Humid Haney featured his own “Beware the Terrible Simplifiers” post, in which he transcribes Bill Moyer’s entire remark on Jeremiah Wright. After reading the comment thread– and discovering the way in which at least one Republican feels about the implications of this story, I decided to add in my two cents. I’ve been wanting to follow-up on this story, considering I’ve posted about it twice in the past. Plus, with the amount of time the media has spent superficially covering the story, it’s worth some in-depth discussion.

This is what I said to “Chaz,” the conservative-leaning blogger on Humid Haney’s site (to provide some context, Chaz impugned Bill Moyers for having the audacity to speak his mind on public television, which I suppose he believes should be the exclusive province of pro-administration talking heads):

Bill Moyers deserves to be applauded for his insightful and honest assessment of this issue and all of its contradictions and nuances. As Chaz proves, the right intends to raise this issue throughout the campaign. To be sure, any response will be considered an admission of Wright’s “merits,” an attempt to trap Obama into discussing sound bites of his former pastor ad naseum.

Indeed, the use of this issue is actually a subtle way of scaring white Americans, many of whom refuse to acknowledge that numerous white politicians, including Senator McCain, have established close relationships with incendiary and controversial religious figures and most of whom have absolutely no knowledge, let alone experience, of African-American Christian churches. (That said, I am not implying Wright somehow “speaks” for everyone, though he claims to do so).

In Obama’s case, I tend to agree with Reverend August Thompson, an African-American Catholic priest here in Central Louisiana, who said that Obama likely associated with Wright in order to understand what was occurring in the African-American community. Obama, after all, is biracial and was raised by his white mother and his white grandparents. In his book Dreams of My Father, he writes about his struggles with and ultimate acceptance of his racial identity. Perhaps this is something most white Americans cannot appreciate or with which they cannot empathize, but it is certainly an important part of Mr. Obama’s life. And it should be respected and understood.

Chaz, I understand your perspective and your cold, hardball analysis, but I think that the more voters learn about Obama’s life– his narrative– the more people realize that it’s ludicrous, stupid, and simplistic to imply he and Wright share the same beliefs, that it’s self-evident Mr. Obama loves his country and any affront to his patriotism is dirty politics, and that American religious life is as complicated a discourse as American race relations.

People are actually watching this election. They’re informing themselves. And they’re well-versed in the ways Republicans attempt to win national elections.

Let’s talk about the real issues– the War in Iraq, our dependence on foreign oil, renewable energy, health care, our education system, our economy.

Why are our politics so predisposed toward the simplistic and sensational? We’re electing someone to direct this country’s policies; this isn’t just any ordinary media spectacle.

This is what Bill Moyers said (H/t Humid Haney):

I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam, “Who’s telling the truth over there?” “Everyone,” he said. “Everyone sees what’s happening through the lens of their own experience.” That’s how people see Jeremiah Wright. In my conversation with him on this broadcast a week ago and in his dramatic public appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto the public stage. Over 2000 of you have written me about him, and your opinions vary widely. Some sting: “Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American hating radical,” one viewer wrote. A “nut case,” said another. Others were far more were sympathetic to him.

Many of you have asked for some rational explanation for Wright’s transition from reasonable conversation to shocking anger at the National Press Club. A psychologist might pull back some of the layers and see this complicated man more clearly, but I’m not a psychologist. Many black preachers I’ve known — scholarly, smart, and gentle in person — uncorked fire and brimstone in the pulpit. Of course I’ve known many white preachers like that, too.

But where I grew up in the south, before the civil rights movement, the pulpit was a safe place for black men to express anger for which they would have been punished anywhere else; a safe place for the fierce thunder of dignity denied, justice delayed. I think I would have been angry if my ancestors had been transported thousands of miles in the hellish hole of a slave ship, then sold at auction, humiliated, whipped, and lynched. Or if my great-great grandfather had been but three-fifths of a person in a constitution that proclaimed, “We the people.” Or if my own parents had been subjected to the racial vitriol of Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond, Bull Connor, and Jesse Helms. Even so, the anger of black preachers I’ve known and heard about and reported on was, for them, very personal and cathartic.

That’s not how Jeremiah Wright came across in those sound bites or in his defiant performances this week. What white America is hearing in his most inflammatory words is an attack on the America they cherish and that many of their sons have died for in battle, forgetting that black Americans have fought and bled beside them, and that Wright himself has a record of honored service in the Navy. Hardly anyone took the “chickens come home to roost” remark to convey the message that intervention in the political battles of other nations is sure to bring retaliation in some form, which is not to justify the particular savagery of 9/11 but to understand that actions have consequences. My friend Bernard Weisberger, the historian, says, yes, people are understandably seething with indignation over Wright’s absurd charge that the United States deliberately brought an HIV epidemic into being. But it is a fact, he says, that within living memory the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study that deliberately deceived black men with syphilis into believing that they were being treated, while actually letting them die for the sake of a scientific test. Does this excuse Wright’s anger? His exaggerations or distortions? You’ll have to decide or yourself. At least it helps me to understand the why of them.

But in this multimedia age the pulpit isn’t only available on Sunday mornings. There’s round the clock media — the beast whose hunger is never satisfied, especially for the fast food with emotional content. So the preacher starts with rational discussion and after much prodding throws more and more gasoline on the fire that will eventually consume everything it touches. He had help — people who for their own reasons set out to conflate the man in the pulpit who wasn’t running for president with the man in the pew who was.

Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee’s delusions, or thinks AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God’s judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.

Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong — white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren’t.

Which means it is all about race, isn’t it? Wright’s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn’t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone’s neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this, this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said “beware the terrible simplifiers.”

And since I have the time and the space, there are other terrible simplifications that should be addressed:

We don’t chose our own names.

Occasionally, I am confronted by the privileges and the baggage of being named after my father, who passed away when I was a teenager. It can be both a curse and a blessing. In Obama’s case, as he writes in The Audacity of Hope, shortly after September 11, at least one of his close political advisers offered his condolences on Obama’s political career, which he believed to be ruined because Obama and Osama are spelled similarly. And now, some Republicans giddily use his middle name “Hussein” as a scare tactic, as if to suggest that Obama has some secret loyalty to Islamic terrorists by virtue of a common Arabic name he inherited from his father (who he barely knew). Apparently, some people believe it is appropriate to chastise others based solely on their name. It’s pathetic, simplistic politics targeted only at the most ignorant and most gullible voters. Instead of debating substantive policy, some believe it’s appropriate to base electoral strategy on issues that primarily appeal to people who passively participate, people who view the election as it’s presented to them: nothing more than yet another media spectacle.

If you receive your news from Fox, then you may recall the madrassa story, in which Fox News picked up a fake story on Insight Magazine and told the world that Obama went to a training school for Muslim terrorists. This is the kind of craziness that passes as news:

Last week, for the third or fourth time, I received the Obama pledge of allegiance e-mail. The blog Think on These Things responds much better than I can:

Someone Lied To You

Let’s get to the larger issue though.

It’s too bad that we can’t say that whoever sent you that email has the same respect for your intellectual capacities.

Who thought you were so gullible that they would send you false, misleading information about something that could affect you and your children’s future–who our next President should be?

Somebody thought so poorly of you, your intelligence, and your well-being under the next Presidential administration that they flat out lied to you. Somebody tried to play you for a fool.

Barack Obama has respect for your intelligence. He has said:

“I have absolute confidence in the American people’s capacity to absorb the truth as long as we are forceful in that presentation.”

To be sure, Obama didn’t have his hand on his heart, but it wasn’t during the pledge of allegiance; it was during the National Anthem. More to the point: Have we really become a country so obsessed with ritual protocol that it’s acceptable to question someone’s patriotism based solely on an out-of-context photograph? And what’s wrong with singing along with the National Anthem?

Some Republicans seek to deflate an Obama candidacy and the potential for an Obama Presidency by scaring people about race, religion, and patriotism. They seek to establish Manichean boundaries to this conversation, once again asserting that their brand of religion, their understanding of race, and their interpretations of patriotism reflect some sort of objective truth. No one owns the truth. No one owns the meaning of patriotism. Too often, Americans have been coaxed into confusing unmitigated (and sometimes willingly punitive) jingoism for patriotism. Too often, people have allowed others to mediate the meaning of patriotism without question.

We should be a country of skeptics. Our collective skepticism is warranted. We were led into a war on false pretenses. Many people in my generation are proud Americans fighting in this war. And many, including Lee Deal (formerly of Alexandria), have lost their lives in this war. Which is why our skepticism should not be diverted to issues of little relevance or import; instead, we should direct our energy and attention toward discussing the issues that matter most.

In my personal opinion, a good steward of our nation is someone with good judgment and someone with the ability to listen to all people (and the ability to understand outside perspectives), someone with the intellectual capacity to recognize complexities, nuances, and most importantly, our Constitution– its true meaning and its implications.

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