Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Preacher

"Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." – Malcolm X, on the assassination of John Kennedy

"I meant that the death of Kennedy was the result of a long line of violent acts, the culmination of hate and suspicion and doubt in this country. You see, Lomax, this country has allowed white people to kill and brutalize those they don't like. The assassination of Kennedy is a result of that way of life and thinking. The chickens came home to roost; that's all there is to it. America—at the death of the President—just reaped what it had been sowing." –Malcolm X, in an interview with Louis Lomax, explaining his earlier remark.

"I was in school in Arkansas when Kennedy was assassinated. When the teacher announced the assassination to the class, practically the entire class stood up and cheered. They stood up and cheered." – a college friend of mine (who is white).

"Store closed due to assassination of nigger-loving President. (Will reopen at 2)" – from newsreel footage seen in recent ESPN documentary "Black Magic" about professional basketball players from historically black colleges.

Could a novelist have come up with a better name than Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

I've been thinking that I should write something about "The Speech," Barack Obama's speech on race and racism in the U.S., given in response to the furor over statements made by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It was a speech that had some heft to it, and one that took some courage to make, when he could have said the platitudes, had a "Sister Soulja" moment, and maybe slid by that way. It took away some of my concern that Obama was a lightweight, running as a blank slate upon whom people could project their hopes and dreamy wishes that things could be better without effort, without confrontation, without recognizing that the past produces the future.

But it is Wright that draws attention, does he not? That is what a spiritual leader should do, after all. Wright does not say, as some/many on the Religious Right have said, that God smites us with supernatural intervention, sending hurricanes to lay waste to the modern day Sodom of New Orleans, or visiting a plague upon homosexuals for their sins, though Wright apparently does speak of HIV as a government plot, which is merely incorrect. But then people do tend to grant too much imagined power to those they perceive as enemies.

Wright vents an anger that many have felt, an anger that is hardly confined to the black community. Indeed, the anger is nigh unto universal, it's only the object of the anger that varies from place to place and person to person. The Republican Revolution has been attributed to the "angry white male," but that anger is supposedly not directed at "America," merely certain Americans, certain American laws and freedoms, specific American government officials and programs, plus assorted foreigners, ethnic groups, and, as nearly as I can tell various trees, other flora, and wildlife.

It's also been directed at me from time to time, but big deal. I'm better able to take care of myself than most, and I'm a white male myself. And, I do have my own angers.

So perhaps Wright is one of those "blame America first" people we hear so much about, though he has worn the uniforms of both the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy. It doesn't really sound like the "blame America" part was really topmost on his life agenda, nor the first thing that occurred to him.

I have a friend in Tennessee who has actually changed congregations over political and moral disagreements with a pastor or the congregation. My friend's support of Barack Obama has been tarnished, and may be withdrawn over this incident, to my dismay.

I said to my friend, "You're a Christian. If you find Pastor Wright's statements to be offensive, try forgiving him first. That is what Christians do, after all. And forgive Obama for perhaps thinking that this was a point of view he needed to hear, regardless of his own personal opinions.

I don't know how much good my suggestion did. In truth, it's harder to make an argument that one does not support with one's own mind. And I am not a Christian, nor do I think that Wright said anything that needs forgiveness.

But see for yourself.

Remember, whatever happens should not be a surprise. The entire nation is built upon an Indian burial ground. -- overheard on the street


Anonymous said...

Love that spin, BUT there is no justification for spreading lies, hate and bigotry, combined with anti-americanism. Period.

I remember when President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy died. There was no laughter around us. There was an endless supply of shock and tears. I still remember Walter Cronquite giving the announcement. There was not a face that was celebrating. I remember JFK Jr. saluting his father as his casket passed in front of him. This nation mourned greatly. But then again, maybe in YOUR home they didn't.

Arnaud said...

"But then again, maybe in YOUR home they didn't."

Hooo! An ad hominem from somebody who stays anonymous!
But then again, James' blog is called Unintentional Irony

black dog barking said...

I said to my friend, "You're a Christian. If you find Pastor Wright's statements to be offensive, try forgiving him first.

To forgive one must come to an understanding of the actions that offend — empathy and all that. I must have blinked because I missed the part where we listed the evidence that Rev Wright's expressed ideas were a danger to us all and must be suppressed. If Sen Obama is unfit to serve as president because of his exposure to these expressed ideas then is everyone who's seen the YouTube disqualified?

"Spin" to me, anonymous, is an exercise in persuasion, a form of propaganda, a misrepresentation that lets me ignore realities that make me uncomfortable. I agree there is no justification for spreading lies, hate, and bigotry but I prefer the pro-american approach. In America you can say "god damn America" if you want. You can say "god damn God" if you want. That's what's special about America.

Arnaud said...

If that is all that special about America, BDB, America is not that special.
There are more than one democracy in the world, you know...

What I found worthy of concern is the radicalisation of public discourse in America (admittedly, as seen from outside), namely the fact that you guys don't seem able to merely disagree and argue with one another. The opponent has to be evil, an anti-Semite or a racist, a bigot, a liar...

For what I have seen, Obama tries at least a little to go beyond that. But in truth, to have a mature political discourse, you probably need more than two political parties.

black dog barking said...

arnaud, what presents as radical discourse to the outside looks on the inside to be the result of indulging two immature impulses. 1) Present a universal simple answer for all problems past, present, and future. 2) Manufacture massive amounts of denial and ignore any problem whose solution set lies outside the domain of our universal simple answer.

The Rev Wright Incident is a good example. The next president of the United States faces huge seemingly intractable problems, foreign and domestic. Any intelligent decision about who best meets this task requires spending time talking about problems without simple solutions. *Or* we can ignore — talk about Rev Wright because it's important, he's a racist or a bigot or some kind of monster.

There have been many changes in the American Way. We used to speak of Yankee Ingenuity, a phrase I haven't heard this century. Now we listen to the same people saying the same things all day every day. Media talking heads have de facto tenure. We think those that led us into this mess are also those best qualified to lead us out.

James Killus said...

Over on Economist's View, Mark Thoma linked to what I thought was an intelligent and reasoned piece from Richard Green, that, along with the presentation of substantive evidence of ongoing racial discrimination in this country (hint: it wasn't about affirmative action being horribly racist), noted that Bill Kristol and others were decrying the very idea of having a "dialog about race."

In comments, I noted that most of the comments wound up being about Bill Kristol, which thereby had the effect shutting down the dialog, because that is Kristol's job: to yell so loudly that decent people cannot have a conversation.

I said nothing in my little essay about the reaction in my household to the assassination of JFK, nor, indeed, the general reaction in my hometown (Donelson, TN), or the greater Nashville environs. I will note that I did not personally see anyone expressing joy or glee at Kennedy's death, and my teachers seemed pretty somber. As for my classmates, well, we were 13, and probably as honestly saddened by it as is possible for 13 year olds to be about the death of someone that we knew only from television.

But the phrase "this nation mourned greatly" simply ignores the fact that there were plenty of people who did not mourn, and a goodly many of them were bigots who resented Kennedy's (fairly ineffectual) attempts at furthering civil rights. It was Lyndon Johnson, the southerner, who took the bit in his teeth and, on the heels of one of the largest blowout electoral victories in U.S. history, got civil rights legislation passed.

I will also assert that said legislation greatly benefited the South, breaking some of the chains that had bound it to the dead past. I hope they find the strength to break some of the other chains, and I hope the nation as a whole does so as well.

As I noted, I do not find "lies, hate, and bigotry" in Reverend Wright's sermons. Anger is not the same as hate, and the anger seems justifiable to me. Truth to tell, I have always been amazed at the degree to which black Americans forgive white America, and, especially, the kindness and understanding that they show to individuals, which most especially includes me and members of my family.

As for "un-american," I tend to be a little sensitive about the phrase, given that the "House Un-American Activities Commission" was one of the most Orwellian institutions of my youth.

For some reason I am moved to ponder three numbers. The first is 2,974, which is the official count of the dead from the 9/11 attacks (with 24 listed as missing).

The second number is the number of U.S. troops who have died as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a country which all reasonable persons now understand to have had nothing substantive to do with the 9/11 attacks. That number currently stands at just over 4000.

The third number is the number of civilians in Iraq who died in aerial bombardments during the first and second Iraq wars. We do not actually have that number. Among other things, it is official U.S. policy not to even try to tabulate such things, just as it is official U.S. policy to not allow photographs of the coffins of the dead U.S. soldiers who are returning home.

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