April 29, 2008

Obama's Reverend Wright Problem

The way to play the religious angle in these presidential campaigns is Hillary's way. She doesn't actually go to church, she probably thinks (deep in her private thoughts) that religion is a load of crap, but she recognizes that a God-struck country like this one is not going to tolerate any ambivalence about piety. Believe or die, it's just that simple. And no cop-outs with a gauzy "theism" of the sort true intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson were able to pawn off, that kind of nebulous "spiritual sense" that smart people who don't want to go so far as to claim a relationship with an imaginary friend often resort to when pressed on the issue. This is modern America, which is to say, in the main a very obscurantist and anti-intellectual society. So: tell us about your belief in the God of the New Testament or get the hell out of the race.

I was kind of hoping that Barack Obama might have been signaling this sort of ruse when he made his now infamous remarks in that Gomorrah of the West, San Francisco, not too long ago. You know, when he talked about desperate people "clinging to guns and religion." See, if his faith was real he wouldn't put it like that; if you actually believe in God, then He's there whether you're in the chips or not. You "cling" to illusions when reality is overwhelming. I took that as Obama's subtext. So naturally Barack rose in my estimation, the sort of paradoxical effect you'd expect when dealing with a contrary crank like me.

But Barack has tried to have it both ways. Identifying himself strongly with the United Church of Christ in Chicago, even writing up and quoting Rev. Jeremiah Wright in chapters of his book, Dreams of my Father. I've been told I'm wrong, that Barack's faith is real and I'm simply idealizing him as an atheist on the basis of one passing remark. It doesn't matter now, because from here on out Barack is going to spend increasing amounts of his time dealing with the random declamations of a decidedly loose cannon. Bummer for Barry.

I see Rev. Wright as a kind of African-American Noam Chomsksy. He likes wallowing in American iniquity. Here's the main part of the "God damn America" sermon in context: "And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America!"

There's a lot in this speech which is pretty uncontroversial. It all depends on whether you're in the mood to walk down a Nightmare Memory Lane; the United States did effect a genocide and massive displacement of American Indians. The United States, during World War II, did intern Japanese citizens unfairly. The United States did maintain the "peculiar institution" of slavery for over two hundred years, and then supported systematic discrimination for about another one hundred years beyond the Emancipation Proclamation. But after you repeat all of this, where are you? It's too late to do anything for the Native Americans we essentially wiped from the face of the Earth, but we did acknowledge the error with respect to the Japanese in a series of Supreme Court cases (although not with full restoration of property rights) and, in the case of African-Americans with the Civil Rights Act, we codified societal progress in the field of race relations.

Is the point that the United States should get over itself? Sign me up; I think that's the essential problem, often unacknowledged in the controversy. Those like Noam Chomsky and Jeremiah Wright gain a great deal of notoriety because there's something deliciously, refreshingly seditious about forcing the U.S. to acknowledge that it behaves more or less exactly like other great powers which consolidate and extend their material advantages. The war in Iraq is simply a case of using American military might (our remaining hole card) to gain advantages in the largest remaining (mostly) untapped oil field. This doesn't play well in the diner down in Pasacougla, so

we turn everything into a debate about flag lapel pins. Young men are dying, after all; what are we supposed to do, insist that people wear the ExxonMobil logo on their lapels? But for Barack, a guy who has to appeal to the delicate sensibilities of Main Street America and navigate through a blizzard of sound bites, a guy like Wright is a nightmare, especially because Wright obviously venerates the outspoken anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan (if you don't think Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, just read his own words helpfully collected on the website of the Anti-Defamation League - his main beef seems to be that Jewish agents in Hollywood have figured out how to keep black entertainers and athletes in chains. Very ugly stuff, whatever he's saying.).

Do I think Obama is responsible for everything Wright says? Hell no, not at all. Nor do I think the more arrantly loony pronouncements of Wright actually affect Obama's outlook. Barack is too smart and too canny for that; however, the Faustian bargain these nationwide pols have to make with organized religion often come back to haunt them, and this one is biting Obama mighty hard in the ass.

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