We men love to make fun of the sensitivity of women, but that's just a smokescreen to hide our own vulnerability. It doesn't take much to make a man feel that his masculinity has been challenged and his manhood compromised.
Those of you who attended public school remember how easy it was to get a fight started among boys with just the hint of a mother joke. Often it only took the phrase "Yo momma" to come out of somebody's mouth before young men were blooding each other to prove they weren't punks.
Unfortunately, this behavior carries over to adulthood where men fight and even kill each other over a hard stare. Men may snicker about how easily the friendships of women can collapse, but nobody holds a grudge like a man. We will harbor ill feelings towards another man for years; quietly seething even after we've forgotten the details of the initial slight.
I thought about the male ego as I watched the recent Obama vs. Rev. Wright controversy play out on national television.
I've heard the arguments on both sides. Some folks feel Wright crossed a boundary with his remarks to the National Press Club; that he did not display proper decorum and he was more interested in preening in the spotlight than making any real point. Others feel Obama's willingness to abandon his pastor of two decades is a sign of a serious character defect and they wonder how long they will have to watch him humbly accept the double standards placed on him in this campaign.
I can't decide who is right.
But, I've decided that the most ignored aspect of this whole ordeal is also the root cause of the problem. My observations of Wright and Obama have led me to believe that they are two highly educated, intelligent and prideful men. While Wright may be more boisterous, both he and Obama exude a confidence that demonstrates their extremely high feelings of self-worth. I think both men rarely meet another human being that they feel is their superior.
And that's why we have our current problem.
My belief is that Rev. Wright felt slighted when Barack Obama gave his amazing speech on race and painted Wright's comments during some of his sermons as being beyond what any right thinking American could ever espouse. As the holder of multiple degrees, an avid reader and an expert in his chosen field, I'm sure Wright found it demeaning to have his views dismissed as "profoundly distorted" as Obama did in his speech.
Look, I loved Obama's speech, but I also believed that the majority of the comments made by Wright were excellent and pertinent. I thought Wright's remarks showed the type of insight that I would expect out of any man of God, and his willingness to express those generally unpopular feelings was admirable.
However, the people who will have to support Barack Obama in order for him to be president do not currently agree with Rev. Wright, and probably will never agree with him. That's just a fact. So, in order for Obama to have any chance to win he needed to make it very difficult for a white person to argue that he agreed with Wright's comments.
And I firmly believe that Obama's decision hurt his former pastor, which in turn led to this characterization of Obama.
Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever's doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they're pastors. They have a different person to whom they're accountable.
As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That's what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.
In turn, I'm really starting to believe that Obama is one of the most optimist but realistic black people in this country. Maybe it's his experiences as a child, or maybe he's just built differently than most black people, but he seems to really have avoided a lot of the pessimism that infects most black folks. Initially, I thought he was fronting a little bit, but the more this campaign drags on, the more I think this is real.
Consequently, I think Obama's ego was bruised by Wright's attempt to label him as just another politician doing what politician's do. As I've said before, I believe Obama is a politician and behaves like one in many ways, but I also think there is something special about him that is atypical. Dennis Kucinich is a politician, but nobody would call him typical.
I also feel that every black person sets their own guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable reaction when faced with white racism. Clearly, Wright and Obama react differently, and neither of them appreciated the other's dismissal of their reactions as phony or ineffective.
Obama obviously felt betrayed by his longtime pastor, and he may have taken Wright's comment as a personal affront to his manhood. Obama also was perturbed by Wright's decision to come forward with his newest comments now; at a pivotal and troubled time in his campaign. Anger bubbled to the surface in Obama's respone.
...At a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s a show of disrespect to me. It is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign...
Obama and Wright both have very real and justified feelings of betrayal. Neither one of them is completely right or wrong. Sometimes you can disagree with people you love and those disagreements can cause pain that you never expected.
But, in this case I think both men have let their expansive egos take over for their immense intellects. Their grievances are real, but they let things go too far; they let things escalate for too long.
Personal pride made it difficult for either of them to truly see and understand the other's pain, and to tailor their responses to address that. More importantly, they allowed media jackals to intrude upon what should have been a private relationship and twist each person's comments until they became hurtful.
A presidential campaign is an intense furnace that can both eliminate dross and also destroy precious materials. It's truly unfortunate that Obama and Wright allowd the heat of the election to distort their feelings because it is yet another victory for the divide and conquer strategy preferred by white supremacists and those who support their theories.
It is disturbing to watch two highly intelligent men allow themselves to be guided onto a path that benefits neither of them, and gives comfort to those parties that undermine their common causes. It's disturbing, but it's honestly not that surprising. Far too many friendships between men have suffered under similar circumstances and far too many will suffer in the future.
That damn ego is a powerful thing.
(Update: Bob Herbert agrees with me)