CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Outrageous rubbish

Fair play for false prophets

Do white right-wing preachers have it easier than black left-wing preachers? Is there a double standard?

The political explosion around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was inevitable, given Wright’s personal closeness to Barack Obama and the outrageous rubbish the pastor has offered about AIDS, Sept. 11 and Louis Farrakhan. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — No doubt E.J. Dionne felt like he’d be on wonderfully safe territory in calling for even-handed denunciations of white right-wing preachers and black left-wing preachers.

Following in the footsteps of editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times, Dionne sees no need to delve into the substance of Wright’s “outrageous rubbish.” After all, it was Obama himself who provided the talking points. Everyone else has happily taken cover under the insinuation that Wright’s statements were so far beyond the pale that they did not merit discussion. The effect has been that the misrepresentation of what he said has largely gone unchallenged.

These were Obama’s talking points for the media:

…when [Wright] states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS, when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century, when he equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced.

Yet amidst all the outrage and the denunciation in the current flareup of The Wright Issue, if most Americans were asked if they knew exactly what Wright had said this time around, they would mostly have nothing to say. This time we didn’t get, nor apparently need, any sound bites to be shocked by – we could be shocked by simply being told that he had uttered “outrageous rubbish,” no hard quotes required.

But let’s consider more carefully what so many others have blithely dismissed. Let’s look at the three specific outrages and see whether they fit the level of denunciation they’ve provoked.

1. The US government and AIDS:

… 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 expressing his suspicions about what the US government is capable of doing, Wright cited Medical Apartheid, by Harriet A Washington, published in January, 2007. This is the opening passage from the Washington Post‘s review:

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study remains an ignominious milestone in the intertwined histories of race and medical science in U.S. society. Initiated in 1932, this tragic 40-year long public health project resulted in almost 400 impoverished and unwitting African American men in Macon County, Ala., being left untreated for syphilis. Researchers wanted to observe how the disease progressed differently in blacks in its late stages and to examine its devastating effects with postmortem dissection.

A fresh account of the Tuskegee study, including new information about the internal politics of the panel charged by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare with investigating it in 1972, lies at the center of Harriet A. Washington’s courageous and poignant book. The balance of Medical Apartheid reveals, with arresting detail, that this scandal was neither the first chapter nor the last in the exploitation of black subjects in U.S. medical research. Tuskegee was, in the author’s words, “the longest and most infamous — but hardly the worst — experimental abuse of African Americans. It has been eclipsed in both numbers and egregiousness by other abusive medical studies.”

Although medical experimentation with human subjects has historically involved vulnerable groups, including children, the poor and the institutionalized, Washington enumerates how black Americans have disproportionately borne the burden of the most invasive, inhumane and perilous medical investigations, from the era of slavery to the present day.

Among those outraged by Wright’s suggestion that the US government could have been involved in the creation of HIV, I imagine few could counter his suspicions with any factual information about the real origins of the virus. How many of the pundits could even explain what a retrovirus is, let alone where this particular one came from? Can E.J. Dionne say when and where the first natural reservoir of HIV was discovered?

Wright was rebuked as though he were a flat-earther among enlightened Copernicans.

Whether Wright’s suspicions are baseless, in the light of Tuskegee, the fact that he has them should be neither shocking nor terribly surprising.

2. Wright’s views on Louis Farrakhan:

… 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.

Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan anymore than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro. Do you remember that Ted Koppel show, where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro was our enemy? And he said, “You don’t tell me who my enemies are. You don’t tell me who my friends are.”

Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery.

Suppose Wright made the observation: William F. Buckley was one the most important voices in America. Would anyone have said that he was praising Buckley? Or would they have merely recognized the obvious: that he was drawing attention to the extent of Buckley’s influence?

Wright’s view of Farrakhan is really a response to those who want to minimize Farrakhan’s influence by treating him as a marginal figure. The marginalization of Farrakhan is proscription dressed up as description.

Is Wright correct in saying that when Farrakhan speaks, black Americans — whether they agree with him or not — listen?

As someone who is not a black American, I don’t know, but neither I imagine do most of those white pundits who repeated the claim that Wright had “praised” Farrakhan.

3. Terrorism and the US:

You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you.

For seven years, public discourse in America has conspired to sustain the notion that the term “terrorism” has an unambiguous and objective meaning. Although in theory it is possible that we could all agree on what terrorism is, in practice it has become the prerogative of the US government to determine what are admissible and inadmissible applications of the term. “Terrorism” has become a proprietary brand and the US government holds the copyright.

On April 30, 2008, five Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from a U.S. naval vessel off the Horn of Africa, aimed the town of Dusa Marreb in central Somalia. According to the Washington Post, the strike “leveled a house belonging to the reclusive leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, who was inside at the time with at least one of his top commanders, according to his followers.” Aryo is accused of having ties to al Qaeda. A witness said he counted 16 bodies around the crater where the missile(s) had exploded. On February 29, 2008, the US government granted itself legal authority to blow up Aryo and those in his vicinity by designating the group to which they belong, Al-Shabaab, as a terrorist organization.

Although the Pentagon cannot confirm the number or identities of all the people killed in the missile strike, anyone who would have the audacity to refer to a military action such as this, as an act of “terrorism” is sure to be denounced. Among respectable commentators, the act itself is just as sure to receive little if any comment. Somalia is a lawless state; America’s role in contributing to that lawlessness is a subject supposedly of no interest or concern to the American people.

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6 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Outrageous rubbish

  1. Enzo

    The treatment Wright has been given is beyond contempt. But I have a disagreement with your defence of one of the statements cited.

    “Whether Wright’s suspicions are baseless, in the light of Tuskegee, the fact that he has them should be neither shocking nor terribly surprising.”

    Having come to hold him in high regard after seeing his interview with Moyers and his speech at the NAACP, I was in fact both shocked and terribly surprised. I was also terribly disappointed because such a lapse of rationality and of spiritual and mental equilibrium runs directly contrary to what had nurtured my esteem in the first place.

    Absence any facts or compelling evidence whatsoever, the AIDS issue is not only nothing more than a conspiracy theory: it is a particularly unhealthy and toxic one. All the more so for someone with his religious beliefs and in his position. He should never have gone beyond being curious about it and keeping an eye out for any actual evidence. He had no rational reason to do more. That he did do more gives rise to legitimate suspicion as to what may have motivated him.

    However his considerations about this theory may have evolved over the years, that he continues to do anything other, publicly, than admit to having made a serious mistake is not good. I doubt he doesn’t realise this on occasion himself. I imagine he simply can’t confront owning up to it. And this isn’t good either.

    Wright: “… 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.”

    Wright doesn’t believe your government is capable of doing “anything” any more than you or I do. However he intended the statement to be taken (factually, metaphorically, as a mere insult, or whatever), it succeeds only in confirming his flaw and in giving offence to any who would choose to take offence at such a statement.

    I find it despicable and unjustifiable when anyone, let alone someone like Wright, is attacked for his flaws in the manner that so many have done. But Wright, insisting that his error was anything but evidence of a flaw, certainly didn’t leave them without an excuse — even if such actions are inexcusable — to do so.

    I’ve been following the electoral politics in the U.S. for several months with considerable interest, hopes and excitement. The Wright “scandal” has been a reminder — and I needed it — of the absurd, base level to which such “politics” have fallen in your country. Not God bless America. Not God damn America. God help America.

  2. Carol Elkins

    Enzo’s comments are very close to my own thoughts. Now is a time to see the flaws in both sides of the argument, although that will not happen. Although it is Barack’s raison d’etrre for being President, he can’t do it. Reverend Wright is right in naming political expediency. But Reverend Wright has a worse problem, in my opinion. He is exercising petty personal revenge on Obama. In that light, all of his statements with Moyers and the NAASCP are rendered moot.

  3. Paul Woodward

    I have a hard time with the revenge theory. Revenge for what? When Obama was expected to “throw him under the bus”, he didn’t. Wright had long been aware that the Obama campaign felt a need to distance itself from him. If he resented that, he didn’t need to wait for ABC News to come and dig up sermon clips.

    The media likes to characterize the Moyers interview, NAACP and National Press Club speech as Wright’s “media blitz”, but there’s something seriously disingenuous in that characterization. The truth is that the media has an insatiable appetite for Wright and having avoided the press for several weeks, Wright finally made himself available. Granted, he could have been much more effective had he done the Moyers interview and then retreated, but this whole affair is intrinsically media driven.

    It might sound a stretch, but I even think it’s possible that Wright, knowing he would be toxic to a general election, wanted to give Obama another chance to completely disown him.

  4. Enzo

    If he’d intended to do that, don’t you think he’s smart enough to have done it a whole lot better? Instead of becoming less toxic for a general election, he made himself more toxic.

    No, it was obvious what he was doing on Moyers and the NAACP: he was rehabilitating his reputation. And he was doing it quite well. The speech at the National Press Club was going in the same direction and with similar success. There was no reason for him to have plied such a course, that far, only to veer off message (“I’m not crazy. I’m an intelligent, learned, rather cool guy.”), become angry, stupid and in your face, and thereby blow the gains he’d made.

    It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve figured out how Wright and Obama are different. The difference is that Obama doesn’t get pissed off about the subject of race. Or rather, when he does get pissed off, as we all do on occasion, he doesn’t park himself there, as though it’s the right place to park, and then dare anyone who doesn’t appreciate why he’s parked himself there to make him move to another spot.

    I think I understand why Wright falls into such a trap, a trap we all fall into on occasion, and it has nothing to do race. Race is merely what triggers it. To keep it simple, let’s call it a character flaw. We all have it. When we speak of someone having “character,” perhaps we’re referring, at least in part, to how someone minimises it or keeps it under control.

    Hope here — for Wright or for any of us — lies not in looking for justifications to mitigate the fact of trapping oneself. Hope lies in the willingness to repair any damage and doing whatever one is capable of doing to do so.

    It’s not as though Wright can’t do exactly this. And there’s every reason he should. Whether through future speeches and interviews, op-ed’s, a series of YouTube videos, a web site, whatever, he could effectively repair the damage he’s done to Obama and to himself. Done right, he could do even better than that.

    But before he can be trusted to do anything particularly intelligent on the subject, he’ll have to figure out, or at least get a far better grip on, why he remains so fond of letting race bait him into blowing his cool.

  5. Ian Arbuckle

    In a week when :
    1, your president and his cabinet are confirmed to be war criminals by having been witnessed to having signed off on torture.
    2, your Pentagon has been exposed for its perpetration of coordinated media propaganda in support for a war of aggression, considered a crime against humanity.
    3, one of your presidential candidates talking about “inhalation” of a country that poses no threat to you.
    4, your country bombed a house in Somalia, in an act of war, in a targeted assassination of a man, allegedly and without warrant related to terrorism, an act in violation of all national and international law. While the self same bombs killed an estimated 17 other innocent people including women and children.
    And while all this is happening the latest side show the MSM has their audience concerned about is how much and how often and how far they can make that “uppity half black guy” squirm to criticise his pastor, who dared to cast a shadow on the “great” US of A, and so successfully avoiding anything important and bring the whole thing back to something even the simpletons understand, “race”.

    The Rev. Dr. Wright does not have to invoke the damnation of the almighty on your country, by every account of the list above, and by the fact that most of the people effected by these facts at home apparently cannot even see or care about their implications or the relative importance, means that they and their country are already damned to face the consequences.

    Is the Rev. Dr, Wright, or his suggested “influence” on Obama really the problem? Them chickens will sure be flocking home to roost! Karma for the people who want to poke out their own eyes rather than open them is what it is.

    These discussions have helped me understand better why this issue has been moved to centre stage in this pathetic pre-election, mud slinging fest orchestrated by the MSM.

    Is it not that like racism, or economic exploitation, or political corruption, or lying, torture and wars of aggression, we are faced with a host of evils that require moral responses that our capitalist, competitive, politicised, compromised, and de-humanized institutions have no means of providing, or even accommodating?

    Yet in a market based society every need is mined, even the need for a moral anchor in a sea of lost souls. Obama has learned the power of this hunger for “change” and is mining it for political ends, but he learned it from Rev, Dr. Wright who has spent his life mining it for spiritual and religious ends.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if America and Americans could just vote for someone new and get their immoral slate whipped clean by a savior and march righteously onward into the promised-land, of democracy, freedom, equal opportunity and the right to happiness…. Only in a brainwashed, delusional consumer based society could such a sham be even conceived and subleminally sold.

    The changes needed are inside the individuals. The reality of the construction of the corporative, politicised institutions and all their minions that make them up is, that instead of moral based ideals and goodness, good governance, compassion, and caring coming to the top, it is the tricky, the greedy and sociopaths that float, blotting out the light, feeding the masses with lies and hate and dominating with injustice and tyranny.

    Wright, Obama, you and I know, this elitist construction is of our own doing, we chose to accept it, to tolerate it, to benefit from it on an individual level and it is up to us individually to change it. Ah, but there’s the rub.

  6. Carol Elkins

    To Paul: You were the one, earlier on, who defended Obama’s triangulating one Jimmy Carter on the grounds that he has to do what he has to do to get elected.
    Now, Jimmy Carter might have raised the roof about that.
    The situation with the “Reverend” is comparable. But the Reverend has made it be about himself, and personally, am not exonerating him. Before the NAACP he said that the Press has been saying that he is running for President. Well, maybe they have. I haven’t heard it. But I think he thinks he is! He has to beat Obama. I think he is insane.

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