29 April 2008

Cynics gone wild

As a recovering politics addict, I've managed to stay surprisingly serene during the U.S. presidential nominations season. But the bizarre artificial controversy around the retiring pastor of Obama's church, Jeremiah Wright, is too much to bear.

The first question anyone with common sense ought to ask about this noise is, "What's the agenda?" If people are genuinely puzzled by the Jeremiah Wright soundbites, there's lots of ways to fill in the context. Two examples:

(Damning excerpt and context)

(Bill Moyers' interview; full interview available here)

If someone isn't willing to exercise elementary fairness in assessing the controversy, then there's plenty to get hot about in favor of whatever prejudice already exists, or whatever fear one cares to exploit. Barack Obama's task is clear: he needs to keep remembering what he knows, responding directly to direct questions, and constantly pointing to the larger perspective. Politics is hard work; there's no getting around the need to connect meaningfully with every undecided voter, while reinforcing the commitment he's already made to those of us who share many of his values. But what do we do in response to the controversy; what's our responsibility when the cynics go wild? How do we respond when nationally-read commentators say things like this?--
Now it turns out that Mr. Wright doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice. He is not out of touch with the American culture, he is the avatar of the American celebrity principle: he grabbed his 30-second spots of infamy and turned them into 15 minutes of fame.
(Alessandra Stanley, "Not Speaking for Obama, Pastor Speaks for Himself, at Length," New York Times.) 

After treating us to constant replays of carefully-selected expressions of Wright's angriest messages, accompanied by many hours and many pages of speculation about the effect on Obama's campaign, the country and its mass media can't grant this man his fifteen minutes of response?? What in the name of justice are they thinking? What could Obama's campaign even be thinking? Why couldn't someone just stand up and say, "You media trashed the man up one side and down the other; isn't it only fair that he now gets his day in the court of public opinion?" The Bill Moyers interview was a wonderful treat: two Christian gentlemen sit down for an intelligent and respectful, even affectionate, conversation. Yes, Moyers is probably biased; as Stanley put it,
Bill Moyers, the host who knows and obviously admires Mr. Wright, gave the pastor every chance to elaborate on his bona fides, including two years in the Marine Corps and four as a Navy cardiopulmonary technician. Mr. Moyers showed old footage of Mr. Wright in surgical scrubs monitoring President Lyndon B. Johnson’s heart after his gall bladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1965.... He showed Mr. Wright’s service to his community throughout the years — tutoring programs, women’s groups, H.I.V. ministries. And he also gave Mr. Wright a chance to deconstruct the fiery sermon that seemed to blame America for the Sept. 11 attacks and clarify that he was quoting a former ambassador and intended to condemn the American government, not the nation itself. Mostly, he gave his guest a chance to show his softer side: in a dark suit and gray tie, Mr. Wright was courtly, genial, and something of an egghead, tossing out academic citations, literary references and words like "hermeneutics."
But of all the condescending (in some cases, tinged with racism) commentaries on Wright, that last sentence really got me--so Wright affected an "egghead" pose and used the word "hermeneutics" to impress and deceive viewers? Could it just be that "hermeneutics" is a word that comes up naturally when explaining the context for a sermon? When cynics go wild, natural and unforced explanations simply don't occur to them. It's our job to interrupt the self-reinforcing idiocy with some interventions of our own. Since we're unlikely to get air time on Fox "News," it's up to us to reframe this amazing spectacle for our own families and neighbors:
  • "Who decided precisely what few seconds of Wright's sermons we'd get to hear? Why not try listening to the whole sermon before judging the preacher so harshly?"
  • "What would you do if, day after day, the media treated you as a rhetorical terrorist simply for preaching the awkward truths of the Bible? Wouldn't you want a chance to correct the record?"
  • "Don't you sometimes wonder whose interests are being served by constantly whipping up these controversies without any calm opportunities for all sides to be heard? Do you think it might be possible that somebody is trying to influence you?"
I'm not saying we should fight cynicism with cynicism, but it is time to get real.


Anonymous said...

Your post was a refreshing commentary that encourages innocence - and by that I mean sweetness, not naivete. Thank you for your decency in the midst of this increasingly nasty political season.

Johan Maurer said...

*blush* You're welcome!!