Tag Archives: Wright

You’re no MLK

Guess who this is:

Like other American heroes . . . . [NAME] was not a simple figure. He inclined toward democratic socialism as the answer to poverty. In his opposition to the Vietnam War, he called America "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and thundered that God might "break the backbone" of American power. Toward the end of his short life — after years of fire hoses and attack dogs, wiretaps and bomb threats — [NAME] became increasingly isolated and depressed.

Sounds like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright–or someone equally "angry."  But no, it's Martin Luther King.  One might be tempted from such a description to rethink the universal condemnation of Reverend Wright.  In his own context, Martin Luther King said some pretty astounding things about God's judgment of American arrogance.  But where one might draw lessons from history, Michael Gerson sees only differences.  People other than King, you know, the people like the Reverend Wright (Gerson oddly doesn't use any of Wright's words in this piece on why he's no MLK), are unamerican.

Under King's leadership, the civil rights movement affirmed several principles: a belief that Providence favors justice and forbids despair; a belief that even the most bigoted whites have a core of humanity that might be touched and redeemed; a belief that American ideals were the ultimate answer to America's sins.

These beliefs were often criticized by King's contemporaries such as Malcolm X (who dismissed the 1963 March on Washington as the "Farce on Washington") and Stokely Carmichael (who argued that voting rights were "irrelevant to the lives of black people"). And these beliefs remain controversial with leaders such as Wright and professor James Cone, the father of black liberation theology. "Black theology," wrote Cone, "will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy."

The problem with this approach is not that it is political, or even liberal — the African American church has generally been both. The problem is that it leads to a dead end of anger, conspiracy theories and futility. And it ignores the deeper radicalism of the American experiment — the radicalism of full citizenship and justice for every American — that inspired King, and that will inspire others.

The problem with Wright, you see, is that he seems to claim that the American experiment (when will people stop saying that?  The experiment is over by now) hasn't produced "full citizenship and justice for every American."  How dare he.

Media metric

One might make a distinction between two approaches to argument analysis.  One approach looks at the assembly of facts asserted and wonders whether they ought to be candidates for assent.  The other approach, the rhetorical approach, measures an argument's effectiveness at producing beliefs, actions, policies, etc., independently of its mastery of "logic" or "facts" or anything else.  It's actually quite easy to determine whether arguments are successful on this approach, as you simply measure their effectiveness by the methods of quantitative sociology. 

One frequently relied upon rhetorical metric is the press (there are others–polling for instance).  Take the political press–find out what they're talking about, and you have a pretty good idea who is winning what argument (especially come election time).  This quick and dirty heuristic, however, grants the political press (a rather small group not representative of anything or elected by anyone) a lot of power in determining whether candidates are up to snuff.  And it also has the effect of making pettiness the center of the democratic process (hold the laughs).  To my mind, if you're going to measure the rhetorical effectiveness of "arguments," then at least pick a better measure than what the political press is yammering about. Here for instance is the view of a letter writer for the New York Times:

Recent articles help to clarify Barack Obama’s weakness not so much as a candidate but more basically as a potential functioning president.

Mr. Obama has been powerless to moderate the controversial views of his former pastor and, according to his campaign, Mr. Obama can now do nothing to deter the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. from his divisive course.

Mr. Obama has chosen to separate himself from Mr. Wright, but even this decisive if belated action undercuts and perhaps illustrates the limitations of his claimed ability to bring us together. 

That fact that two things are getting talked about together is enough for this letter writer to suppose some kind of meaningful causal connection: after all, people wouldn't be talking about Obama and Wright if Obama were a better candidate, would they?  Obama ought to be able to shut the process down, and his failure to do that is evidence of his weakness as a candidate (the press can't shut up about it, after all). 

This reminds of an episode of Nightline on the Swift Boat business.  The moderator (or whatever you call him), asked entirely self-referential questions about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  He reveled in the curiousity and the interest that people in the press, like him, were talking about the Swift Boat story.  He wasn't talking about whether it was true, but only what it meant.  And the fact itself that he was talking about it meant something, didn't it?  He wouldn't be talking about it if it weren't important.


The Wright Stuff

As far as I know, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright does not work for the Obama campaign.  Obama has, in fact, "rejected and repudiated" some of what the good reverend has to say.  But that has no bearing on those, like George Will, who insist somehow that Wright stands for Obama:

Because John McCain and other legislators worry that they are easily corrupted, there are legal limits to the monetary contributions that anyone can make to political candidates. There are, however, no limits to the rhetorical contributions that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright can make to McCain's campaign.

Because Wright is a gift determined to keep on giving, this question arises: Can persons opposed to Barack Obama's candidacy justly make use of Wright's invariably interesting interventions in the campaign? The answer is: Certainly, because Wright's paranoias tell us something — exactly what remains to be explored — about his 20-year parishioner.

Do they now.  What would they tell us about Obama?  Will of course follows this with selected and outrageous passages from recent (post-Obama disavowal–but that's really beside the point anyway) remarks by Reverend Wright.  One of these, by the way, is the wholly obvious suggestion that something about our foreign policy has made us the targets of terrorism.  I know it has always been 

The crux of the matter, of course, is whether (1) there is any reasonable connection between Obama's beliefs and Wright's, and (2) whether Wright's beliefs are that outrageous in the first place.  

Let's take two first.  Certainly some of Wright's beliefs hinge on the conspiratorial (in case you don't know what a conspiracy is, that's like saying "global warming is a hoax" or "tax cuts produce more revenue" or "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction" or "Iran is the new Hitler" or "the world was created in six literal days a few thousand years ago" and "there is a gay agenda"–you get the idea).  But we might remember that McCain has welcomed the support of a Pastor who advocates immanentizing the eschaton in the most literal of ways.  And no one thinks McCain must believe the same thing.  Many of Wright's statements–such as the one about terrorism–seem hardly outrageous.  But it's clear in any case that Will doesn't care to have a discussion with Wright.  

He's more interested in cultivating (1) Wright's connection with Obama.  Here it is: 

He is a demagogue with whom Obama has had a voluntary 20-year relationship. It has involved, if not moral approval, certainly no serious disapproval. Wright also is an ongoing fountain of anti-American and, properly understood, anti-black rubbish. His speech yesterday demonstrated that he wants to be a central figure in this presidential campaign. He should be. 

Umberto Eco once observed, about computers, that MacIntosh is Catholic, while DOS is protestant.  With Catholicism, you're not really free to pick and choose (thus the criticism of John Kerry–why don't you agree with every last thing the Pope says?  Your disagreeing makes you dishonest!!!!); with protestantism, it's expected you pick and choose (of course John McCain doesn't have to agree with every last crazy belief of Hagee et alia–they're protestants!).  So why should this be any different for Obama?  

Besides, as far as I know, Wright's church does not have a doctrine of infallibility.  That would be crazy.