Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A few refreshing voices on the continuing Jeremiah Wright controversy

In the wake of the news that Obama did the unsurprisingly cowardly deed that was required of him if he were to be accepted as a "serious" and "responsible" candidate for Emperor (i.e., turn his back on his mentor now that the heat is on), there are a few essays around blogtopia that hit it right.

Arthur Silber - Messiahs Just Aren't What The Used To Be:
Wright has said nothing new. He's repeated what he said many times before. The only difference is that Obama's campaign is flailing. The heat got to be too much. So now Obama finally understands what Wright thinks, and he denounces it. This means one of two things: Obama is one of the stupidest people in America (and that would be an achievement of some note), or he is a liar of the first order. It's probably a combination of both, with a huge dose of pathetically desperate and obvious strategizing thrown in.

It should be emphasized that, on the points of greatest significance, what Wright has said and continues to say is true. More than that, it is critically important.

[snip]

Of course, no one who buys into the mythology of American exceptionalism will consider the possibility that critical parts of what Wright thinks are true. As I wrote in "Obama's Whitewash":
Obama speaks of "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." This is a lie: Wright's views express the truth of our history, and of our present. No, it is not all of the truth, but it is an absolutely essential and major part of the truth. It is the part of the truth that our fictionalized, mythologized history denies, the truth that many Americans will not permit themselves to understand or acknowledge. You are profoundly wrong if the truth "offends" you. If you remain determined to cling to the lies that sustain you, you may certainly make that choice. But that does not make it right, or true.

Obama speaks of "a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic..." But white racism has been endemic to America's history, and its effects are still painfully visible in most aspects of American life today. Indeed, a good portion of Obama's speech itself details the effects of that "endemic" white racism. Wright does not "elevate what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America" -- he demands acknowledgment of the part of our history drowned by the propaganda that inundates us every day. For those who remain wedded to the mythologized America, such acknowledgment cannot be tolerated. Truth must be destroyed.

Obama states: "I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy." What Obama has "condemned, in unequivocal terms" is the truth -- the truth that is forbidden by the fictions that feed the myth of American exceptionalism. Obama has fully embraced the lies at the heart of mythologized America -- an embrace that is underscored by his inclusion of this phrase: "a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." In this manner, Obama confirms that he will continue our policy of global interventionism including our endless interventions in the Middle East, which have been unceasing ever since World War I. Obama embraces all the lies that support that policy, and he will challenge none of them. (See "Songs of Death" for many more details concerning Obama's embrace of this murderous policy.)

Almost every politician lies, and most politicians lie repeatedly. Yet in one sense, Obama's speech is exceptional, rare and unique -- but not for any of the reasons offered by Obama's uncritical, mindless adulators. It is exceptional for this reason: it is rare that a candidate will announce in such stark, comprehensive terms that he will lie about every fact of moment, about every aspect of our history that affects the crises of today and that has led to them, about everything that might challenge the mythological view of America. But that is what Obama achieved with this speech. It may be a remarkable achievement -- a remarkable and detestable one, and one that promises endless destruction in the future, both here and abroad.
Most people completely failed to grasp the breadth of Obama's commitment to America's mythologized history in his "nuanced," "historical" speech on race, or his unbreached determination to lie about anything and everything. They were -- and are -- incapable of understanding this issue for the simple reason that they, too, embrace this mythology. If they are deprived of their belief in America's, and their own, claim to being "unique" and "special" in all of history, they will die psychologically. Our mythologized history has become a crucial part of their own identities. Obama's condemnation of Wright today amounts to an emphatic postscript to his earlier speech: "I meant it. I will lie to you about anything you want. I will lie about everything."
There's much more, of course. Ignore at your own risk.

Check out too Chris Floyd's essay A Condemned Man: Bashing Wright, Banishing Truth, in which he takes Obama to task
But this is indeed a curious and telling episode. If one actually takes the trouble to read Wright's remarks before the Press Club -- which almost no journalist in America did, although they are easily available at the Washington Post's web site -- it is difficult to see what in God's name all the brouhaha is about. Even Wright's most "controversial" remarks -- about AIDS, Louis Farrakhan and, in Obama's words, "equating America's wartime efforts with terrorism" -- are couched in plausible contexts, and are actually more nuanced than the, well, caricature of them that Obama condemned. Most ludicrous of all were Obama's hysterics about the "divisiveness" of Wright's remarks, when the theme of racial and cultural and religious reconciliation was sounded over and over throughout the appearance.

At any rate, let's do something really radical here. Let's actually see what Wright actually said. The quotes below are from the WP transcript. Now, I realize that reading a transcript is different from watching a "spectacle," as Obama put it, on the Tee-Vee. And from the furrowed-brow remarks of concerned libprogbloggers, I understand that Wright was downright uppity in his demeanor, which might upset the "Gate 14" crowd out there, and we sure wouldn't want to do that. But still, there are scattered pockets out there where words still mean something, so let us consult the text. Here's Wright on the "black church":
The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive. It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors....what you see is God's desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

God's desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people. God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.

God's desire is for positive change, transformation, real change, not cosmetic change, transformation, radical change or a change that makes a permanent difference, transformation. God's desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world.
Well, perhaps Obama is correct, after all. This is pretty divisive stuff. It divides the miniscule sliver of rapacious elites (and their sycophants) from the vast majority of the American population. Obviously, when Obama says he is trying "to bridge the gap between different kinds of people," he wants to reconcile "the poor, the widows, the marginalized" with "the powerful few." The former should learn to love the latter -- and for God's sake not seek to change any social orders or sick systems. No, that kind of talk is indeed "appalling." As Obama says: "It is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country." Good to know, Barack. Thanks for clearing that up for us.
Sara Robinson also offers up some useful context in Jeremiah Wright: What (Else) Is Going On
There's another part to this backstory as well. It has to do with the media's dominant narratives about religion in general over the past three decades.

Ever since Reagan came to power, media stories having to do with religion have almost always reflected a basic duality. On one hand, you had urban secularists (including the media people themselves) who had no connection at all to religion, which they regarded as backward and the sign of an inferior mind -- a contempt that was reflected in their generally incomplete and inaccurate coverage of the subject.

On the other hand, you had far-right preachers with loud voices and red faces hollering ignorant and irrational rants about gays, feminists, and liberals. To the secularists, these preachers' histrionics came to represent the evils of all religion; and furthermore, they verified every bias they had against every form of religion. And the hostility was returned in full: to these preachers and their followers, the condescending media coverage nourished their already overfed inferiority and persecution complexes, driving them further and further out of the mainstream.

This polarization was a boon to the conservative movement, because it's exactly the kind of us-versus-them story that conservatism feeds on. It was a key split that created the space to define the preposterously unreal stereotypes of the coastal latte liberal versus the "real American" -- the heartland values voter. And it made those two positions the only acceptable ones in the political or religious dialogue. It forced people to take sides in a war that nobody but the right wing even wanted to fight.

And in drawing that false and forced line, it also rendered vast stretches of America's religious, cultural, and political landscape absolutely invisible. The vast majority of Americans -- educated and moderate believers of many faiths whose understanding of God informs their passionate belief in justice, compassion, equality, and democracy -- got cut out of the conversation entirely, because they lived in a far more nuanced place that didn't look like either side. You never saw their intelligent, well-modulated religious leaders on TV talk shows; you never read interviews with their thinkers and writers in the paper. There was simply no place for them in that artificial narrative -- and since they didn't fit, the vast majority of America's religious people simply ceased to exist as a public or political entity at all.

The conservative ascendancy depended on keeping these people completely cut out of the conversation; and the media, driven by their own biases, dutifully cooperated for years in accomplishing that goal. Without the balance these other voices could offer, the religious right was free to define "religion" (including civil religion) on their own terms, and claim full control of the country's discourse. The first thing they did, of course, was declare all the moderate and liberal people of faith to be apostates, which only silenced them further. They've been out there, quietly fuming and frustrated, ever since.

But Jeremiah Wright appears to be turning his current notoriety into a bully pulpit from which, at long last, that forced silence might finally be broken. Listening to his interview with Bill Moyers last Friday, I felt like I was hearing something strong and intelligent and real and wise -- the kind of nuanced spiritual voice most of us have never heard on TV in our lifetimes (though the fortunate among us have always heard them in our churches). It was the voice of that suppressed and silent majority, the people of faith whose concerns and insights have been so thoroughly stifled that they've been utterly absent from the discourse for three long decades. Wright gave us a sharp reminder of what liberal Christian voices can sound like at their best. I hope he also whetted an appetite for out-of-the-box moral thinking that will allow us to hear more -- not just from Christians, but from many traditions. The broader the perspectives and the more corners we hear from, the better our responses to the current challenges will be.

Always helps to know some of the context. The Robinson essay hits on one of the reasons why I turned away from Christianity for a number of years: the dominant narrative in the US is that of Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) as a narrow nationalistic ideology in which anyone not fitting into the accepted mold is condemned to eternal damnation. At one point in the mid-to-late 1980s, an old anarchist friend succeeded in planting a few seeds to suggest that liberation theologies existed and that one could be a radical card-carrying lefty with one's faith intact; and the woman I would one day marry took care of the rest such that by the turn of the new century I had found a way to return to my faith. Some readers have noted that I do identify myself as a Christian (albeit of a very unorthodox nature), although it is highly unlikely that one will see writings on theological matters here at any point in the foreseeable future. My main reason in even mentioning it at all is simply to provide readers with some context as to why I've continued to offer up favorable reactions to Rev. Wright, and to why the more of his words I read and hear the more I dig on what he's about. There is little doubt that I do not agree with him on every point (no doubt Silber and Floyd do a better job in voicing what would be my points of departure than I could, and will leave it up to y'all to read them). On the fundamentals, though, Wright seems spot on - in particular to the extent to which he lives up to the Jesus that I find inspiring (that is as the challenger to empire and its enablers). We'll leave it at that for now.

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