According to Bill Moyers,
I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam, “Who’s telling the truth over there?” “Everyone,” he said. “Everyone sees what’s happening through the lens of their own experience.” That’s how people see Jeremiah Wright. In my conversation with him on this broadcast a week ago and in his dramatic public appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto the public stage. Over 2000 of you have written me about him, and your opinions vary widely. Some sting: “Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American hating radical,” one viewer wrote. A “nut case,” said another. Others were far more were sympathetic to him.
Many of you have asked for some rational explanation for Wright’s transition from reasonable conversation to shocking anger at the National Press Club. A psychologist might pull back some of the layers and see this complicated man more clearly, but I’m not a psychologist. Many black preachers I’ve known — scholarly, smart, and gentle in person — uncorked fire and brimstone in the pulpit. Of course I’ve known many white preachers like that, too.
But where I grew up in the south, before the civil rights movement, the pulpit was a safe place for black men to express anger for which they would have been punished anywhere else; a safe place for the fierce thunder of dignity denied, justice delayed. I think I would have been angry if my ancestors had been transported thousands of miles in the hellish hole of a slave ship, then sold at auction, humiliated, whipped, and lynched. Or if my great-great grandfather had been but three-fifths of a person in a constitution that proclaimed, “We the people.” Or if my own parents had been subjected to the racial vitriol of Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond, Bull Connor, and Jesse Helms. Even so, the anger of black preachers I’ve known and heard about and reported on was, for them, very personal and cathartic.
That’s not how Jeremiah Wright came across in those sound bites or in his defiant performances this week. What white America is hearing in his most inflammatory words is an attack on the America they cherish and that many of their sons have died for in battle ? forgetting that black Americans have fought and bled beside them, and that Wright himself has a record of honored service in the Navy. Hardly anyone took the “chickens come home to roost” remark to convey the message that intervention in the political battles of other nations is sure to bring retaliation in some form, which is not to justify the particular savagery of 9/11 but to understand that actions have consequences. My friend Bernard Weisberger, the historian, says, yes, people are understandably seething with indignation over Wright’s absurd charge that the United States deliberately brought an HIV epidemic into being. But it is a fact, he says, that within living memory the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study that deliberately deceived black men with syphilis into believing that they were being treated, while actually letting them die for the sake of a scientific test. Does this excuse Wright’s anger? His exaggerations or distortions? You’ll have to decide or yourself. At least it helps me to understand the why of them.
But in this multimedia age the pulpit isn’t only available on Sunday mornings. There’s round the clock media — the beast whose hunger is never satisfied, especially for the fast food with emotional content. So the preacher starts with rational discussion and after much prodding throws more and more gasoline on the fire that will eventually consume everything it touches. He had help — people who for their own reasons set out to conflate the man in the pulpit who wasn’t running for president with the man in the pew who was.
Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee’s delusions, or thinks AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God’s judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.
Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong — white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren’t.
Which means it is all about race, isn’t it? Wright’s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn’t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone’s neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this ? this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said “beware the terrible simplifiers”.
. . . and then
Wright And Ridiculous
By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, May 5, 2008; A17
Of all the strange features of this presidential race, the tarnishing of Barack Obama has got to be the most ridiculous. First Obama was accused of anti-religious elitism. Then he was accused of identifying with the underclass anger of his spiritual mentor. Excuse me, but which is it? Am I supposed to believe that Obama is a supercilious elitist or a menacing ghetto radical? Is he contemptuous of religion or too close to a religious leader? Obama’s critics don’t bother to say. Meanwhile, real character issues go relatively unheeded.
Start with Obama’s turbulent preacher. Yes, Jeremiah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama’s qualities as a candidate? Is anyone suggesting that an Obama administration would view AIDS as a government plot to kill African Americans? Or that it would govern from the perspective that the United States is a terrorist nation? Obviously an Obama administration would do no such thing. Which makes the storm over the preacher an absurd digression.
The Wright affair tells us that Obama bonded with someone whose political views are sometimes toxic. But as a young man trying to make sense of his mixed heritage, Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance, not political tutorials; as a community organizer, Obama focused on Wright’s admirable social work, not his resentment of the white establishment. Indeed, Obama’s own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor. This is the candidate who campaigned for as long as possible as though race were irrelevant — as though the tantalizing prospect that the United States might elect its first black president were merely incidental. A few months ago, there were those who suggested that Obama was not black enough. Now he is too black? This is preposterous.
If Obama clearly does not share Wright’s views, of what precisely is he guilty? Of befriending someone with repugnant opinions? Anyone who condemns Obama on that basis should examine his own circumstances. Real human beings present one another with complex social choices: The dependable work buddy may be unfaithful to his wife; the salt-of-the-earth neighbor may despise Hispanic immigrants. How many Obama critics have themselves been friendly with someone with misguided views? What about Bill Clinton, who counted the one-time segregationist William Fulbright among his mentors?
George W. Bush has taught us that “you are with us or you are against us” is not a good basis for a foreign policy, and the same is true of much human endeavor. It would be impossible for people to join a political party if they had to agree with everything it stood for. It would be impossible for liberal Catholics to worship if they had to storm out of the church the moment they disagreed with something uttered from the pulpit. As a matter of political tactics, Obama should have avoided tying himself to Wright. But, rather refreshingly, Obama is not one of those politicians who obsessed about his presidential viability from the moment he entered college.
Which brings us to that other attack on Obama: that his comment about blue-collar voters “clinging” to guns and religion makes him an elitist. The remark may have been untactful, as Obama himself said. But what did it tell us about Obama’s fitness to be president? Would he use his power to discriminate against churchgoers? His own churchgoing suggests not. Would he control guns? One hopes so. And is he really an elitist snob? After Harvard Law School, Obama could have pursued a career that involved contact only with hypereducated brainiacs like him. But by working as a community organizer and in state politics, he chose a life that put him among ordinary folk. The elitist label is ridiculous.
The real character issue, in this campaign as in others, comes down to one thing: Does a candidate have the guts to espouse positions that are not politically expedient? Here there are serious questions about Obama, who pledges to pull out of Iraq no matter what, and who promises both to increase spending and not to raise taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 to $250,000 a year, ensuring the perpetuation of crippling federal deficits. For that matter, there are serious questions about Hillary Clinton, who proposes an irresponsible gas-tax holiday, and about John McCain, who couples gas pandering with a flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts, which he once (correctly) viewed as unaffordable. But these genuine character issues have been shunted aside by the spectacle of Obama’s falling-out with his preacher.
The Obama-Wright “revelations” are really a revelation about our political culture: About its failure to distinguish the important from the trivial and about the inevitability that the race card will eventually be played against a black candidate. If the once formidable Obama campaign is knocked off course by these “revelations” in tomorrow’s primaries, it will be a travesty.