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In Defense of Double Standards

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Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, is
angry at Obama and at those who cheered his speech. We (I not only
cheered, I wept) are guilty of accepting a double standard because, href="http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2008/03/19/its_still_a_question_of_wright_and_wrong">says
Jacoby, if our clergyman had said the hateful things that Wright
did, we would not have sat quietly in our pews for 20 years. Yet,
we are willing to give Obama a pass. Obama not only should have
objected to Wright's words all along the way, he should have left the
church or worked to get Wright fired, just as Jacoby would have done
if his rabbi had said equally awful things.

I know Jacoby's synagogue. It's in my neighborhood. I've been
there. It's lovely. Airy. Light. It's in Brookline, a terrific part of
greater Boston. Jacoby's synagogue's got comfortable seats, pretty
ornamental touches, and a well-dressed, affluent, overwhelmingly white
congregation.

The notion of a double standard assumes, in an odd way, a single
standard. The criticism only makes sense within contexts uniform
enough that our moral judgments should be the same. If I condemn a
Democratic governor for paying for sex but excuse a Republican
congressman for the same offense, then I'm guilty of applying a double
standard.

But Jacoby apparently didn't hear what Obama said in his fearless,
epochal speech. Who is this "we" who applied a double standard? Our
glorious union is nevertheless imperfect because it is riven by
divisions deeper than we are comfortable acknowledging. The racial
division is so deep that politicians never talk about it except in
platitudes so empty that they function as lies. Now Obama has.

IIf we apply a single standard, we are denying the fact that
synagogues in Brookline are very different from African-American
churches in Illinois. We can, and should, express our strong
disagreement with the particularities of Wright's sermons, but if we
stop there — and every political advisor in the land would have
urged Obama exactly to stop right there — we will continue in
our fantasy that there is a single culture, a single set of values, a
single set of assumptions, a single view of history, a single vision
of the future, a single set of constraints, a single set of
opportunities for all in our imperfect union.

Obama is asking us to do what is perhaps hardest. What it takes
adults to do. Obama in his speech is asking us to embrace difference
and simultaneously to transcend it. That's why Obama presented
contexts that not only helped us white Jews in Brookline understand
why a Black pastor might say such things, but also acknowledged how
race seems to white folks who don't see why they should be
disadvantaged for outrages they did not commit.

Unless we accept double, triple, multiple standards, we are
invisible to one another, and thus to ourselves. The thoughtless
insistence on a single standard is unseemly and unhelpful, especially
when it comes from those who live in privilege for whatever reason.

Jeff, you and I live in what is pretty much a white part of Boston.
As far as I can tell, Brookline has made very little progress in
integrating itself in the 20 years I've lived there. We're
stalled. Stuck. Now, who did I hear talking about this just yesterday?

We as Americans need to seize the hope Sen. Obama presented us
yesterday. It, at long last, gives us a way forward.

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