The Trouble with Spikol

Is Barack Obama's pastor really that controversial?

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 26, 2008

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The Wright stuff: Obama was forced to condemn the reverend's words. (Associated Press/AP Images)

Obama's speech at the Constitution Center last week was the first time in my life I heard a major political figure speak in depth about race. The speech was roughly 5,000 words--almost the length of a State of the Union address.

To deflect the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama didn't need to deliver a 5,000-word speech on a subject that isn't high on voters' lists of concerns. The economy, war, healthcare--these are issues people vote on. But Obama didn't want to waste the opportunity for discourse. And I'm glad he didn't.

Of course, within those 5,000 words, he had to thoroughly chastise Wright. Among other things, he said, "[Wright's] remarks ... expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country--a view that sees white racism as endemic." He called Rev. Wright's comments "wrong."

I understand why Obama said that, and I'm guessing Rev. Wright--who's being called a hatemonger--gets it too. But I don't see the need to condemn everything the reverend has said.

Other than saying black people have gotten AIDS from the government (read The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof for an interesting commentary on that), Wright's excerpted remarks suggest a man whose primary belief is that racism has caused grievous harm to African-Americans and to American society in general.

As Rice University religion and philosophy professor Anthony Pinn said on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, "Folks including myself may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric, but I don't think very many of us would deny that there is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States."

Some of Wright's other remarks struck me as unspectacular for the same reason. They're either true, or they've been said many times before.

Let's break down one of them, just for fun, from 2001:

"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and the black South Africans, and now we are indignant. Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yard. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Saying the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a result of failed American foreign policy isn't new now and it wasn't groundbreaking then. One of the first calls I got after the attacks was from a college friend who said exactly the same thing, and I think he might've used the chickens line.

From Michael Moore to Ann Coulter, people from every side of the political spectrum have long suggested we made our own bed.

In June 2002 Market & Opinion Research International and Harris Interactive did a poll of Europeans regarding the reason for the 9/11 attacks. A majority of the people asked believed that U.S. foreign policy was partly to blame.

Around the same time Rev. Wright gave the sermon from which these remarks were taken, the Christian Science Monitor reported: "But from Jakarta to Cairo, Muslims and Arabs say ... a mood of resentment toward America and its behavior around the world has become so commonplace in their countries that it was bound to breed hostility, and even hatred.

"And the buttons that Mr. bin Laden pushes in his statements and interviews--the injustice done to the Palestinians ... --win a good deal of popular sympathy."

Emphasis mine. And Pastor Wright's.

The 9/11 Commission Report references the same problem--that of "millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America's support for their countries' repressive rulers."

Having said what he did about foreign policy, in fact, makes Rev. Wright guilty of one thing he hasn't been accused of: banality.

The phrase "state terrorism" in reference to Israel--whether you agree with it or not--is also banal. In 2004 the prime minister of Turkey--an ally of Israel--accused Israel of "state terrorism" after roughly 60 Palestinians, including children and innocents, were killed, and thousands were left homeless after their houses were destroyed.

It was the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, in fact, that posed the question: Was Israel practicing "state terrorism"? The prime minister answered, "When you look at the structure of what has happened, how else can you interpret it?"

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