Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Wright Wing

(I wind up my May Day postings, the break from a break, with a few oblique things on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)

Keep in mind that Obama has distanced himself from Wright--out of political necessity, mind you--and the media are just lapping it all up. The media have provided us with a most blatant and easily disproved misinformation campaign regarding the "controversy" over Obama's pastor. Again, and again, and again ... and again ... columnists and pundits refer to Wright's "hateful oratory," his "bitterness." He has "praised" Louis Farrakhan as a "great American." He "mocked" the "regional dialects" of Kennedy and Johnson. He made fun of white people's dancing. He is just an old, uppity, sour grapes anti-white racist. Right? Wright? Wrong.

Perhaps it won't be available on YouTube that much longer ... but anyone with a broadband connection can see the entirety of Wright's "inflammatory" speeches to the press, to the NAACP. Not just the maliciously, intentionally decontextualized and recoded two-second soundbites that keep getting played. Regarding Obama's denunciation ... here are some of the awful, horrible, evil things that Obama wants to let us know he does not support and does not stand for:

Throughout its 99-year history, the NAACP has been built by people of all races, all nationalities, and all faiths on one primary premise, which is that all men and women are created equal. The nation's oldest civil rights organization has changed America's history. Despite violence, intimidation, and hostile government policies, the NAACP and its grassroots membership have persevered.

Now, somebody please tell the Oakland county executive that that sentence starting with the words "despite violence, intimidation, and hostile government policies" is a direct quote from the NAACP's profile in courage. It didn't come from Jeremiah Wright.

* * *

I believe that a change is going to come because many of us are committing to changing how we see others who are different.

In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient. Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient.

Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient. And vice versa.
Whites saw black as being deficient. It was none other than Rudyard Kipling who saw the "White Man's Burden" as a mandate to lift brown, black, yellow people up to the level of white people as if whites were the norm and black, brown and yellow people were abnormal subspecies on a lower level or deficient.


Europeans saw Africans as deficient. Lovers of George Friedrich Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saw lovers of B.B. King and Frankie Beverly and Maze as deficient. Lovers of Marian Anderson saw lovers of Lady Day and Anita Baker as deficient. Lovers of European cantatas -- Comfort ye in the glory, the glory of the Lord -- Lovers of European cantatas saw lovers of common meter -- I love the Lord, He heard my cry -- they saw them as deficient.

In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as being deficient. We established arbitrary norms and then determined that anybody not like us was abnormal. But a change is coming because we no longer see others who are different as being deficient. We just see them as different.

* * *

Many of us are committed to changing how we see others who are different. Number one, many of us are committed to changing how we see ourselves. Number two, not inferior or superior to, just different from others. Embracing our own histories. Embracing our own cultures. Embracing our own languages as we embrace others who are also made in the image of god. That has been the credo of the NAACP for 99 years. When we see ourselves as members of the human race, I believe a change is on the way. When we see ourselves as people of faith who shared this planet with people of other faiths, I believe a change is on the way.

* * *

Please run and tell my stuck on stupid friends that Arabic is a language, it's not a religion. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. They are Arabic-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Jews and Arabic speaking atheists. Arabic is a language, it's not a religion. Stop trying to scare folks by giving them an Arabic name as if it's some sort of a disease.

* * *

But, since this is a nonpartisan gathering and since this is neither a mosque, a synagogue or a sanctuary, just let me say, we can do it. We can make it if we try. We can make the change if we try. We will make a change if we try. A change is going to come. Can you feel it? Can you see it? Can you imagine it? Then come on, let's claim it. Give yourselves a standing ovation while the transformation that's about to jump off. A change is going to come.

(These excerpts all from the CNN transcript of the NAACP talk.)

* * *

Keep in mind that Barack Obama, the public figure, has distanced himself from all of these comments. He wants nothing to do with them. He not only admits, he cheerfully insists that the above comments are not what he's "about." I would bet that, deep down, Obama is very upset with himself for playing this game--his denunciation a few days ago didn't ring very true to me, it didn't feel like it came from the gut. But to stay afloat, he didn't come out fighting and straight-talking, he played the game, he bent to one knee, he did what was politically convenient. Obama, "the Washington outsider," became that much more like Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

This is why it is vital to not put all our hope on this election, and why third party protest votes will be of very limited but real strategic worth--to let each other know we're not all duped.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Baruch Osama does not believe what Jeremiah Wright says. But his fatty can polish handler wants you to believe such things because it helps achieve their fatima mission.

Jacob said...

This is just another case of stupid media playing up the opera that is Obama and Hillary.

It's ridiculous.

Renegade Eye said...

Mayday Greetings

Alex said...

"But to stay afloat, he didn't come out fighting and straight-talking, he played the game, he bent to one knee, he did what was politically convenient. Obama, "the Washington outsider," became that much more like Hillary Clinton or John McCain."

The role of the statesman is simply very different from the role of the prophet? Obama as a statesman hoping for the greatest honours cannot and should not - indeed, must guard himself well against - behaving as a prophet does. The statesman must be careful how often and when he reproves the people - since our regime does not have an aristocracy, Obama must praise and flatter the people. Of course, the great statesman (or the greatest statesman) knows the vices and flaws of the people very well, and, in lucky instances, may be able to increase the people's virtue. But such instances are rare. In the meantime, there is little overlap between the role of the prophet and that of the statesman.

That doesn't mean that Obama's distancing from Wright is necessarily the wisest act of statemanship - but we can only judge Obama as a politician and not from a wholely different standard.

Zach Campbell said...

Jacob, will you stay around for when Hillary hits the high C?

RE, happy (belated) May Day to you, too!

Alex, as always, very fruitful and provocative comments. Part of me acknowledges that you're correct: what this Wright post expresses on my part is an admittedly naive anger and resentment at Obama for doing just what I rationally know he is doing. (And I should not get worked up over the rules of a game and the parameters of a role I am aware of.) At the same time--I cannot help but read this figure of the statesman with practically no actual agency, only a set of options akin to detergent brands, set out for him. What we see isn't statesmanship so much as the puppet theater of governance, ordained by those who own all the resources upon which virtually every statesman must sink or swim. What has basically happened with this rift between Wright & Obama is that the grassroots have been left behind for good--he's running on populist fumes now. It's very disappointing, not because I expected great change to come from the system of governance we have in place now, but because I think the issues advocated by Wright need to push for as much positive exposure as possible before they're again pushed under the rug in our mediasphere. I wanted smuggling because smuggling will get to some people that the left-wing blogosphere or indy media will not; unfortunately this was cut short, and I am bitter ...

Anonymous said...

Hey Zach,

I partly understand what you're saying, but I also think you're distorting Obama's position (which he's admittedly and probably intentionally left somewhat vague). Obama simply hasn't explicitly said that he disagrees with everything Wright publicly says. He's said that he's appalled by some of the things Wright has said. And, off the top of my head, I don't know how specific he's gotten here. So I don't think you can so easily impute the view that Obama distains all Wright says, including distaining the NAACP or other strong respectable traditions of black thought, etc.

In Obama's press conference the day after the NPC Wright event, what Obama was actually specific about is that he was distancing himself and breaking with Wright for two reasons: 1) for Wright disrespectfully reducing Obama's criticisms of Wright to simple disingenuous political posturing and positioning; and 2) for some of Wright's views expressed at the NPC event. Now Obama obviously has political-strategic reasons for making a public break with Wright, but I think you can also reasonably say that Obama has serious intellectual reasons apart from vulgar politics for disagreeing with some of what Wright says. Wright couldn't bring himself to acknowledge that, and that's seems to be partly what pushed Obama to be even firmer in his criticisms of Wright than before.

But bottomline, Obama isn't saying he disagrees with everything Wright ever says. Thus I think some of the point behind your post is offbase.

Phil

Zach Campbell said...

But bottomline, Obama isn't saying he disagrees with everything Wright ever says.

Phil, perhaps I wasn't clear enough, but recognition of this fact was exactly the rhetorical gesture of my post! I was highlighting, or rather pointing towards, the great deal of sensible, antiracist, democratic positions that Wright has expressed. Obama, in his denunciation speech, could only regurgitate the same two (or so) "points" that the media kept harping on--distorting, and playing over & over on the media programs or in newspapers. (And pretty much all the media did this, even normally decent establishment figures like Bob Herbert just choked on this, decontextualizing & repeating a party line on what Wright allegedly "stands for"--i.e., himself, showmanship, conspiracy theories, bitterness, division.) What disappoints me is that Obama himself, instead of speaking sensibly on the issue, gave his own laundry list of ad nauseum rewordings of "I denounce, I don't believe, I don't ally myself," etc.

His denunciation was so strong, so constricted by (mistaken, malicious) media parameters that there was no room to emphasize the plain fact that by far most of what Wright has said publicly these months has been good. Obama would not denounce even John McCain in so strong of terms.

So what I was trying to say was that Obama, in the way he so vehemently represented his (cut-off) relationship with Wright, has not only denounced what he's said he's denounced ... he has subtly broken with all of it. That's what I think. For me he's basically killed whatever claim he had to the grassroots.

edo choi said...

I'm inclined to agree with you, Zach, in that anyone who watches the whole of Wright's two speeches, to the NAACP and at the NPC respectively, will meet a very different figure from the one they've come to know through sound bites and video clips. After watching them in their entirety, we can say be relatively certain that Obama's statements either reflect his own honest ignorance of the actual speeches, a disturbing possibility, or perhaps more disturbing a desire to quash the issue in a manner characteristic of a lower echelon of debate, allowed by the media, and encouraged by Hilaryland and the Straight Talk Express. I'm inclined to believe that for Obama the motivation lies somewhere in between.

I think it's a stretch on your part to try and tease out any more exact reason why Obama has responded this way. Specifically, I'm referring to your contention that Obama is acting knowingly disingenuous, and that "deep down" he feels guilty or angry with himself.

Notwithstanding the fact that our current media culture defies these sorts of easy psychological analyses, I think here it's particularly ambiguous since it seems like Obama may not actually have seen either speech in its entirety himself. But to reinforce your more central point this possibility is pretty troubling on its own, because it suggests that in the heat of this campaign Obama's priority to win, a very reasonable one in itself, is beginning to supersede the core message of his campaign: that the American people have been disenfranchised and that the old political establishments feed on the well of resentment, bitterness, and resignation this condition produces, harnessing it for their own benefit.

Up until now, I've admired Obama for sticking to that message even when times were rough. His much-celebrated speech on race in response to the first wave of Wright bating was probably the most inspiring piece of political oratory I've seen in my lifetime. I know you had your reservations about it, but my argument in favor of its brilliance is that it occasioned one of those rare moments where a candidate's strategic goals and political message seemed to find synthesis, especially powerful when emerging from a greater context of widespread opportunism. Where other candidates would have tried to diffuse the issue, Obama attempted to highlight some of the crucial dynamics underlying it.

It is worth noting that in this way much of that speech was inflected with the same themes and talking points which Jeremiah Wright stressed in both his recent speeches, suggesting that the two men have similar political mandates, even as they have opposed political ambitions. Each has noted in his own style and towards his own ends that the question of the appropriateness of Wright's remarks is really a simulacrum to distract from the real issue: that there is more than one America, because different groups of people, in this case racial groups black and white, have different ideas of what that name means, what it points to.

Even now I think Obama is trying to reconcile this problem - his thoughtful, if cautious reactions to being accused of elitism confirm this for me - but he's also trying to win the presidency. Tragically in this country, those two drives can only momentarily achieve the unity of purpose, which I find in his speech. This most recent defensive maneuver on his part is a painful reminder of this problem. So I continue to support Obama, but in the hope that he will not stray much further from his stump, and from the ideological message underlying his campaign.

Finally, I would hesitate to reduce our characterizations of this issue to a tragic schism between two men. We don't know that yet. So I think its premature and somewhat melodramatic to do so and that it distracts from the dynamics we can actually grasp. Obama's comments were rigid, but since there's been no direct dialogue between the two of them, and there probably won't be, we can't say that there's been a two-way cutting of ties, only a one-way cutting of ties. Admittedly, that means Obama probably won't be seeing Wright for a while, and given the circumstances it seems that at least on Obama's end there will be some tension and reserve, but we should not conflate the political problem with the personal one any more than they naturally interact. We should remind ourselves that right now we have no idea what Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are feeling towards one another.

Joel said...

Not to delve too much further into the personal relationship between Wright and Obama, but no one's mentioned that Barack's response (beyond "political posturing," honest objection, etc) could have been occasioned by strong anger over Wright's condescending attitude towards Obama during the Q&A at the NPC event. ex: "Barack Obama goes to church as much as you go to church. What did your pastor preach on last Sunday? ...That's what I thought" - this coming from your (ex-)pastor...

You quote from his address, but not from the Q&A, where most of the "objectionable" material comes from. Obama specifically mentioned the "spectacle" Wright made of himself, which I can only guess is directed mostly at his attitude during the Q&A (and is also funny coming from someone staging enormous spectacles all over the country to sell himself as President). If I remember correctly (and it's been a few days since I've seen the video), it was during the Q&A that Wright made the comment about AIDS possibly being created by the US Government to target the black community, though it was clear Wright doesn't actually believe this himself, and only mentioned this possibility as a kind of provocation. With this kind of glibness, Wright undercuts his important and valid ideas, and yes, creates a spectacle of himself that the media can separate into soundbites and feed to all those people unwilling to seek out the speech in its entirety. If he had foregone the Q&A session, his address probably (and sadly) would have gone mostly un-reported upon in the mainstream media.

I found it interesting after Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia (and maybe this is only my personal experience based on what news I was watching at the time) that the media had a very hard time locating soundbites within the speech for their broadcasts. I don't remember hearing any, actually, only the speech in its entirety. Am I wrong about this?

edo choi said...

I don't think Wright was being condescending at all, and certainly not towards Obama. That jab was aimed peculiarly at the AP rep who was asking him the questions and who had made up that particularly fatuous and actually quite mean-spirited question on the spot. One could even say that Wright was coming to Obama's defense in this case. Another reason why it is disappointing that Obama felt he had to distance himself from him so emphatically.

Joel said...

I agree that her question was fatuous and mean-spirited (towards Obama), though I'm not sure how you can say Wright's response was not condescending. Once again - "He goes to church about as much as you go to church. Considering the context - a lecture on the importance of the black church in American society - and Wright's attitude during the Q&A, which I think is best characterized as defensive, jokey, and arrogant - and that this is coming from the man who baptized his kids and officiated his marriage (and who, supposedly, was responsible for his turning to Christianity in the first place) - well, it strikes me as very condescending. I'm not defending Obama's church attendance; in fact, I'm sure Wright is probably right. I was, however, taking note of a specific tone (and a specific example) that Obama may have been responding to. Something that, if we believe Obama is human and we don't totally abandon the idea that he has some level of integrity, might have stung just a bit, with its implication of false faith.

I think it's a little too early to say Obama's lost touch with all of his grass roots just because he's had a falling out with Wright.

I think Wright proved himself at the NPC function to be the empowered party that he is, no matter what the press may try to do or say about it, and he managed to send a few knives Obama's way in doing so. My argument is that some of these were a little more glib than others.

Alex said...

"At the same time--I cannot help but read this figure of the statesman with practically no actual agency, only a set of options akin to detergent brands, set out for him. What we see isn't statesmanship so much as the puppet theater of governance, ordained by those who own all the resources upon which virtually every statesman must sink or swim."

I haven't read Obama's actual speech; nor have I heard Wright's speech either, so I can't address the topic directly.

But a perhaps applicable - or perhaps I'm just entertaining myself here - example is in Xenophon's Anabasis (also sometimes titled The Going Up or The Elevation): Cyrus the Younger assembled a vast army to overthrow his brother, then king of Persia. Large numbers of Greek mercenaries joined Cyrus' army - when Cyrus was defeated and killed, the imprudent Greeks were stranded deep in enemy territory and their generals behaved foolishly, eventually getting themselves and their entire staffs killed, though the vast bulk of the army remained intact. The Greek army abandoned itself to confusion and chaos and cowardice. It seemed the only possibility was to surrender to the Persian king, who was rather famous for his inventiveness in torturing and executing vanquished foes.

Xenophon, as he himself admits, "neither...a general, not yet as a private soldier, but simply....an old friend" had no official status to assume command of the army. But since the generals had been disgraced and killed, the way was fortunately free for him to assume command. This part of the history shows us that it is only luck and sometimes the bad decisions of the foolish that permits the circumstances needed for the wise man to rule - tradition and institutions in most instances block the wise man from assuming high command.

We need to pay attention to Xenophon's rhetoric here as he speaks to the army to get himself elected general (generals in ancient times were often elected). Certainly Xenophon saw all the vices of the army, of their previous leadership and of the Greeks in general (he's spent many pages describing this in great detail). Instead, in the moment, he praises the Greek army (even though he spent the first two books of the Anabasis indicating its faults), promising that the gods will be on the Greek's side (even though Xenophon's tale indicates that the gods seem to be against the Greek army up till that point) and speaks to the remaining junior officers as if they are heroes even though they are actually cowards hiding in a tent.

Addressing the army as a whole, instead of lambasting their previous silly and cowardly conduct, Xenophon elevates them by portraying their mission as a noble one: to punish the barbarian king for the ignoble acts the king has done. Xenophon knows well that he will not lead the army to punish the king - rather, giving the army a noble goal allows Xenophon as a general to motivate the army to do what needs to be done (which is, in fact, to escape from the king and not to punish him – the Greek army would not have survived an instant against the vast resources of the Persian king). Xenophon also makes sacred his speech by noting that Zeus has already shown through signs (literally, through a sneeze in the audience) that Zeus supports this now holy mission to punish the impiety of the Persian king.

Alex said...

"With this kind of glibness, Wright undercuts his important and valid ideas, and yes, creates a spectacle of himself that the media can separate into soundbites and feed to all those people unwilling to seek out the speech in its entirety."

This is because Wright does not seemingly understand the political things - Wright might understand how to be the critic or prophet but not how to be the statesman. The statesman is more than a critic or theorist. Further, as Machiavelli correctly pointed out about Savanarola (see the picture in Zach's previous post), the prophet or critic who blunders into political things is a danger and weakness to the state.

Zach Campbell said...

I think it's a stretch on your part to try and tease out any more exact reason why Obama has responded this way. Specifically, I'm referring to your contention that Obama is acting knowingly disingenuous, and that "deep down" he feels guilty or angry with himself.

Edo, you're right--it was an overreaching interpretation on my part. I don't know what's going on in Obama's head, I don't even have a good guess.

Joel, I don't think Wright was particularly glib, barbed, cruel, or egotistical. He wasn't exactly conciliatory or apologetic--but then again, for me, he was doing exactly what needs to be done with Obama, holding his feet to the fire. Wright was simply an animated human being, and a real performer, not a TV performer, so it doesn't "come off" as well on TV. And the pundits take care to assure us how "out of line" and "outrageous" he was.

Alex, thanks for the comments, I'll return to them later. I shall make a more substantial return to the blogosphere this weekend I think.

Joel said...

Zach

I agree about his performance, but not that it didn't translate to TV.
I saw the C-SPAN broadcast and thought it made for great theater, even on TV. If I was there, I'm sure I too would have gotten riled up, inspired, angry, and laughed quite a bit.

Wright can't be held accountable to mass media standards of conduct.
Nor can he be held accountable if his lecture is broadcast, because
of the current situation with Obama, on every TV station in America.

But I think we all misrepresent him when we call him a prophet and not a politician. You can't be pastor of Trinity United Church for 25 years and not be something of a politician.

However, it's not Wright's responsibility to tone down his attitude or rhetoric, to appear humble or apologetic, in order to appeal to a corrupt media culture.

What I suppose I'm objecting to is the leftist reactionary position that turns Wright into a puppy prophet just because the mass media's portraying him as a demon.

And Obama, the big bad wolf.

-------

"This is why it is vital to not put all our hope on this election, and why third party protest votes will be of very limited but real strategic worth--to let each other know we're not all duped."

I understand this position, but in writing you'd rather us not put
all our hopes on this election, you seem to be saying
not to put any hope on it at all.

One can vote for Obama without being "duped." Most of the Obama supporters I've spoken to (including myself) understand he's no savior. To believe that any one man or woman could be savior in this political system is foolish anyways. His eventual denunciation of Wright was disingenuous, yes. But so obviously so, so clearly a purely political move necessitated by the will to be "electable," that while I hold Obama accountable for lying, I don't think it signals a melodramatic rupture with the grass roots, precisely because his denunciation was so staged. Based on his initial reaction to the fake Wright controversy, his speech in Philadelphia, I believe Obama is better than this.

Alex said...

"Wright can't be held accountable to mass media standards of conduct.
Nor can he be held accountable if his lecture is broadcast, because
of the current situation with Obama, on every TV station in America.

But I think we all misrepresent him when we call him a prophet and not a politician. You can't be pastor of Trinity United Church for 25 years and not be something of a politician.

However, it's not Wright's responsibility to tone down his attitude or rhetoric, to appear humble or apologetic, in order to appeal to a corrupt media culture."

Wright can't be both prophet and statesman at the same time and fully enact both roles simultaneously. Mixing the two has nearly always proved disastrous. We ultimately know this when we recognize that the prophets of Israel never ruled politically after Moses, and none of the kings of Israel were conversely prophets. And Machiavelli notes this difference of the prophets before and including Moses, and the prophets who came afterwards - praising Moses as the "armed prophet" in Il Principe.

Since, in our current regime, the transitory opinions of the people rule, the statesman must start his rhetoric from the place where the mass of the people are. The skillful statesman may be able to elevate the people, but only by first getting the people to love or admire or trust him. He cannot start from a place of condeming the people before he gains their love or admiration.

Examine closely the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, for instance. Lincoln, I'm convinced, knew well the many vices of the American character (his great wisdom in practical affairs indicates that Lincoln's understanding was both correct and deep) and the American regime of his time - but Lincoln very often begins his rhetoric with praise of certain limited aspects of the American regime. Note that Lincoln doesn't praise the entirety of the regime - in fact, he changed and reformed that regime quite substantively - but he praised only those aspects of the regime he could use to change the regime for the better. His listeners wanted to imagine that his praise of limited aspects of the regime was praise for themselves, and thus admired or liked Lincoln.

Zach Campbell said...

Joel, allow me to clarify myself (I was unintentionally obscure before)--I didn't mean that Wright's alleged shenanigans don't translate to television, i.e., to the screen. I meant that media culture is not conducive to the sort of speech Wright gave, which requires context and presumes a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of his audience.

Alex, I see your point about Xenophon; still, despite the explanatory power of the narrative I can't help feeling that it's no more than half-true that Obama is the wise statesman craftily climbing his way to power and doing what's necessary en route. How do we accept that he wasn't already corrupt, or somewhat corrupt? This isn't an ethics complaint, really--I mean, nobody's perfect, blah blah--but on the level of class structure and in whose interests he operates ... is he doing, was he ever going to do, what is good for the people? For our sustainable future? For a direction away from the folly into which we are rushing?

Alex said...

"How do we accept that he wasn't already corrupt, or somewhat corrupt? This isn't an ethics complaint, really--I mean, nobody's perfect, blah blah--but on the level of class structure and in whose interests he operates ... is he doing, was he ever going to do, what is good for the people? For our sustainable future? For a direction away from the folly into which we are rushing?"

It's very hard to know, certainly, and I haven't studied Obama carefully (even though he was my representative to the Illinois State Senate). It's even more difficult to know whether a political man is wise than it is to know if a non-political man is wise - the non-political man is sometimes less careful with his speech.

But pay attention to Obama's use of quotations from Lincoln.