The recent outrage over comments by Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright threatens to squelch what could become a healthy and necessary national discussion of the issues raised in those comments: racism, hypocrisy, blowback, and the morality of state sponsored murder.
Wright is part of a generation that experienced first-hand the effects of racism, ranging from indignity to terrorism. Although much has improved in the last forty years, racism is a chronic disease that we all inherit and whose only remedy is cultural. Every child must be trained to accept others as having equal value; so the continued existence of racism must be interpreted as a failure of this training and of the culture that is responsible for providing it. The vehemence of Wrights remarks suggest an overreaction to being victimized by racism that could lead to a form of reverse racism; and fear of this threat may be the main driver of the negative reaction and concern over Obama’s position regarding them.
The most inflammatory of Wright’s comments involve the suggestion that the United States somehow deserved the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Wright in fact gave a version of the “what goes around, comes around” argument that is similar to the idea of blowback, where our country’s numerous attempts to subvert or totally destroy unfriendly governments (which have yielded many more casualties than 9/11) would eventually lead to reprisals. To know this and then cry “foul” is, according to Wright, the worst kind of hypocrisy. Wright then used the notion that our government’s leaders should have been aware that the Christian deity would likely render the sternest judgment on those who kill or otherwise harm others to complete his argument that 9/11 could have and should have been anticipated.
The blowback concept is arguably correct or at least worthy of serious investigation, but it does not justify the killing of thousands of civilians, any more than any other act that is not purely defensive. The hypocrisy argument should be taken on a case by case basis; I for one was woefully ignorant of the magnitude of our nation’s state-sponsored murder and terrorism until 9/11 forced me to investigate the possible causes of the attacks. I dismiss out of hand the notion that God would or should “damn America” for its behavior, not just because the existence of God is disputable but because it is a cop-out from our responsibility to fix what’s broken in our culture that makes us fearful, arrogant, and intolerant regarding those who aren’t like us.
Finally, I believe that beneath the fiery and emotionally offensive rhetoric of Wright’s comments is a plea for the American public to cease its blind acceptance of the innocence and superiority of our nation and its leaders; and to apply the same standards to ourselves that we so easily apply to others, both domestically and internationally. This plea is one we should answer affirmatively, with honesty and the understanding that what we find so offensive about its delivery is a context of hurt which makes it both human and imperative.