Sunday, May 4, 2008

Killing the Messenger

Nothing I’ve written lately has provoked such opposition as my attempt to defend Jeremiah Wright. A couple of friends have suggested that I’ve gone soft in the head. The force with which they have expressed themselves has made me look more carefully at the issue, rather than move on, as I suspect most people are beginning to do.

For Obama’s sake, I hope this is so. But before leaving the topic, which I will do unless Wright and the media find new legs here, let me try once more to express my view that the national dialogue may actually be a blessing in disguise. That was Willie Brown’s view expressed this week on NOW, the David Brancaccio program that follows Moyers’ on Friday nights: more people than ever are getting involved. I think he has a point. We have months to go before the convention and the election, and Obama is a fast-learner. And if he isn’t the long distance runner Hillary is, well, maybe he shouldn’t have the job.

One friend insists I have got it wrong in suggesting it’s about trying to censor Wright. It’s not what he is saying, she says, but the way he says it. She has not explained how you can censor the style without censoring the message.

She’s right, of course, that he comes across as a bloviator. In reading the blogs, I see that many people find him to be arrogant, and several have mentioned his put down of Obama as a politician. I went back over the Moyers interview and the National Press Club talk and listened to the way in which Wright spoke of Obama. Some hear a sneer in his voice. I honestly don’t.

But what if there is? Isn’t his message that politicians have left the black community in the lurch? And, even if mainstream America is now considerably more comfortably mixed race than most of us would have believed possible twenty years ago, thousands of blacks still live in poverty in inner cities and, as the rich get richer, are part of the poor getting poorer. Should these people not have a voice? Can we really dictate that those who disagree with us must disagree on our terms?

To put Wright’s “style” in context, I think there are three issues at play here:

1. Wright’s right to speak his mind.
2. The prioritizing of Obama’s winning the election over Wright’s right to speak his mind.
3. The question of whether bombast or self-centeredness in a messenger affects the message.

Nobody should have to defend #1. If that right stops being absolute in this country, that’s the end. #2 sounds so very reasonable, but making winning everything, even at the cost of free speech, means you don’t really mean Wright has the right to speak his mind.

As for #3, if we can’t separate a man or a woman from their message, and insist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater, how can we ask others to avoid that folly?

There is perhaps a fourth issue, the fact that truth has gone by the wayside and the media now make the news, tell us what to focus on and how to interpret things. Given this dumbing down, some of my friends have suggested, we are naïve to go on talking about “free speech.” It’s a myth. And Americans are too stupid anymore to enjoy it if they actually did have it. The prospect of a Republican victory at this stage is so daunting, it's time to regain the White House by any means necessary.

Sorry. I despair about American folly as much as anyone, but that argument goes absolutely nowhere I want to go. Jeremiah Wright has a right to say whatever he wants and if we don’t like it we ought to exercise the right to come back with our own view on how to run the railroad.

Wright’s most contentious statement, as I see it, is his suggestion that the U.S. government turned HIV on black people. That’s outrageous. Stupid. Wrong.

I think. But you know what comes to mind as soon as I give it second thought? When AIDS first hit the gay community when Reagan was president, it took him four years to mention the word in public. Gay people believed this silence to be deliberate, – you’ll still see plenty of silence = death signs at gay political rallies – and happening because, after all, who gave a shit about gay people.

Even today I think that was not entirely paranoia. The government wasn’t giving gay people AIDS, but it wasn’t performing government’s primary task of protecting its citizens, either. Once America threw its money and its brains into the problem, solutions began to be found, and today there are thousands of men and women living with AIDS who only a few years ago would not have been. In fact, the speed with which solutions were found makes all the more ironic and tragic the deaths of those who made the mistake of getting AIDS early on. If only they had been on Reagan time.

Is Jeremiah Wright all that different in using rhetorical excess in suggesting the same kind of irresponsibility might be at work in government? We once conducted medical experiments on black men, withholding treatment and letting them die for the sake of science, without their knowledge and consent. If you don’t know about Tuskegee, you should.

Gay or black resentment or paranoia should not serve as excuses for living in the past. Ultimately gays like me and blacks like Wright should remember but not be constrained by history. I give these examples not to defend Wright’s claims, but to contextualize his anger.

There’s more. If Wright didn’t have enough problems for speaking out too loudly, he’s also being lumped together with right-wing evangelists.

The reason is to point out the double standard. Billy Graham can say – in the Oval Office, of all places, with Nixon – that Jews are undermining America, Pat Robertson can call for the assassination of foreign leaders, Falwell can blame hurricanes on gay people, Hagee can rant about Catholics being the “Whore of Revelation 17,” and McCain and other Republicans not only get less gas for smooching up to these guys, they actually get mileage out of their association with them.

Lost in the comparison is a voice crying out against a murderous and self-destructive foreign policy, abandonment of the poor in our inner cities and other problems of poverty from which blacks suffer way out of proportion to their numbers.

Wright is playing with fire here. Obama could lose the nomination and Wright could be saddled with the blame, justified or not, for ruining the chances of getting a candidate who might bring government more in line with his demands than any who have come before. If I were Wright, I’d worry about that and maybe find another way to broadcast my discontent. But I would also know that if I were really the only reason the country could find for Obama’s loss, it would mean the country has far greater problems than my big mouth.


jchai said...

You hit the nail on the head. The country does have far greater problems than someone's big mouth. Shall we say, for starters, that one of the problems is our perpetual desire to escape the real issues and instead focus on ephemera? Let's do things like gossip and focus on all the minutiae of the campaign instead of the issues. IMO, the focus on Jeremiah Wright is code, and a way of grabbing onto a side issue instead of addressing the real problems that he brings up so uncomfortably to many people -- including Senator Obama.

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