“I know thee not, old man: Fall to thy Prayers:
How ill white haires become a Foole, and Jester?
I have long dream’d of such a kinde of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so prophane:
But being awake, I do despise my dreame.” – Henry IV Part 2
There is certainly no shortage of commentary on the recent statements by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, new denunciations by Senator Barack Obama, and the continuing damage the Obama campaign is suffering in relation to the outspoken pastor. However, I haven’t seen anyone air the angle that to me is most compelling in all of this. It is not an issue of patriotism or even Reverend Wright’s opinions per se, nor it is an issue of whether Senator Obama agrees with him. What underlies this drama, it seems to me with increasing clarity, is a posturing and betrayal, and one that actually inclines me to have more sympathy for the Reverend than the Senator.
I do not share Reverend Wright’s views of race relations nor condone his offensive demagoguery. As offensive as his statements about 9/11 and HIV were, what struck the deepest nerve with me was his vile attack on Hillary, saying “Hillary ain’t never been called a N****r”. One may ask, has Rev. Wright ever been called a C**t or a Sl*t or a B*tch? I can’t communicate how repulsive and pathetic it seems to me for this so-called spiritual mentor to fail to carry the awareness that throughout ages and at present, women have suffered at the hands of every culture and race, been beaten and raped in their own households, been mutilated and humiliated, been most consistently demeaned and denied the most basic human rights, and even today are sold into sexual slavery in many parts of the world. It is utterly unconscionable for this bombastic man to imply that the road walked by any woman is easy. Maya Angelou understands what life means to this half of humanity, and its bearing in Hillary, that Reverend Wright in his tantrums can’t fathom.
And yet for all that, this week I came to sympathize with Rev. Wright and even admire his obstinacy for getting in front of the cameras, even if I don’t share his radical culture of blame and identity politics. Twenty years ago a young, ambitious, and highly educated African-American man launched a political career in Chicago. That man found Trinity Church to be useful, and – whether he internalized its principles or not – found it quite convenient to be seen in the pews of a radical and outspoken pastor who praised Louis Farrakhan and blamed the American government and “rich white people” for the ills confronting his community. Let’s be honest: this association could only help the local Obama, the Chicago Obama, the Obama whose limits of achievement were not framed by lack of appeal to the middle or the progressive elite but by inability to overcome his own aloof elitism – a frame clearly delineated as he was defeated soundly by a former Black Panther in his first run at national office. Making inroads in Rev. Wright’s church went to the heart of Obama’s credibility with that community, and it was a path he chose: a career path.
Many commentators, and Obama’s own staff, seem to think the whole Wright association is a non-issue if Obama claims he does not agree and denounces Wright’s views, but I dissent: it is precisely because he does not agree that Obama’s two-decade participation in Rev. Wright’s church makes me question his character. I do not for one second believe the blatant fib that Obama was unaware of Wright’s beliefs or that he really considered Wright’s statements out-of-context. To Wright’s credit this week, he has been consistent: he has not hidden his positions or tried to nuance them, and I suspect they’ve been fairly consistent for the past two decades and then some. It’s obvious that Obama must have sat through some prime Wright rants, and whether he was smiling and applauding or maintaining a stoic silence we will never know, but it is irrelevant; he stayed because it was to his benefit, it fed his local base of power. Rev. Wright no longer feeds his power, and knows it; but Rev. Wright’s worldview is not subservient to the political ambitions of Barack Obama.
The plot is one that a Harvard-educated lawyer would probably know by heart: young prince Hal is coronated as Henry V, but on the road before him in procession is his old uncouth pal and partner in anonymous mischief, whom he must deny in order to attain the stately dignity of his office. But unlike Falstaff in the Shakespeare play, Reverend Jeremiah Wright is neither surprised by the denial nor standing down. And unlike Henry V, Senator Obama is the one who looks like a fool – if there’s a character in that play whose name evokes the revealed Obama, it’s “Master Shallow”. And as the gulf between Obama and Wright widens, I foresee a lot more people are going to feel betrayed – or, as Obama would have said a few months back, bamboozled.
* Cross-posted at Pan Metron.