King, Obama, Wright and how quickly they forget
“The past is a foreign place. They do things differently there.” – LP Hartley
Those of us who have been following the American elections with interest for some time now will remember the infamous Rev Jeremiah Wright who’s fiery sermons (edited to cause maximum television-viewer angst of course) almost cost Obama the Democratic Party nomination and the chance to run for US president. Having carefully selected Wright’s most divisive statements, the media proceeded to play them ad nauseum for weeks, particularly – and no surprise here, on Fox. Not for their rhetorical value mind, but because of the close association that existed between Wright and then hopeful heir to the Democratic nominee-throne Barack Obama. The spectacle that ensued can be considered dramatic bordering on the macabre: political pundits of the right reigning down condemnation from their metaphorical pulpits; detractors rubbing their hands in abject delight (not to mention invading the comment section of every article bearing Wright’s or Obama’s name); whilst supporters were left (and of the left!) wringing their hands in despair. With the elections now drawing to a close some have speculated that Wright’s sermons could be revived as a last minute ploy to derail the Obama-train and as such I thought I’d revisit the Wright drama with some thoughts of my own.
Whilst some astutely pointed out the hypocrisy of a media frenzy that had not shown similar distaste at the often-time fanatical ravings of the religious right, the protest is problematic – after all, republicans in the main make no pretense of condemning the fundamentalist leanings of their religious supporters – just as long is the lean is in the right direction. Obama must be held to a different standard, and so too those that were associated with him. Thus no matter how conscientiously Obama denounced and decried Wright’s ill-chosen words, the disappointment of some of his supporters was palpable. For some it seemed Obama, thanks to Wright, had crossed over from being their candidate-reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr., to one that all of a sudden invoked the less palatable Malcolm X. It is this potential ‘fall from grace’ that brought to mind the lyrics of a song penned by tortured folk singer Phil Ochs and referenced in a previous post for his pointed criticism of ‘the liberal’. This verse in particular seems pertinent …
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers, Tears ran down my spine, I cried when they shot Mr Kennedy, As though I’d lost a father of mine, But Malcolm X got what was coming, He got what he asked for this time, So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal ...
Och’s words speak to the appeal of the likes of King over the stridency of the less popular X. Now Rev Wright is no Martin Luther King Jr., and drawing equivalence between these two very different men is not the intention of this post. The powerful political passion that inspired their rhetoric however is a point of comparison and noteworthy in light of the current level of righteous indignation pervading the blogsphere. After all, King is the man who once slammed the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and thus was decried in the Washington Post as “diminished [in] his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people”. The man who’s words Time Magazine labeled “demagogic slander”, and who was constantly smeared as a communist, despite his many protestations (ironically enough the 60s equivalent of a ‘Muslim’). For the many that romanticize the man on the holiday that bears his name as ‘that dude with the dream’; a gentle reminder of his nuanced, incisive, and yes sometimes incendiary (ugh, that over-used word again) comments seems both relevant and important:
“We must stand up and say, “I’m black and I’m beautiful,” and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
“I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America … I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism.”
“And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.”
“Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most element of greatness — justice.”
Now of course King spoke far more often in love than in anger, invoked unity more often than discord, and worked tirelessly to uplift folks of all colors. And whilst some might argue, the same cannot be said for Wright, other sermons he has preached (the ones not consistent with the story being so eagerly played out in the media at present) suggest otherwise:
“The good news that’s coming is for all people! Not white people—all people. Not black people—all people. Not rich people—all people. Not poor people—all people. I know you’ll hate this… not straight people—all people! Not gay people—all people. Not American people—all people. …God’s good news isn’t just for Americans, it’s for all people. Say “all people”! Jesus came for Iraqis and Afghanis. Jesus was sent for Iranians and Ukrainians. All people! Jesus is God’s gift to the brothers in jail and the sisters in jeopardy. All people! The Lord left his royal courts on high to come for all those that you love, yes, but he also came for all those folk that you can’t stand”. – Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Sure, it is popular practice now for media-consumers to judge superficially the material that is put before them and it cannot therefore be surprising that many will draw broad generalizations about thousands of hours of words delivered at the pulpit from minutes cherry-picked for the purpose of media sensation (Obama listened to this invective everyday for 20 years and did nothing! … or so I’ve seen it written). Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it seems necessary to point out that the world we live in and the pressing and perhaps not-so-pressing issues that arise are so very often not ‘black and white’.