Obama took the pulpit today to denounce some speeches made by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, over the last six years. Apparently, Rev. Wright suggested that “the United States brought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on itself and say blacks continue to be mistreated by whites.”
Here we have a problem with proper nouns. The “United States” can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to:
- a particular region of land defined on a map;
- the people living within its borders – you, me, that guy sitting next to you, the people on the street, etc;
- a set of shared historical and cultural ideals – truth, justice, the American way, democracy, etc;
- the policy of the governing body that claims a monopoly of force over the aforementioned region – the laws passed by Congress, the actions ordered by the President and the movement of armed forces carrying the U.S. flag.
Osama bin Laden had a particular grievance with the United States (4), in the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Because of his radical religious beliefs, he also has issues with the United States (3). So he recruited a number of sleeper agents to infiltrate the United States (1) and carry out attacks on the United States (2).
The outrage comes because citizens of the United States (2) tend to connect, implicitly or openly, the ideals of the United States (3) with its actions abroad (4). They also identify strongly with those actions in their own selves (2), seeing them as a reflection of their democratic voice. However, #1, 2, 3 and 4 are entirely different entities which can – and usually do – contradict. Witness Bush declaring, “We do not torture.” Witness leftists declaring, “Bush is not our President.” To believe either of those statements, you have to ignore – or even worse, embrace – the contradictions between the U.S.’s citizens, culture and elected officials.
So it is with the Rev. Wright’s statement. To believe that the U.S. brought the attacks of September 11th “on itself,” you have to believe that #2, #3 and #4 are one and the same – that every action the U.S. takes abroad, from funding anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua to bombing Cambodia to sending CIA agents to Cuba to firebombing Dresden to occupying the Philippines – reflects the will and culture of the people living in Delacroix, Denver and Des Moines. You call yourself a U.S. citizen so, apparently, every dead Iraqi baby is all your fault. Oops.
To reject the Reverend’s notion, you have to reject the idea that democracy does what it says on the tin – that it creates a government responsive to the explicit desires of the civilians it governs. Sometimes people who ran in open elections start secret wars. Sometimes the U.S. lends its name to torturers and thugs. But if you accept that you are ruled by forces out of your control, it’s not an issue.
One or the other. Take your pick.
Obama, of course, doesn’t take his pick. He doesn’t cling to the balm of the democratic process and say that yes, you voted for Nixon and Carter and Reagan and Bush and Clinton and Bush again, and therefore those dead Vietnamese and Cambodians and Laotians and Grenadians and Iraqis are on your head. And of course he doesn’t say, “Sure, vote for whoever makes you feel good, but the U.S. will continue to conduct extraordinary renditions and cover operations and bombing campaigns all over the world.”
Rather, he embraces the contradiction. He says that the Reverend Wright’s comments are “not only wrong but divisive.” Really? Not only wrong but divisive? Being wrong isn’t sufficient? If the Reverend’s comments were right but divisive, would you object? If they were wrong but unifying, would you stay silent? Is divisiveness not an inherently wrong thing, such that you have to call it out?
You can accuse me of nitpicking over word choice, but if I have to accept this man on the quality of his rhetoric – as so many other people are – then I’m going to take my time double-checking it. Barack Obama said that the Reverend Wright’s statements about America are wrong. He doesn’t say in what way. Barack Obama said that the Reverend Wright’s statements about race were divisive. He doesn’t say what would unify. Barack Obama takes the controversial maverick stance of saying, “I disagree with this person you don’t like,” puts a little more wear on some platitudes about investing in schools and rebuilding the economy, and people get giddy!
Update: Yes, I read the part about “binding our particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” And about “providing this generation with ladders of opportunity.” What do those words mean?
Reverend Wright may be wrong. That doesn’t make Barack Obama right.