Sunday, May 11, 2008

You're Wright, I'm Left, He's Gone

“Jeremiah Wright,” said Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “has been dominating cable news coverage like a missing white girl.” The way he and his writers chose to put that was revealing in itself. Does Wright control the white corporate media? Of course not. It’s the news media that have chosen to put him and keep him in the center ring.

I had an interesting exchange with an acquaintance once, who accused me of thinking that the corporate media were controlled, probably by the government. His belief is echoed in some ways by the media themselves, who try to represent themselves as controlled, not by the government (of course not! they are the independent Fourth Estate, the Press Militant, the implacable adversary of state power) but by public concern and by the news itself. If Jeremiah Wright was splayed all over the news for several news cycles, this was not the doing of the press, but of Wright himself.

The same thing happened during the Bill Clinton sex scandal of the late 1990s. I remember hearing a commentator say that Americans were obsessed with the Monica Lewinsky case. Even at the time, it wasn’t at all certain that this was true. As events showed, the Republican Party (with Democratic collaborators, most notoriously Joseph Lieberman) and the corporate media were the ones obsessed: public approval and support went to Clinton, not to his enemies.

Watching these anchors, pundits, and commentators in action with regard to Wright, it’s clear that they aren’t terribly bright. Maybe they think they’re just dumbing themselves down so as to condescend and pander to what they regard as the stupidity of their audience, but why should their bosses bother to hire people smarter than the job requires? People with any genuine intelligence might think, and have to be restrained – not by the government but by their immediate superiors. Better by far to pick the right tool for the job.

To be fair and balanced, though, let me address a posting by a right-wing blogger, a former publisher of The National Review and now co-blogger with such intellectual heavyweights as William Bennett and Michael Medved. Though William Rusher stands near the rightward extreme of the American political spectrum, what he says here could have been written by a liberal blogger like Digby, minus only the expression of Democratic and Obama-ite entitlement:

Wright told his parishioners (who could be seen in the background applauding his remarks) that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS epidemic to kill black people, and worked up to a peroration in which he resoundingly rejected the slogan "God bless America." No, he thundered: The right view was "God Damn America!" His parishioners roared their approval.

Needless to say, when questioned by reporters, Obama wasted no time distancing himself from those sentiments. He not only disagreed with them, he asserted, but if they had ever been uttered in his hearing at a service of his church, he would have felt obliged to leave the church. The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects.

Now, Wright’s apparent belief that the US government engineered HIV to kill black people is probably unfounded, along with that “left brain / right brain” scientific racism, but it’s hardly a “hallucination” as Rusher calls it later in the piece. It’s known for a fact that the US government has experimented not with the lives not only of its black citizens, but of white ones as well, exposing unknowing persons to heavy radiation during atomic tests, giving LSD to unknowing civilians, sterilizing the “unfit”, and so on. While looking around the Web for material for a post on conspiracy theories, I found that it’s still easy to dismiss US government involvement in the drug trade, even though the CIA’s own investigation showed that the CIA had been supporting Contra drug smuggling into the US during the 80s. Plausibility is not proof, but Wright’s accusation is neither implausible nor paranoid.

It’s interesting that this is the only one of Wright’s criticisms that Rusher bothered to mention. I’d think that killing millions of innocent people in US wars of aggression would be worth a damn or two, but whether for reasons of space or of prudence, Rusher ignored everything else. I think that “The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects” is Rusher’s paraphrase of Obama’s response to Wright, but I’ll suppose that he’d agree with it since he grants Obama “a thoroughly balanced, sophisticated and sympathetic general view of the United States, in which hallucinations like Wright’s have no place at all.” It’s here that Rusher shows his basic agreement with liberals, though to his credit he refrained from some other epithets that liberals hurled at Wright, like “egomaniac.”

To be a respectable commentator on America, one must be balanced, sophisticated, and sympathetic – unlike Jeremiah Wright or Martin Luther King Jr. One must not merely balance its defects with its virtues, one must ignore those defects and vilify anyone who mentions them. Compare the liberal feminist (and now Obama supporter) Katha Pollitt, who wrote in a very controversial essay right after September 11, 2001, “I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.” Does anyone blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, or is this another one of those attempts to distance oneself from those tacky Blame-America-Firsters? Not that it helps: to call it a fact that the US has ever done anything seriously wrong is to put oneself beyond the pale. It’s probably no more effective to challenge the Never-Blame-America-For-Anything types on their facts -- facts don’t interest them -- but it’s better than letting them set the terms of debate.

Rusher goes on to make one of those comments that show the limits of reasonableness:

I suspect that many whites are unaware of the social dynamics of certain black churches. Their members are devout Christians, but they suffer the inevitable routine indignities of being black citizens of an overwhelmingly white republic, and their churches are among the few places where the resulting frustrations can be expressed collectively and relatively safely. Every now and then, some black pastor (and some far more than others) will give voice to a bellow of pain that serves as a useful catharsis for such sentiments.

That is what I think happened -- perhaps quite frequently, over the 20 years in which Obama listened to Wright's sermons.

“The inevitable routine indignities of being black citizens in an overwhelmingly white republic”! Roll that line around in your mind for a moment – then spit it out. Rusher can’t bring himself to add “racist” to “overwhelmingly white republic”, no doubt because he considers racism to be “inevitable.” (That would undermine Obama’s 'reasonable' denial that racism in America is “endemic.”) Being riddled with 50 bullets, I’d say, is more than a mere indignity, but in Rusher’s overwhelmingly white republic, these things happen, and to a comfortable white man of my parents’ generation they’re nothing to get seriously worked up about. Comfortable white men of my parents’ generation and later generally aren’t as sanguine about the possibility that they might encounter routine indignities as the republic becomes less overwhelmingly white; hence the current resurgence of American nativism. Not satisfied with expressing their frustrations collectively in advance, some of them are abandoning (other people’s) safety and taking up arms.

To let these cathartic bellows of pain, as Rusher calls them, escape the confines of the black church, however, is something to get worked up about. Not because the videos were circulated, and made into a cause célèbre by the media, primarily to try to discredit and damage Obama; Rusher faults Obama for not “tackling his pastor about them head on.” But why? If they were merely cathartic outcries, then they merit no more concern than anything else said in a church – say, the demands for the blood of abortion doctors that are made from the pulpits of enough American churches to foster an effective support network for those who actually do the killing; or the fulminations against American “immorality” that explained AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and the September 11th attacks as nothing but Yahweh’s judgment. Falwell, Robertson, and others of their ilk generally backed down when confronted; Wright, notably, has not, perhaps because he’s not an amoral hustler like his white Christian-right counterparts, but he really believes what he says. It’s an instructive contrast.

Wright should be confronted and challenged, but so far the corporate media and the liberal blogosphere haven’t done so. This is partly because they’re ill-equipped to grapple with actual American history, and partly because they are only interested in Wright for his relation to Obama, either as a monkey wrench in campaign or as a weapon to be used against him.