Saturday, March 15, 2008

Stupid Rhetoric Comes In Every Color

So now the forces of white-wing intolerance are decrying the Afrocentric intolerance of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Barack Obama’s church. And the old guy (one of those crazy-charismatic preachers in the call-and-response improv tradition of the black church) has gotten the boot from Obama’s campaign.

It’s about time. It was almost a year ago that I read in the NYT about Obama’s connection to Wright. Why has it taken so long for this to blow up? From what I can gather, the messages that have created the uproar are these:

1. America is a terrorist, racist state.
2. Islamic terrorism against the U.S. is thereby justified (“chickens coming home to roost”) even if it’s wrong.
3. White American oppression of blacks and other minorities is the root of all evil.
4. Hillary is just another rich, white person and can’t understand the African-American experience any better than McCain can.
5. “Not God BLESS America--God DAMN America.”

That last one, of course, is the one that has right-wingers foaming at the mouth.

Obama was on all the cable news shows last night, doing damage control, and I also saw Wright himself on Sham Hannity & All-Bland Colmes. Here’s what I took away from those interviews:

1. Wright is a scholar (he deftly, articulately dismantled criticisms of liberation theology) and a pretty sharp guy, considering how stupid the stuff is that he’s been saying to wind people up over the last five years or so.
2. Obama repudiates these particular messages but not Wright himself. He says that would be like kicking an uncle out of your family because you disagree with him.
3. Obama says Wright is the guy who “brought me to Jesus, brought me to church,” and that he married the Obamas and baptized their daughters. He also says Wright was about to retire when Obama first caught wind of some of these statements. Apparently, this is why Obama hasn't left the congregation.
4. Obama claims that he’s never been present in the church when this kind of message has been delivered by Wright or anyone else, and that if he had, he’d have expressed his disagreement then and there. He says it’s a social justice ministry, and that all he’s heard coming from the pulpit is talk about “Jesus, faith, and helping the poor.”
5. This won’t end here.

If Obama gets the nomination, I bet there'll be 527 groups all over this issue, and at least one of them will land a Swift Boat punch. I really think this crap could be the undoing of the most amazing political moment since 1968. If not, if he survives this, it’s yet another stunning accomplishment by the calmest, fastest-learning man in politics.

Part of me thinks: See how stupid religion is? Look what happens when people stop doubting and get too sure of their own sense of what’s righteous and what’s not. And part of me thinks, isn't religion great, that it can so infatuate people with the noise of their own passionate truths, they don't even pay attention to how stupid they sound? And part of me thinks it could be worse. The preacher could’ve been Fred Phelps.

In his first book, Obama eloquently describes the moment when Wright won him over, with the “Audacity of Hope” sermon (which gave Obama the title for his second book), making a connection between the struggle of the poor with Biblical stories of faith, perseverance, and salvation. As profound and defining as that moment may have been for Obama, the truth is, I wish he’d remained a skeptic.


Anonymous said...

I have so many thoughts in response to this stuff, both in your post and the freak-out in the media. Most of my responses are captured here, both in my friend Jim's blog and the links to other blogs that he provides:

As a queer American, I've endured public condemnation from all sorts of preachers who have had the White House's ear for decades. But in a culture where homophobia is still allowed to flourish, it's hard to raise, and sustain, the same level of societal outrage as in this situation.

And. When I hear the sound bites of Jeremiah Wright (whom I have heard preach masterfully at a UCC event here in Massachusetts), what comes to my mind immediately is the rage of every prophet in the Bible. On Saturday I was lucky enough to attend a morning-long lecture by Marcus Borg, who had what I thought was a very cool definition of a prophet: one who indicts the present to gather energy for changing the future.

That's what I hear in Wright's selectively edited rantings. Is it scary stuff? Absolutely. Is it racist? I'm not convinced, but I'm open to persuasion. My question is this: Is Wright using his words to stir up anti-white sentiment? I don't believe that. I've stood across the street from preachers who use their words to convince their "flock" that I am going to hell for being queer, and so I deserve to be publicly condemned and spat at/on. So from my perspective, I think there's a difference between inciting people to hate (or inciting them to feel comfortable with the hatred they already have), and inciting people to change the status quo. Maybe it's a fine line sometimes. And certainly, when you stir the waters of race in this country, there's really no good place to hide if you're white, I don't care how liberal you are.

Those are my thoughts for now. I'm sure I'll have more.

Anonymous said...

And another thing!

Religion hardly has the corner on the market in terms of catering to people who don't want to think. Politics is good at that, too, and, really, any school of thought (or person, for that matter) that is so sure of itself that it is closed to skepticism or dissent.

Which leads me to my second point. I'd be willing to bet that Barack Obama hasn't stopped being a skeptic just because he belongs to a church. Some of the biggest skeptics I know are in church every Sunday, searching for truth, asking blasphemous questions, saying their prayers and singing four part harmony. And, no, I'm not only referring to me and my imaginary friends.

I have had the good fortune in my adult life to know some very skeptical ordained ministers (I married one!), and so I've gotten to have a great do-over in terms of furthering my own religious education and understanding, beyond the vast limitations of our childhood church experiences. It hasn't always been easy, and like Obama's, my experience has been that you can't go to church regularly without hearing things that you vehemently disagree with, or that are repugnant and offensive. But the church could never change and grow if every thinking person who got offended just walked away. I certainly understand where the desire to walk away comes from. But I have chosen to stay and be out and question the stupid, repugnant stuff. And I'm richer, stronger, and I hope wiser for it.

scotland said...

Dear James, I appreciate your sis's (Light On-Right On)comments very much.
The last time I was given a chance to give testament I was told I needed to be a bit more restrained so as not to break the microphone.

P-funk-funk me,don'go-a-go-go po-dunkn'me,No!

blood on the ground made a sound

and ya'all if ya'all didn'hear it,

shit as sure you been walkin int'n

leavin' tracks. If ya' been here/

ya' no excuse.

Jasph said...

Well, Sis, we do part ways here. Cuz if all it takes to be a prophet is indicting the present to gather energy for changing the future, then those homophobic preachers qualify. I just wish all these self-styled prophets would shut up.

And although I'd agree that religion has no corner on the market for stupidity, I do think it's among the top five potent forces for stupidity in the world. A lot of the mess we're in today seems to confirm that.

This is not to say it's not also a potent force for inspiration, reason, high thought, deep emotion, etc., Haaaaldt. I'm just very disappointed right now in the way the Obama campaign has lost its momentum and the potential damage to the image of Obama as an authentic human being, a calm, wise, and reasonable voice.

The speech he gave yesterday was magnificent. But will it undo the damage? I think damage has been done. And I blame riled-up, overbearing relgiosity for it.

Lastly, our definitions of skepticism diverge, somewhere between my apparent lack of any inclination toward religious faith and your Pantheistic Whyheadedness, which I admire, and your practicing Christianity, which (as I said) I have no interest in. I suppose there's some spectrum of skepticism that allows for an ordained minister to be called "skeptical," but by the time you've put on the mantle and are preaching to others your best guess as to the truth, you've pretty much turned in your membership card to any skeptic's club I'd ever belong to.

I think going to church every Sunday reveals commitment, which suggests belief, which means that whatever your questions may be and wherever they may lead, they're riding for now in the vehicle of your faith. By showing up on a regular basis, you're saying, "I believe this is important, good, valuable, definitive," etc., not "I'm back for more bullshit." And I just find myself chronically or constitutionally incapable of that kind of faith.

Haven't gone to your friend Jim's blog yet, but I will.

Scott, I love your crazy brain, bro. Keep scattin'.

Anonymous said...

See, I would argue that military, economic and political exploitation/oppression are the roots of the messes we're in, as a nation and a globe. And also greed. Religion certainly plays a role, when it colludes with those exploitative/oppressive forces. And, sadly, there's no end to the examples of that collusion.

But there are also endless examples of religious people of all stripes being the only ones to show up to house people who have no shelter, to minister to people who are sick, to clothe people who are naked, to visit people who are imprisoned or held hostage, to accompany people who are lonely or abandoned, to feed people who are hungry, etc.

There are enormous gaps between the assumptions you make about what it means to go to church, to be an ordained minister, to be a Christian, to be skeptical, to be a person of faith, and what my experience of all those has been, as an adult. This is probably not the best place to continue a dialog about those gaps (we could bring the Internet to a screeching halt with the volume of words it would take to continue), if you are interested in continuing it. It's been great exercise so far, and I'm willing to keep going.

djayt said...

Wasn't this just an easy opening (and available whenever chosen) to remind white American that Obama is black and black people are crazy and dangerous?

I don't think it's much different than photos of him in traditional garb or any other not remotely subtle reminder that this, despite his demeanor, despite his popularity, and despite his quote-ability, is a black guy and you don't want a black guy in charge, do you?

Obvious, transparent, and, I'm afraid, effective. Hilary vs. McCain is politician vs. politician and I could care less. Obama is politician vs. hope, and not surprisingly, hope doesn't carry a very big stick.

Jasph said...

Dan, you're right, of course. When I hear Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck reciting the same hysterical litany about Obama and Rev. Wright, almost verbatim, I'm reminded that the prevailing agenda here is that of the United Church of Fear.

Fie upon't! I shall not attend, and if I attend, I shall not listen, and if I listen, I shall fall asleep.

And Joy o' my heart, you're right: my definitiion of skepticism and yours are different. But I think I already said that. Your suggestion seems to be that because I don't go to church, I can't understand how religious faith and skepticism can be compatible, but I beg the dipper, as your kiddo would say. All I'm saying is that the skepticism of a committed skeptic is of an entirely different order than the skepticism of a committed Christian.

I can think of several examples of stupid religion that's not in collusion with anything other than its own stupid self. But I agree entirely that the most egregious examples are where it colludes with other forms of power and exploitation.

Tell you this--I'm happy to keep going and bring the Internet to a halt, if it means no more videos of Jeremiah Wright saying stuff that calls into question Obama's intent or veracity.

To paraphrase Dan, the hope Obama represents may very well be beaten down by this crap, at least where this campaign is concerned. So if I sound anti-religion instead of merely anti-stupidity, please forgive me. I'm just really, really bummed out by this turn of events.

Anonymous said...

When Pam and I are writing to each other, and we have a sudden need to change the subject, we do this.

Z (slight changes of subject are lower case)

In conversation, we say, "Here's a big Z (or a little z.)"


Have you seen Lewis Black's new show "Root of all Evil?" I finally got around to tivo-ing it and I watched it today. It was the Donald Trump vs. Viagra show. I could not stop giggling. I'm still giggling, which is why my typing is so wiggly.

Jasph said...

Did the Z begin as a typo, or did you decide on it as a sign with the specific intent of being able to steer out of a conversational skid? Penny and I should develop handy techniques like that. We just tend to ride our disagreements straight into the ditch.

Penny has always found Lewis Black funny in the extreme. I had to be won over, because at first I found the persona a little off-putting, like Sam Kinnison with slightly less danger of a heart attack. I warmed up fast, though. We missed the first show, but Les and Debra said it was hilarious, so we tuned into the second one. It definitely had moments. I like that the ultimate verdict doesn't depend on which advocate is actually the funniest (the Viagra guy was WAY better, I thought) but on the caprice of the judge, who's funnier than any of them.

It's a great concept. I wonder how you pitch something like that.

"We pit two standup comics against each other in a kind of 'Make Me Laugh' meets 'People's Court' trial of various pop culture icons and consumer culture items, the irascible Lewis Black presiding."

And there's a pause where everyone's nodding, and then a Comedy Central development geek says, "What was that about Lewis Black's ass?"

I await beer v. weed. Should be a riot.

Z... Notice how much "riot" sounds like "Wright"?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and notice Lewis Black's last name. And how Jeremiah Wright is black. Coinkydink???

Pam might have a different story, but I think the whole Z thing as a change of subject started on a road trip maybe 10 years ago, as we were approaching a sign that said, "Caution: Z Ahead." And the Z in reference was a treacherous section of road that goes down the mountain on Route 2, into North Adams, MA. So what an appropriate origin, since you're saying how you could use it to keep from riding your disagreements into a ditch! I don't know if that's our primary use for it, but, hey, whatever works.

I thought the Viagra guy was funnier too, but I did love the whole Trump University riff. "There's no currrrrrrrrrriculummmm." and "We don't allow guns on our campus that doesn't exist."

Anonymous said...

limit this