Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rev. Wright does Obama a solid

(Thin gruel for the rest of us)

To start, I can’t believe I am even writing about this. Senator Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ranks about 127th on my list of important issues this election season. Don’t get me wrong, some of the things Rev. Wright has said are worthy of discussion, but not so much in the way it “relates” to Obama (because it pretty much doesn’t).

God damn America? Now that was an interesting speech. Have you read the whole thing, or maybe heard more than a nine-second clip? Here’s the run-up to the “offending” phrase:

When it came to putting the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters. Put them on auction blocks. Put them in cotton fields. Put them in inferior schools. Put them in substandard housing. Put them [in] scientific experiments. Put them in the lower paying jobs. Put them outside the equal protection of the law. Kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness.

The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. Naw, naw, naw. Not God Bless America. God Damn America! That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme.

I don’t know about you, but I think that there is stuff in there to talk about—and I don’t mean just talk about it as it relates to Barack Obama’s white grandmother, either.

Sure there are other parts of that same sermon that flirt with what I would categorize as baseless, pointless conspiracy mongering (“The government lied about Pearl Harbor,” said Wright. “They knew the Japanese were going to attack,” to give one glaring example), but the point about damning rather than blessing America for all of the wrongs it has perpetrated against its African American citizenry—I can see talking about that. I might even go so far as to say that I agree with it. At the very least, that, to me, is good place to join the conversation about why a man like Jeremiah Wright inspires so many in his flock.

Which brings us to this week’s doings. Reverend Jeremiah Wright started his comeback tour with a rather subdued and sensible appearance on Bill Moyers last Friday (though even there, Wright snuck in a swipe at the “sin” of sodomy—a swipe that Moyers either missed or chose to ignore), but rounded out the long weekend with a performance at the National Press Club that included some rude put downs of the event’s female moderator and the allegation that the US government could have unleashed the AIDS virus on minority communities as a form of genocide.

I have a few thoughts:

First off, I think that Wright did Obama a big favor on Monday. Much to the chagrin of the Obama campaign and intelligent voters everywhere, the Wright-Obama “controversy” (no, please don’t let me get away with that—it is not a controversy—let’s just call it a “gab fest”) was not really going away. It was ebbing and flowing, but in the end, the people (and when I say “people,” I mean a handful of establishment media icons and members of the punditocracy) wanted blood. Even after Obama took it to kowtowed to Fox News this weekend, the screaming hordes would not be appeased. Why wouldn’t Obama engage in something more ratings-savvy than a 40-minute discussion of race? Why was he being so selfish? America demanded a smackdown!

And now, because Rev. Wright pushed the envelope, the “people” have what they wanted. Senator Obama has had to repudiate the angry black man. In the words of various media outlets, Obama has “cut the cord” and “made a clean break.” He has not only renounced the words, he has disavowed the man.

(Shall we wait to see if the establishment demands similar actions from John McCain vis-à-vis Rod Parsley and John Hagee?

I thought not.)

With his strong, un-nuanced, perhaps even angry renunciation of his former pastor, Obama has now been deemed “presidential.”

Secondly, what is up with all the old guys making a scene?

This political season seems like it has been dominated by post-middle-aged men trying desperately to cling to relevance: Jeremiah Wright. . . Bill Clinton. . . John McCain. All in denial about their best days being behind them, all still begging for attention, all refusing to get out of the way of progress (or whatever passes for progress these days). It’s all a little tawdry, a little hard to watch, a little embarrassing.

And, finally, rather than get all righteous about Wright’s “outrageous remarks” (to use Obama’s words), why not think a bit about why his words have resonance with a not insignificant portion of America’s populace. This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard the allegations about the government and the AIDS virus—and I doubt it’s the first time Obama has heard them, either. Surely the distinguished members of the establishment press have come across such stories. Why, years after the science of HIV has been integrated into our culture, does the myth of government-sponsored genocide waged against its own still have legs?

I have some ideas (the Tuskegee experiments, government foot-dragging during the early days of the pandemic, poverty, lack of access to affordable healthcare, lack of a modern science curriculum in our schools, to name several possibilities), but I don’t have the time to start dissecting them right now. Rather, I want to suggest that we at some point try. Instead of just writing off Wright, or continuing to act scandalized by his very existence, I think it would make for a better campaign and a better country if we could talk about why what Wright says affects us the way it does.

Of course, doing that in the context of a presidential campaign is probably asking much too much of a candidate or our current corporate media construct. The poor substitute of having Barack Obama simply and clearly distance himself from Rev. Wright will have to do for now. It is certainly preferable to the “all Wright, all the time” alternative.

Meanwhile, as we all focus like a laser on Jeremiah Wright, a second US carrier group has moved into the Persian Gulf, the recession that Bush refuses to acknowledge continues to deepen, the Iraqi occupation slogs along at over $341 million per day, suicide bombers kill in Kabul, Pakistanis struggle to restore an independent judiciary, a real genocide is happening in Sudan, our government continues to justify torture—the list goes on. Take a moment to compare how much time and space your favorite media outlet is giving to these stories. . . now compare that to today’s coverage of Obama’s remarks about Wright. . . .

Thought so.

God damn America.

*Please see my May 1 follow-up to this post.*

(cross-posted on The Seminal)

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