Jeremiah Wright – America’s Next Top Idol
Often blamed for causing or contributing to the ills of society, main-stream media has garnered a pretty bad reputation over the years. And not without merit either. From exacerbating the eating disorder epidemic amongst young women by promoting one body type, to a distinct lack of questioning the reasons for going to war, it’s pretty safe to say that the reputation is warranted.
During the past ten years that reputation has been especially strengthened by an explosion of channels and a paradigmatic shift in programming formats.
Fuelled by a burning desire for greater viewing figures TV executives hit upon the biggest breakthrough in television since color. Recognizing that all the audience required was some juicy drama to get the adrenaline pumping a little, they beckoned in a new age of media entertainment. Television, whose duty appears to be more and more to satisfy an audience’s insatiable appetite for vicarious entertainment, gave birth to the ultimate entertainment: reality TV. Lets call it the media version of nuclear energy: cheap, powerful and given to bouts of destruction.
The media’s single greatest achievement of the past decade has been to extract the formula for the soap opera and successfully apply it to real life ‘characters’. We see it play out regularly on American Idol, Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, Flavor of Love 3, etc. (Their depiction of women is a topic for another occasion).
Throughout all those shows we are encouraged to relate, empathize and most of all judge their ‘real-life’ dramas. From excitement to humiliation, sympathy to anger, we are subject to the whole gamut of human emotions but only in their most ridiculous and exaggerated forms. We are then called upon to make judgments of their ‘character’ according to the norms of our own criteria and also that of the show.
Despite its obvious damaging themes there are those who defend reality TV based precisely on those grounds i.e because I know it’s so ridiculous I am aware of its exaggerations. But that is not where the real problem lies; its consequences obviously go much deeper. Although some only tune in to ‘switch-off ‘ or to enjoy the ironic value of racial and gender stereotyping, apparently able to remove themselves from the absurdity (I am also sure there are many, many people who cannot), this formula for the soap opera, used to present reality TV, has oozed into the news-media where those techniques of presentation are dangerously married with ideology; eliciting reactions and judgments on political issues normally reserved for the drama of the cat-fight.
And so it was this week. The presidential race, something that affects every American whether they care or not, was, after months of attempts, reduced to a reality TV show with all the excitement, anger, humiliation and manipulation that the best of American Idol could offer.
However, what we saw this week was not simply the sensationalising of a minor event at the expense of consequential issues (as we have come to expect), but something far more significant. Through those same techniques employed by the entertainment media and thanks to a number of complicit key players – including the Reverend Wright and, yes, Barack Obama – valid positions were relegated to extremism and national debate severely squeezed of opinion.
I don’t need to tell you that this bodes very poorly for the future for our national debate on issues such as terrorism, Iraq and race.
By unleashing himself in all his egotistical glory the Reverend Wright did so at the expense of his own agenda (the advancement of people of color), Obama’s agenda (national reconciliation) and national debate. I say egotistical because I believe this man to be intelligent and therefore aware of the awful damage that his appearance at the National Press Club would cause. And for that he is ultimately responsible. But where the responsibility of the media lies is in its stark failure to properly analyze Wright’s speech. They instead packaged Wright as a commodity hot off the press, promoting him as offensive and outrageous through sinister voice-overs and dramatic visual production. Switching through those cable news channels was like watching trailers for ‘Angry Black Man 2 – Pastor’s Revenge’. So even before we heard what the man had to say we had already made our judgment as we anticipated the hatred and craziness to spew forth from his lips and we were not disappointed.
When it came to analysis, there was none, just quick condemnation and then speculation over Obama’s tarnished image. So quick was the condemnation in fact that we were left with three adjectives for analysis: racist, crazy and anti-American.
Now there are some assertions made by Wright, such as the claim that the US government created AIDS, that have no grounds in reality or, more specifically, evidence to back it up. Is that an Anti-American opinion? Nope. Racist? Absolutely not. Crazy? Quite possibly. But does that mean all his views are crazy? Moreover, does it make the ones I agree with with crazy too? Am I an America hating, self-loathing white boy?
Absolutely not. But am I critical of some government policy? Undeniably yes. We live in a system of checks and balances where I firmly believe it is a civic duty to hold you representatives to account. And this where the regrettably thin line between blind patriotism and valid criticism are blurred.
In a previous blog entry I wrote of Wright’s famous ‘chickens coming home to roost’ comment about 9/11 that:
“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.”
The problem with using ‘chickens coming home to roost’ to describe 9/11 is that it imbues the opinion with a certain satisfaction. This is both morally wrong and offensive. But the bigger problem here is that by using the phrase and with the television networks playing it around the clock alongside his crazier remarks on AIDS it introduces and cements the notion that to suggest that American foreign policy was a factor in 9/11 is heretical, crazy and – to use the current vernacular – anti-American.
We have fallen, yet again, so easily into the trap of equating criticism of government to being unpatriotic and now even racist. Yes, lets correctly admonish Wright for a lack of sensitivity but don’t label those remarks anti-American for there are those of us who do believe that black people continue to suffer under racism and also believe that US foreign policy contributed to the conditions that fomented terrorism, but who are also staunchly pro-America. It just goes to show that the need to distinguish between government policy and the citizenry has never been greater.
But if you think you’ve got it bad as a white person with liberal tendencies spare a thought for the black person with a legitimate axe to grind. They could even get the racist label thrown at them.
I’ll admit, so far I have heard nothing racist in Wright’s speeches. Maybe I’m not reading between the lines properly, or I have yet to tune into my white sense of pride but all the criticism I’ve heard from him, justified or not, has been directed towards government policy. And if there is anyone out there who can point me to any racist statements please let me know and I’ll retract this following sentence. The reason why I believe he is regarded as a racist where others are only anti-American is that in being black and vociferously criticizing his government for racist policies, such as the ‘three strikes law’, he is seen as blaming the ‘white man’, (which by the way is a phrase I have not heard from Wright). If, indeed, this is the case, that Wright’s anger is exclusively directed at the government, then isn’t it interesting that many of us equate our government to being white and are thus offended when anyone of color criticizes it? As if they are less American or perhaps less white? It will ceratinly be a long time before a black person can bring up Tuskegee again without fear of ridicule.
There was always the ugly question of whether or not America was ready for a black president. Obama almost proved to many that he transcended race. It seems that some will only be satisfied when they don’t have to hear black people ‘complain’ about how their education is worse, how their neighborhoods are worse, how their young men are far more likely to go prison, or how their young men are more likely to die a violent death. The irony is that only when black people have true parity in this country and we are able to replace the word ‘their’ with ‘our’ in that last sentence, will they stop ‘complaining’.
One of the many tragedies of the Wright ‘controversy’ is that the choice of Barack Obama has now become a choice on race and not policy. The focus on Wright and his ‘racism’ has been such that Wright has become the defining issue of Barack Obama’s campaign. At front and center his ‘God Damn America’ speech shines forth and behind it, the multitude of crises that face the US and the world. Questions such as ‘how do we mitigate the upcoming famine of millions of people across the globe?’ and ‘what do we do when the oil runs out?’ are mere footnotes. If Obama were to lose because of Wright we would lose a lot more than Obama. We lose years of progress in black white relations and with them reasoned debate.
During the past week, while pondering on who owned the responsibility for the whole drama I was reminded of the lyrics from ‘Going Underground’ by the Jam, a song released in 1982. In the first verse one of the lines goes “the public gets what the public wants”, then in another verse the role is reversed “the public wants what the public gets”. It’s the old chicken and the egg scenario whereby it is impossible to clearly see who owns the responsibility. But what is clear now is that the symbiotic relationship between the media and its audience has pushed itself to such an extreme that it can only push further into an abyss of vaccuous atrophy. It might even be forgivable as entertainment or something to switch off to if it were not so corrosive to our public life.