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Friday, May 9, 2008

But Not If You are White: Reverend Wright One More Time

Even though the Reverend Wright issue is no longer associated with Barack, this piece by Bill Moyers shows the continuing double standard to which blacks are held. White preachers who violate American values are let off the hook, while the black preachers who are critical are labeled anti-American. Obama was made to distance himself from Wright, while white preachers who make outrageous statements are invited to dinner in the White House. The difference is white nationalism. Being loyal or patriotic to "the white nation" is permissive. Mort Zukerman of U.S. News and World Report on the McLaughlin Group compared Jeremiah Wright to the Klan. Where is the sense of proportion here? The Klan is a white supremacist terrorist organization with a long despicable history of violence. Since when is complaining about the injustices of America the equivalent of committing the terror and injustices? Moreover, this is the same Morton Zuckerman who writes a letter of defense of Pastor John Hagee to the New York Times because Hagee is a supporter of Isreal. It is understandable why so many Americans are so screwed up in how the view the world. We can thank the shapers of knowledge like Morton Zuckerman. This is reminiscent of the reseach shown on "OutFoxed," the more viewers watched that network, the less they knew.

I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam, "Who's telling the truth over there?" "Everyone, he said. "Everyone sees what's happening through the lens of their own experience." That's how people see Jeremiah Wright. In an earlier conversation with him and in his dramatic public appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto the public stage. Over 2000 of you have written me about him, and your opinions vary widely. Some sting: "Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American hating radical," one viewer wrote. A "nut case," said another. Others were far more were sympathetic to him.

Many of you have asked for some rational explanation for Wright's transition from reasonable conversation to shocking anger at the National Press Club. A psychologist might pull back some of the layers and see this complicated man more clearly, but I'm not a psychologist. Many black preachers I've known — scholarly, smart, and gentle in person — uncorked fire and brimstone in the pulpit. Of course I've known many white preachers like that, too.

But where I grew up in the south, before the civil rights movement, the pulpit was a safe place for black men to express anger for which they would have been punished anywhere else; a safe place for the fierce thunder of dignity denied, justice delayed. I think I would have been angry if my ancestors had been transported thousands of miles in the hellish hole of a slave ship, then sold at auction, humiliated, whipped, and lynched. Or if my great-great grandfather had been but three-fifths of a person in a constitution that proclaimed, "We the people." Or if my own parents had been subjected to the racial vitriol of Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond, Bull Connor, and Jesse Helms. Even so, the anger of black preachers I've known and heard about and reported on was, for them, very personal and cathartic.

That's not how Jeremiah Wright came across in those sound bites or in his defiant performances this week. What white America is hearing in his most inflammatory words is an attack on the America they cherish and that many of their sons have died for in battle, forgetting that black Americans have fought and bled beside them, and that Wright himself has a record of honored service in the Navy. Hardly anyone took the "chickens come home to roost" remark to convey the message that intervention in the political battles of other nations is sure to bring retaliation in some form, which is not to justify the particular savagery of 9/11 but to understand that actions have consequences. My friend Bernard Weisberger, the historian, says, yes, people are understandably seething with indignation over Wright's absurd charge that the United States deliberately brought an HIV epidemic into being. But it is a fact, he says, that within living memory the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study that deliberately deceived black men with syphilis into believing that they were being treated, while actually letting them die for the sake of a scientific test. Does this excuse Wright's anger? His exaggerations or distortions? You'll have to decide or yourself. At least it helps me to understand the why of them.

But in this multimedia age the pulpit isn't only available on Sunday mornings. There's round the clock media — the beast whose hunger is never satisfied, especially for the fast food with emotional content. So the preacher starts with rational discussion and after much prodding throws more and more gasoline on the fire that will eventually consume everything it touches. He had help — people who for their own reasons set out to conflate the man in the pulpit who wasn't running for president with the man in the pew who was.

Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee's delusions, or thinks AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God's judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.

Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong -- white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren't.

Which means it is all about race, isn't it? Wright's offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn't fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone's neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettles some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I've never seen anything like this -- this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said "beware the terrible simplifiers."

May 2, 2008


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