Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections: Pattern Recognition

I realize that I’ve been wearing out the book Straw for the Fire (selections from the journals of teacher and poet, Theodore Roethke) combing through it for pithy “Quotes du Jour.” Well, the book just happens to be full of them: deal with it. I am now gleaning gems from the last four or five pages anyway, so that well is about to run dry.

But it is not quite dry yet. Last night I found this:

Not only to perceive the single thing sharply; but to perceive the relationships between many things sharply perceived.

Does that sound like a truism? Perhaps it does. But on the other hand, if one listens closely to one’s fellow man, and to the way that your man poses his arguments—particularly on controversial topics—it can be discerned that many, perhaps a majority, of those arguments are founded upon facts viewed perhaps sharply; but viewed in isolation.

Take as an example the assertion made by Rush Limbaugh, and subsequently parroted by others on the political right, that Colin Powell’s support of Barack Obama’s candidacy for POTUS was based on race. I think that this is true. And I also think that if race alone—disconnected from the whole constellation of Obama’s other attributes, which together made him a desirable candidate in the minds of a majority of his countrymen, regardless of race—had been Powell’s sole motive in supporting him, that would have been wrong. It would have been as wrong as Limbaugh, et al., have striven to make it seem.

Let me uncharacteristically give Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt. Let me stipulate my belief that Limbaugh actually believes what he said; that he has an actual, deep seated, conviction that Powell’s only motive in supporting Obama for POTUS was their shared racial background. Hmm. Has Powell supported the prior candidacies of other Black liberals? Did he, for instance, campaign for Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, or Al Sharpton? I don’t think so.

It would be odd if race were not a factor in Powell’s support of Obama for POTUS. But, given the fact that Powell is a Republican of long-standing, it seems to me to be obvious that Powell’s support for Obama must be based on Powell’s recognition of a broad network of talents, personal characteristics, and historical factors pertinent to Obama’s person and professional career, which together, in concert, form a pattern which made Obama a viable Black candidate for Powell, where other African Americans who have sought that office were not.

So Limbaugh may have perceived the race factor in sharp outline; but he saw it only out of context. And this failure of pattern recognition is the basis of the category of error that has made Mr. Limbaugh look so abysmally ignorant in his discussion of this and of many other “controversial” issues.