Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Put That Fire Out: Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

I love my grandmother's politics. She is one of the last of a vanishing breed- a White Southern Evangelical Christian who, nevertheless, has stayed passionately true to her New Deal roots and the Democratic party. This, despite having watched her family and her friends become seduced by the empty promises of Reagan, and conned by the false promises of Bush for an easy victory in a war we didn't need to fight.

So, when she told me that she was probably not going to bother vote for President this year...I was alarmed. This, I thought, is not good. Why not, I asked?

And it was then that I heard for the first time about the Barack Obama/Jeremiah Wright controversy.

"It's been all over the news, " she said, "his preacher's been on the news shouting out: 'We don't say God Bless America- We say GOD DAMN AMERICA!'

"Now," my grandmother went on, "Obama says he didn't hear this, he didn't know, and he wasn't there when that preacher said that. But Alex? How can a man be your pastor for twenty years, and you not know what he thinks? How can you be friends with the man, the man preforms your wedding, baptizes your children, and you don't know what he thinks? It's just not possible."

"I can't vote for somebody like that, I can't vote for somebody who hates this country," my grandmother said. "And I can't much stand Hillary either. So I think I'm just going to stay home this year."

Our talk drifted to other subjects, but this stayed with me. Here in secular Europe, it was easy for me to miss the story...but I'm sure that CNN and FOX are having a field day with it at home.

And, before I had a chance to start catching up, I found myself wondering- could I vote for Barack Obama after this? If this were true, that Barack Obama's paster of twenty years could think this way, what inferences would I be justified in drawing about the candidate himself?

The subject of patriotism has always been tricky for those of us who stand anywhere from the center to the left.

On the one hand we feel contempt for the shallow, meaningless displays of patriotism adopted by right-wing charlatans: the cheap "made in China" American Flag lapel pin sported by Bush leaps to mind.

Even more, we truly despise the kind of "patriotism" that is used to cover up, excuse, or rationalize the acts of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. These are not the acts of patriots, but of thugs, killers, and villains.

But on the other hand, many of us are still proud of the history of the United States. We know that our country has held out the hope that all of mankind is created equal, and that people have a right to a free and open Government. We look back with pride on our nation's struggles to rid itself of the evils of slavery, we know that we have been constantly redefining and enlarging the definition of what it means to be a participating citizen of our Republic. We can look back with honor at our fight, alongside our gallant allies, against fascism. We can marvel at our ability to overcome those voices who clamored for "America First" and "Isolationism" to engage with the world and to push back, over the course of several decades, the long shadow of the iron curtain- and to do so in a way that did NOT bring about global conflagration.

I'm proud of all of that. I'm proud to be a citizen of a nation that has produced Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King Junior.

Our country has engaged in great wrongs, both past and present, but our nation has also consistently worked to redress those same wrongs...and I have no doubt that, if we continue to cherish what we have been at our best, we will continue to find ways to atone for what we have done at our worst.

If we give up on that ideal, however, then we will have nothing left to fight for- there will be no standards to which we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.

Reverend Wright seems to have given up on that ideal. He seems to be one of those on the left who seeks to blame America for every evil, both foreign and domestic. While I can share the anger of the Reverend at many of the evils that he points out, I cannot share in his condemnation of the country.

America was, after all, the first nation on the earth to consciously set itself against such evils- evils which have been perpetrated by every society on earth. It is no wonder that we have not been completely successful, this country, is, in many ways, a miracle simply in the fact that it has held together- the fact that it has won so much justice for it's citizens, in spite of history's trends, is all but beyond belief.

Those are my feelings and they run very deep.

But what of Obama? Does he share the opinions of his pastor? If not, then how could he remain in this man's church and not be culpable?

I don't have an answer, and I must admit, my support for Obama is not as strong today as it was before I heard the Reverend Wright's comments.

But, if there is one thing I know, it is "NEVER TRUST A SOUND BITE". The ethics of today's partisan and sensation seeking media will never allow it to give up a good controversy in search of a more complicated and nuanced truth.

So, it pays to dig a little deeper. Fortunately, the tools are at hand...a quick trip to You-Tube showed me another side of Pastor Wright. Here is a man who is shepherd to a flock which is sorely pressed by the world. The African American community suffers from economic destitution, from violence, from drugs, from disease, and yes, from prejudice...anyone who would deny that is just plain foolish (or worse).

Any leader of the African-American community is going to have to work hard to create an feeling of esprit de corps within that community. Because their problems are largely separate, their solutions and their rhetoric will have to be largely separate, too. Wright is preaching to his people that they are going to have to work hard, stay healthy, and stick together... I can at least follow him that far, and have no problem that Obama would follow as well.

I find it ironic to watch the clip of Sean Hannity castigating Jeremiah Wright on FOX: "This is on the website today....commitment to the black community, commitment to the black family, commitment to the black work ethic..." Here, by repeating the world black, Hannity is hinting that it is racist for Wright to be exhorting the black community to make these values their own.

Yet, the very next time someone brings up the poverty and destitution of the black community- exposed by Hurricane Katrina, for example- you'll hear the same old conservative song about how a community needs family values, thrift, and industry if they are to thrive. (Thereby implying that, since the African American community doesn't seem to possess these values, the rest of America has no obligation to help.) So, I give up, Mister Conservative, IS Wright supposed to help instill these virtues in his people or not?

Going back to You-Tube, we see another picture of Paster Wright. This time, he is telling his congregation about a free AIDS testing clinic at the Church. He is warning them of the dangers posed to the black community by AIDS, and he is showing, by example, how easy it is to be tested.

This doesn't look much like Church in my neighborhood, I have to admit, but I can respect it all the same. This is an involved and passionate Christianity, with a leader who is truly caring for his flock and leading by example. I can easily see how a political leader like Obama who wants to make things better in this country might take great inspiration from moments like this...

This video is long, four minutes and thirty seven seconds...exactly four minutes and seven seconds too long for a controversial sound bite.

Does it absolve Wright for his Anti-American comments? No. Does it go a long way to explaining why some, like Obama, might continue to attend his church despite disagreeing with what the Reverend says about our nation? Perhaps.

I've been so far unable to hear or read the context of the "God Damn America" sermon- but it can be noted that, if we go beyond the "God Damn" sound bite, we can hear that Wright is in some measure "damning" America for using the same violent tactics as Al Qaedia...he might be, in fact, urging his flock to do the Christian thing and turn the other cheek.

Still, this is a sentiment that could have been expressed in HUNDREDS of different ways...all of them would have been better...

...as one commenter on MyDD wrote: "Once you hear Reverend Wright, it makes it much more understandable as to why Michelle Obama has never been proud of this nation..."

I am still just as outraged at Wright's anti-American rhetoric as I was when I first heard it. I am still, like my grandmother, confused and angry about this. I'm sure that is true for many American voters.

Unlike my grandmother, however, I have yet to make the decision to stay home in November.

Senator Barack Obama is on probation with me...I am not going to dismiss him out of hand, he strikes me as worthy of more than that. But I will be very interested to listen to him for the duration of the primary fight and the campaign. I will not vote for a man (or woman) who does not share my vision of America, and who does not support my hopes for America.

I do not see the United States in the starkly negative terms of Reverend Wright. I do not see her as a rotten power structure that must be kicked over, attacked, and Damned. We have made mistakes, we need to recover from those mistakes. We have made promises...GOOD PROMISES both to our own people and to the world. We need to keep those promises.

As a nation, we are on a journey, and we are family...all of us, black, red, yellow, and white...anyone who doesn't share that vision of America, for whatever reason, cannot win my vote.

I had, and still have, high hopes for Barack Obama...but he MUST put this fire out.


After finishing this, I wrote to a couple of Obama supporters I know. Neil of What's the Point? sent me back a link to an interesting article in the Washington Post.

It's definitely worth the read, and reminds us of the divides that separate us as Americans. It is here.
Here's a quote from the article:
"Things that might mean one thing in the church take on a new meaning when you don't see the full sermon, or understand the full context," said Dwight Howard, a theologian and a longtime Trinity member.

Said Cone: "There are moments for [Wright] when the anger, when the rage about what's happened to poor black people in the ghetto is so tough, so deeply painful, that he says things most whites would find off the charts and unpatriotic. But you don't preach in sound bites."

another quote that stood out:

If he were racist, Wright's friends ask, why would he arrange bus trips for predominantly white congregations to visit Trinity each Sunday? If he were racist, why would he have steadfastly maintained Trinity's relationship with the United Church of Christ, a denomination with only a handful of black churches?

"He's been a wonderful friend to white pastors, and he's gifted the organization financially," said UCC President John H. Thomas. "That charge is false."

So, as usual, the truth would appear to be, both from what I'm reading and what I'm seeing for myself on the You-Tube footage, more nuanced than the Headline Sound Bites make it out to be. Learning more is helping me settle down again.

But, of course, that's what scares me. The American people as a whole CAN learn- but we do NOT learn fast. If you doubt we can learn, look at Bush's approval ratings and attitudes toward Iraq. But it took us at least two years too long to absorb the truth that Saddam, while evil, had nothing to do with 9/11, that there were no WMDs, and that victory would be neither quick nor painless- and that Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech only marked the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

I fear that, while Obama will probably regain traction as more people hear more of the story, this may be another issue on which our learning curve is just too long.

At present, I'm waiting to see Obama's speech. I've heard, both from friends here in England, and email correspondents at home, that it is good. I'm hoping that it will be effective.


Molly Patten said...

Can I hold comments til you read/hear his speech from today?

Alex said...

As soon as I hear the speech, I'm going to write about it...of course you can comment!