Sunday, March 16, 2008

Point of personal privilege

This is an expanded version of a comment I left at Crooks & Liars.

I've written very little about the presidential primaries; in fact I think the only times I've even mentioned them were to consider the New Hampshire results in light of my concerns about electronic voting machines and to comment on the exclusion of Dennis Kucinich from the debate before the Nevada primary. This is another one of that sort of post, one that relates to the primaries but isn't about them.

It's about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's "controversial" pastor.

There are all kinds of videos of Wright's "inflammatory" statements floating around, almost all of which recycle the same few quotes. Because of my disinterest in the campaign, I'd paid little - okay, no - attention to them. But I saw a compilation of three quotes on "Countdown" this past Friday and I have to say that my reaction was rather different than that of Jonathan Alter, who called Wright, if I remember correctly, "hysterical." So I spent some time this evening on YouTube looking at videos of Wright, including those avowedly used to charge him with "hate speech" and "hating America." At the end of it all, I came away with the same feeling I had Friday: I just don't see what the big deal is supposed to be.

Consider that in one clip shown on "Countdown," Wright, during a sermon preached the Sunday after 9/11, said in essence that the attack was blowback from US policies in the world, including the Middle East and Africa. Bluntly, that doesn't strike me as a statement that should be the least controversial with any but the "they did it because they hate our freedoms" ignoramuses. (He reaches back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples, which I doubt are on the minds of more than a few of those regarding the US angrily today, but it doesn't detract from the point.) Rather, it is, I say, the truth and I have thought so since the beginning. Just two days after 9/11, I was emailing friends, decrying "the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation" in which everyone claims to be the innocent victim and saying we were in for "hard times" during which suggesting a motive for the attack other than "irrational hatred" or being "uncivilized" would brand you a terrorist-lover.

Three weeks after the event, in an unpublished op-ed, I said that our problem in answering the plaintive question "Why did they attack us?" lay in the fact that we insisted on seeing Muslim, particularly Arab Muslim, concerns through American eyes. So, I said, "just for a moment, try to see the world through the eyes of an average person on the ground in the Middle East." After laying out how that world might look, I asked:
If that was your world, what would the West, what would the US, look like to you? Like a noble friend? Or like a selfish, conceited, arrogant bully which figures it can do as it damn well pleases without cost to itself? And amid all this, what is the only force that has offered you hope, offered you help, offered you a model that has defied the West, offered you self-respect? Islamic fundamentalism. Seen through such eyes, the question "Why do they hate us?" answers itself.
And three months after the attack, with the war on Afghanistan well under way, I wrote to "Mother Jones" in response to a militarist article by Todd Gitlin to say that
[a]s deeply as I mourn the victims of the World Trade Center attacks ... I still insist that the question for us as Americans is not, cannot be, what Osama bin Laden could have or should now think or do differently, but what we could have or should now think or do differently. The clock of history did not start on September 11 and refusing to face our own complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions of desperation-driven fanaticism in which such as al-Qaeda can take root and grow (and continue to recruit) is the surest way we as a nation can guarantee a continuation of terrorism directed against us.
The precise language Wright used may have been a little over the top - but the content of what he said was true.

In another clip, Wright said Hillary Clinton can't truly understand the problems and concerns of black people because she isn't black, doesn't have that experience. That conviction - that is, that true cultural understanding is only available to those with direct personal experience - is not one universally shared, but it's hardly uncommon, hardly outlandish, and by no means limited to blacks: Some women, for one example, have maintained the equivalent about men, arguing than men can't understand what it's like to be a woman in society. In that same segment, he said that the US is dominated by "rich white people." And this is supposed to be controversial on exactly what basis?

In the third clip, he said, as near as I can quote from memory, "God bless America? No, God damn America! It's there in the Bible: the destruction of innocents." That is, damn America for the murder of and mayhem against innocent people for which it is responsible. The language ("God damn America") may be, again, rather over the top, but is the sentiment that drives it really questionable? Yes, I can see why this one could be "controversial" in that it expresses a truth that most Americans do not see and do not want to see; I have mentioned before my old concern about
the most dangerous of all our cultural notions: the myth of American innocence. We as a people still tend to believe that we always act out of the highest ideals, that our motives are always pure, our intentions always honest, our honor always intact.
So words like Rev. Wright's always clang on our ears like jackhammers on metal. But seriously, seriously, is the assertion that the US has been responsible, whether directly or through surrogates, whether through action or deliberate inaction, for an appalling amount of death and destruction over, well, let's use Wright's timeframe and say over the last 60 years - but over any timeframe measured in years as opposed to months, is that a charge that can be legitimately questioned? How?

Jeremiah Wright surely has said and done some things that are wrong or foolish - embracing Louis Farrakahn ranking high on that list - but the attack dogs are not concerned with polemics but with politics and not with religion but with race, as the stunningly racist comments about both Wright and Barack Obama on some of the YouTube videos serve to emphasize. And there is one other thing with which they are not concerned: truth.

Footnote: All that said, I need to make clear that I did not agree with or approve everything Wright said on the clips I found. On one minor point, the clip where he is attacking Clinton's supposed lack of understanding of what blacks go through on a daily basis pretty much amounted to campaigning for Obama from the pulpit, which is a tax-exempt no-no. I'd be surprised that the fanatics aren't going after him for that if it weren't for the fact that it would distract attention from their real goal, which is to attack Obama by proxy.

On a more serious issue, in one clip he referred to AIDS as something created by the US government. He is hardly the only one to believe this, but it's still crap.

And in going after Hillary Clinton as someone who "fits the mold," he said three things that raised questions about his own ability to understand without experiencing. One was the statement that she doesn't know what it's like to have to try twice as hard to be accepted. Sheesh. She's a woman. Of course she knows. The simple fact that she's the first woman in our nation's history to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate should be proof enough of that. (And no, Obama is not the first black to be taken seriously in that role. Jesse Jackson was. On the other hand, he is the first to have a good chance of winning.)

He also said that, unlike Obama, she has never had to be concerned about being stopped by police because she was driving in the wrong neighborhood. Which is likely true. But I strongly suspect that, like every other woman, she has had to wonder if it was safe to go across that dark parking lot to her car and can probably name several places off the top of her head where she would not go alone if she could possibly avoid it.

Finally, Wright said of Clinton that, again unlike Obama, "She's never been called 'nigger.'" Which is obviously true - just as obvious as the fact that Obama has never been called "bitch" or "cunt." I'm not going to argue one is worse, the same, or not as bad as the other. I am going to insist that there is some degree of balance there.

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