The beauty of a speech is that you don’t just give the answers, you provide your own questions. “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes.” So said Barack Obama, in his Philadelphia speech about his pastor, friend, mentor, and spiritual adviser of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright.
An interesting, if belated, admission. But the more important question is: which “controversial” remarks?
Wright’s assertion from the pulpit that the U.S. government invented the HIV virus “as a means of genocide against people of color”? Wright’s claim that America was morally responsible for 9/11 — “chickens coming home to roost” — because of, among other crimes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (Obama says he missed church that day. Had he never heard about it?)
What about the charge that the U.S. government (of Franklin Roosevelt, mind you) knew about Pearl Harbor, but lied about it? Or that the government gives drugs to black people, presumably to enslave and imprison them?
Obama condemns such statements as wrong and divisive, then frames the next question: “There will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?”
But that is not the question. The question is why didn’t he leave that church? Why didn’t he leave — why doesn’t he leave even today — a pastor who thundered not once but three times from the pulpit (on a DVD the church proudly sells) “God damn America”? Obama’s 5,000-word speech, fawned over as a great meditation on race, is little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.
His defense rests on two central propositions: (a) moral equivalence, and (b) white guilt.
(a) Moral equivalence. Sure, says Obama, there’s Wright, but at the other “end of the spectrum” there’s Geraldine Ferraro, opponents of affirmative action, and his own 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 did she shout them in a crowded theater to incite, enrage, and poison others?
“I can no more disown (Wright) than I can my white grandmother.” What exactly was grandma’s offense? Jesse Jackson himself once admitted to the fear he feels from the footsteps of black men on the street. And Harry Truman was known to use epithets for blacks and Jews in private, yet is revered for desegregating the armed forces and recognizing the first Jewish state since Jesus’ time. He never spread racial hatred. Nor did grandma.
Yet Obama compares her to Wright. Does he not see the moral difference between the occasional private expression of the prejudices of one’s time and the use of a public stage to spread racial lies and race hatred?
(b) White guilt. Obama’s purpose in the speech was to put Wright’s outrages in context. By context, Obama means history. And by history, he means the history of white racism. Obama says, “We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country,” and then proceeds to do precisely that. And what lies at the end of his recital of the long train of white racial assaults from slavery to employment discrimination? Jeremiah Wright, of course.
This contextual analysis of Wright’s venom, this extenuation of black hate speech as a product of white racism, is not new. It’s the Jesse Jackson politics of racial grievance, expressed in Ivy League diction and Harvard Law nuance. That’s why the speech made so many liberal commentators swoon: It bathed them in racial guilt, while flattering their intellectual pretensions. An unbeatable combination.
But Obama was supposed to be new. He flatters himself as a man of the future transcending the anger of the past as represented by his beloved pastor. Obama then waxes rhapsodic about the hope brought by the new consciousness of the young people in his campaign.
Then answer this, Senator: If Wright is a man of the past, why would you expose your children to his vitriolic divisiveness? This is a man who curses America and who proclaimed moral satisfaction in the deaths of 3,000 innocents at a time when their bodies were still being sought at Ground Zero. It is not just the older congregants who stand and cheer and roar in wild approval of Wright’s rants, but young people as well. Why did you give $22,500 just two years ago to a church run by a man of the past who infects the younger generation with precisely the racial attitudes and animus you say you have come unto us to transcend?
© 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group