The Los Angeles Times article that “broke” this story in April reported that Obama and Khalidi had become friends when both taught at the University of Chicago. It quoted the Democratic presidential candidate as saying that Khalidi and his wife had been “‘consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases…It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation…not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,’ but around ‘this entire world.'”
In my view, Obama’s act of befriending someone with whom he disagrees on a political issue of great importance, and taking his friend’s views seriously enough to allow them to clarify his own thinking, speaks only well of him (and, conversely, of Khalidi as well). To view this kind of relationship as something that Obama needs to clarify or explain is to express a profound ignorance of, or even contempt for, the Socratic values of the examined life.
A great deal of concern over this relationship centers on Obama’s presence at Khalidi’s Chicago farewell party in 2003. (The unwillingness of the Times, due to confidentiality concerns, to release a video of this event is currently the subject of conservative outrage.) The party was characterized, the Times reported in the same article, by a great deal of anti-Israel rhetoric, including “a young Palestinian American recit[ing] a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism” and arguing that “[i]f Palestinians cannot secure their own land..then [Israel] will never see a day of peace.” Yet at this party, “Obama adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground.”
My concern here is not about presidential politics, nor is it with U.S. Middle Eastern policies. Rather, it is about the disdain with which this line of accuation views the process of developing one’s thinking. Thus I will leave to the pundits and voters whether John McCain’s indignant comparison of Obama’s attendance at that party to a hypothetical “tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit” unfairly conflates supporters of Palestinian liberation with those of Adolf Hitler. The point that I want to make here is that it certainly confuses wearing a uniform, which suggests a very strong advocacy, with being in a room full of people with passionate opinions while “adopting a different tone” from them, which unquestionably does not.
A thoughtful, if lonely, Washington Post editorial stated the obvious: that one can have a close relationship with those with whom one disagrees without compromising one’s own values or integrity. “Our sense is that Mr. Obama is a man of considerable intellectual curiosity who can hear out a smart, if militant, advocate for the Palestinians without compromising his own position.” One would hope that such qualities would be a minimal requirement for the president of the United States, who will hopefully be surrounded by “smart advocates” a good deal of the time. Yet the mere existence of this controversy, manufactured and politically-motivated though it may be, suggests that the American people have little respect for these characteristics, which sit among the highest values of academic and intellectual life.