One of the oddities of the emerging media meta-narrative about Jeremiah Wright is the way it is now readily assumed by the broad range of talking heads that Wright’s recent comments have only proven the charge that he is deeply "anti-American," embodied in the endlessly repeated "God damn America" sound bite.
There’s no doubt that a lot of Wright’s views are indeed deeply critical of America, even pugnaciously (and thus disconcertingly) so, and some — particularly his apparent absorption of racial theories regarding the spread of HIV — are dubious at best. Considering Wright’s contentious performance yesterday at the National Press Club, one really can’t blame Obama for washing his hands of the man.
But it’s also apparent that the larger context in which Wright condemns American behavior — the reason he shouts "God damn America" — in fact reflects hard historical realities that Americans, and the American media especially, really don’t want to talk about, let alone confront the present-day consequences thereof.
And doing so, evidently, is now proof of being "anti-American."
Among the things, evidently, that we’re not supposed to bring up because it interrupts Peggy Noonan’s fantasy vision of an American history populated mostly by noble 49ers and industrious Henry Fords, are the following:
It’s human, of course, to want to think of yourself as a good person, and your country as a good country. Which is why it’s human of white Americans — the descendants and beneficiaries of the people who perpetrated these atrocities — to want to forget that these things happened. And they want to believe that because these events were in the past, and they took some initial steps toward reconciliation 40 years ago, the issues should have gone away, and if they haven’t, well, it’s the victims’ fault.
The victims and their descendants, however, cannot forget that these things happened, because they continue to live with the legacy of them every day. And white Americans should not delude themselves into thinking that they could or should have forgotten, either. Ask any Native American living on a reservation, or any descendant of Japanese camp internees, or any African American, whether they can forget these things.
Perhaps when young black men no longer face persistent job discrimination or lowered life expectancies, when racial residential segregation is no longer a persistent reality, when hate crimes are a distant memory, when our response to great national war-inducing traumas is no longer imbued with xenophobic hysteria — perhaps when white Americans take actual steps beyond those four-decade-old baby steps to confront the legacy of their very real history of shameful behavior toward nonwhites, then perhaps we can ask for that forgetting.
Assuming that they should — and indeed insisting that the fact that they haven’t is proof that they "hate America" — is simply childish. But then, that’s what we’ve come to expect both of the American right and the American media.
These historical realities in fact were what provided the context of Wright’s "God damn America" snippet. Here’s the key passage from the sermon:
Where governments change, God does not change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever more. That’s what his name I Am means. He does not change.
God was against slavery on yesterday, and God, who does not change, is still against slavery today. God was a God of love yesterday, and God who does not change, is still a God of love today. God was a God of justice on yesterday, and God who does not change, is still a God of justice today. God does not change.
And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on the reservations.
When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps.
When it came to treating the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters. Put them on auction blocks. Put them in cotton fields. Put them in inferior schools. Put them in substandard housing. Put them in scientific experiments. Put them in the lowest paying jobs. Put them outside the equal protection of the law. Kept them out of the racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness.
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. Naw, naw, naw. Not God Bless America. God Damn America! That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating its citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme.
What’s obvious, in fact, is that the longtime right-wing "America, love it or leave it" style of patriotism has become part of the media’s standard narrative in the post-9/11 world. I think Al Franken had it right:
If you listen to a lot of conservatives, they’ll tell you that the difference between them and us is that conservatives love America and liberals hate America…. They don’t get it. We love America just as much as they do. But in a different Way. You see, they love America the way a 4-year-old loves her Mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups.
To a 4-year-old, everything Mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad. Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work and is the best thing in the world.
In the new media universe, Mommy America would never ever hurt those poor black people. And if maybe she did once upon a time, well, she made up for it a long time ago and now things are all better. Bringing up evidence to the contrary just means you hate Mommy.
Which might explain why people like Wright get all contemptuous on their asses.