There’s a lot of debate right now on the left about how to relate to the Barack Obama phenomenon.
By “left” I don’t mean the Democratic Party loyalists who line up every four years to back the system-animals who indignantly reject even that lame “liberal” designation as they sometimes, when the political climate seems right, posture as “anti-war.” Or those wannabe demagogues who vaguely inveigh against “corporate greed” while quietly making their peace with the greedy. By “left” I’m not referring to the politicians who, if charged with lack of “patriotism,” querulously hasten to apologize as they re-affix American flag-pins on their lapels — talismans to protect them from pathetic loud-mouthed fascist-like accusers.
No, by “left” I mean people bright and bold enough to question the whole matrix that has involved this nation in immoral wars, justified by lies, throughout my lifetime. I mean people who question what in the sixties and seventies young people came to call the “Establishment,” which many have since come to assess more precisely as capitalist imperialism. By “left” I mean the serious anti-imperialist left.
This is the left that finds much honesty in the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, one-time spiritual advisor to Obama, the cleric who presided at the presidential aspirant’s wedding ceremony and the baptisms of his daughters. A black man who did everything just the way the system asked him to — and hence an unlikely anti-system hero. He graduated from a fine, 90% white high school in Philadelphia in 1959. He went to college immediately, but left to join the US Marines, then the Navy. He was trained as a cardiopulmonary physician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and was involved in caring for President Lyndon B. Johnson during his surgery in 1966. He acquired a BA and MA from Howard University, a second MA from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He became pastor of a small Chicago Church in a mostly white Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, and built an 87-member congregation into a 10,000 member megachurch. He’s been a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and elsewhere.
In sum: this is a man of no mean achievements, a man whose resume suggests he’s basically invested pretty deeply in the system. Were it not so he would not have the ear of Obama, or the ear of Bill Clinton, for that matter, whom (as the Baltimore Sun has pointed out) met him in 1998.
But he’s also a man named Jeremiah, and as anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows, Jeremiah was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. As anyone who seriously reads the Bible understands, a prophet speaks truth to power. That gets the prophet in trouble. In the sixth century BCE Jeremiah denounced his nation, including the royal family of Judah in the harshest terms, believing God was speaking through his voice of eloquent moral outrage. Yahweh speaking through the prophet declared, “The whole country will be laid waste” (Jeremiah 4:27); its “stupid, brainless people” (5:21) will face famine and invasion, well-deserved! In effect Jeremiah the prophet was saying: “God damns Judah for its sins.”
That’s basic Old Testament prophetic language, which the African-American Church has appropriated for its own righteous objectives for two hundred years now. But it’s not unique to black people. The notorious Jerry Falwell cited scripture to proclaim that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America” all “helped to [make the 9-11 attacks] happen.” White Christian Right ideologues routinely in their own ways say: “God damn America!” When they do, they don’t seem to catch much flack.
On the other hand, when a powerful homily of Rev. Wright, containing biblically denunciatory language came to the attention of a reporter who’d earlier been the main source for the disinformation about an Iraqi connection to the (yet unexplained) 2001 anthrax letters, all hell broke loose. Brian Ross had apparently been sorting through Wright’s sermons, offered for sale by his church, trying to find some news story. ABC News headlined the story as follows:
“Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor says blacks should not sing ‘God Bless America’ but ‘God damn America.’”
The sensationalistic report citing a 2003 sermon was designed to politically damage Obama, who adroitly distanced himself from the prophetic voice. Obama who had recently said he didn’t think his church was “particularly controversial” felt obliged to give a special speech denouncing “incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation — that rightly offend white and black alike.” He behaved, that is to say, predictably, as a mainstream politician. If I may quote scripture, since it seems appropriate here, he “bent his tongue like a bow,” “cheated his friend,” and expressed “bad faith” (Jeremiah 9: 2-5).
Personally, I don’t feel “racially divided” from anybody by a theologian (of any ethnic background) honestly denouncing what this “Promised Land” has become. And I don’t appreciate Obama telling me that Wright’s comments “rightly offend” everybody. They don’t offend my lily-white self, my (Asian) wife, or our two grown multi-ethnic children. Obama’s own aura of gravity, of damage-control, of opportunistic ass-kissing — these offend me for reasons that have nothing to do with my DNA.
When asked after a talk to the National Press Club on April 29 about the “God damn” comment, Wright stated matter-of-factly, distinguishing government from people, “God damns some practices. And there is no excuse for the things the government, not the American people have done . . .” He denied his condemnatory remarks were unpatriotic, pointedly noting his military service in contrast to Dick Cheney’s repeated deferments. I see nothing incendiary or offensive here. His suggestion that the US government created the HIV virus may be nuts, but his statement, “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” is entirely rational. (The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was a clinical study involving 400 syphlitic African-American males from 1932 to 1972 in Alabama, undertaken by the US Public Health Service. Its deceptiveness and immorality were acknowldeged by President Bill Clinton in 1997 when he called it “shameful” and officially apologized to survivors.) It’s hard to put anything past a government that, for example, deliberately disseminates disinformation to prepare public opinion for and to justify imperialist wars that kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of innocent people.
That’s the other thing. Wright dared to use the I-word: imperialism. He called the US an imperialist country, which it undeniably is. This is the crux of the matter. This is the witness, the testimony, the jeremiad that Obama can’t handle!
Obama is a mainstream politician. He can complain about foreign policy, bad decisions, “mistakes.” But he can’t name, much less damn, that which he wants to lead: the state apparatus of an imperialist country. His “Yes we can!” gibberish gives little clue about how he’ll deal, if elected, with the ongoing crimes to which Wright rightly alludes. But his dissing of his preacher suggests he’ll cave into the system because he sees it as his.
Gosh . . . how hateful of anyone to call this country (as opposed to imperial Spain, or imperial Britain, or imperial Japan) imperialist! This is where the prophetic truth-to-power message produces the inevitable divide. Obama may very well understand the power dynamics of this country. But even if so, given his political objective, he can’t say, thoughtfully: “Well, actually, I agree with Rev. Wright. The system itself is the problem, and we need total, thorough-going change. We need to stop being an imperialist country.” This is like asking an aspirant to a Mafia clan succession to reconsider the traditional family commitment to organized crime.
Instead Obama distances himself further from the reverend, hedges on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within 18 months of becoming president, and while timidly challenging some of the warmongering rhetoric of both McCain and Clinton concerning Iran defers as best he can to AIPAC. He embraces the one-dimensional Washington line on Hamas and Hizbollah and pointedly agrees that so far as Iran is concerned, “All options are on the table.” He has not said: “I agree with the U.S. intelligence community and don’t think Iran has a nuclear weapons program threatening anyone.” He knows he can’t be that rational without having the Lobby all over his ass.
Knowing most or all of this full well, the radical left sizes up Barack Obama. Some say: Let’s do what we can, without endorsing the system, to help this lesser evil get elected. He’s probably less likely to attack Iran, and more likely to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Others say: There’s basically no difference. Any efforts to help him out will be a waste of time. In any case a McCain victory might produce a combination of widening war and polarization that will finally produce a real revolution in this country. (An interesting debate on the question can be found here.)
My own feelings about the candidates are maybe best expressed by Jeremiah (6:12-19):
They are all greedy for gain…
All of them practice fraud.
Without concern they dress my people’s wound,
Saying, “Peace! Peace!”
Whereas there is no peace.
They should be ashamed of their loathsome deeds.
Not they! They feel no shame,
They do not even know how to blush. . . .
Then hear, you nations,
and know, assembly,
what is going to happen to them!
Watch, I shall bring disaster
on this people:
it is the fruit of the way they think….
Without really believing in Yahweh, or prophecy, I think the Jeremiah scripture strangely relevant to what is happening now. Shameless hypocrites talk about peace. Maybe some are less loathsome than others; the problem is the “way they think,” rooted in their “greed for gain.” Or translated from Biblical language to modern political language: the problem is their bourgeois ideology rooted in their allegience to capitalist imperialism. Maybe Rev. Jeremiah can break with that; Barack obviously can’t. He may be less loathsome than known warmongers McCain or Clinton, but the way he thinks might also bring disaster.