Thursday, May 1, 2008

More on Wright and Obama

I was speaking the other day to someone who knows the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and he said, well, you know, that’s just Jeremiah being Jeremiah, a man with an ego as big as Chicago’s South Side. The problem with him, I was told, was that he was one headstrong man, and you can’t tell him anything. This is often an occupational hazard of being the senior pastor of a large congregation; you become too used to having your own way, comfortable in being obeyed, and spend Sundays speaking your truths to packed churches that murmur amen and raise their right hands in approval. God’s prophets are rarely humble.

It has been fascinating to see people, who for the last month, have tried to explain Rev. Wright by adding context to his more inflammatory comments –typical post-1970 black church boilerplate, a prophetic mode that is prone to rhetorical excess, etc.—move away from him this week when it became clear that he is a pompous ass whose purpose in life is now, apparently, to destroy, the presidential chances of the first serious black presidential candidate, out of a sense of pique and hurt pride. It reminds me of the story of another Chicago preacher, J. H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA , Inc. (the largest black religious organization in the country.) He had spent many years battling Martin Luther King , Jr. (why? It’s a long story and the topic of another post.) Anyway, in the summer of 1968, after King was assassinated, the Chicago city fathers renamed a main thoroughfare in King’s honor. The main entrance of Jackson’s church was on this thoroughfare, the side entrance on a much smaller street. Rather than put King’s name on the stationary of the church, he changed its address to the side street.

Well, unlike Obama, I did leave a religious congregation because I didn’t like the political sermons I heard there. The rabbi of the synagogue I belonged to gave too many AIPAC flavored sermons on Israel for my taste, and I decided to take my davening, such as it is, elsewhere, and I don’t think that I’m that unusual. I would distinguish between sermons that you sort of agree with, but feel the reverend/rabbi has pushed things too far, and sermons that you positively and strongly disagree with . I suspect that, to Barack Obama’s hearing, Brother’s Wright’s sermons were more of the first type, probably a bit too lefty for his tastes, but he agreed with the basic thrust of much of what he heard, and made allowances for preacherly exaggeration. But Obama 20 years ago was a man searching for his identity, seeking to put down roots in the African American community, and found the Rev. Wright intellectually stimulating and provocative, and tolerated his excesses, which weren’t, in the context of the times, all that excessive. There are many, many, people in the black community who, for instance, admire some of the works of Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March in particular, while decrying his racial separatism and anti-Semitism. And if you can’t say both God Bless American and Goddamn America, loving what is wonderful about this country, and hating what is repulsive, you haven’t been paying very close attention.

What is most upsetting about this whole episode, as Rob alludes to, is its fearful asymmetry; how the words of Rev. Wright, have been, long before this became front and center of this campaign, seen as a liability, while there has never been a right wing Christian conservative wingnut who has ever received more than a wrist slap. The Times today makes clear what had been obvious, that Wright’s bruised feelings started when Obama’s people stopped him from offering the invocation when Obama announced his candidacy. What is of course behind this is the fear that, behind his smooth façade, Obama will be seen as a closet radical, who will grow his Afro in office, and make Huey Newton’s birthday a national holiday. Obama has been on a long journey, and if one wants to be elected president, one must watch one’s words carefully. He is not a radical, and I don’t think he ever was one. Still, I hope there is a kernel of radicalism in his soul, an ability for prophetic indignation at injustice, an ability to strip things down to basics, and offer fundamental, unsparing critiques of what is wrong (and what is right) about this country.

I have been reading some of Joan Didion’s political reportage of presidential primaries past to gain some insight into the present morass. She writes of a “certain Sisyphean aspect” to our presidential politics. “The crucible event in the candidate’s ‘character’ would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comments cycles that had become our national River Lethe.” So it has proved, again. Obama’s “character” has now swallowed up all else. And in some fundamental way, it turns on the profound unease, in many quarters, about having a black president, and having Obama prove, again and again, that he is not one of “those” sort of blacks. A good friend of mine thinks that Obama might become the Al Smith of 2008. Both were good men, first time candidates from a background that many Americans had long looked on with suspicion. In 1928 Americans applauded themselves for nominating a Catholic, while while defeating and destroying his candidacy through anti-Catholic bigotry. I hope 2008 is not 1928 redux, with race replacing religion. I have been relatively neutral in this campaign, and my decision between Obama and Clinton was essentially decided by a coin toss. But if Obama should not win the nomination because of these irrelevancies, or, worse, a Democrat should fail to win in November because of this, all I will say is “goddamn America.” Or keeping God out of this, we will have, once again, damned ourselves; having forgotten nothing, and learned nothing.

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