Barack Obama seems to be making quite a habit of throwing overboard any black person associated with him who might have spoken an uncomfortable truth or raised some disturbing questions at some point in their lives. First his lifelong friend and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, now his "green jobs" advisor, Van Jones. As Jonathan Schwarz puts it:
Van Jones is a genuinely worthwhile person, from which it follows he's someone whom America's right-wing would inevitably go berserk about. Yet if Obama were willing to face down their berserkitude, this would mean I would have to redraw my mental map of who and what Obama is.
Thank god that turned out not to be necessary. I have enough on my plate as it is.
It's like the old saying: When the going gets tough, the tough get panicked and start throwing people under the bus.
I hope Michelle is keeping an eye out for any Greyhounds coming down the street.
Let's look again at the precursor to Obama's latest cave-in to rightwing white folks: his skewering of Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign. It's worth re-considering as an indicator of the character and outlook of the man -- traits we are seeing confirmed, over and over, now that he's in power.
Arthur Silber wrote with savage brilliance on this subject last April, and you should read his piece in full. Taking off from that deep foundation, I offered a few observations of my own at the time, which are excerpted below:
On Monday, Barack Obama humiliated and demeaned himself with yet another denunciation of his old friend and mentor, Jeremiah Wright. But there was no "national dialogue on race" this time around -- just cold, flat-out condemnation. Obama even declared that Wright was "not the same man I've known for 20 years" anymore -- echoing the newly crowned King Henry's blast at Falstaff: "I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers." ...
Obama ridiculed Wright for "caricaturing himself" at a National Press Club appearance, and declared that his preacher was a vain showboat: "What mattered to him was commanding center stage." Obama bristled with disdain as he condemned Wright for his "divisive and destructive" remarks....
But this is indeed a curious and telling episode. If one actually takes the trouble to read Wright's remarks before the Press Club -- which almost no journalist in America did, although they are easily available at the Washington Post's web site -- it is difficult to see what in God's name all the brouhaha is about. Even Wright's most "controversial" remarks -- about AIDS, Louis Farrakhan and, in Obama's words, "equating America's wartime efforts with terrorism" -- are couched in plausible contexts, and are actually more nuanced than the, well, caricature of them that Obama condemned. Most ludicrous of all were Obama's hysterics about the "divisiveness" of Wright's remarks, when the theme of racial and cultural and religious reconciliation was sounded over and over throughout the appearance.
At any rate, let's do something really radical here. Let's actually see what Wright actually said. The quotes below are from the WP transcript. Now, I realize that reading a transcript is different from watching a "spectacle," as Obama put it, on the Tee-Vee. ... But still, there are scattered pockets out there where words still mean something, so let us consult the text. Here's Wright on the "black church":
The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive. It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors....what you see is God's desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.
God's desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people. God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.
God's desire is for positive change, transformation, real change, not cosmetic change, transformation, radical change or a change that makes a permanent difference, transformation. God's desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world.
Well, perhaps Obama is correct, after all. This is pretty divisive stuff. It divides the miniscule sliver of rapacious elites (and their sycophants) from the vast majority of the American population. Obviously, when Obama says he is trying "to bridge the gap between different kinds of people," he wants to reconcile "the poor, the widows, the marginalized" with "the powerful few." The former should learn to love the latter -- and for God's sake not seek to change any social orders or sick systems. No, that kind of talk is indeed "appalling." As Obama says: "It is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country." Good to know, Barack. Thanks for clearing that up for us.
Wright goes on:
Our congregation, as you heard in the introduction, took a stand against apartheid when the government of our country was supporting the racist regime of the African government in South Africa.
Our congregation stood in solidarity with the peasants in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while our government, through Ollie North and the Iran-Contra scandal, was supporting the Contras, who were killing the peasants and the Miskito Indians in those two countries.
Our congregation sent 35 men and women through accredited seminaries to earn their master of divinity degrees, with an additional 40 currently being enrolled in seminary, while building two senior citizen housing complexes and running two child care programs for the poor, the unemployed, the low-income parents on the south side of Chicago for the past 30 years. Our congregation feeds over 5,000 homeless and needy families every year, while our government cuts food stamps and spends billions fighting in an unjust war in Iraq.
Our congregation has sent dozens of boys and girls to fight in the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and the present two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week, while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service, while sending ... while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls of every race to die over a lie.
This is what Obama called "a very different vision of America" from the one that he espouses. Obama is "outraged" by this kind of com-symp stuff -- dissing Oliver North, for God's sake! Why, the mind boggles at such anti-American divisive unpatrioticness! Outrage indeed!
Then Wright got to the heart of his divisive, destructive, racist remarks:
God wants us reconciled, one to another. And that third principle in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.
When Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were dragged out of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, during the same year, 1787, when the Constitution was framed in Philadelphia, for daring to kneel at the altar next to white worshippers, they founded the Free African Society and they welcomed white members into their congregation to show that reconciliation was the goal, not retaliation.
Absalom Jones became the rector of the St. Thomas Anglican Church in 1781, and St. Thomas welcomed white Anglicans in the spirit of reconciliation.
Richard Allen became the founding pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the motto of the AME Church has always been, "God our father, man our brother, and Christ our redeemer." The word "man" included men and women of all races back in 1787 and 1792, in the spirit of reconciliation.....
And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of God's children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are.
Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.
That was the end of his prepared remarks. He did not mention AIDS, Farrakhan or the War on Terror in the talk; these were all brought up by questioners afterward. And his responses formed the soundbites which will now reverberate in the media echo chamber from now until election day. So let's take a look at these controversial remarks.
First, what Obama called "such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS." After citing some books on the subject, Wright said:
I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven't read things, then you can't -- based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything. In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the -- one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales records. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.
So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people, and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.
I personally don't believe that the U.S. government concocted the AIDs virus; but the notion that a government which conducted murderous medical experiments on black men for decades, and sold chemical weaponry to a brutal dictator (and, by providing military intelligence, helped him use them against the Iranians), and also launched a war of aggression in Iraq that has killed at least million innocent people might also be capable of creating and unleashing a deadly disease is certainly not implausible. (See Arthur Silber for much more on this.)
Now what about Farrakhan? Obama denounced Wright for saying that Farrakhan was "one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st centuries." Of course, Wright didn't say that. He said Farrakhan was one of the "most important" voices, because he was able to reach millions -- and move them to action. This is simply a statement of fact. Adolph Hitler was one of the most important voices of the 20th century for the same reason. And so was Martin Luther King Jr. Let's go to the tape:
So what I think about [Farrakhan], as I've said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That's what I think about him. I've said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, it's like E.F. Hutton speaks, all black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.
As for terrorism, Wright simply referred the questioners to his previous "controversial" sermon on the matter. And here's what he said in that sermon:
I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday. Did anybody else see him or hear him? He was on Fox News. This is a white man, and he was upsetting the Fox News commentators to no end. He pointed out, (Did you see him, John?) -- a white man -- he pointed out -- an ambassador -- that what Malcolm X said when he got silenced by Elijah Muhammad was in fact true; America's chickens are coming home to roost.
We took this country, by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapajo, the Navajo. Terrorism -- we took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism. We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians -- babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with Stealth Bombers and killed unarmed teenagers, and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard working fathers. [fullest voice] We bombed Khaddafi, his home and killed his child. Blessed be they who bash your children's head against the rocks.
We bombed Iraq, we killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed the plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy -- killed hundreds of hard-working people -- mothers and fathers, who left home to go that day, not knowing they'd never get back home. [Even fuller voice] We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye. Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school -- civilians, not soldiers. People just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas is brought back into our own front yards.
America's chickens are coming home to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism.
A White ambassador said that, y'all, not a black militant. Not a Reverend who preaches about racism; an ambassador whose eyes are wide open, and who's trying to get us to wake up, and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised.
So there you have it. This is what Obama calls "equating the United States' wartime efforts with terrorism."
Let's give Obama the benefit of the doubt when he says he is not just "politically posturing" in his denunciations, that he is speaking from the heart. What are we left with? That his "vision of America" does not include any "positive change, transformation, real change, not cosmetic change" in a "social order that has gone sour." And that the "War on Terror" is just peachy-keen with him; in fact, it is so sacrosanct that it cannot even be criticized. A war of aggression that kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people cannot be compared with "terrorism"; it is a legitimate expression of national policy, even if one might disagree with its timing and the mechanics of its execution.
Seen anything in the past eight months that would prove this wrong? Me neither.
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P.S. It's been almost a month since we had the last transmission from Arthur Silber, a rather harrowing bulletin from the midst of an horrific health crisis. I don't know what his situation is at the moment, but it is likely to be very dire. If you have any spare wherewithal at all, please consider sending some of it his way, to help see him through this current bout.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on September 7, 2009.