March 22, 2008

How many wrongs make a Wright?

Since Barack Obama’s pastor has oddly become the single most important issue facing Americans in 2008—more dangerous, even, than killer knickerbockers—it got me to thinking: “Is Jeremiah Wright really the monster they say he is?”Michael Gerson seems to think so. So does Matt. And Charles Krauthamer. And Jeff Jacoby. It has been emphasized by conservative pundits and readily accepted as fact by most on the Left. However I think it’s a mistake to simply dismiss Wright as a hate-monger without taking a closer look. More importantly, it resurrects the issue of John McCain’s courting of the pastor John Hagee—and why it isn’t given the same treatment as Wright-gate.Regarding the HIV/AIDS claims, Wright is no doubt incorrect, and his remarks on the matter are angry and belligerent. But they don’t exist in a vacuum. They stem instead from a history of racial conflict—centuries of mistreatment that allow such sentiments (and often diseases themselves) to fester and then spread. The Tuskegee Experiments stand out as a not-so-shining example of the ill effects that governmental racism can have. Wright’s views are in the minority among African Americans, but only barely: According to a recent Washington Post study, 48.2 percent of blacks “agreee somewhat or strongly [that] HIV/AIDS is a man-made virus.Are comments like Wright’s harmful? Of course. We should be quick to condemn dangerous and inaccurate conspiracy theories, and in his speech Obama was unequivocal in this regard. I wish he had been more outspoken on this at the time, and maybe he will more ably utilize the bully pulpit in the future. Nonetheless, it seems a bit reckless to call these remarks “hateful.”His appeal to “God damn America” is likewise rife with anger and frustration—and is appallingly devoid of the rhetorical punch it sought to deliver. For those reasons, it is “incendiary,” but you’d have to try very hard to personally be offended by it. In context, it is meant to be a clever play on “God Bless America,” which he repeats first in a questioning tone, before concluding otherwise.As with his comments on HIV/AIDS, and the US-of-KKK, we’d be foolish to simply mark it off as hate-speech without actually considering what makes Wright say stuff like this. Those words aren’t hurting anybody, nor are they inciting retribution toward any group; they’re just angry, every bit worthy of the title of “crazy uncle.”The point is, that no matter how we may personally react to Wright’s most incendiary soundbites (I found them troubling and tragic), they exist for the most part at a level comfortably below “hate.”The same cannot be said for John Hagee, a high-profile John McCain endorser. His beliefs are not born of circumstance and history, which explain but don’t justify Wright’s hysterical statements. No, Hagee’s vitriol is a product of his core beliefs—that Catholics are degenerate, Muslims are a scourge, and gays cause natural disasters. (more here!). Any comparison between Hagee and Wright needlessly lets the former off the hook.Although Hagee’s remarks may be more hateful and more numerous, I think most reasonable people would agree that neither man has a place in presidential politics. Thus, Obama was understandably criticized for his association with the reverend, but when the media and rivals called for an explanation, he provided one, explaining that while he firmly denounced Wright’s statements he could not disown his friend of 20 years. It may not have satisfied everyone, but it nonetheless defied precedent and exceeded the expectations to which every other candidate has been held.Unlike Obama, who has known Wright since the Senator was still in his 20s, McCain’s relationship with Hagee is political, not personal. The pastor has admitted that McCain personally approached him looking for an endorsement, and the alliance is designed to exploit Hagee’s powerful bloc of Christian Zionists. With none of the spiritual ambiguity of Wright-gate, the question, then, is “What is his excuse?” McCain has none.He curtly dismissed the ensuing criticism, and then sent surrogates like Kay Bailey Hutchinson out to say, essentially, that this is no big deal. Perhaps. But that all depends on the nature of his relationship with Hagee, which he has failed to elaborate on. He eventually offered a one-paragraph condemnation of any statements that offended Catholics, but not Muslims or gays (or poor J.K. Rowling). With no knowledge of the pastor besides what we know, the decision to court Hagee was truly a question of judgment. And in this case, McCain sided with politics over morality.Just because he writes the best speeches doesn’t mean Barack Obama should be the only candidate held responsible for his actions. Which is why the tremendous gap in coverage between McCain’s endorsement by John Hagee, and the remarks of Jeremiah Wright are so disconcerting. And this is why the fallout from Wright has spurred a discussion not just on religion, but on race—because it looks to be the outstanding variable in play here.