Rev. Jeremiah Wright isn't the problem

The hysteria over Obama's former pastor's attacks on America shows we're still in thrall to knee-jerk patriotism.

Published March 25, 2008 11:12AM (EDT)

Maybe we really are doomed to elect John McCain, remain in Iraq forever and nuke Iran. Nations that forget history may not be doomed to repeat it, but those that never even recognize reality in the first place definitely are. Last week's ridiculous uproar over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons proves yet again that America has still not come to terms with the most rudimentary facts about race, 9/11 -- or itself.

The great shock so many people claim to be feeling over Wright's sermons is preposterous. Anyone who is surprised and horrified that some black people feel anger at white people, and America, is living in a racial never-never land. Wright has called the U.S. "the United States of White America," talks about the "oppression" of black people and says, "White America got their wake-up call after 9/11." Gosh, who could have dreamed that angry racial grievances and left-wing political views are sometimes expressed in black churches?

It's not surprising that the right is using Wright to paint Barack Obama as a closet Farrakhan, trying to let the air out of his trans-racial balloon by insinuating that he's a dogmatic race man. But beyond the fake shock and the all-too-familiar racial politics, what the whole episode reveals is how narrow the range of acceptable discourse remains in this country. This is especially true of anything having to do with patriotism or 9/11 -- which have become virtually interchangeable. Wright's unforgivable sin was that he violated our rigid code of national etiquette. Instead of the requisite "God bless America," he said "God damn America." He said 9/11 was a case of chickens coming home to roost. Now we must all furrow our brows and agree that such dreadful words are anathema and that no presidential candidate can ever have been within earshot of them.

This is absurd. We're worrying about someone in Row 245 who refuses to stand up for "The Star Spangled Banner," while the people who are singing loudest and waving the biggest flags are the ones who got us into the mess we're in today.

Wright isn't the problem. Stupid patriotism is the problem.

We are now five years into a war that may outrank Vietnam as the most pointless and disastrous one in our history. George W. Bush and his neoconservative brain trust conceived that war, but they were only able to push it through because the American people, their political leaders and the mainstream media signed off on it. And they did so because they were in the grip of the fearful, vengeful, patriotic frenzy that swept the nation after 9/11. Without 9/11 and America's fateful reaction to it, there would be no Iraq war. Every day that the war drags on is yet another indictment of that self-righteous, unthinking "patriotism."

Bill Clinton's line that McCain and Hillary are "two people who love their country" may or may not have been intended to subtly denigrate Obama's patriotism. But whatever it meant, it didn't have anything to do with the actual problems facing the country. Loving America more than your opponent does is not a qualification for higher office.

In fact, the same all-American flag-wavers who called loudest for war against Iraq are now denouncing Wright as a hate-monger and a traitor, and attacking Michelle Obama for saying that only recently has she had reason to feel proud of her country. They insist that anyone who is not permanently proud of the United States, whose patriotism isn't plastered on his or her face like the frozen smile of a beauty queen waving from a Fourth of July float, is beyond the pale. Never mind that the glorious results of their debased version of patriotism -- 4,000 American troops dead, a wrecked Iraq, and a greatly strengthened terrorist enemy -- are plain for all to see.

You wouldn't expect the Republican Party, Fox News, Bill Kristol or the readers of FreeRepublic to issue any mea culpas -- they don't acknowledge that they've done anything wrong. But the mainstream media's pious tut-tutting over the Wright affair shows that it, too, has learned nothing from its disgraceful post 9/11 performance. The worst excesses of media groveling -- the flag pins, the instructions not to run anti-U.S. stories -- may be history, but the timorous mind-set remains the same.

Its reaction to Wright shows that the American establishment still cowers before the patriotic idol. It cited the "God damn America" sermon again and again, like the Spanish Inquisition ritually intoning the words of some heretic before drawing and quartering him. It didn't matter that Wright uttered his curse in the context of demanding that America live up to its ideals -- all that mattered were those three talismanic words. Anyone this angry, our media gatekeepers solemnly informed us, must be rejected. The only question was whether Obama was irrevocably tainted by his association with the evildoer. Wright's "chickens coming home to roost" line about 9/11 produced the same unthinking, reflexive reaction. How dare this apostate suggest that America might not be blameless, that its actions could have had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks?

This isn't a brief for Wright. I'm not a fan of Sharpton-style black demagoguery, with its knee-jerk grievance and identity politics. I don't know Wright's political philosophy or racial views well enough to place him on the vast spectrum of black leaders. Based on the few clips I've seen and the excerpts I've read, Wright certainly has his shortcomings. His preaching can be over-the-top, crude and ludicrous. His assertion that the U.S. government spread AIDS in the black population is a caricature of paranoid black demagoguery. In his "chickens coming home to roost" sermon, when he thundered that America's sins were being revisited upon us, he failed to make the essential distinction between saying U.S. actions were partly responsible for the attacks and saying that we deserved the attacks. At times his aggressive, almost gloating tone and delivery made it seem like that's exactly what he was saying.

But if Wright's "chickens" sermon was unpleasant, the fact is that it was also largely right. He had the bad taste, and the courage, to say exactly what America did not want to hear at that moment. He said that although those who were murdered by terrorists were innocent, America itself was far from innocent. He placed 9/11 in a historical context, instead of pretending that it emerged out of nowhere. Critically, he said that lashing out in vengeful anger, however tempting, was not a wise or just response. To make this point, he used the Bible against itself, citing the terrible Verse 9 of Psalm 137, in which David, speaking in imagination to his Babylonian captors, gives voice to his people's desire for vengeance: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." This path, Wright pointed out, had biblical sanction. But it was not the right one.

Yes, Wright was angry, shrill and one-sided. But America would have been better off if his uncomfortable sermon had echoed through every church in the country after 9/11, instead of the patriotic, ahistorical pablum that did.

What's strange, and depressing, is that all this has happened before -- and we've learned nothing. In the days after 9/11, the nation whipped itself up into an ecstasy of moral sanctimony. Among the few who dared to resist the groupthink was Susan Sontag, who in a brief New Yorker piece wrote, "The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"

Sontag was saying the same things Wright did. Like him, she was instantly pilloried. She was called a traitor, an enemy of the state, an appeaser, a supporter of Osama bin Laden. But she was right.

Today, after five years of a catastrophic war driven by patriotic vengeance, it's still not acceptable to disturb the myth of eternal American innocence. As David Bromwich wrote in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, "the uniformity of the presentation by the mass media after 2001, to the effect that the United States now faced threats arising from a fanaticism with religious roots unconnected to anything America had done or could do, betrayed a stupefying abdication of judgment." Stupefying indeed: Patriotism has proved to be a stronger opiate of the people than religion.

The taboo against any critical national self-examination has always existed here. But 9/11 sealed it in blood and made it virtually untouchable. Only a few academics, Middle East specialists and outspoken journalists have dared to suggest that U.S. foreign policies played a role in the 9/11 attacks. The Democrats, terrified of being called unpatriotic and "weak on national security," won't go there. Which is a big reason that the desperately needed national discussion over how to deal with the Arab/Muslim world after Bush leaves office still hasn't started.

Turkey has a notorious law, Article 301, that makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime. We're a lot closer to this than we like to think. In fact, we can expect John McCain's entire campaign to basically be an American version of Article 301.

Our currently mandated version of patriotism is banal and genteel, as if we are afraid to dig beneath the surface of America and find out what's really there. But there is another tradition of patriotism -- a prophetic one. It is dark, angry, disturbing, even terrifying. And it cannot be dismissed, for its exponents include figures who exist at the very heart of the way Americans define themselves and their nation. Wright was vilified for saying "God damn America." But it turns out that the words are inscribed in our national charter.

In "The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice," the culture critic Greil Marcus looks at the dark visions articulated and made manifest by John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Like Wright, these three figures did more than demand that America live up to its ideals. Whether in their rhetoric or by the example of their lives, they held a prophetic sword over it.

In 1630, Winthrop delivered a sermon to his fellow members of the Massachusetts Bay Company. The line that has gone down in history, oft cited by Ronald Reagan, is "wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill." But Reagan, eager to present America as perfect, omitted the passage that followed. Winthrop warned that if the community of Puritans dealt falsely with their God, they would be cursed "till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are goeing." Marcus describes this terrible image as "the replacement of God by a demon who, as citizens went about their work or leisure, would suddenly devour them."

In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued an equally terrifying warning -- one also largely erased from the national memory. "Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," Lincoln said. But then he added, "Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'" Of this horrific vision, Marcus comments that it is "a call for a reenactment, on a national scale, of an Old Testament sacrifice."

Finally, there is Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, delivered in 1963 in Washington. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," King thundered. Time has smoothed and sentimentalized King's soaring rhetoric; the sheer force of his language has allowed us to convince ourselves that his words came true. But as Marcus points out, they have still not come true -- a fact that makes his great speech both inspiring and unbearably painful.

I am not comparing Jeremiah Wright to these towering figures. My point is that his angry claims that his nation has betrayed its promises of racial equality and a just foreign policy are part of a long and honorable prophetic tradition. It was not critics like Wright who got us into the bloody mess we're in today. That honor belongs to the flag-wavers, the patriots -- "the real Americans."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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