samedi 2 avril 2011

Barack Obama's American Birthright

Editor's note: This article includes language some readers may consider inappropriate. 

This bland, unnecessary and even cowardly cover-your-ass advisory -- placed above the text of Alex Johnson's report for, dated 14 March 2008 and entitled "Controversial Minister Leaves Obama Campaign: Presidential candidate condemns words but not ministry of former pastor" -- speaks volumes about the current state of affairs in this country. What could be inappropriate in days as shameful as these? Is "inappropriate" different from "offensive"? For whom is the "language" potentially inappropriate? In whose eyes might it be so?
In this short report, Johnson reveals and yet manages to bury the simple fact that Rev. Jeremiah Wright retired "last month" from the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that is to say, almost a month before video recordings of his sermons were placed on-line, and then pounced upon and sensationalized by the Fox News Channel. This "scandal" has in fact already ended (if it ever really began) and is now being artificially kept alive (re-created moment by moment) by those who are opposed to Barack Obama's candidacy for the Democratic nomination and convinced they have found their means of bringing him down. At the end of Johnson's article, we finally encounter the "language" that "some" might find "inappropriate." There are two such passages. Here's the first:
"Barack knows what it means, living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people," Wright said on Christmas Day of last year. "Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a [N-word]!"
The second passage immediately follows and brings the article to a close. (Note the incorrect use of the present tense.)
"In another sermon, delivered five days after the 9/11 attacks, Wright seems [sic] to imply that the United States had brought the terrorist violence on itself.
'We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than thousands in New York, and we never batted an eye,' Wright says [sic]. 'We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is brought right back to our own front yards.'
In a later sermon, Wright revisits the theme, declaring: 'No, no, no, not God bless America -- God damn America!'
And so the "inappropriate" "language" is the word hidden under that weird, evasive typographical trick (N-word?! which N-word? Oh, you must mean "nigger"), and the phrase "God damn America." Bind them together, these suspicions about Obama's race and patriotism, and you've got a perfect cross on which to nail him.
On its own, "[N-word]" -- not the slur itself, mind you, but a deformed stand-in for it -- shows us just how far away "we" (or at least the corporate media that speaks in the name of "the public") are from having an honest conversation about race in America in 2008. Which is another way of illustrating just how far we are from having an honest conversation about America itself, because "America" is nothing if not a "racial country," a country dominated by racial histories, identities, relations and prejudices, even if the American nation (the State and the media) deny it. This is a country made possible by the coast-to-coast conquest and permanent occupation of Native American lands, which -- over the course of 250 years, but especially after the Civil War -- entailed the deaths of some 60 or 70 million indigenous people; and this is a nation founded upon -- the USA is a political economy created and massively enriched by -- slavery, which entailed the seizure, forcible transport and systematic exploitation and abuse of millions of Africans over the course of virtually those same 250 years.
There is nothing "inappropriate" or offensive about either the wording or the ideas behind Rev. Wright's remarks, that is, unless you find the truth about life in America inappropriate or offensive. Rich white people do indeed own and control this country and its popular culture; Hillary Clinton has probably never been called a nigger, nor has she ever been called anything similar ("WASP" has no sting and "cracker" is pretty stale; "monster," "bitch" and "cunt" don't count here because they are not specific to life in America); the American state did indeed bring the terrorist violence of September 11th upon itself (its called "retaliation"); the American state did indeed kill millions of innocent people by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki (one city was already one too many); the American state has certainly allowed its ally and proxy, Israel, the freedom to do almost anything it wants in its low-intensity war against the Palestinian people; the Reagan Administration did indeed consider the African National Congress to be a "Communist" group and thus supported apartheid instead; many people were indeed "indignant" over the September 11th attacks, as if their outrage were more a matter of principle ("how dare they!") than a direct response to the concrete instance (using hijacked planes as missiles, and thus forcibly turning their passengers into suicide-bombers).
No doubt there are millions of black and white people in America, and hundreds of millions of people of all races and ethnicities worldwide, who believe these statements -- and the others attributed to Rev. Wright concerning the origins, proliferation and predominantly black and poor victims of HIV, crack cocaine, et. al -- to be both true and expressed in suitably outraged, passionate language. For them, Rev. Wright -- like Ward Churchill and Malcolm X before him, both of whom spoke frankly about America's chickens coming home to roost, and paid terrible prices for doing so -- has a firm grasp on reality, on the facts of living in America. Perhaps (hopefully!) these millions of people also see the common thread in Rev. Wright's statements: modern America never admits responsibility, never takes the blame; it never feels guilty or ashamed of its actions; it never confesses nor begs for forgiveness. Its conscience is always clear. And so, Jeremiah Wright declared, America is guilty of hubris, of thinking itself to be as flawless and innocent as God himself!
The other side of this hubristic innocence is a stunning amnesia. As Greil Marcus points out in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (2006), Americans have been saying "God damn America" (in the form "may God damn America if . . ." or "God will damn America if . . .") ever since, indeed, even before there was an America. For example: "The laws of impartial Providence may avenge our injustice upon our posterity," George Mason wrote in a 1774 statement to the Virginia legislature on the question of slavery. "I tremble for my country," Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), "when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever." Now engraved on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, these words mean that God will damn America if it fails to abide by, live up to and make good on the promises it has made itself and the rest of the world, precisely because those promises are divine promises, intended to bring about a divine result: a kind of heaven on earth ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"). On the Fourth of July, 1829, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison worried about America's damnation should the anti-slavery movement be defeated: "woe to the safety of this people! [...] Blood will flow like water [...] The terrible judgments of an incensed God will complete the catastrophe of republican America." And in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln declared, "Yet, if God wills that it [the civil war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
Greil's speculation is that Lincoln "finally went too far, rendering judgment in words so violent and unforgiving it is sometimes hard to credit that they survive at all, let alone that they remain chiseled in huge letters on an inside wall of a giant monument, where they sit, to be read and considered, to frighten or inspire, or gazed at as if they were no more than a verbal statue and just as mute" (pages 13-14). Ever since the Second Inaugural Address, Greil notes "few politicians or preachers have dared to suggest that the nation was made to judge itself in a court the country would have to convene over and over again" (page 14). The very idea that, in America, "passing [...] judgment on America [...] is everyone's burden and liberation" -- which was "once public and part of common discourse, something to fight over in flights of gorgeous rhetoric and blunt plain speech" -- "has long since become spectral; it is now cryptic [...] The drama in which the country judges itself, asks itself what it really is, what it is for, measures the promise by its betrayal and the betrayal by the promise has been played out most intensely in art" (page 8). But today, now that the Fox News Channel has decided to sensationalize the videotapes of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright judging America worthy of being damned by God, the idea that "passing [...] judgment on America [...] is everyone's burden and liberation" has returned with a vengeance.
The truly striking thing is that everyone who is permitted to speak in the spectacle -- everyone from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Bill O'Reilly to Hillary Clinton; politicians and news commentators of all ideological stripes; even Barack Obama himself -- has hastened to publicly denounce Rev. Wright's comments as "divisive," "unacceptable," "incendiary," even "hate speech" and "anti-American." Not one person has spoken up in his defense. Some have pointed out that Billy Graham is an anti-Semite and yet has been the spiritual advisor of every American President since Richard Nixon, and that Pat Robertson blamed September 11th on the homosexuals, the pro-abortionists and the ACLU, and yet this did not discredit or ruin the careers of the many Republican politicians who have embraced him. But no one has called on the press and the public to denounce the "hate speech" of Graham and Robertson; no one has denounced the hypocrisy of denouncing Rev. Wright; no one has proposed that Rev. Wright be forgiven.
To his credit, Barack Obama has refused to extend his condemnation from the remarks to the man who made them. Alex Johnston quotes him as saying that Rev. Wright is someone "I've known for 17 years, [who] helped bring me to Jesus, helped bring me to church. I strongly condemn [Wright's statements, but] I would not repudiate the man. He's been preaching for 30 years. He's a man who was a former Marine, a biblical scholar, someone who's spoken at theological schools all over the country. That's the man I know. That's the man who was the pastor of this church."
But this obviously valid and just distinction between the retired pastor's spiritual role in Obama's life and the political opinions that the Reverend expressed from the pulpit (whether or not Obama himself was in attendance is irrelevant) -- a distinction that clearly echoes the separation of Church and State so prized by the Founding Fathers and so despised by the religious right-wing -- was not enough for the "red meat" right-wing news reporters and commentators on Fox News, talk radio and various blogs. They continued to re-run the footage of the Rev. Wright saying "God damn America," and tried to find and exploit apparent contradictions or omissions in Barack's last few public statements on the "scandal" (at a radio station on Thursday and MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Friday).
And so Obama scheduled a special speech on race relations in America for Tuesday, 18 March. In a stroke of genius -- whether it was the genius of chance or the genius of Barack's team, I don't know -- the speech was arranged to be given at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, across the street from the hall in which The Declaration of Independence was signed 232 years ago. (The next major Democratic Party primary election will take place in Pennsylvania on 22 April.) To make it seem that the historical resonances and implications were all their idea, and owed nothing to the Spirit of Place or the Mind of History, Obama's campaign staff stage filled the stage with eight American flags, four on each side of their man. As always, Barack would look tall and thin, kind of Lincolnesque, the former state senator from Illinois now running for president; but this time he would be like Lincoln coming to Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American experiment in democracy, to attend to pressing matters concerning the nation's destiny.
"In calm and direct language that at once affirmed the authority of the speaker and the speaker's respect for his listeners" (Greil Marcus, 22, writing about John Winthrop's 1630 speech "A Modell of Christian Charity"), Barack Obama addressed the country for about 30 minutes, during which he covered a lot of ground. He repeated his condemnations of Rev. Wright's remarks (all of them, no distinctions among them made) and he repeated his refusal to condemn or repudiate the man himself. His remarks are worth quoting at some length:
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety -- the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
In this extraordinary passage, Barack Obama uses inclusiveness as his method, and thus quietly highlights his differences from Rev. Wright's prophetic taste for rejections, denunciations and exclusions. He moves easily from the level of the national ("other predominantly black churches across the country") to the level of the community (Trinity) to the level of the individual (Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who "contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years"). At each level, Obama's clear eyes see "kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America." Thus, in addition to seeing the differences and contradictions that fracture that experience at all three levels, Obama also sees the unities between the country as a whole and the individual American, the individual American and his or her own community, and the community and the country. But rather than impersonalizing the individual, as was done (classic case) in Ronald Reagan's vision of a re-united America, Obama's vision humanizes the national.
Then Obama does an extraordinary thing: he pairs Rev. Wright with his grandmother. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother [...] who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." But he doesn't create this pairing to equate the two, to suggest that one justifies or excuses the other. He pairs them to include them in himself, to show that they are included in him: "These people are a part of me." Then Obama pairs them up again: "And they are a part of America, this country that I love." And then it hits you: "it is a single American, claiming his or her birthright, as a single body standing in, if only for a moment, for all other Americans" (Marcus, 15). Barack Hussein Obama is not merely an American (an assertion that would be contested by those who would have us believe that Obama is in fact not a Christian, but a Muslim, more attached to Kenya that to Illinois); Barack Hussein Obama is America.
But it is the speech's beginning, the context for his undeniable claim upon his birthright, that shows why Barack Obama is certainly a more interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking presidential candidate than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain, and possibly someone who would make a great president. He already has the great distinction of having given the best speech on race since the time of Abraham Lincoln. "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union," Barack quoted, without going on to finish the "Preamble" to the Constitution of the United States: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
For Obama, the most important words in this text are "more perfect union." America was not perfect at the time of its founding; nor will it be perfect soon. "The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations." But both the "document" of the "Preamble" and America itself had the potential to be more perfect, better, that is to say, better each time. But "potential" is not everything. "And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk -- to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time." And so if America is "perfectable" or capable of being perfected, it can only be perfected slowly, gradually, painfully, with the passing of generations. Barack doesn't simply "include" both Rev. Wright and his grandmother: he improves them, he moves them towards perfection, even though none of them will ever get there. In Philadelphia, Barack said,
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
At the end of his speech, turning our sight from the past to the future, Obama declared, "[...] the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect." And though better than it was in 1972, when Jeremiah Wright became Trinity's pastor, "our union" is far from perfect today. As a matter of fact, "we've been stuck in [a racial stalemate] for years"; perhaps since 1994, or as long ago as 1981; in either case, "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." And Obama went on to sketch out what's overdue, which is immediate, dedicated action on segregated schools, legalized discrimination, and the lack of economic opportunity for black men and women. And he suggested that America cannot change or progress, or even face its current list of prodigious tasks, if the "current" stalemated state of race relations doesn't change first.
These are reformist, not revolutionary demands, I know, just as I know that the American movement towards self-perfection could only get started in and through revolution and warfare, not the gradual reform of British colonial society. But Obama's presence on the stage of American history, even if it is only reformist, temporary and insufficient, is a breath of fresh air in the winds of this polluted nation. I have personally felt compelled, despite my refusal to vote for or support any candidate for any office, to make sure that there is at least some reflection on what Obama said, that his ideas are not simply and completely ignored, and the language that he used is not praised and dismissed as "rhetorical." I can certainly understand that, for some Americans, March 2008 and the prospects of November 2008 are reminiscent of November 1992, when "Bill Clinton's election -- or the prospect that twelve years of rule by those who never admitted to doubt, for whom American promises were catchphrases and betrayals were always those of someone else, might be ending -- gave many people a kind of breathing space, where they could discover that the country was still daring them to act out the country's drama for themselves" (Marcus, 15).
Note added 30 April 2008: two days ago, Rev. Wright broke his silence and called Barack Obama's bluff. Referring to Obama's 18 March speech in Philadelphia, Wright said, "If Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected. Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls." The next day, Obama responded like a politician: he broke completely with his former spiritual advisor. "I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday," he pontificated. "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that [sic] I met 20 years ago." Too bad for Barack: we are now unreserved in our support for the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Now there's a man qualified to be President of the United States of America!

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