh spared the girl babies.
And this, mind you, was a Chanukah service - a holiday celebrating a revolt in ancient Judaea against the pagan practices that were being widely adopted by the Jews of that time, or at least those of an advanced, fashionably Hellenistic bent.
Unlike old Mattathias in First Maccabees, who began the revolt by choosing to make a stand when the latest, oh-so-progressive ways came to his village, I just sat there. It's not conscience but respectability that doth make cowards of us all. I can identify with Barack Obama's not making a scene every time his pastor said something appalling.