May 04, 2008

Choosing Sides (I): "Why America May Go to Hell," and Feeling Young Again

I am profoundly in Jeremiah Wright's debt. He has reinvigorated my spirit, strengthened certain dwindling resources of mine, and made me feel young again.

It is often noted that many people become more conservative as they age. The opposite is true in my case. Over the last three or four years in particular, I have become more and more radical. I once described my political beliefs as libertarian in nature -- although, I hasten to add and I think the record will show, my libertarianism was of the genuine and serious variety, as opposed to the utterly phony libertarianism that will be found in today's culture, and especially among many bloggers. I opposed the very dangerous authoritarianism of the Bush administration from the time I began blogging in September 2002, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq before it began. I always recognized that the corporatist-authoritarian state at home and an aggressively and violently interventionist foreign policy are inextricably linked, that they are but the two faces of the same coin. But as my political-cultural critique has hopefully deepened, my political views altered. I now describe myself as a leftist-anarchist: the leftist part of the description designates the cultural-economic-historical-political perspective I try to employ, while the anarchist label indicates that I view the State as the primary problem. As I have said (and I will have more to say about this at some point), I view anarchism as useful in theory only at this point, although the theory is of immense importance. Until and unless a critical number of individuals alter the primary motives that move most people (the desire for power and control, and the demand for obedience, being chief among them), any state of affairs approximating anarchism will lead only to more chaos and death. If humanity manages to evolve through several more stages, which assumes we don't kill ourselves in huge numbers in the meantime (a fragile hope, indeed), then peaceful anarchism might have a chance.

I will be 60 tomorrow. Most of my readers are probably considerably younger than I am. I'm sorry to tell you that some of the standard cliches about aging are true. I have absolutely no idea how the hell I arrived at the age of 60. It seems only yesterday that I was a teenager who skipped school, and finally dropped out of high school altogether (twice!), so that I could go to the Metropolitan Opera five or six times a week. Subsequently, I acceded to the demands of convention, took the high school equivalency exam, got a B.A. from NYU and still later, in my thirties, got a law degree. In the course of my life, I studied intensively to become a concert pianist, and then an opera singer. I was an actor for the better part of a decade. I've worked in the film industry, and as a civil litigator. About ten years ago, through a complicated and terribly painful series of events, I said to hell with all of it. Today, my life is much as it was when I was a teenager who loved opera more than anything in the world: I've dropped out of "the system" almost completely. I have as little to do with the State as possible. I ask for nothing from the State, and I can only hope the State will demand nothing from me. Of course, the State can choose to demand everything from me whenever it wishes, and I will be close to helpless before its onslaught. Yes, freedom is a wonderful thing. I wish we had it. (If the State were to demand everything from me, there is almost nothing they would get since I have almost nothing, except for my life. Although I well understand that my life is of less than no interest to the State, it remains of some certain value to me, even now.)

Physically, I feel very, very old. Given current medical technology, it's very likely I would not have to feel so old at 60, except that my poverty means I can't avail myself of any of that technology. So my rotten health means that I feel more like 130. Yet it feels churlish to me to complain too much about the wreck that passes for my body. It also seems like only yesterday that I moved from New York to Los Angeles. But I moved here exactly 30 years ago, in 1978. I've lived half my life in Los Angeles. I didn't come out as a gay man until after I moved to L.A. (Some of that geographical and psychological journey is described here, in an essay from 2003, written when I was about to turn 55.) In the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, I made many friends and acquaintances in the gay community. Most of my friends from that time are dead now. They began dying around 1984, and they didn't stop dying regularly and in large numbers for a decade. I felt like a very old man while I was still in my thirties, as did all my friends. We expect to see our friends start to die when we arrive at, well, 60 or so. We don't expect it several decades earlier. This is my second time at this rodeo. Once would have been enough.

I do my best to ignore my health altogether. On some days, I can't, because I feel too lousy. But it's pointless to dwell on it, so I try to set it aside. And here's the interesting, and wonderful, thing: psychologically, I feel much younger than I did 30 years ago. I think I know more, and I think I understand much more. Even though I can control next to nothing in my physical existence, I feel very much in control psychologically and intellectually. That's a great gift, one for which I am deeply grateful.

But many of the subjects that I discuss here are exceedingly grim. Sometimes, it gets to be far more than I can bear, so I need to leave it alone for a while. But then, something completely unexpected turns up. A Jeremiah Wright appears on the scene. He causes me to feel more radicalized than ever, and I feel young again. Reverend Wright has performed an invaluable service, for those able to recognize and appreciate it. He has spoken a number of truths of critical importance -- see here and here for some background on that. And he has also caused a number of people to reveal themselves as significant frauds. I refer, of course, to many liberals and progressives, especially white liberals and progressives. When the moment of testing arrived, many liberals and progressives denounced Wright in terms that are indistinguishable from those employed by writers at National Review, or people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. You would think it might trouble these self-proclaimed liberals and progressives that they find themselves in such company, but it doesn't. This is useful information. Thanks, Reverend.

(I must note that this phenomenon is hardly restricted to white liberals and progressives, and I'm not referring only to awful conservative-"libertarian" blacks of the Larry Elder variety. Bob Herbert is often wonderful on subjects such as our inhumane prison system and torture, but take a look at Bob Herbert on Wright. "[T]he histrionics of a loony preacher from the South Side of Chicago." "The idea that [Wright's] nonsense may shape the outcome of this election is both tragic and absurd." Herbert has been an op-ed columnist at The New York Times since 1993. The Times is one of the leading voices of the existing power structure. That power structure is, from a cultural and historical perspective, an affluent, immensely privileged, white power structure. It not only propagandizes for the U.S. government and cheerleads the U.S.'s wars of aggression; it also seeks to enforce the permissible terms of debate, terms that are suffocatingly and immorally constricted. With regard to this controversy, Herbert has chosen sides -- and he has not chosen the side of truth and justice.)

I have briefly mentioned the ways in which the views and actions of Martin Luther King have been sanitized, defanged, neutralized and made "acceptable" to mainstream American opinion. In that connection, you should read this interview with Jonathan Walton. This excerpt will give you a start:
Let's talk about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Martin Luther King. Some of Wright's critics have contrasted his approach to that of King, who they portray as using reconciliation rather than confrontation. Is that an accurate portrayal of King? Is that an accurate portrayal of Wright?

No to both. It's a mythic portrayal of King, a nostalgic portrayal of King -- because King was accused and vilified for being controversial, actually more controversial than Jeremiah Wright.

Didn't King become more radical in the course of his career, in the period leading up to his assassination?

It was largely because of the fact that he moved from civil rights to human rights. One of King's famous quotes after desegregation laws had been passed was that he began to find out that it mattered little if African-Americans -- he said Negroes, of course -- have the right to eat at the counter if they don't have a dollar to spend at the lunch counter.

In response to my question before, you said that portraying King as having a message of reconciliation and Wright having a message of confrontation or subversion was not accurate. You've explained how King's approach wasn't purely about reconciliation.

It was about reconciliation. But just because it was about reconciliation doesn't mean that he wasn't confrontational. King believed in nonviolent, direct confrontation. And thus when we come marching through the town, we are trying to expose inequality and expose violence. And if you practice nonviolent confrontation, you morally shame your opponent toward moral suasion. And when you shame them toward moral suasion, it's not to defeat your opponent, but to reunite with your opponent. You're trying to make them ashamed of themselves, so they will turn from their wicked ways. These are all Gospel principles.

Essentially you're saying Wright uses that same approach.

Wright ain't necessarily King. Wright sees himself in that tradition. King was very much in the tradition of the African-American jeremiad. And that is where he would call out the sins of the nation so the nation would live up to its ideals and its promises. That's how King saw himself. But that's not how people looked at King. On April 4, 1967, King stood in front of the Riverside Church and said that if America does not change its ways, America, if you continue to be so prideful, God will tear down this nation, and rise up another nation that doesn't even know my name.

It was his "God damn America" moment, except there wasn't YouTube.

It was his God damn America moment. And the Sunday after King was assassinated, do you know what King was scheduled to preach that Sunday morning? His sermon title was "Why America May Go to Hell."
It is only one of the many calumnies heaped on Wright's head that the mythical, non-existent King is used to condemn him. There is no question that, if King were to reappear among us and speak as he did in the last few years of his life, he would be vilified and loathed in terms at least as harsh as those now directed at Wright. This is to not even mention what some of these same liberals and progressives might say about certain of the views of radicals such as Thomas Jefferson. As I often note these days, we are drowning in lies. Yet it is still no small wonder that this entire conversation about Wright, King, et al. proceeds in the almost complete absence of a discussion of what Wright has actually said, just as no one seems to remember what King actually said.

Among the more dishonest and ignorant reactions to Wright's comments are the reactions to his statements concerning AIDS. Consider this further excerpt from the Salon interview:
What about his statement about -- and he repeated it again on Monday -- about the U.S. government putting the AIDS virus in the African-American community?

Some may regard that as a trope for known, unjust practices, unjust medical practices against people of color.

Such as in Tuskegee?

Such as the Tuskegee experiments. Or America's complicity in Agent Orange. Or the American government's longtime denial of Gulf War syndrome. So that kind of becomes a rhetorical trope which is a heuristic shorthand for all of that -- for a failed healthcare system in America and failure to do anything about it. And while people may viscerally disagree with Rev. Wright's claim there, and while it may be clearly undocumented and unfounded, you're also talking about a man who had an HIV/AIDS outreach ministry to African-Americans, as well as gays and lesbians, in the 1980s, when the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, wouldn't even say the word in public.
Please note that Reverend Wright "had an HIV/AIDS outreach ministry to African-Americans, as well as gays and lesbians, in the 1980s." While my own experience means this carries special significance for me, this is a staggeringly great and unusual achievement, one deserving of the deepest admiration from every decent human being.

I've discussed some of the historical background that helps to explain Wright's AIDS commentary. Let's discuss it a bit more, and try to break through the wall of comfortable denial erected by almost all Americans, including many liberals and progressives. From Margaret Kimberley:
The name Josef Mengele is so infamous that it needs no introduction. Mengele was the German doctor who performed medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. An American doctor, James Marion Sims was equally monstrous, but his name is less well known.

Sims was a doctor who routinely performed unnecessary and sadistic surgeries on slaves in Alabama. He opened the skulls of babies and performed gynecological surgeries on women. They were forced to endure unimaginable treatments, all without the ether that had by then become available as an anesthetic. Of course, being enslaved people, they had no choice in any decisions that Sims made about their bodies or their lives.

Sims allegedly sought to treat vaginal fistulas caused by complications of child birth. One woman underwent this treatment, without anesthesia, 30 times. He obviously didn't cure her of anything.

Because Sims' victims were black Americans their stories remained largely untold. They were not the first or the last black Americans to be subjected to what can only be called torture in the name of scientific investigation. Sims is called "the father of gynecology" and eventually became president of the American Medical Association. He has been immortalized in a monument that still stands in New York's Central Park.


A newly published book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, is a comprehensive chronicle of surgeries performed without anesthesia, the notorious Tuskegee experiments that prevented 400 men from being treated for syphilis over a 40 year period, and forced sterilizations.

Harriet Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid, has performed an invaluable service. White Americans love to point fingers at Germans who won't apologize for Hitler, or Japanese who claim that the rape of Nanking didn't take place. There is little interest in acknowledging, much less apologizing for atrocities that took place on American soil.

History tells us that torture and murder are considered acceptable if the perpetrators are white and the victims aren't. The population of American Indians was decimated from an estimated 15 million before European occupation to 200,000 in 1890. Simply put, they were murdered. They were shot and scalped and infected with disease. Millions of Africans taken into slavery in Africa perished before reaching the western hemisphere where they faced the prospect of being the property of Dr. Sims and his ilk.

The litany of atrocities documented in Medical Apartheid shocks the soul and the senses. Yet it must be pointed out that those atrocities are all logical results of the white supremacy that was manifested in chattel slavery, and the terror that followed it. There isn't a better candidate for torture than a person who isn't really considered a person.

It is indeed valuable that some of the most racist crimes committed in this country have finally been exposed. But it will be of little use if this history is dismissed as vestiges of another time instead of revealing an ideology that has never disappeared from the American consciousness. The use of black Americans as guinea pigs didn't end with the slavery era and wasn't confined to the South.
From a Washington Post review of Medical Apartheid featured at Amazon:
A fresh account of the Tuskegee study, including new information about the internal politics of the panel charged by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare with investigating it in 1972, lies at the center of Harriet A. Washington's courageous and poignant book. The balance of Medical Apartheid reveals, with arresting detail, that this scandal was neither the first chapter nor the last in the exploitation of black subjects in U.S. medical research. Tuskegee was, in the author's words, "the longest and most infamous -- but hardly the worst -- experimental abuse of African Americans. It has been eclipsed in both numbers and egregiousness by other abusive medical studies."

Although medical experimentation with human subjects has historically involved vulnerable groups, including children, the poor and the institutionalized, Washington enumerates how black Americans have disproportionately borne the burden of the most invasive, inhumane and perilous medical investigations, from the era of slavery to the present day. (This burden has become global in the last few decades.) In 1855, John "Fed" Brown, an escaped slave, recalled that the doctor to whom he was indentured produced painful blisters on his body in order to observe "how deep my black skin went." This study had no therapeutic value. Rather, fascination with the outward appearance of African Americans, whose differences from whites were thought to be more than skin deep, was a significant impulse driving such medical trials.


The infringement of black Americans' rights to their own bodies in the name of medical science continued throughout the 20th century. In 1945, Ebb Cade, an African American trucker being treated for injuries received in an accident in Tennessee, was surreptitiously placed without his consent into a radiation experiment sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Black Floridians were deliberately exposed to swarms of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and other diseases in experiments conducted by the Army and the CIA in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, black inmates at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison were used as research subjects by a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist testing pharmaceuticals and personal hygiene products; some of these subjects report pain and disfiguration even now. During the 1960s and '70s, black boys were subjected to sometimes paralyzing neurosurgery by a University of Mississippi researcher who believed brain pathology to be the root of the children's supposed hyperactive behavior. In the 1990s, African American youths in New York were injected with Fenfluramine -- half of the deadly, discontinued weight loss drug Fen-Phen -- by Columbia researchers investigating a hypothesis about the genetic origins of violence.


Given the history presented in Medical Apartheid, it is no surprise that some African Americans continue to regard the medical system with apprehension, despite more stringent safeguards enacted by the federal government in the 1970s. Washington attributes this outlook, which she calls iatrophobia, to the seeds of distrust sown in black communities by the Tuskegee scandal and a history of lesser-known mistreatment.

Washington, a visiting fellow at Chicago's DePaul University, intends that Medical Apartheid serve a socially therapeutic -- if not cathartic -- function. Laying bare these atrocities, her logic goes, will foster healing and frank but necessary conversation. Clearing the air may encourage a better informed African American public to participate in clinical trials.

Despite the author's best intentions, the scale and persistence of the "dark history" she delineates may well preclude such a development. Precisely because Washington's account of racially stratified medical exploitation is so gripping, it may be difficult for the public to muster enthusiasm to enter clinical trials, no matter their cultural background. And with the experimental research burden shifting from Americans of African descent to Africa itself (which Washington calls a "continent of subjects"), Asia, and Latin America, where some cavalier researchers are seeking more plentiful and pliant subjects, readers may be more convinced than ever of the durability of the medical color line.
Get Harriet Washington's book, and read it. Try to understand this history and its significance, and then consider again this part of Chris Floyd's commentary:
First, what Obama called "such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS." After citing some books on the subject, Wright said:
I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven't read things, then you can't -- based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything. In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the -- one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales records. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.

So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people, and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.
I personally don't believe that the U.S. government concocted the AIDs virus; but the notion that a government which conducted murderous medical experiments on black men for decades, and sold chemical weaponry to a brutal dictator (and, by providing military intelligence, helped him use them against the Iranians), and also launched a war of aggression in Iraq that has killed at least million innocent people might also be capable of creating and unleashing a deadly disease is certainly not implausible.
Yet all conservatives, and many more liberals and progressives than one might have thought or hoped, refuse to acknowledge this history. They do not want to understand the context in which Jeremiah Wright made his remarks. They are not interested in the full truth, or anything close to it. It's too upsetting. It might make people angry.

Well, fuck, yeah. If you're not profoundly upset and angry when you contemplate history and facts of this kind, you might as well be dead. You're certainly dead intellectually, and by your own choice.

But I'm not dead, not by a long shot. I may feel like hell physically, but I feel more alive psychologically and intellectually than I have in a long time. I am filled with delirious joy by certain aspects of our world, and I am deeply, terribly angry and enraged at others.

And I feel young again. Thank you, Reverend Wright. You're the best birthday present I could have asked for.