Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Problem with Jeremiah Wright…

…is that he isn't wrong.

I absolutely grant and acknowledge that his words are simultaneously inflammatory, incendiary, insensitive, and make us all feel uncomfortable. We should stop and reflect on why it is that we feel that way when we hear those words. We love our country; it is a special place where we have all had the opportunity to pursue our dreams, we value the words that our forefathers wrote in that magic document:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.________ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But there is a painful truth in the American experience: the playing field is not level. There are segments of our population which have been and are to this day marginalized. These segments include racial minorities, the poor, immigrants, women, the old, and homosexuals.

Look at the Presidential nomination process that the Democrats are engaged in and that is all the evidence that you need to prove that our nation is still struggling to fulfill the promise so eloquently laid out in the Declaration of Independence written in that hot summer of 1776 in Philadelphia. Those white men were a product of their day; there were bigots and ideologues among them. But their pens were inspired and without fully knowing it they laid out the blueprint for every fight for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” that has come after.

I think what we are going through represents both the best and worst of us. We want so badly to be better, to see ourselves as better, to make progress, to be inclusive, but we don’t actually want to go through the uncomfortable self-examination that is required in order to achieve that progress.

Americans have come to feel entitled to everything that we have. That is true for all Americans. We feel entitled to drive big cars, live in big houses, consume vast amounts of resources, crucify public personalities for their failings, pass judgment on anyone and everyone who does subscribe to our world view or agree with our view of America’s place in that world. The wealthy feel entitled to their elite power and status. White Americans feel entitled to the status quo with all the good and bad that comes with it because it is comfortable to us and doesn’t challenge us or make us uncomfortable. African Americans feel entitled to their jealousy and anger for being marginalized and oppressed now and in the past. White Americans feel entitled to their resentment over seeing “less qualified minorities” given jobs and college admissions slots. African Americans feel they deserve entitlement and affirmative action programs which are owed for past wrongs.

And so the status quo perpetuates itself; on and on and on it goes. We have made progress. All is not bleak. We are not where we were 40 years ago. The struggles of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) and many, many others were not in vain. Racism isn’t remotely gone. It is still in the hearts of all people whether we are outwardly or inwardly prejudice. It is in black, white, Hispanic, Asian or Native Americans. It is now incredibly taboo to be outwardly racist. And so the prejudice has become far more subtle and difficult to quantify.

Feminists are right in that it is much more acceptable to be sexist than it is to be racist. Though they are wrong in another respect: racism, subtle or not, is generally far uglier and a much deeper rooted prejudice. It is far more difficult to be pervasively sexist. Everyone has a mother, sister, wife, grandmother, but not everyone interacts with people of other races.

To make this a battle of who is more oppressed is to divide and conquer. The thing that should unite the Democratic Party is exactly the thing that is their greatest asset. No matter who gets the nomination they would shatter one glass ceiling or another. It is something that I cannot imagine the Republican Party being capable of. They say that the Republican Party is a three legged stool. This is a vast over simplification. They do include fiscal conservatives (a dying breed), social conservative (religious value voters), and the neo-conservatives.

Republicans, to build their popularity, played on something more sinister to get power: fear. Fear of those gay people who want to corrupt your children in the Scouts, fear of those scary Mexicans coming across the border with diseases and looking to take your job and impregnate your daughter, fear of the black guy walking behind you on the street, fear of the “Arab looking” guy on the airplane with you. But beyond that Republicans prey on far more subtle fears: fear of the homeless guy asking for spare change at the traffic intersection, fear of the world around us and all the thousands and thousands of things that could go wrong or harm us everyday.

Running campaigns based on fear is a great way to win, but not a great way to lead. This makes sense, the modern GOP have never been concerned with leading. They don’t want to be leaders, they want to have power. This is why Hillary Clinton’s latest campaign strategy is so disheartening. Clinton isn’t a Republican and she should not be mistaken for one. Her policy positions are solid and are actually quite hopeful and filled with optimism. It is frustrating that her politics would play to fear and would push to crush the hopeful youth and optimism that the Obama campaign (and her own platform) embodies. In truth, Clinton’s campaign could be about hope too. Her campaign is about change and providing a feminine perspective in the Presidency.
This tack isn’t surprising, though. This is her only chance, it is the only angle she has left, and it tells us all that we need to know about Clinton. It isn’t that she is willing to throw the kitchen sink at her opponent that makes her totally unacceptable as a Presidential candidate. It is her willingness to throw away optimistic, hopeful, and progressive nature in the pursuit of power.
isn’t seeking to lead, she is seeking power.

We have a choice in this country and contrary to what Ralph Nader would have you believe, it isn’t a subtle contrast. The Democrats, whoever gets the nomination, offer the progressive policies of hope. They offer, Obama or Clinton, the symbolic evidence that we do indeed “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.” Jeremiah Wright and the equivalent feminist (Geraldine Ferraro?) espouse a frustration of past oppression. We all want to react in a knee-jerk fashion and say: “hey, why are you so angry?” It is jarring and difficult to reconcile with the overall message of inclusiveness that is the foundation of the Democratic Party. But to simply typecast these dissenting voices as extremists is to ignore the past and perpetuate the marginalization.

Let’s look at some of the comments that Reverend Wright made:

"The government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

This quote reflects wrongly or rightly (I have never seen any evidence of government sanctioned drug dealing anywhere) a popular sentiment in the African American community. With the exception of the drugs, nothing here is false. The government did create a three-strikes law and the government does build bigger prisons instead of building bigger schools to head-off the development of the next generation of criminals. These criminal justice policies have a larger impact on lower income communities and because of a disparity in educational resources in African American communities they are more likely to live in the lower income communities.

After September 11, 2001, he said: "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 now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Obviously the American people have not supported state terrorism of South Africans or Palestinians, but our government made the decision to deal with the racist government of white South Africa. Our government has aligned its foreign policy interests in a biased fashion towards Israel. You can argue about whether that is a good thing or not, I am not touching it here, but we can’t then be shocked when Israel’s enemies become our enemies. We pay a lot of lip service to the plight of the Palestinian people, but we are not prepared to do very much to improve it. It is a classic chicken and egg scenario. Do we have to stop the extremists before economic support can be given or is the economic development of the Palestinian territories an important tool in defusing the extremist ideologies?

"It just came to me within the past few weeks, y'all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn't fit the model. He ain't white, he ain't rich, and he ain't privileged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold, Giuliani fits the mold. Rich white men fit the mold. Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color. Hillary never had to worry about being pulled over in her car as a black man driving in the wrong… I am sick of Negroes who just do not get it. Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home, Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger. Hillary has never had her people defined as non-persons."

I can’t really say anything more then that this is right. White men and women can’t possibly know what it is like to be black living in America.

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...America's chickens are coming home to roost."

This gets back to the point about American foreign policy. We have made a calculation about what our interests are. You can agree with those decisions or not, but they are what makes up America’s face to the world. We have a tendency to assume that the United States can do no wrong, that we have no flaws, that we are infallible. But this is wrong. Our nation is a work in progress. It is this that make the United States special. The fact is that we are a great human endeavor in liberty, in unity, in equality, in egality. Note though, that this is a human endeavor, and as with all human endeavors perfection is not within reach. We are imperfect, we are fallible, we are human.

I think perhaps the most controversial part of Jeremiah Wright’s comments is their lack of hope and optimism. These are a handful of comments taken from 30 years of sermons. Does anyone want their comments over 30 years scrutinized to the same degree? What unflattering comments would be turned up in your past? Do these comments mean that Reverend Wright is a hateful pessimist, or do they mean that he is a man who is as susceptible as anyone to moments of despair and anger? I think the answer to these questions aids us in putting this event in context.

Two quotes to end with:

“Out of many, we are one.”

“United we stand, divided we fall.”

John McCain: He is old!