March 19, 2008

Obama's Whitewash

For this is where we are in the United States, nearing the end of the Year of Our Lord 2007: the truth is not merely unpleasant, an uninvited guest who makes conversation difficult and awkward. Truth is the enemy; truth is to be destroyed. To attempt to speak the truth on any subject of importance requires a deep reserve of determination, for to speak the truth requires that one first sweep away an infinite number of rationalizations, false alternatives, and numerous other failures of logic and the most rudimentary forms of thought -- as well as the endless lies. On that single occasion in a thousand or a million when a person overcomes these barriers and speaks the truth, he or she discovers an additional, terrible truth: almost no one wants to hear it. This is how we live today: lies are the staple of our diet. Without them, we would die, certainly in psychological terms. -- My essay, "A Nation on the Edge of the Final Descent (II): A Culture of Lies, and A Desperate Need for Action"
It pains me tremendously to acknowledge this, but I was somewhat unfair to Andrew Sullivan in this brief post yesterday. Although I am all too aware that great numbers of people are enthusiastically willing to abandon their analytic faculties altogether when the subject is the divinely sublime Barack Obama, I had thought that Sullivan's emotional jibberings were something of an outlier. But as the day wore on, I came across a number of regrettably similar examples of puddles of drool disguised as political commentary. (I give you fair warning: the next person who says, "I'm really tough, but Obama gets to me, man. I wept. I mean, I wept like a baby. No other politician in the history of all the universes has ever, ever had that effect on me! He is Teh Awesome!!," gets drop-kicked into next year.)

I refuse to suffer alone, so here is a brief tour of my discoveries. Steve Benen:
Of course, our modern political landscape very rarely rewards context and nuance, brilliant or not, so whether Obama managed to help his campaign today remains to be seen. It's depressing, but Michael Crowley's point in response to the speech is important: "[It was] brilliant, beautiful, inspiring — but perhaps not what crass electoral politics demanded of him."

It feels almost ridiculous to wonder whether a candidate's speech is too good for modern campaigning and today's media, but it's hardly an unreasonable question this afternoon.
Jon Robin Baitz:
Barack Obama's speech, perhaps one of the most important in modern political history pushed us as a people to move beyond race and gender, beyond Democrat and Republican, beyond politics and into reviving the spirit of the nation itself. To talk, to talk at home, at work, at the dinner table. To really finally talk. What a great day, and where else in the world but in the United States? Today I am very proud to be an American.
As an American myself, let me state that I deeply loathe this typically American arrogance and condescension. "Where else in the world...," indeed. I can only imagine how many millions of peoples in countries around the globe might react to such pronouncements of inherent, axiomatic, eternal and unalterable superiority. In fact, since this perspective has lain at the heart of our foreign policy for more than a hundred years, we don't have to imagine their reaction, do we? I think we have a fairly clear idea as to what it is.

Todd Gitlin:
[F]inally, the temperature of this speech is one of its messages; or should I say invitations? Obama kept his cool and turned up the heat at the same time. For those who have not yet voted, and crucially to the superdelegates, he raised the stakes, asking them all: Can you, too, keep your cool and your heat at the same time? The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he said, had spoken in an "incendiary" manner, but Obama offered himself as the man who rises from flames and invites you to rise from your own. He took a grievous embarrassment and moved his lesson to the plane of prophecy. Talk about hope; talk about audacity. Tears came to my eyes. I don't think I'm especially hard-hearted, but I cannot think of another time when the speech of a presidential candidate watered me up.
As the saying goes: get a room, boys. It appears it will have to be a large one.

Earlier in his ejaculatory piece, Gitlin writes:
It will still be possible to parse his words for insufficiencies of denunciation, but Obama's gamble was that he could turn Wright's damnable sins into a pivot for a sermon about how the past can be overcome, about how American it would be to accomplish that hard and necessary objective.
At one time, wasn't Gitlin considered to be of "the left"? It's hard to keep track of the players these days. In future, it seems I should proceed on the assumption that everyone is a viciously primitive, anti-intellectual conservative propagandist, manufactured in the dread Cheney Underground Laboratory, until and unless they sufficiently prove otherwise. That paragraph is simply extraordinary, and it is deeply shocking. Keep in mind these phrases: "It will still be possible to parse his words for insufficiencies of denunciation..." and "Wright's damnable sins..." Rush Limbaugh could not express such detestable ideas more forcefully.

Obama's speech was a response to the controversy surrounding certain of Wright's statements, so it is necessary to begin with an assessment of what Wright said. Yesterday, I addressed one of Wright's most controversial claims -- that the U.S. government "lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" -- and that post explains why Wright's statement is not in the least difficult to understand, assuming one knows even a smattering of history (which obviously is not the case for those who have rushed to condemn it, which is practically everyone).

At the center of Wright's alleged sins are these statements:
"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," Rev. Wright said in a sermon on Sept. 16, 2001.

"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost," he told his congregation.
I have written about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in considerable detail. The truth is much worse than briefly indicated by Pastor Wright: the United States government lied about the reasons for dropping the bombs, it lied about the effects of the bombings, and it has lied comprehensively about every aspect of this criminal episode in our history ever since. Wright spoke the truth -- but truth is the enemy. Truth is to be destroyed.

With regard to Wright's other supposedly reprehensible statements, I turn to Tim Wise. An unusually perceptive and valuable article by Tim Wise provided the foundation for my article, "Myths of New Orleans: Poor, Bad Blacks -- Who Got What They Deserved." A new article by Wise concerning the Obama-Wright controversy is equally perceptive and valuable: "Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama and the Unacceptability of Truth: Of National Lies and Racial America." You should read Wise's article in its entirety. Here are some highlights.

Wise begins his article by noting a fact of critical importance. As is true of every other aspect of this controversy, it is a fact that most white Americans find intolerable: that fact is, very simply, that they have no right to be offended by Wright's comments. Wise writes:
For most white folks, indignation just doesn't wear well. Once affected or conjured up, it reminds one of a pudgy man, wearing a tie that may well have fit him when he was fifty pounds lighter, but which now cuts off somewhere above his navel and makes him look like an idiot.

Indignation doesn't work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country--the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples--we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.

But here we are, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago--occasionally Barack Obama's pastor, and the man whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity--for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet, so dismissive, so unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go--these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites it seems whenever anyone, least of all an "angry black man" like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.

But our collective indignation, no matter how loudly we announce it, cannot drown out the truth. And as much as white America may not be able to hear it (and as much as politics may require Obama to condemn it) let us be clear, Jeremiah Wright fundamentally told the truth.
The resistance of the ruling class and of most Americans to one aspect of the truth about 9/11 remains astonishing, and it demonstrates how puerile our national conversation is. Of course, the ruling class cannot admit that to state the obvious fact that actions have consequences is not to say that the U.S. "deserved" 9/11 -- for to acknowledge the millions murdered by the U.S. government and our policy of aggressive military intervention across the globe would subject our own actions to the kinds of judgments that only the United States is entitled to make, and only about the actions of others. The United States is uniquely exempt from the standards we apply to everyone else; thus runs the catechism at the church of our inherent national superiority.

Wise notes that Wright's comments about 9/11 would be regarded as unexceptional, if only we were adults -- that 9/11 was predictable, and "that the U.S. has indeed engaged in more than enough violence against innocent people to make it just a tad bit hypocritical for us to then evince shock and outrage about an attack on ourselves, as if the latter were unprecedented." Wise offers a shorter version of my discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then writes:
The conclusion to which these truths then attest is simple, both in its basic veracity and its monstrousness: namely, that in those places we committed premeditated and deliberate mass murder, with no justification whatsoever; and yet for saying that I will receive more hate mail, more hostility, more dismissive and contemptuous responses than will those who suggest that no body count is too high when we're the ones doing the killing.
Our national catechism tells us that America is Good -- and that America's murders are Good Murders. You may not say otherwise.

Wise has more about the specifics of Wright's comments, but the most important part of Wise's discussion concerns the fundamental difference between the realities of America and American history as experienced by black Americans and white Americans. It is the difference between the truth and the steady, determined diet of lies manufactured and propagated by the ruling class:
What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock--though make no mistake, they already knew it--is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that "everything changed." To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government [see this article]. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.


Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget. I've seen white people stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country--when they discover that such events were not just a couple of good old boys with a truck and a rope hauling some black guy out to the tree, hanging him, and letting him swing there. They were never told the truth: that lynchings were often community events, advertised in papers as "Negro Barbecues," involving hundreds or even thousands of whites, who would join in the fun, eat chicken salad and drink sweet tea, all while the black victims of their depravity were being hung, then shot, then burned, and then having their body parts cut off, to be handed out to onlookers. They are stunned to learn that postcards of the events were traded as souvenirs, and that very few whites, including members of their own families did or said anything to stop it.


Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously.
Wise has much more, and you should read it.

There is a great deal that could be said about Obama's speech, and there is a great deal that could be said that is true. None of it bears any resemblance to the kinds of utterances noted at the beginning of this essay. For my purposes here, I want to focus on this passage:
On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use 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.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
If you read Wise's article, and if you consider the numerous facts set forth in many of my own pieces, you will realize that Obama sets forth a series of notable lies here.

Obama speaks of "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." This is a lie: Wright's views express the truth of our history, and of our present. No, it is not all of the truth, but it is an absolutely essential and major part of the truth. It is the part of the truth that our fictionalized, mythologized history denies, the truth that many Americans will not permit themselves to understand or acknowledge. You are profoundly wrong if the truth "offends" you. If you remain determined to cling to the lies that sustain you, you may certainly make that choice. But that does not make it right, or true.

Obama speaks of "a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic..." But white racism has been endemic to America's history, and its effects are still painfully visible in most aspects of American life today. Indeed, a good portion of Obama's speech itself details the effects of that "endemic" white racism. Wright does not "elevate what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America" -- he demands acknowledgment of the part of our history drowned by the propaganda that inundates us every day. For those who remain wedded to the mythologized America, such acknowledgment cannot be tolerated. Truth must be destroyed.

Obama states: "I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy." What Obama has "condemned, in unequivocal terms" is the truth -- the truth that is forbidden by the fictions that feed the myth of American exceptionalism. Obama has fully embraced the lies at the heart of mythologized America -- an embrace that is underscored by his inclusion of this phrase: "a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." In this manner, Obama confirms that he will continue our policy of global interventionism including our endless interventions in the Middle East, which have been unceasing ever since World War I. Obama embraces all the lies that support that policy, and he will challenge none of them. (See "Songs of Death" for many more details concerning Obama's embrace of this murderous policy.)

Almost every politician lies, and most politicians lie repeatedly. Yet in one sense, Obama's speech is exceptional, rare and unique -- but not for any of the reasons offered by Obama's uncritical, mindless adulators. It is exceptional for this reason: it is rare that a candidate will announce in such stark, comprehensive terms that he will lie about every fact of moment, about every aspect of our history that affects the crises of today and that has led to them, about everything that might challenge the mythological view of America. But that is what Obama achieved with this speech. It may be a remarkable achievement -- a remarkable and detestable one, and one that promises endless destruction in the future, both here and abroad.

Is that what many Americans want? Tragically, the answer appears to be yes. Truth must be destroyed, no matter how many lives and how much suffering are required. Americans will accept anything else -- war, genocide, economic collapse, further terrorist attacks in the U.S. -- but the truth must be denied.

Yet the truth cannot be denied forever. At some point, in some form, truth will make its claims known. The costs may be far worse than anything we can think of. And many Americans will still cling to the lies, even as they are buried in the mounting wreckage.

Our national life and our mythological history survive on lies. Many Americans are incapable of imagining life without the lies. They had better start imagining it -- before it is too late.