Audacity and Hopelessness

Flipping the TV channels this Sunday morning, I passed over something on the FOX News Network that, not surprisingly, was billed as "race and presidential politics."  Even less surprisingly, the segment focused on race and the Democratic Party.  Least surprising of all, it was unscrupulous.

But first — a little context.


As everyone knows, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate and Illinois State Senator Barack Obama has been attacked for a series of comments made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired as pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama is a member.


I won’t rehearse here any of the mythic biography that has been crafted about Candidate Obama and his relationship with the Rev. Wright.  (Instead, see "Obama’s Audacious Deference," Paul Street, ZCom, January 24, 2007.)


Nevertheless.  Until this past Friday, March 14, the Rev. Wright held the title of chairperson on the Obama campaign’s African-American Leadership Committee.  Then, in a statement announcing the Reverend’s departure from the Obama campaign, Obama himself asserted ("On My Faith and My Church," Huffington Post):

All of the [Rev. Wright's] statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.

The statements that "have been the subject of controversy" were first placed in wide circulation on ABC TV’s Good Morning America program just one day before, March 13, based on an "ABC News review of more than a dozen sermons, which are offered for sale by the church."

Assuming that these are the statements that people find controversial (though who knows what else is in circulation), here’s exactly how ABC News thrust them into the limelight on Thursday, March 13:

BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) And he often uses the Gospel to affirm his strong political views, as in this 2003 sermon damning the United States for its treatment of blacks.


REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT (TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST) The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing "God bless America"? No, no, no. Not God bless America, God damn America. That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.


BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) It’s not known if Senator Obama was in the church that day, but he has sought to play down Reverend Wright’s overall approach.


SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (DEMOCRAT) I don’t think that my church is actually particularly controversial.


BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) During the campaign the Senator has defended what he calls Reverend Wright’s social gospel.


SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (DEMOCRAT) So he was one of the leaders in calling for divestment from South Africa and some other issues like that. And he thinks it’s important for us to focus on what’s happening in Africa. And I agree with him on that.


BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) But an ABC News review of more than a dozen sermons, which are offered for sale by the church, found Reverend Wright going far beyond issues of Africa. He refers to the US as under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.


REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT (TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST) And they will not only attack you, if you try to point out what’s going on in white America, US of KKKA….


BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) He regularly mocks black Republicans as sellouts.


REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT (TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST) They live below the "C" level. They live below the level of Clarence, Colin, and Con-damn-nesia.


BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover) In his first sermon after September 11th, 2001, Reverend Wright said the US had brought on the attacks with its own terrorism.


REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT (TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST) 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. 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 yard. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.


By my reading, these excerpts show the Rev. Wright making roughly seven claims:

    (1) A claim about the U.S. Government’s history of involvement in various drug manufacture and trafficking schemes.


    (2) A claim about rates of incarceration in the United States, and the racially-real, markedly differential rates of incarceration between white and non-white Americans.


    (3) A claim about the role of ideology in persuading people to accept the injustices alleged in points (1) and (2).


    (4) A claim about how points (1) through (3) run contrary to the kind of values God would prefer humanity to uphold.


    (5) A claim that I don’t quite understand, so I’ll simply repeat it again: "they will not only attack you, if you try to point out what’s going on in white America, US of KKKA…."


    (6) A claim about how various black Americans — such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — serve as a kind of benchmark for the evaluation of class, race, and power relations in the United States, so that anybody whose public life is like theirs, or worse than theirs, ought to be regarded as the enemies of most black Americans.


    (7) A claim about how the al-Qaeda-organized hijacker bombings of September 11, 2001, were a case of "America’s chickens…coming home to roost" — that is to say, a case of the long, violent and bloody history of U.S. atrocities against other persons around the world eventuating in some violent and bloody atrocities perpetrated against targets in the United States.


As best I can tell: Claim (1) is arguable, and whether or not this claim has any validity, it depends on what the Rev. Wright had in mind. — For example, we might ask whether the U.S. wars in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan served to decrease or to increase the global supply of poppy and the heroin trade?  Claims (2) and (3) are rock solid.  One-out-of-every-100 Americans now lives behind bars.  But whereas this is true of one-in-twenty black men, it is also true of less than one-in-100 white men.  Claim (4) is without meritthough only because it turns on belief in the existence of God, not because any decent society of persons would disagree with the more basic moral point the Reverend makes in Claims (2) and (3), about this most heavily-incarcerated society on earth.  Claim (5) simply is too tough to call.  (Though I should add that I don’t trust Brian Ross’s glosses for one second.)  But I believe that everybody should be willing to discuss it further — and err on the side of openness, not on the side of the strict enforcement of ideological discipline. (See below.)  Claim (6) repeats the familiar "Uncle Tom" refrain from U.S. history — does anyone suppose that Frederick Douglass was more sparing? — and, in all honesty, Claim (6) extrapolates quite well across all of the phenomena that make up the human world.  The basic point is that the human world is replete with lures and traps to compromise one’s better self, to sell-out the principles that one truly believes for some other set of principles that one doesn’t, and to fall for the prizes that the world dangles before one’s nose. — For what does a man gain by winning the prizes of the whole world, at the cost of his true self?  Claim (7) is so dead-on that it requires a devout faith in a counterfactual realm where the City on the Hill remains untouched by anything that it does, no matter how bloody and brutal, for people not to immediately recognize how right the claim is. –  This is simply the Reverend’s version of blowback, to use the popular phrase.  Their just desserts, in the metaphysically more satisfying language of a moral world order.


For the record: Let me state in no uncertain terms that I agree with most of the seven or so  "controversial" claims by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright which ABC News’s Brian Ross placed into circulation in his March 13 segment on Good Morning America. 


But, also on the record, it is for making claims such as these that the Obama Campaign has officially dissociated itself from the Reverend.  More important yet, it is Claims (1) through (7) that Candidate Obama "vehemently condemn[s]," on grounds that they "in no way reflect [Candidate Obama's] attitudes and directly contradict [Candidate Obama's] profound love for this country."


What a crock.


Now.  To return to where I began: This morning’s FOX News Sunday program, hosted by Chris Wallace, opened with a segment that devoted roughly 2300 words to a discussion of the same material that I’ve just discussed, but with two long-serving Democratic senators, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York. 


In not one fragment of one utterance by these three gentlemen is there a hint that they recognize, in what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been quoted as saying these past several days, there is anything other than the fulminations of a mad man.


Thus, FOX News Sunday‘s Chris Wallace baits the perfectly willing Christopher Dodd:


WALLACE: Senator Dodd, let’s start with Barack Obama’s long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and some of the things he has said from the pulpit. Here’s part of his sermon from the first Sunday after 9/11. Let’s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JEREMIAH WRIGHT:  Now we are indignant because of stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yard! America’s chickens are coming home to roost.  

WALLACE: Senator, over the years, Reverend Wright has said that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to kill African Americans. He has said instead of singing "God Bless America," we — blacks should sing "God Damn America."  How would you characterize Reverend Wright’s remarks?

DODD: Well, I’d use the words of Barack Obama. He’s totally rejected this as quickly as anything. He was not there when these statements were made. They’re outrageous statements….  



I will reproduce this segment from FOX News Sunday in its entirety below. — But in case anyone is still paying attention, it is clear from the few excerpts that I’ve seen from the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that the Rev. Wright wears a hell of a lot fewer ideological blinders than do  the people who are denouncing and distancing themselves from him because of his remarks.  What is more, it is clear that in the United States of America today, strict ideological discipline is to be enforced on any question of substance that turns on the nature of life in this country, its history, the government’s relations with other peoples and countries, and so on.  Precisely this is what the Jeremiah Wright flare-up over the past week teaches us.  It is why somebody prompted ABC News to look into the Rev. Wright’s sermons.  It is why the Obama Campaign was forced to denounce and to sever its ties with the Rev. Wright within 24 hours of his sermons entering mass circulation.  And it is why FOX News Sunday‘s Chris Wallace had such a jolly old time grilling the two Democratic Senators over the existence of the Rev. Wright’s remarks.   


So.  On this Sunday in the middle of March 2008, we find the United States of America in the ultimate year of a presidential election, with a little less than eight months to go before the voters are asked to pull the trigger.   And yet, nobody can raise any issues about class, race, war, peace, injustice, you name it, of the kind highlighted by the excerpts from the Rev. Jeremiah Wight’s sermons that we now witness denounced.  Like the near-totalitarian system to which the American political class aspires.      


Excerpted from FOX News Sunday, March 16, 2008:

CHRIS WALLACE: Race and presidential politics — as Democrats fight for the nomination, is the debate over race hurting the party’s chances in November? We’ll ask two key advisers, Senator Chris Dodd, who supports Obama, and Senator Charles Schumer, who backs Clinton.

WALLACE: [W]ill the words of Barack Obama’s pastor…

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Not God bless America, God damn America!  

WALLACE: … hurt his candidacy?… And hello again from Fox News in Washington. Well, with the next presidential primary in Pennsylvania more than a month away, here’s where the Democratic race stands as of today. Senator Barack Obama holds a 119-delegate lead, having picked up more delegates Saturday at Iowa county conventions and in California. He has won more states than Senator Clinton, and he also leads in the popular vote by more than 700,000. On the campaign trail, the week was dominated by controversial statements by supporters of both candidates, which raises the question: Is there a growing racial divide in the Democratic party? For answers, we bring in two key supporters — Senators Charles Schumer, who backs Clinton and comes to us from New York, and Chris Dodd, who has endorsed Obama. And, Senators, welcome back to "Fox News Sunday".

DODD: Good to be with you, Chris.

SCHUMER: Good morning.

WALLACE: Senator Dodd, let’s start with Barack Obama’s long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and some of the things he has said from the pulpit. Here’s part of his sermon from the first Sunday after 9/11. Let’s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WRIGHT: Now we are indignant because of stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yard! America‘s chickens are coming home to roost.  

WALLACE: Senator, over the years, Reverend Wright has said that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to kill African Americans. He has said instead of singing "God Bless America," we — blacks should sing "God Damn America."

How would you characterize Reverend Wright’s remarks?

DODD: Well, I’d use the words of Barack Obama. He’s totally rejected this as quickly as anything. He was not there when these statements were made. They’re outrageous statements.  I don’t know how much more clear Barack Obama could have been on all of this. Obviously, these things come up. We’ve seen a lot of invective being used over the last number of weeks in the campaign. It doesn’t help, obviously. But guilt by association is not typically American. We’ve all been around in places where people have given speeches or said things that we’ve thoroughly objected to, totally objected to. The fact that he was as quick as he was — I thought his comments yesterday, Barack Obama’s comments yesterday, in Indianapolis recalling the words of Robert Kennedy with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King — talking about we’re never going to accomplish anything in this nation of ours as a divided people. I think one of the qualities that Barack Obama’s bringing to this candidacy is that ability to bring us back together again. President Bush talked about it six, seven years ago. We never came close to it.  The country wants that very, very much. And I don’t think we helped that cause necessarily by focusing exclusively on these kind of comments that he has totally rejected.

WALLACE: Well, you say he is quick to condemn them. Even if you believe that Obama was unaware of all these comments, this is one statement that Reverend Wright said. These are statements that go back. And the one that you just saw goes back to September of 2001, six years ago. Even if he says that he’s unaware of that, he admits that he became aware of these statements last year. And yet just last month, here is what Obama had to say about Reverend Wright’s statements, "He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don’t agree with, and I suspect there are some of the people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don’t agree with." An old uncle, he says. Senator, he only rejected these statements after these tapes became public.

DODD: Well, Chris, again, we can spend all morning talking about this. The American public are watching their foreclosure rates climb. Oil prices are going up.

WALLACE: Well, sir, you’re changing the subject. I’m asking you…

DODD: Well, the question is — well, this is subject matter…

WALLACE: You don’t think it’s relevant that this man was a member of this church for two decades and this fellow…

DODD: No, you made it relevant here for the last four or five days on this network. But the fact of the matter is…

WALLACE: It’s not just this network, sir.

DODD: I know. But the fact of the matter is people would like to move on to other things. I’ve answered your question. Barack Obama has rejected this.

WALLACE: Well, no, I don’t think you have answered it, because you said that he answered it — that he rejected it very quickly.

DODD: Well, I don’t think he’s…

WALLACE: He didn’t reject it quickly. The fact is last month, when he’s known about it, he said he’s a crazy old uncle.

DODD: Well, going back and reviewing at what point who said what to whom — we can dwell on that. He’s rejected it. He said he no — he doesn’t have any association with it. He finds these comments outrageous. I don’t know how much more clear he could be on the subject matter.

WALLACE: But he didn’t find him outrageous and condemn them last month…

DODD: Well, I’m not sure he…

WALLACE: … when we didn’t have the videotapes.

DODD: Well, I’m not even sure he necessarily was aware of them until they became public. I can’t say…

WALLACE: That’s not true. He says that he was aware of them when he started running for president in 2007.

DODD: He has rejected them here. Whether he did it a month ago or a week ago, he’s rejected them. I think that’s the important point. And again, guilt by association here is something we’ve got to stay away from in this country. Anyone involved in public life, Chris, has been places, have been with people who have said and done things we totally reject. Running for president, obviously, revives a lot of this. But I think it’s implement about what he has said. What position has he taken? What sort of a campaign has he run? What is he calling upon Americans to be doing in this country? These are not the words of Barack Obama.

WALLACE: But, Senator, it isn’t…

DODD: So we can dwell on that, but I think we ought to move on. He’s rejected it.

WALLACE: Senator, it isn’t a question of guilt by association.

DODD: Sure it is.

WALLACE: Forgive me. If you read Barack Obama’s book, "Dreams For My Father," he talks about what a huge role Reverend Wright played in his deciding his affirmation of his identity as an African American.  He’s been a member of this church for two — forgive me, for two decades. He was married by this reverend. His children were baptized in this church. It is not that he happened to walk into a room and Reverend Wright was there. He has been a member of this church, a member of Reverend Wright’s flock, for 20 years.

DODD: Well, again, Chris, look. A member of a church and a parish where you may have a pastor, a minister or a rabbi who says and do things you totally disagree with — you don’t necessarily walk away from your church.

WALLACE: You would stay in a church that had a…

DODD: Well, I would — no. I would certainly disagree with this individual. We’ve all been in situations like that. But the idea somehow that this is deeply involved and ingrained, that this is — this is really who Barack Obama is — what you’re suggesting, or those who are making these accusations, is this is really who Barack Obama is. Anyone who knows this man, who has worked with him, who has spent time with him, would say this is totally unlike him. It’s not him at all. And so the suggestion somehow that this is really who this candidate is I think it is an unfair accusation.

WALLACE: Senator Schumer, are you troubled that Obama would belong to a church, be married by a minister, have his children baptized by a minister, who says these kinds of things?

SCHUMER: No. I agree with Chris here. Look, each campaign is wide- ranging. Supporters are all over the place. And you will find in every campaign — you have Senator McCain endorsed by a reverend who said very anti-Catholic things. You’ve had the problems our campaign had with certain statements that Geraldine Ferraro made. If you are going to ascribe what every supporter says, every word they say, to the candidate themselves, you know, you’re going to just be in an – – we have major issues facing us in America, whether it’s the war, the economy, and I do believe — you know, past elections have had too much emphasis on these things. This election won’t, Chris. And the reason is people are worried about the future of the country, and they want a real discussion on issues.

WALLACE: Well, let me just ask you, if I may, for just a moment. This isn’t just a supporter. This is a man who was the head of his church for 20 years.  Are you telling me — because I’m a little surprised at this, Senator. You’re not troubled that Barack Obama belonged to a church which had a reverend, Reverend Wright, who said that the U.S. has sponsored state terrorism through Israel against the Palestinians? That doesn’t bother you?

SCHUMER: Look, I know Barack’s views on Israel, and I think they’re very strong. I mean, as you know, I prefer Senator Clinton for a whole lot of reasons, but I don’t cast aspersions on Senator Obama for what somebody else said. We’ll be in a game here where we’ll never debate the issues. We’ve spent half our time already on this, and it has nothing to do with Barack Obama’s views.

WALLACE: Well, let me ask you, Senator Schumer, about something that someone in the Clinton campaign said.

SCHUMER: OK. How come that doesn’t surprise me?

WALLACE: Well, there’s a pattern here, Senator. Geraldine Ferraro, former vice presidential Democratic candidate, also a big fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton, made her own controversial comments this week. Let’s take a look at them.  "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."  Senator, this isn’t just one isolated comment. There’s a long list of comments like this. Why do members of the Clinton campaign keep playing racial politics?

SCHUMER: Well, first, Geraldine Ferraro said she said those completely on her own. I know Geraldine. I’ve known her for 20 years. She says what she thinks. These comments were wrong. They were condemned by Hillary Clinton. Geraldine Ferraro is no longer part of the campaign. She had the grace to step aside on her own because she didn’t want to make these an issue, and that’s that.

DODD: And I agree with that as well. I’ve known Geraldine Ferraro as long as Chuck has. And I disagree with her comments here, but again, it’s the same kind of thing. We can spend our time talking about Geraldine Ferraro and Jeremiah Wright, but the issues are — is where does Barack Obama stand. What are these major issues we face in the country? That’s what people are really worried about. We’ve got a major, major problem in our nation. We need to get back on track again. And that’s what people, I hope, are going to cast their ballots on come this November, not about whether or not you agree with Jeremiah Wright or Geraldine Ferraro. That should not be the subject — central point in the debate.

SCHUMER: And by the way, just one point, Chris. I think this election will be much more on the issues. The dramatic differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John McCain are not only large, but they’re right at the center of what’s worrying people. When people are basically content, these kinds of minor issues — unimportant issues, in my opinion — play a major role. But when people are worried about the future of this country, as they are now, we’re going to see a very interesting campaign where the differences on Iraq, the differences on the economy, the differences on health care and energy policy, are going to make the big difference here and be most of the discussion. So I think, you know, to dwell — obviously, you can ask the candidates the question. And obviously, if they don’t denounce what is said, if it seems so bad as these statements are, you can hold them accountable. But once they denounce them, let’s move on.

WALLACE: Well, I am going to move on to the economy. But I would disagree with you to this extent, Senator Schumer. We don’t know a lot about Barack Obama, and he does not have as long a record in public life as Senator McCain or Senator Clinton. And when, I think, a lot of us find out and are somewhat shocked to find out what his minister said over the last two decades, I actually think that’s a very legitimate question in judging the character of a candidate.

But let’s move on to the economy….  [#####]


"Obama’s Pastor: God damn America, U.S. to blame for 9/11," Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri, ABC News, March 13, 2008
"On My Faith and My Church," Barack Obama, Huffington Post, March 14, 2008

"Pastor’s hellfire sermons put Obama’s campaign in hot water," Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, March 14, 2008
"Obama renounces pastor’s remarks," Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2008
"With friends like these," Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2008
"ObamaDenounces Statements of His Pastor as ‘Inflammatory’," Jodi Kantor, New York Times, March 15, 2008 
"Barack Obamadistances himself from pastor who denounced racist U.S.," Tim Baldwin, The Times, March 15, 2008
"Outspoken Minister Out Of Obama Campaign," Peter Slevin, Washington Post, March 15, 2008

"Pastor Creates ‘Guilt by Association’ Problem for Obama," FOX News, March 16, 2008
Transcript: Senators Dodd, Schumer on ‘FOX News Sunday’," March 16, 2008 

"A More Perfect Union," Barack Obama, Philadelphia, March 18, 2008


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