20 March 2008

Knowing Left from Wright, and Wright from Wrong

"When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my colour."
                                                                          -Franz Fanon

Who can approve of offense? Only a social order comfortable that the offense poses no risk of upsetting the established system: then it's just comedy. But it's probably fair to say that footage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. that has circulated on YouTube contains very little of humorous value. The United States government did not invent the HIV virus, and there's too much history between Nagasaki and 9/11 to draw any but the vaguest historical parallel. Apart from these two laughable errors, it's anger, bitterness, intemperance, and yes, something close to the truth, that have their day: it's not polite to damn your country, but sometimes your country does damnable things. 

Barack Obama isn't Jeremiah Wright. But will his association with the Rev. Wright cost the junior Senator the Presidency? The cynical (and malicious) are already in agreement that it will: in the Globe and Mail ($), Clifford Orwin describes the Obama campaign as "amateur hour"; neoconservative and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gershon, in a spluttering column for the Washington Post, claims that Obama "is not a man who hates -- but chose to walk with a man who does"; and Pat Buchanan, who might not be the king of reasoned, rational discourse, chose to weigh in a way which deserves to be quoted at length:

“Wright has, for millions of Americans, filled in the blanks about Barack. Wright tells us the kind of company Barack keeps, the kind of men he holds close, the kind of attitudes and beliefs he finds acceptable, if not congenial. That Wright is a revered preacher in black America also tells us that, far from coming together, we Americans are further apart than we were in the 1950s, when Negroes could be described as Christian, conservative and patriotic.”

That Buchanan feels it appropriate to use the term "Negro" in a public forum while waxing nostalgic for those good ol' segregationist fifties is telling in itself.

The furor over the Rev. Wright is what might be called a "
black panic." How else to explain whynews outlets, reporting Monday that Senator Obama would make a major speech on race, contended his candidacy was doomed without a magisterial performance? Never mind that the presumptive Republican nominee so beloved by independents and Democrats for his moderation has a spiritual adviser who seems to believe, and has said so in print, that the United States has an "historical conflict with Islam." Never mind that Republican presidents have long been advised and counseled by religious leaders whose sanctimonious screeds rarely generate the kind of mass media opprobrium faced by the Rev. Wright. Never mind, never mind.

The quote from psychologist and anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon couldn't be more applicable. By the racial logic of the politically correct, and primarily white, chattering classes,  Obama's public persona as a politician has been acceptable, not 
because of his race (though this was often the platitude) but in spite of it, appealing because he was not Jesse Jackson, not really black. The umbrage surrounding Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama with Jackson in January points this problem up: the political press understood the comment as an insult to Obama because they understood Jesse Jackson to be a sideshow candidate, a " a strong,powerful candidate, a black candidate, running for president” (oh, the gendered language!), but a candidate too dangerous, too "wild" to win. 

Barack Obama was a safe black man: Harvard, nice family, not too many slaves as ancestors. Bill Clinton (described by Toni Morrison, so foolishly to my mind, as "the first black President") knew what he was doing. In the current crisis, this rhetoric is now being rehearsed freely by more incendiary right-wing bloggers: Mark Steyn claims that because of his association with Rev. Wright, Barack Obama can now be lumped in with " the Reverend Al Sharpton or the Reverend Jesse Jackson or the rest of the racial-grievance mongers."

But now, of a sudden, a reverse: Michael Gershon claims that the problem is that "[Rev.] Wright is 
not a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans. He is a political extremist, holding views that are shocking...." Suddenly, race is not longer the issue: politics is separated neatly from society. Never mind that the story of Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ doesn't seem to generally be one of hate, intolerance and exclusion.
Rev. Wright is a "political extremist" in a country where the sitting President reputedly believes in the immanence of the Second Coming.

The subtext in all this is crystal clear: Barack Obama is suddenly black. He goes to church with black people who aren't the Banks familyblack people who are exercised by injustice and oppression, black people who are angry at the institutions of American society and might get uppity and riot, those same black people (though by now black is a euphemism for other things) who have been the cause of problems in American society since World War II, when they were "conservative" and "patriotic" and "Negroes." When they were under the white man's thumb, and safe. 

"Why are we talking about slavery?" asks Mickey Kaus playing to the theme of the separation of politics and society (though not church and state!) "We know about slavery. We want to know why Obama picked his paranoid pastor!" With all due respect Mickey, "we" don't know about slavery - if "we"are those who I wrote about a few weeks ago. Obama picked his "paranoid pastor" because "we" have no adequate knowledge and understanding of oppression and injustice; about slavery or Jim Crow or Rodney King, or about the millions of indignities suffered by those who don't conform to "our" standard of western capitalist modernity. Jeremiah Wright is old and tired, and his words are hurtful - "fervor," wrote Fanon," is the weapon of choice for the impotent" - but most centrally, he is caught in the trap of "blackness," of being and becoming exactly what is expected of him.

So where does all this leave Senator Obama? He sprang the trap of blackness closing in on him with what was indeed a 
majestic speech, confounding every cliché of identity politics and the media echo chamber with far more composure than I can muster about the topic. Those that claim he failed to answer questions about his relationship with the Rev. Wright were, for whatever reason, not listening. The damage may be done: the most pertinent criticism of the Senator that I've heard involves his inconsistencies around just what he heard, and his enemies will continue to attempt to whip up the hysteria of "black panic" at any and every opportunity, feeding every one of Barack Obama's foibles - and as a human being, he inevitably has a few - back into the pedantic boring cry of "black, black, black!

Every vicious and dehumanizing stereotype culled from five centuries will be massaged for public consumption. It isn't going to be pretty. Take a look at the clip from MSNB posted below this piece, and, if you can stand it, watch and listen to former Republican congressman and television host Joe Scarborough simper and smirk, toady to a man who, views of the IRS notwithstanding, may have been the class act of the Republican field. Mike Huckabee is reasonable, considered, empathetic, and charming - with conservative credentials like his, he can afford to be, but it's striking nonetheless. Scarborough is anything but, doing his utmost to draw out Huckabee, and when he doesn't succeed, resorting to a nasty, backhanded story about black students cheering at the news that Reagan had been shot. "Don't forget," he seems to be smirking to his audience, "that's what they're really like." No doubt Pat Buchanan will be on next week to set the record straight. 

But if you're not Mike Huckabee, what can you do? I suggest taking a page from the junior Senator's book. Stay cool, calm, and collected.  Resist fear, anger and despair, which, as Yoda knew, don't lead to anything good (and to which some progressive bloggers seem to be succumbing). As Huckabee points out, it's March. There's an awful lot of campaign left before the nomination, to say nothing of the 4th of November. 

And finally, persevere. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who paid for truth with his life, avowed that "progress does not come unless we think and act anew." Dr. King, like Senator Obama, knew people like the Rev. Wright. And Senator Obama, like Dr. King, knows that we must escape the trap that Rev. Wright and too many others cannot.

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