Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2008  



Obama's Jeremiads And Wright's Right Rhetoric


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - May 5, 2008)  On April 29, 2008, Senator Barack Obama denounced the remarks made by his former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the previous morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In no uncertain terms, Senator Obama lashed out at Dr. Wright. "I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday," said the senator, adding, "They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs." He went on to cut his ties with the reverend: "...obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this." This poignant happenstance, heavily emotionally loaded for both men, was all but inevitable. Whatever the distorted caricature that the corporate media have rehashed for weeks on end it was taking a toll on the Obama campaign. He had to stop the political hemorrhage. Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney of The New York Times summed up the conundrum in one short paragraph: "... In the appearances, Mr. Wright suggested that the United States was attacked because it engaged in terrorism against other people, and that the government was capable of having used the AIDS virus to commit genocide against minorities. His remarks also cast Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, in a positive light." They left out of the mix the "God-damn-America" morsel and, most importantly, the allusion made by Dr. Wright that "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls. . . . [Obama] does what politicians do." More than anything else the reverend said, that allusion, as well as the defense of Louis Farrakhan, constituted a major threat to the Obama campaign. He had to react even though, as we shall see, the content of Dr. Wright's sermons, lectures, and comments, when taken in context, was not particularly novel and off mark. It's just that they are not supposed to be aired in "good company."

Politicians do as they do

This is such a truism that it needs no explanation; but, as the old saying goes, some truths are better left unsaid. This is the only case within this weeks-long brouhaha where the reverend can be faulted for an insensitive remark that directly questioned the ethics and intellectual integrity of his friend and church member. Yes, politicians are polls driven; yes, they indulge in fatuous and often empty sound bites ("Yes, We Can"); yes, demagoguery is an integral part of governance. Everybody knows it. In the current circumstances, however, these comments were interpreted as a personal attack against the senator, who had gone out of his way in his Philadelphia speech to avoid piling on his former pastor. Dr. Wright should have ducked the question by simply answering, "I don't know. You'll have to ask Barack." By impugning Obama's character he left no choice to the senator but to answer forcefully.

The Farrakhan association

Ever since Barack Obama remarked in 2007 that no other people has recently suffered as much as the Palestinians, or something to that effect, he has faced serious suspicions on the part of certain elements of the American Jewish community (and by in large what's known as Christian Zionists). J.J. Goldberg, the Editorial Director of the venerable Jewish newspaper in New York, The Forward, reported recently that he had received many e-mails that questioned whether Obama was "good for Israel." An insidious campaign began in January insinuating that Obama -- renamed Osama -- was a hidden Muslim hell bent to destroy the state of Israel. (Note that the origin of that slanderous campaign remains shrouded in mystery.) However, conservative Jews pointed out that Senator Obama had surrounded himself with advisers who do not follow the likudnite pro-Israel hard line (e.g., Zbigniew Brzezinski or Robert Malley, the latter, like President Carter, favors negotiations with Hamas). Furthermore, a majority of African Americans expresses solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians, which has over the years driven a wedge in the traditional anti-racist alliance between the black and Jewish communities.

In this context, any association, real or perceived, with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the highly controversial head of the Nation of Islam who is considered anti-Semitic -- a man, it is said, who conflates his opposition to the policies of the successive governments of Israel against the Palestinians with the entire country and with all the Jews in the world, and champions conspiracy theories that the Jews control the world, past and present (e.g., the old canard of the slave trade) -- will lead to what is known as the third rail of American foreign policy, the kiss of political death.

Already, last February, as Min. Farrakhan spoke of Barack Obama in very positive terms, the senator was grilled repetitively by Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press and had to distance himself as fast as he could from the toxic leader of the Nation of Islam. Obama could do no less with his former pastor.

Dr. Wright and Min. Farrakhan have been friends for decades, all the way back to the time of Malcolm X. Wright refused to disown that friendship, while at the same time letting it be known that he did not have to agree with all the views of the minister. Case in point: Louis Farrakhan is well known for his homophobic statements. He loathes homosexuals. Dr. Wright belongs to one of the most liberal Christian churches, the United Church of Christ; a denomination that has a strong civil rights history and has ordained women and gay men. Dr. Wright is certainly not homophobic. He also has a long record of defending Israel's right to exist, in reconciliation with the Palestinians. However, the reverend refused to disown that friendship for political expediency -- a rather rare stand in the political domain (but as he keeps repeating, he is not a politician; he is a pastor).

For any aspirant to an elective office, for any elected official who seeks reelection, an association with Louis Farrakhan is the equivalent of racing an off-road vehicle through a pothole-filled dirt road with a gallon of nitroglycerine placed on the passenger seat. One would rather take one's chance and caress the head of a rattlesnake than shake the hand of Louis Farrakhan. Senator Obama is no different. He has no choice. This is an uncircumventable reality.

What about the AIDS conspiracy theory, the snippets about the chickens coming home to roost, and the God Damn America episode -- and what about the brilliant remarks he delivered at the National Press Club? They deserve further analysis, but as always, it should be remarked that taking words out of full context is not conducive to sound judgment. In each instance, Dr. Wright's sermons and lectures were ignored, only short, very short excerpts were used to create an emotional reaction directed -- and here I differ from the reverend's opinion -- not at the black church, but directly at Senator Obama "by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition."

The AIDS controversy

In his sermon "Confusing God and Government," delivered on April 13, 2003, Rev. Wright asserted that "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." It seems preposterous but it's a belief that is widely shared in the black community. About half of African Americans believe that the HIV virus was purposely created, a quarter are convinced it was brewed in a governmental lab, and almost 60 percent believe that information about AIDS is not fully disclosed, according to a survey conducted in 2002 and 2003 by the Oregon State University and the Rand Corporation. This type of belief -- conspiracy theories -- is not limited to African Americans though. American cultural land is particularly fertile with these theories -- 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Iraq War, the Rockefellers, the Jews, the Queen of England, etc.

One needs not go back to the slave trade, or even the infamous Tuskegee Experiment that was revealed in 1972, to understand the mistrust by African Americans in the institutions of the country. Studies after studies document how much blacks are being short-changed in terms of healthcare, education, equal treatment under the law, penal incarceration, income, housing... It does not make the conspiracy correct but it helps understand its roots.

(Can someone tell the good reverend that the Tuskegee Experiment did not entail the government to infect 400 black people with syphilis, but to follow 400 people already infected with the disease for 40 some years without ever treating them (which could not be done until 1947 when penicillin became standard care), in the name of "research"? The US government is indeed capable, and willing and able to create and conduct some pretty unsavory instruments of death in many realms.)


Indeed, Rev. Wright repeated several times that "America's chickens are coming home to roost!" -- with powerful rhetorical effects, but, first he did not say anything different than what Noam Chomsky or Chalmers Johnson have said and written about repeatedly. He simply said it differently -- and it was a short parenthesis within a long religious sermon. Any open-minded person ought to listen to the entire sermon, which he delivered on September 16, 2001. It's about 35 minutes long. Or at least, one should watch the video on YouTube of the incrementing segment. It reads thus:

I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday, did anybody else see him or hear him? He was on Fox News, this is a white man, and he was upsetting the Fox News commentators to no end. He pointed out, did you see him John, a white man, and he pointed out, an ambassador, that what Malcolm X said when he got silenced by Elijah Mohammed was in fact true, America's chickens...are coming home to roost. We took this country by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arowak, the Comanche, the Arapahoe, the Navajo. Terrorism. We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism. We bombed Granada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers, and hardworking fathers. We bombed Qaddafi's home and killed his child. Blessed are they who bash your children's head against a rock. We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hardworking people, mothers and fathers who left home to go that day not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye. Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children from school, civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day.

We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost.

This kind of narrative, shrunk to a couple of short sentences on the cable and TV networks for better negative emotion-laded appeal, deemed ultra-leftist and un-American, has been liberally expounded by the old cold-warrior, CIA analyst, Rand Corp. consultant, and university professor, Chalmers Johnson -- not a wicked commie, to say the least. Read his article, "Blowback," that was published in the October 15, 2001, edition of The Nation and posted on the Web on September 27, 2001. Johnson, in terms much more palatable to the gatekeepers, wrote in no uncertain terms that, indeed, the chickens had come back to roost. Noam Chomsky, the cherubim of the vaguely anarchist left and intellectual in good standing, said no less. So did Ward Churchill in more potent words that cost him his job. So did hundreds of other observers including this author.

Dr. Wright did not advance anything that was not in the realm of actuality, which even the much demonized bin Laden highlighted in a 2004 tape recording. Of course, bin Laden might not be the most sought-after association to look after; but it still does not negate the words of Chalmers Johnson, the Rev. Wright, or the many other analysts and observers who have called, and keep calling, that horrendous event a time when the chickens did come home to roost.

God Damn America

Here too, one should watch the video on YouTube that demonstrates how much the corporate media eviscerated all context from Dr. Wright's message, which was well constructed.

And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating 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 lowest 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 position 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? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America!

Context is everything, but one should open a parenthesis at this point.

When one hears the word "segregation" one immediately relates to our African-American brothers and sisters, but, truth be told, segregation is far more concentrated in white America than in any other community. I remember learning a few years back, circa 2003, as I was taking a "Native American IQ test" at understandingprejudice.org, that we white folks were the most residentially segregated group in the country by far. Not blacks, not Asians, not Indians -- whites. If you take the test -- a mere ten questions -- you'll learn that an estimated 100 million Native Indians were killed (about 95 percent of the Indian Nations) by the time white America had conquered the West.

The US government has never apologized for that genocide. Neither has it apologized for the country's slavery past; nor has it apologized for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and on, and on, and on. The American people of white descent refuse to face their history, for history is not the main narrative of the "march forward." Instead, the "get over it" storyline takes precedence. White America keeps pushing under the rug its ugly past and refuses to acknowledge or contrite for it. That's the essence of Dr. Wright's message. Without contrition, there can be no social transformation, and reconciliation will not take place. The message of Barack Obama without acknowledgement, contrition, transformation, and reconciliation is nothing more that a pipe dream. It may play well and be welcome in the White House and the white households but it's a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Imagine the worldwide reaction had Germany and the European powers not repented for the Holocaust. Imagine your sentiments had the Germans simply said, and were keeping saying, "oops, sorry, get used to it." Just imagine...

That's exactly what this country has been doing for ages with the Native Indians and with our black siblings. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust as the world looked away. One hundred million Indians were sacrificed in the name of white civilization. Millions of blacks were enslaved, indentured, killed, raped, lynched, but we keep refusing to apologize, and repair, and reconcile.

This is what Rev. Wright's homilies are all about, in a nutshell. Without recognition and contrition there will never be liberation and transformation, and without transformation reconciliation will remain a figment of the imagination, yet a hope that he pursues with intensity and rhetorical flourishes. In his eschatology, God does "condemn" wickedness, iniquity, and injustice. His "God damn America" statement becomes not only understandable but also legitimate when directed not to the American people but to its government.

The National Press Club speech

Senator Obama took fierce exception to his former pastor following that speech. Yet it was a superb lecture and a most intelligent and clear lesson about the tenets of the prophetic tradition in the black church. For those who were not privileged to attend it, or lucky enough to watch it on C-SPAN, here is the full transcript. It ought to be read attentively for it was quite a remarkable performance in which the reverend exhibited a sharp intellect and a mordant sense of humor. It was as much about history as it was about theology and social construct.

Dr. Wright delved into the trilogy -- liberation (of the oppressed and of the oppressors) that is the only path to (social) transformation and ultimately reconciliation among the many groups that form the American Union. He explored the universal notion that there are no superior or inferior groups or people and he talked at some length about the fact that as much as we are all different it does not mean that we are deficient -- difference is not synonymous with deficiency.

Even a secular, a-religious individual, like this author, could connect to Dr. Wright's superb narrative. Eugene Debs would have related to "God's desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world." He would have embraced the motto "different but not deficient."

In conclusion

Dr. Jeremiah Wright follows in a long lineage of wise and sage men. He brings to mind one of the greatest thinkers in the Judaic tradition, Hillel the Elder, who more than two thousand years ago brought to the fore the ethics of reciprocity, the so-called golden rule, that has long defined Judaism: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

The spectacle that the corporate media and the gatekeepers have propagated for the past month or so was both shameful and inherently immoral. They assailed a pastor in order to destroy the campaign of Barack Obama. It forced Senator Obama to disown a message that he had heard for almost two decades, and officially sever his relation with a most remarkable (though not perfect) man. So are the times we live in, filled with misunderstanding, fear, and hatred of the other. It is to be hoped that if the honorable Ralph Nader cannot win the presidency Barack Obama will reach the White House after having defeated Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- two agents of hate -- and that he will not turn out to be the first Uncle Tom tenant of the nation's House who pursues the neoliberal agenda and does not fix the ever-deepening cracks in the polity.

"Yes, we can" might as well read "Yes, we hope." Meanwhile, Dr. Wright's message will remain much more potent than any motto the Madison Avenue PR firms can devise.


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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect

US Elections & Democracy


About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

The African-American Religious Experience: Theology & Practice - Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

How Many Connections Does It Take? - Carol Warner Christen

Delusions - Richard Macintosh (Sept. 2003)

Wolf - Martin Murie

May Day, M'Aidez - Jan Baughman

Censorship And The Yugoslav Civil Wars - Michael Pravica

The Real French Warm Their Hearts - Peter Byrne

...And Now For A Short Commercial Break - Charles Marowitz

Jay Greenberg: A Korngold For Our Times - Isidor Saslav

Oltre (Beyond) - Poem by Guido Monte & Francesca Saieva

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/ga250.html
Published May 5, 2008