Of Weiss and Strawmen: The Wright Chronicles Continued

My goal was to have scandalized Daniel Koffler for his ludicrous and hasty comparison of Jeremiah Wright to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass. In that, I seem to have succeeded given the epic two-part miniseries he has composed, … Read More

By / March 24, 2008

My goal was to have scandalized Daniel Koffler for his ludicrous and hasty comparison of Jeremiah Wright to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass. In that, I seem to have succeeded given the epic two-part miniseries he has composed, directed and edited (complete with artist renderings of scarecrows) in reply. To begin with his many points in order of most bizarre and trivial to most important:

I was unaware that Andrew Sullivan's actuarial kindness to Susan Sontag in any way altered his double-bookkeeping in terms of batshit statements made by hard leftists. He has renamed his award for Michael Moore to encompass this tradition. Very well. My point remains. Daniel knows, for instance, that Sullivan downplayed the damning evidence compiled against his other doyen of doubtful conservatism, Ron Paul, when it would have been impossible to imagine the Sullivan of, say, 2001 finding excuses for those racist newsletters. Daniel claims his original post about was designed to "exculpate" King and Douglass — they need no exculpating, if you ask me — and to "inculpate" Wright. Funny, then, that he should have begun by attributing the words of the first two men to the third as an act of forensic legerdemain. True, he later says: "Of course, the contexts in which Douglass and King spoke and wrote were very different from Wright's: slavery and pervasive legalized persecution, respectively. That discrepancy is what's objectionable about Wright's remarks." But then, as if to negate this observation, Daniel adds: "On the other hand, Wright lived through the latter experience, and was raised in living memory of the former." So does that mean that Wright is to be accorded more latitude after all? Which is it? The keen reader will see that Daniel's original post tended toward equation and exculpation, as when he wrote:

"How much conceptual space is there, really, between thundering "God damn America for killing innocent people" and ventriloquizing a promise from God to "break the backbone of your power," between declaring America guilty of "practices more shocking and bloody" than any other country on earth and framing the 9/11 attacks as "chickens coming home to roost"? And which remark from each pair would count as more "incendiary" under the standards Wright… is being judged?"

Quite a lot, I would say. As I have tried to show, Wright's comments were not argued so much as emitted; he lacked eloquence (I thought one thing Obama has taught us is that "words matter"?) and sophistication; and, most important, he was talking insidious rubbish where MLK and Douglass had the moral weight and historical exigency in their favor. Wright is also guilty of actions and statements of which MLK and Douglass were plainly not: a. Condoning terrorism against Jews; b. Paying a friendly visit to a foreign dictator responsible for killing Americans; c. Speaking unfairly and erroneously about U.S. actions abroad. No, Daniel, I don't expect anyone who doesn't presume to condemn the bombing of the al-Shifa factory to know anything about it. But including it in a list of scattershot indictments from the pulpit before a congregation that likely knew nothing at all of the episode, and lying that "hundreds" of innocent third worlders were killed by a heartless American war machine — this seems to be the work of a glib-tongued fraud, does it not?

After much exertion and many pyrotechnics of evasion and philosophizing, Daniel writes: "A dumb preacher hadn't read up on Richard Clarke material published years after the sermon? He got his numbers wrong?"

The numbers — i.e., the fatalities — were available within hours of the bombing, I should think. Anyway, after so much nuance, which surely has my rods and cones melting at the last, I'm glad to see Daniel at least provides le mot juste about the notorious Rev. Am I guilty of the Fox News treatment? Did I not take one of his entire sermons and present the logic therein accurately and accordingly? Daniel has a problem of assuming that just because Sean Hannity has been driven to frenzy over something then it is automatically worth rehabilitating, at least in part, and coloring in various shades of "gray." (Daniel should take care to avoid crediting himself with "nuance" as against my and all of Wright's harsh critics' slobbering Manicheanism. I could have done without some of the sanctimony on display here but if I take anything away from his essay it is that I mustn't judge a friend by commissar standards of behavior.)

Daniel begins his rebuttal by calling Wright a "left-wing Falwell" and just another paltry rabble-rouser politicians are made to go before on bended knee and placate. All par for the course, see. They all do it.

Here is question: Without looking it up, can Daniel name John McCain's pastor? And is it just the fault of the right-wing news cycle that we can all name Obama's?

Those Daniel has certainly not been at a loss to name in these pages are all the unsavory prelates and shamans McCain has courted, the better to win the White House. Now Daniel knows as well as I do that McCain very probably thinks John Hagee is a reactionary hick, the type of evangelical he once got into so much hot water with Republicans for branding "agents of intolerance." Does this factor in, or mitigate Daniel's evaluation of McCain's cold politicking? Of course it doesn't. (Whither the "interpretive charity" from this Scrooge?) Yet when it comes to Obama's own, practically lifelong clergyman, we hear the whirr of the backpedal and witness wells of ink spilled to separate the obscene from the not-so-bad; the sixties from the aughts; the "hobby" from the "vocation." (Daniel has this backwards: Wright's job is to preach; it is his pastime to advocate condom usage.)

There are only two possible ways to account for Obama's relationship with Wright, and I'd be gratified to see Daniel state here which he suspects is the truth.

The first is the one I find more credible; namely, that having no religious belief whatsoever, Obama joined Trinity because he found it an easy and convenient access point to the slightly seedy, and heavily populist world of Chicago politics. He never left because he continued to draw political dividends from his association. He is a thoughtful, decent man by nature, but he is also ambitious and, perhaps driven by desire for "change," is willing to sacrifice certain principles in order to get ahead and accomplish it. Without resorting to equivalence — and part of my beef with Daniel is that he can't say "Obama" without saying "Clinton" in the next breath — we must judge the following by this set of circumstances: Obama is guilty of cynicism and calculation, and also dishonesty before his fellow churchgoers and the country to whom he presents the opposing explanation for his involvement with Wright. That is, as recent transplant from Hawaii to Chicago, Obama discovered Trinity and the hopeful, honied sermons of its head minister; he was so moved by them that they ignited in him the spark of the divine and encouraged his desire to do good in the community and beyond (titling his book after one of Wright's optimistic phrases). Obama never heard a word beyond what he deems "controversial" pass the lips of his beloved pastor in either a private or public forum. Withal, and despite a few admitted hiccups of poor judgment on Wright's part which were well known — meeting with Gaddafi in '84 (some of my best friends met with Gaddafi; what of it, Torquemada?), extolling the virtues of Farrakhan, sounding like that uncorked uncle at the dinner table we can't renounce but simply roll our eyes at — Obama remained in Wright's flock because, on the fundamentals, Wright was right. In either possibility, I find myself asking the same question: What kind of judgment does this show in a man with aspirations for high office, an obvious intellectual, an avowed "uniter"? Are we to believe that religion and charity could only be found in such pulpit-pounding, vulgarian form? And here I must resort to equivalence: where other politicians might be mercenary in forging alliances of convenience with people they have only met a few times, and whose catechism they never claimed occupied such great power and urgency in their own lives, Obama failed to take the full measure of a man he and his family have known intimately for twenty years. This is bothersome on its face. Why it required a lesson plan on race hostility in America is another question.

I don't know what percentage of Wright's sermons over the years can be counted in the nutbag category, and what percentage are more of the harmless "Audacity of Hope" variety. Neither does Daniel, who nevertheless concludes that the total picture of this multifaceted, self-contradictory, complex man is "unsympathetic."

I am then offered the challenge (and so are you): "If anyone can find a reference to one of the horrific white evangelicals McCain has courted committing to tolerance for people different from them, I'll stand corrected." Sen. Sam Brownback is not a man whose sinister role in American politics I would find myself racing to explain away or complicate overmuch. But there is one area in which I would be honorbound to give this pious devil his due: It was good, decent and courageous of him to bang on about the genocide in Darfur when no one else was doing so. Why do I say it was courageous? Because part of the reason for the Bush administration's foot-dragging in addressing this atrocity was its fear of destroying the gains made in southern Sudan, where a civil war between Muslims and Christians had been just been concluded. (The facilitation of which is still widely cited as the Bush administration's finest hour in foreign policy.) The evangelical right, of which Brownback is so stridently a part, clearly understood that such an infant and tenuous peace agreement could be jeopardized by Darfur interventionism, since both were at the mercy of the horrific Khartoum regime. Nevertheless, he stood on principle and screamed bloody murder.

Sen. Brownback has endorsed John McCain. Daniel accuses me of "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."

Donnie McClurkin, for what it's worth, is an "ex-gay" gospel singer who performed at three of Obama's "Embrace the Change" rallies. Speaking in October before a crowd of 2,000 in South Carolina, a state Obama went on to win in the primary, McClurkin had this to say: "I don't speak against the homosexuals. I tell you that God delivered me from homosexuality. No matter what blog you read, let me tell you, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature!" The Obama camp didn't repudiate this philosophy either; it merely added an openly gay man to take part in the morning prayer as a way of assuaging angry gay activists.

Now go back to my original post and please tell me where I get into any of this (the name McClurkin is merely quoted by the commenter at Queerty in the course of his broader indictment of James Meeks.) The real "McClurkin factor" in this debate was confined to private correspondence with Daniel, and so I would ask that, in re-pasting his letters to me for public consumption, he at least make it a point of etiquette not to speak out of turn like this, or to attribute points and assertions to me in print that I have not yet published. He also quotes words ("probity," "suasion") I had not written here, only to him. This is all in the way of providing the reader with badly-needed context. (See, I'm not such a binaristic baddie after all.)

However, since he brought it up, allow me to knock away this dangerously imbalanced equation and with it, needless paragraphs with which Daniel — a bit high on his own supply, I must say — alights his own overstuffed straw man and begins to grow self-pitying: I don't accuse Obama of homophobia, only opportunism. He is an advocate of gay rights, to be sure (though Daniel's wrong: Dennis Kucinich was the best candidate for president, according to this criterion.) Yet Obama seems not at all reluctant to allow crass, bigoted members of the black community to stump for him now that they might produce greater electoral draws for him in November. Is it really so pardonable to tussle with homophobes and then invite them to make you president, or at least acquiesce in their willingness to do so? Daniel lauds his own utilitarian credentials, and yet a simple search through the Jewcy archives will show that he also knows how to call out a low campaign style when he sees one — so long as it belongs to Clinton or McCain.

"Is Michael honestly prepared to suggest that [Obama] 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?"

One rubs the eyes. Do not politicians routinely court those whose opinions they have elsewhere denounced?  And is this really such a staggering concept for a political commentator to grasp? 

It's not a negligible point to ask what even a moderately pro-gay rights stance has cost McCain politically. The backing of James Dobson, for one thing, and the enmity of other movement conservatives, who couldn't abide by McCain's opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment in the Senate. On points of legislature, and owing to his longer tenure, he has amassed more material results on behalf of the gay community than Obama has done. (And oh what heartbreak will ensue when the former state senator accustomed to voting "present" must make law-law and not just jaw-jaw.)

On a related note, I broke one of my earlier rules. This should have gone up top in the response-to-triviality section: I'm accused of lifting evidence against James Meeks from a commenter at Queerty, in which said commenter was responding to an article defending Obama on gay rights. Gotcha. Or mea culpa, if you like. Worse still: James Meeks must be a figment of my imagination because his resume was recounted at that site by a (cover your ears, darlings) Hillary Clinton supporter! Mea maxima culpa. The interested will find that all that evidence about Meeks — from his place on Obama's presidential exploratory committee, to his appearance in TV ads for Obama, to his prominent campaign appearances with the candidate — can be substantiated. The Chicago Sun-Times piece referring to "Fright Night" is available here. An excerpt from Cathleen Falsani's book on Obama's spirituality, which mentions the Meeks connection, is available here. See also David Ehrenstein's brief against Meeks in the Chicago Tribune, here.

I have more: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center,

The Rev. James Meeks is a key member of Chicago's "Gatekeepers" network, an interracial group of evangelical ministers who strive to erase the division between church and state. A stalwart anti-gay activist, Meeks has used his House of Hope mega-church to launch petition drives for the Illinois Family Institute (IFI), a major state-level "family values" pressure group that lauded him last year for leading African Americans in "clearly understanding the threat of gay marriage." With over 22,000 members, Meeks' congregation was large enough to buoy his successful 2002 campaign for state senator. Last year, he ran for governor as a virtual single-issue candidate, drawing national support from Christian fundamentalists by boldly vowing to fight marriage equality at every turn. Meeks eventually dropped out of the race. Meeks and the [Illinois Family Institute] are partnered with Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund, major anti-gay organizations of the Christian Right. They also are tightly allied with Americans for Truth, an Illinois group that said in a press release last year that "fighting AIDS without talking against homosexuality is like fighting lung cancer without talking against smoking."

A key player in the Obama campaign has more in common, then, with James Dobson than McCain does. No matter — fodder for debunking the myth of the maverick on another day is smoke and mirrors today because Obama is against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and for bolstering civil unions. Or who knows. We learn the truth about his positions when he fires or chastises an adviser for speaking it; whether it pertains to his unconditional policy of withdrawal from Iraq immediately until he becomes commander-in-chief and "reserves the right" to reassess the situation, or to a sung trade policy that applies only to working-class Democrats in Ohio. On Sundays. During a full moon.

Anyway, as to the minutiae of my quoting a commenter, Daniel did not give us the full speech from Frederick Douglass; he linked to a reader's email (and that, presumably, of a fervent Obama supporter) sent to Sullivan and citing just the one extract. There. Are we even now? As for a profound tu quoque: a McCain maneuver that Daniel would have sniffed out in a millisecond finds him wielding his "nuance" brush with abandon all over Obama's chief political liability. He grows defensive when I suggest he is acting out of partisanship, and he falsely attributes demands I never made of him: "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." No, I'd have settled for nothing at all. What pissed me off was Wright = MLK = Douglass. (Except of course when one of them was being "inculpated" and the rest "exculpated;" though only Daniel and I guess Demosthenes knows which is which and when to use what.) Evidently, though, I've been deceitful, too. According to Daniel, I've been implying, never asserting "Obama shares Wright's views of white people or foreign policy," all the while asserting "Obama is an imperfect man who joined a black-liberation church to assuage his psychological qualms and remained partly out of expediency." Goodness. Well, I should think that by saying the second the first would be rather difficult logically to imply. But then Daniel says my game is to intermix the two by "osmosis," so now I'm just confused as to what my Machiavellian chem-lab intentions were in the first place.

I'm also accused of having ice water in my veins, or acting as if all my friends were the very picture of intellectual salubrity and moral rectitude. "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." Nor would I. Yet I would also not take communion from such a person, compare my voluntary friendship with him to an involuntary family relation, or try to convince the world that, after twenty years of knowing each other, I had never heard him utter anything beyond "controversial" — if only because this would make me appear and feel foolish. Obama is only human, was what he supposed to do? I don't speak for my fellow osmotic n'er-do-wells here, but I'd have been satisfied with Obama's profession of complicated loyalty to Wright, inflected with admission of strong disagreement with him, without the further imputation — and I know I made this plain in my post about his speech — that all black men of Wright's generation have the ghost of such a worldview still to exorcise. I found that objectionable and demeaning, and also narcissistic because it does smack of an all-too-Christian and all-too-fallible moral axiom rejiggered to serve a political purpose: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Well, as against Wright, I know of plenty of people who are as innocents before the Fall, so: "Incoming!"

Many died in the 60's fighting institutional racism without collapsing into a void of fear-mongering, paranoia and conspiracy. I don't say that out of some sickly-sweet deification of figures like King. (As it happens, I agree with I.F. Stone that the "I Have a Dream" speech was "saccharine." I much prefer "Letter from a Birmingham Jail.") Elevate Wright, and do we not lower others and their legacies? Extrapolate from his one-man scandal of a persona a national discussion about race, and do we not create a snare for ourselves when next confronted with an oily charlatan with a bill of goods to sell and a trail of tears for us to follow?

We have been talking about race, ad nauseum. Imus, Richards — oh so much nuance and healing proffered on their gutter-mouthed behalves. We cannot escape the topic, and nor will black comedians white people can't imitate at the office fail to remind us of the raging id beneath the thin integument of civility and decorum. Had Jeremiah Wright been webmaster of "Stuff White People Like," we'd have all laughed and looked away. Instead, he is who he is: a "dumb preacher," to use Daniel's elegant variation, who thinks the answer is not hosting dinner parties but murdering civilians out of Biblical bloodlust. For shame.

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