Offended? Me?

By now it has become commonplace to accept that we are vulnerable to the way in which certain issues are framed by the news media. Not in the sense that we eat up whatever is spoon-fed to us but rather we follow the agenda being advanced. More in the way of accepting the direction than the information. Whether the agenda is mostly set according to an ideology of the powerful or reflects the popular consensus (as I believe for the most part), this notion is as widely spun as it is cliche. But in the interest of context allow me a paragraph to exhaust the cliche just a little a further.

Many of us, when we hear a news item, do not have time to ask ourselves if it was ‘framed’ in a way that guides us to a conclusion we might not otherwise have taken, and so are apt to accept it for what it’s worth. As constituents of a passive audience, whenever a news-item is well put together and demonstrates features that match our criteria for news presentation we tend to take it at face value. Even those of us who like to dig a little more and seek out a variety of news sources are susceptible when presented with the angle we like.

So, like everyone else who first saw and heard the headlines regarding Obama’s ‘controversial pastor’ and his comments, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of ‘if Obama wants to be sitting in the Oval Office this time next year he’s going to have to reject this nut. Shit, he’d better denounce him too.” And this was the general play made by the media; to pressure Obama into dismissing his pastor, which I went along with.

That was until I watched coverage from Fox News the other day and they played the now infamous footage of Jeremiah Wright but not without a short preamble warning that it could be offensive to some viewers, obviously designed to set the tone. If people were not already offended about something they sure were now, we just needed the requisite footage to fill the frame. The shock and awe on the faces of the Fox reporters and anchors was incredible. I thought somebody was going to break down and cry at one point.

Here’s a list of some of the more controversial things Mr Wright has said:

i) “God Damn America”. In reference to the building of bigger prisons and the three strikes law.

ii) That 9/11 was the “chickens coming home to roost.”

iii) “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

iv) “Hillary was never called a nigger”.

Now, these comments have been in circulation for some time and some of them were indeed reported in the New York Times last year so for what reason they came up this week (there’s not another primary for five weeks), no-one seems to know. But the question that sprung to mind after watching the footage was how is it that these comments are being reacted to either like they are the most vile utterances one could spew forth or, like mine, that Obama had better move fast to disassociate himself? Had I been ushered into believing this was the ranting of a madman?

No doubt many Americans upon hearing the words ‘God damn America’, recoil in personal offense and regard the pastor as an America hater. Now I am not about to try and argue whether the man hates America or not but to put forth the more controversial question, what is it exactly that is so wrong with this man hating America and why should we be so offended?

Lets have a little candor here, this man was a victim of America and not some abstract notion of America either, the very real Federal Government. Wright was born in 1941. That’s twenty three years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act and twenty four before the Voting Rights Act. In sum Wright grew up, spending his formative years in a country where the government was not only complicit in marginalizing people on the basis of their skin color but was actively seeking to achieve it through its institutions.

To me the idea that the government would invent HIV is utterly ridiculous and irrational. However, to a man who witnessed his national government – a government designed to represent him – implement a system of disenfranchisement with the institution of slavery as its precursor, and watched from afar how local government in the South was complicit in lynchings it might just seem possible to such a man that it invented HIV too i.e. ‘if the government is capable of x what is to say it isn’t capable of y?’

It could of course be argued that he should be proud to live in a country that recognized the injustices of segregation and that, in turn, dismantled it. There perhaps should be pride in a system that has allowed for the freedom for black people to assert themselves in a way they never had done before and that has provided new opportunities.

If we subscribe to this idea, that, in essence, the majority of black people now grow up facing similar obstacles as every other American we are sorely mistaken.

Dissolving the legal apparatus that facilitated segregation will not and did not level the playing field it merely served to make the difference more opaque. To open the doors of opportunity it must be agreed that education is key. But how are children meant to receive a decent education when they attend schools unable to meet standards because the school districts that provide the funds are poverty stricken – a direct legacy of unadulterated racism. And now that the culture of diluting school integration policies has entered the Supreme Court the future looks even bleaker for young black children’s access to an eduction worthy of their neighbors a few miles away.

Admittedly it is not just black people whose opportunities are limited by poverty in the US. There are all kinds of demographic groups who suffer with this blight, including low-skilled immigrants and the rural white, but if the situation you were born into is one solely the result of an inherited burden because of your skin color then I think bitterness can be expected and justified.

However, unlike the “God damn America” quote the invocation of 9/11 is far more controversial and arguably more offensive. Though, I would assert it is only offensive in that it lacked sensitivity to the families of the victims. The comment was ill-timed and crudely put, but nonetheless congruent with the 9/11 commission and the CIA notion of blowback; the idea that unintended consequences occur as a result of past actions.

Let me make it clear, terrorism in any form is abhorrent but to affect offense when it is suggested that September 11th was a direct or indirect result of US involvement in the Middle East is to deny reality and, moreover, unhelpful in attempting to prevent further terrorist atrocities.

In 1953 the US deposed of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, and installed the Shah who ruled as a tyrannical dictator until 1979, the reason being that he planned to nationalize the country’s oil reserves. During this time the Shah was more than happy to provide the West with a steady stream of oil while suppressing any dissent through secret police and torture. It would also do us well to remind ourselves on the twentieth anniversary of the Halabja massacre in Iraq who it was exactly that enabled Saddam Hussein to launch an offensive that killed up to 5000 people. This is not to mention the propping up of a theocracy in Saudi Arabia that regularly flouts basic human rights standards and also the subsidizing of Israel’s military offensives into Palestine.

The 9/11 attacks are unjustifiable. They were heinous acts that should rightly be condemned. But our grief should not compromise sensible analysis. The attacks were not just the work of madmen, they were the work of madmen who saw the US as an enemy.

However, I don’t think that it was the pastor’s main intention to point out the obvious in his sermon. Indeed, it is clear, if you watch the video, that he was highlighting something altogether different; the disparity between the reverence for the victims of 9/11 and that for the victims of slavery and entrenched racism in the deep south.

I’ll admit this is a connection I have never considered but then again I am not a black man in his sixties.

To counter the pastor’s implication one might say that the horror of slavery and subsequent lynchings are widely acknowledged as being an abomination on this country’s history. Even the word ‘nigger’ is tantamount to the ultimate offense where it cannot be uttered on public broadcasting.

However, to give some perspective to Wright’s argument – that those killed during slavery and Jim Crow do not receive due attention – I’d like to point out that whereas there is a museum and memorial adjacent to the National Mall in Washington devoted to the Holocaust in Europe there is no such memorial commemorating Afro-Americans who were killed by racism on US soil.

This is the lens through which Jeremiah Wright sees his country, and this is where the popular consensus fails. We are deaf to opinions from outside of the norm and blind to the perspective of others because they are so far beyond our own personal experience. We are not just talking in different contexts we talking about different universes. We push to the margins opinions that seem irrational to us yet seem utterly real to others. And so when these arguments enter the popular consciousness we react viscerally and with standard horror. This man is a hateful racist we say. This is inflammatory we say without even attempting to understand from where those opinions might stem. There is judgment without consideration.

We should welcome the most controversial opinions if only to refute them with sensible debate.

The ridicule that we were encouraged to feel this week by the news media should be nothing compared to our amazement that there aren’t more angry black people out there.


~ by oddlyamerican on March 16, 2008.

One Response to “Offended? Me?”

  1. […] a previous blog entry I wrote of Wright’s famous ‘chickens coming home to roost’ comment about 9/11 […]

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