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Jeremiah Wright And Interpretive Charity

There is a further, troubling aspect of the coverage of Jeremiah Wright and the contretemps of Barack Obama's race speech, namely an intellectual scruple or two that has gone missing from Obama's critics. It would be nice to think that … Read More

By / March 23, 2008

There is a further, troubling aspect of the coverage of Jeremiah Wright and the contretemps of Barack Obama's race speech, namely an intellectual scruple or two that has gone missing from Obama's critics. It would be nice to think that the farcically reductive understanding of racial politics that John McWhorter and Glenn Loury bemoan in their bloggingheads appearance is confined to race-obsessed eccentrics like Patrick Buchanan and his ideological comrades (Buchanan believes black people should get on their knees to give thanks for slavery), or spread at most to naked and openly cynical political hacks.

Unfortunately, the reduction of all possible valuations of people to a binary standard of reject! reject! reject! or idolize! has wormed its way into the work of intellectuals who have the ability, and should have the inclination, to understand nuance. But rejection of the idea of nuance itself as some sort of moral failing was what motivated, for example, Charles Krauthammer's willfully obtuse screed against Obama on Friday. And on the same score, my friend Michael Weiss's attack on my alleged partisanship on Obama's behalf revels in the repudiation of context and nuance, I'm sad to say, even at the expense of fairness.

For example, Michael takes a passing swipe at Andrew Sullivan, who "used to have an award named for Susan Sontag that he'd bestow upon anyone trafficking in exactly the kind of racist, ultra-leftist, anti-American blather he now contorts himself to apologize for on Wright's behalf." In fact, Sullivan changed the "Sontag award" to the "Moore award" after Sontag died, out of a disinclination to mock a dead person. He still gives out the Moore award. The contortion Michael charges Sullivan with is basic interpretive charity, a value shared, in the case of Obama and Wright, by such lefty dunderheads as Will Wilkinson, Megan McArdle, Steve Chapman, Clive Crook, Charles Murray, Julian Sanchez, John McWhorter, Christopher Caldwell, Jesse Walker, Douglas Kmiec, John Cole, Joe Klein, and yours truly. To reduce our appreciation of Obama's speech and our satisfaction with his having addressed his connection to Wright to hero or messiah worship, or crass partisanship, apart from being a demonstrably false charge, is also irrelevant subject-changing. If it were true, it would have no bearing on the truth or falsity of our interpretation of Obama.

Furthermore, pointing to Donnie McClurkin, the creepy homophobic gospel singer who sang for Obama's campaign, as a way of charging Obama with homophobia by some diffusion, involves a breathtaking contortion of its own. (Never mind the reference to Rev. Meeks, allegedly the subject of a Queerty article. In fact, the article Michael links to is a profile of three gay Obama supporters, on why Obama is by far the best candidate on gay rights issues. Dog bites man, indeed. Rev. Meeks only emerges in the comments thread, invoked by a fanatical Hillary supporter.)

Michael knows, for example, that Obama has gone far out of his way to denounce homophobia in the black community, in particular in the black Christian community. He knows that Obama has gone much farther than any presidential candidate ever has in promoting tolerance and compassion towards gay people. He knows that Obama supports a repeal of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell. That Obama supports a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (Hillary Clinton supports a partial repeal, John McCain none). That Obama supports a more robust implementation of civil unions, and is more willing to say so even before unfriendly audiences, than any other candidate. So what, exactly, is the point about the homophobe loon tenuously connected to the campaign meant to prove? Presumably, that Obama's brave, unprompted public defenses of the dignity of gay people amounts to naught. Hey, might as well vote for McCain, right? Sure, Obama > McCain, but Obama + McClurkin = McCain. And in fact, because of the high standards Obama promotes, it turns out that Obama < McCain.

This new math is the rhetorical fulcrum on which Michael's case depends — an absurd, incongruous, reductive balancing, which is not even so much a false equation as an inequality with the sign pointing in the wrong direction. The McClurkin factor is the only one he takes to matter.

Michael accuses me of not criticizing Wright or Obama with sufficient force, of not drawing consequences from Obama's association with Wright. But he implies that Obama's advocacy of gay people's rights and dignity is utterly washed out, and indeed, inverted, by having a weird homophobe sing gospel songs for the campaign last summer, and more or less states explicitly that no features of Wright's biography or career that are in any way incongruous with Fox News' caricature shift his evaluation of Wright one jot. He thus opens himself to a profound tu quoque.

What follows from the fact that Obama has gone into homophobic Christian churches and decried homophobia as anti-Christian? Something, not nothing follows. Responding to this fact with "oh yeah, but creepy homophobic gospel singer" is preposterous. (It recalls the shilling for Bush by people who knew better in 2004, seizing on John Kerry's ill-considered statement that he and George Bush have "essentially the same position" on gay marriage, to argue that voters concerned with gay rights had no basis for choosing.) What follows from the fact that Wright combated homophobia among black preachers? That he campaigned heavily for HIV testing and treatment for AIDS patients in a community in which both are largely shunned? Something, not nothing follows.

What does follow in each case? In Obama's case, you have the most profoundly gay-friendly candidate who has ever run for the presidency, and it turns out that his campaign outreach efforts included a weird homophobic gospel singer, whom Obama almost certainly had no role in bringing to the tour. What follows is that Obama is the most profoundly gay-friendly candidate who has ever run for the presidency and has also run a good but imperfect campaign. Is Michael honestly prepared to suggest that he was trying to court anti-gay sentiments? While simultaneously denouncing them? Having spent a career fighting them in his own community? That Obama's profound break with precedent and conventional political wisdom count for zero? That Donnie McClurkin's presence on the tour had any deeper subtext than a cock-up by a functionary on the staff? Please, in that case, don't call me partisan. Contrarianism doesn't equal freedom from confirmation bias.

In Wright's case, what follows is that he is a complicated figure, of whom an utterly
reductive caricature is uninformative and unhelpful. In the same way that reducing all possible valuations of people to shun! or extol! leads to false and unhelpful valuations. There are continuum-many values between adulation and ostracism, and as people trying to honestly engage with the world, we have certain doxastic duties, namely holding beliefs that map reality to the best of our ability, and that are sensitive to changes in our knowledge. The most underreported feature of Jeremiah Wright's incendiary preaching is his invocation of Malcolm X in riffing on the "chickens coming home to roost" line. I would hope we are capable of judging Malcolm X in terms more complex than denounce and reject.

Likewise for the historical lineage of black leaders in America. If we place Frederick Douglass on one end of a spectrum and Louis Farrakhan on the other, the remaining spaces will all be filled in by men and women of imperfect virtue and vice (not, of course that Douglass was perfectly virtuous, or Farrakhan perfectly vicious). Martin Luther King was far from pure as driven snow. It's likely that he plagiarized large chunks of his dissertation. Does that failure of eloquence imprecate his "probity" and "suasion"? Of course not. Nor should it. Nor, of course, is the phenomenon of (let's call it) doxastic accountability confined to blacks. If I learned that Jerry Falwell had various admirable features of which I had been previously unaware, that would shift my judgment of him — not from complete rejection to admiration, but from complete rejection to qualified rejection, the nature and scope of qualification trading on the nature and scope of mitigating factors for Falwell.

One such potential mitigating factor is biography. That's why it's meaningful that Wright grew up under Jim Crow and in the living memory of slavery. The Tuskeegee experiment wasn't cancelled until 1972. That mitigates (and doesn't obviate) his resentment of white America, which he has never referred to as "sub-human" or "worthy of annihilation," but instead thinks of as an implacable enemy devoted to suppressing black flourishing. Such distinctions matter. It doesn't mitigate his coddling of Hamas defenders, which, however, is not predicated on embracing the rocketing of civilians as a desirable end, but historical ignorance, a repugnant conception of Zionism, and "chickens coming home to roost" logic. Like anyone he is capable of double-think, projection, refusal to face up to the entailments of his beliefs, and other failures of doxastic obligation.

But even far-out Chomskyite apologetics are simply not the same as endorsing murder. One recalls how, after unfortunately inflicting the "objectively-pro…." formulation on our language, Orwell repented of the mistake. My appraisal of Wright — my rejection of his gross, racist generalizations on white America, his rancid apologetics for horrific causes, his attributions of false consciousness and racism to those he disagrees with, and the more venal transgressions of his simplistic theological pacifism — is based on what he actually is, not some crazed unthinking phantom.

But Michael says that's not enough. That I must go further than a nuanced though ultimately condemnatory appraisal of Wright. That I must go further in drawing conclusions about Obama. If it helps, when I first saw the Wright videos, they did in fact raise large questions in my mind about Obama's judgment in attending that church. The fact that he attends any church in the first place raises questions about his judgment, but this seemed to be a much more significant error. And then two things happened: Obama gave a speech that vastly exceeded my expectations both in terms of its candor and explanatory power; and it became clear to me that Wright is not so extreme and fringe a figure that an association with him is the black equivalent of dressing up in sheets.

I don't know whether Wright will be a fatal liability to Obama's candidacy (and neither do you, dear reader). Where things stand now, after two bad weeks in March, Obama has recovered brilliantly and vaulted back into the lead over Hillary Clinton. It's true that his stock has fallen relative to McCain's, but so has Hillary Clinton's, and by similar margins; which shows that bitter internecine fights are good for the other party, and not much more. But I do know that Wright shouldn't be a fatal liability. I'm not going to put on sackcloth and grind my teeth down to nubs over Obama's membership in TUCC, and if Obama had put on sackcloth himself and dropped out of the race on Tuesday, even that wouldn't have been enough for a Krauthammer.

So let me put the matter to Michael (and anybody else interested in an honest engagement with the politics of race) as a question. What conclusion about Obama do you draw from his association with Wright? That he is an anti-white bigot? Obviously not. What, then? That he's not the messiah? As if anybody other than critics of his believed anyone believes that of him. That he had various reasons, some having to do with personal internal conflicts about his identity, some, no doubt, based on political calculation, for being part of the Trinity church? Shocking stuff.

There is an informal fallacy with no official name that gives whipsaw reasoning such as the foregoing its rhetorical bite. John Holbo calls it the "two-step of terrific triviality," which is good enough for me. Take two propositions, one of them so strong as to be obviously and risibly absurd, such as, "Obama shares Wright's views of white people or foreign policy," the other so weak as to not be worth asserting, such as, "Obama is an imperfect man who joined a black-liberation church to assuage his psychological qualms and remained partly out of expediency." Imply (never assert) the former, claim to have only been asserting the latter (and boy doesn't it raise interesting questions), and hop back and forth between the two, until your audience is convinced the strong absurd assertion has drawn in some of the truth of the trivial assertion by osmosis. It's a neat trick, terribly effective, and particularly pervasive in political discourse. It's also bullshit, in Harry Frankfurt's strict analytic sense of rhetoric so deceitful it's not meant so much to subvert truth as to annihilate it.

The primary question, again, is, enough with the loaded implications, What conclusion
should one draw about Obama based on his membership in Trinity? The secondary question — and the reason my writing on this has had the emphasis it's had — is, Is there a cogent non-racial explanation of Wright being taken as so toxic that no decent person could ever look at the man without spitting, whereas any number of odious white evangelicals are acceptable if "controversial" members of every recent Republican candidate's circle of friends? Imagine if Obama had pulled the same number with Farrakhan that McCain did with Parsley and Hagee, or had even accepted Farrakhan's endorsement quietly, let alone bring him along on the stump or describe him as a "spiritual advisor." Imagine if Obama had given speeches to NOI meetings, like McCain giving the commencement address at Falwell U., or Bush sucking up to Bob Jones. Obama's campaign would have over within seconds. Because there is a racial double-standard.

Now, I have to confess amazement that Michael sat through the whole of Jeremiah Wright's "chickens coming home to roost" sermon and took away from it nothing besides what we already knew, which is that Wright equates collateral damage from American military efforts with deliberate murder — a gross error, of course, but hardly original to anybody with friends on the Chomskyite/Nation magazine left. I have had friends for years with views like that, and they'll remain my friends. Just as I have friends who think Saddam Hussein buried his weapons in Syria and didn't have even momentary second thoughts about the war after seeing the Abu Ghraib pictures. I would regard it as a character deficiency if that weren't the case.

As Jesse Walker put it:

If you don't have a friend — a real friend, someone who means something to you and sometimes influences your decisions – who occasionally expresses a nutty opinion ("The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color") or an impolitic truth ("a country and a culture controlled by rich white people"), then you really, really need to get out more.

And more to the point, Wright's deplorable moral equivalence was situated amid impolitic truths — e.g., the US government's support of apartheid South Africa was a double crime, first for having been initiated, second for having been allowed to persist as late as my own lifetime; there is a strong moral case against the Hiroshima bombing and, say I, an airtight case against the Nagasaki bombing — and amid a certain kind of theological pacifism, which was the main point of the sermon, which is not the stuff that's been playing on Fox. I don't share it; I find theology and pacifism repugnant on their own, never mind in combination. But I wouldn't end a friendship with someone who turned out to be a pacifist (or a Christian), nor would that friendship imply anything about my views on foreign policy any more strongly than Wright's simplistic swords-into-plowshares, chickens-coming-home-to-roost talk implies anything about Obama's views.

Michael takes Wright to task for overstating the case about the Sudan pharmaceutical factory bombing. I mean, really now. A dumb preacher hadn't read up on Richard Clarke material published years after the sermon? He got his numbers wrong? There aren't examples of American military operations with large numbers of civilian deaths? (Could Michael have focused on the theology if Wright had cited My Lai or No Gun Ri? Would 99% of those now pronouncing Obama guilty by association take any less issue with Wright invoking true and unequivocal American war crimes?) A false factual claim, which the sermon does not require to make its point, advanced in a sermon, is what strikes Michael as salient? Here's what raving lunatic lefty Joe Klein found salient:

Wright's message–that we should think about the acts of violence we have committed over time–is exactly the sort of thing all of America needed to hear before the decision was made to go after Al Qaeda…just to keep things in perspective. It is a most Christian message: turn the other cheek. I would have still gone to war–Afghanistan was a just war, I believe–but I would much rather have been sitting in Jeremiah Wright's congregation than in Pat Robertson's or John Hagee's that Sunday. That sermon would have given me pause, something important to think about, which is to say: Jeremiah Wright was doing the Lord's work. I can't believe, however, that peddling the notion that AIDs was a government conspiracy to kill black people–unless Wright was quoting someone else in order to shoot down that vile conspiracy–or comparing white America to racist terrorists (U.S. of KKK A) is anything than Godless hatefulness. It is the equivalent of a white preacher saying that most blacks are sociopathic criminals. I call that hate speech. And it is entirely possible for one flawed man to be both righteous and hateful from time to time.

No, I don't agree with all of this, but with a good deal, and I'm not going to submit to the moral extortion that demands we scrape the rods and cones off our our retinas before acknowledging shades of grey.

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