By The Progressive on April 29, 2008

If the Obama campaign raises hopes that America could get past its racially riven history, Wright is here to remind us what a huge feat it would be to make that dream a reality.Watching Jeremiah Wright's speech to the National Press Club Monday morning was both cathartic and alarming.

Cathartic because, after weeks of the endlessly repeated soundbites from his controversial sermons, which have been used to tar his former parishioner Barack Obama, Wright got to speak up for himself. He spoke plainly about racism, his own leftwing political point of view, and what he called, wryly, "this unknown phenomenon of the black church."

Much of what Wright said was absolutely true--yet too hot for white America, for the National Press Club, and for a mainstream U.S. Presidential campaign. It was not great for Obama, whom Wright hinted has distanced himself from his former minister only because he's "a politician" doing "what politicians do.”

In his appearance on Bill Moyers' show Friday, as well as his Press Club speech, Wright blew away any hope the Obama campaign may have had that he would stay mum and let the storm of controversy he kicked up with his impolitic sermons pass.

Instead, Wright came out swinging, mocking the media for knowing nothing about the black church, for taking soundbites from his sermons out of context, and, basically, for being lazy and ignorant.

He called the news generated by his controversial remarks "the most recent attack on the black church." And while he clearly takes the media characterizations of him personally ("Those are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles," he said), he couched his decision to speak up now as a defense of his people--the people of the black church.

"If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religion . . . you've got another thing coming," Wright told the press.

At times he seemed cocky, clearly enjoying putting his Press Club hosts' noses out of joint and playing to the crowd of supporters. At times he seemed a little confused, saying both that Obama had and hadn't distanced himself from Wright within the space of a minute.

He talked a lot about reconciliation, but at the same time, in heated terms, he outlined the ugly history of racism in our country, from slavery to Jim Crow to the Klan to gross economic disparities today. There was a lot of anger visible under the surface of that tight smile. And, most alarmingly for the Obama campaign and its supporters, there was ample fodder for more endlessly recycled sound bites. Fox News will have a field day.

It was striking to hear the themes of Wright's speech: the criticism of U.S. militarism and imperialism, racial and economic injustice, the references to progressive figures from Cornel West to Jim Wallis, and watch the audience and the press corps react.

Most progressives, and even most Democrats, understand where Wright is coming from. Just as Bill Moyers made reference to his previous encounters with Wright and the friends they have in common, many of the touchstones of his politics are familiar to both black America and progressive America.

What will this mean for the rest of the nation?

To be sure, Wright's refusal to denounce Louis Farrakhan, his angry-sounding declaration that Farrakhan didn't put him in chains or "make me this color," his assertion that "yes, I believe our country is capable of doing anything" in answer to a question about whether he thinks the United States deliberately infected black people with AIDS will be held against him.

But the audience of his friends and supporters ate up his strikes back against what has surely been a racist and unfair campaign against him. Wright's 9/11 sermon, though it looks, in soundbite form, supremely insensitive, was actually a profoundly moving statement on the tragedy and on the desperate, destructive logic of revenge.Q

The "chickens coming home to roost" line was a quote from a U.S. ambassador, by the way, not Wright's own words. Wright is a scholar, and he brings layers of meaning and a nuanced understanding to the great themes he addresses. But that is quickly lost in a cable news report.

Unlike Obama, who is relentlessly positive, Wright's points in his speech tended to characterize the U.S. government as an agent of evil more than a beacon of hope. "While our government cuts Food Stamps and spends billions fighting an unjust war in Iraq," he said, his own church has been working hard to serve the poor. In many ways, he pointed out "our congregation" was right, when the U.S. was wrong. On slavery, South African apartheid, and other issues throughout history, he pointed out the leadership of his church, contrasted with the benighted thinking of the U.S. government. "While those who call me unpatriotic have used their position of privilege to avoid military service . . . sending others to die for a lie."

Furthermore, Wright pointed out, "the Christianity of the slaveholder is NOT the Christianity of the slave."

So much for national or religious unity. Wright doesn't hesitate to puncture the national myth of America's essential goodness. It is with his church that his loyalty lies.

None of which is terribly shocking to those of us who are quite familiar with the U.S. government's misdeeds over time. But it's a heck of a message to send mainstream American voters.

"We must root out racism or there will be no reconciliation," Wright declared. Or, as the kids say, "No Justice, No Peace."

Needless to say, this is not the Obama campaign jingle.

Wright fielded questions on all his controversial statements. Including patriotism:

"I served six years years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?" he said to wild applause.

Good point.

We'll see what the press, whom he clearly enjoyed teasing, makes of it. And what the voters have to say. Not to mention Obama. If the Obama campaign raises hopes that America could get past its racially riven history, Wright is here to remind us what a huge feat it would be to make that dream a reality.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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