The Greek myth is both simple and compelling. Daedalus, imprisoned on
the island of
Crete with his son (Icarus), fashioned wings made of feathers and wax
in order for the two of them to fly to freedom. Daedalus warned
Icarus, however, not to fly too close to the Sun because the
wax would melt and he would fall. The two of them took off,
but Icarus became entranced with flight and, ignoring his father's
warnings, flew higher and higher until the wax melted and Icarus
plunged to his death in the sea.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright made two mistakes, only one of which deserves criticism.
The first mistake was that of playing “Icarus.” Throwing all
sense of tactics aside, Rev. Wright became enchanted, if not
entranced, by the publicity he received. Clearly angry about
his perception of having been “dissed” by Senator Obama, this
was his time in the Sun, so to speak. As demonstrated by his
performance at the National Press Club, his speech was compelling,
but his approach in the Q&A failed to take account his circumstances:
he was not in his own church; indeed, he was not in any church.
Clearly, by the time of the Q&A, Rev. Wright was in the
stratosphere, inspired, perhaps by both the sound of his own
voice and the “Amens” he received from supporters in the room.
Yet, the responses he should have paid attention to were those
of the journalists, most of whom were apparently not part of
his Amen Corner. Since then, he has been plunging into the sea.
The problem is that many people believe that he is taking Senator
Obama with him. I happen to not agree, for reasons I will present
second “mistake,” however, was very different. Rev. Wright has,
throughout his career, dared to challenge the myth of US history. For the larger
society this “mistake” is of far greater importance than his
performance at the National Press Club, and for that matter,
whether or not he brings down Senator Obama, US history has
a basic narrative: The settlers were heroes; the indigenous
people were either heathens or naive primitives, but in either
case they were in the way of progress. Slavery was an unfortunate
episode that was cleaned up by the Civil War, though it has
never been quite clear that the former slaves were ever meant
to rule themselves, let alone anyone else. US
foreign policy has generally been benign, nearly always driven
by either a God-given imperative to improve the world or our
sense that the planet would be better off with our version of
capitalism and democracy. Where Rev. Wright fell into problems
was by challenging this myth. Taking the standpoint of those
who have seen the underside of the “American Dream”, he was
prepared to speak to a counter-narrative that identifies the
problematic nature of US history. By doing so he
opened himself to ridicule, but only when his counter-narrative
was treated in sound-bites rather than taken as a whole.
For this reason the attack on Rev. Wright must be examined very carefully
because there are multiple agendas unfolding. The larger problem
is that the Obama campaign was treated to a media onslaught
that was completely inappropriate to the circumstances. Rev.
Wright never spoke for the Obama campaign and on that basis
alone, Senator Obama would have been well within his rights
to simply stop responding to questions. Certainly
both Senators McCain and Clinton have done that when they have
been caught in uncomfortable situations. There was no reason
that Obama should have been expected to handle it differently.
Well, there was a reason that has something to do with his coloring.
It is in this sense that progressives generally, but especially those
supporting the Obama candidacy (even if critically supporting
it, as is this writer) should remind people that it is not Rev.
Wright pulling the campaign down but instead it is the media
that tastes blood and is trying to promote an atmosphere of
pessimism. Needless to say both the Clinton and McCain campaigns
(and their allies) have been complicit in this.
is also important to emphasize that the Wright/Obama conflict
is largely about a means for the mainstream political establishment
to situate Senator Obama with those to his Left. To the extent
to which Rev. Wright played into this, it was possible, if not
essential, in the view of the Obama campaign, to distance itself
not only from Rev. Wright but from Wright's message. In this
way the message was being trounced along with the messenger.
No real discussion is being permitted about the issues that
Rev. Wright raised because he is being treated as an out-of-control
old man and his message is being treated as incoherent at best,
anti-American at worst. Insofar as Rev. Wright’s message was
maligned as crazy and inappropriate ANYONE conveying that message
was also so categorized. Certainly by ignoring tactics and focusing
more on proving his own dignity and correctness, Rev. Wright
lost control over the situation. His own anger and desire for
rehabilitation of his reputation outweighed any sense of the
current political situation. This was a major mistake and one
that many people will have difficulty forgiving. This is unfortunate.
Rev. Wright should be criticized for abandoning tactics and putting himself
before the movement. He should not, however, be criticized for
challenging the myths associated with US history. Even if one
disagrees with aspects of what he relayed - such as his take
on the origin of AIDS - much, if not most of his argument is
backed up by a genuine examination of the foundations of the
and its current role domestically and internationally. Space
to make that argument is essential. And we, to the Left of Senator
Obama, must continue to advance an accurate sense of the history
and role of the USA. This will put us at odds,
at times, with the Obama campaign which either cannot or will
not agree with such an analysis. Yet if there is a significant
constituency that does, this argument will gain attention, if
“Critical support” means walking on two legs, both offering genuine support,
as well as offering sincere and constructive criticism where
there are disagreements. Rev. Wright apparently decided that
now was a time for lashing out in hurt and anger, rather than
recognizing that the sweetest “revenge” is success. For those
of us to the Left of Senator Obama, success is more than the
election of Senator Obama as president of the USA. It is really about the building of a social
movement that embraces much of the counter-narrative Rev. Wright
attempted to articulate. With that counter-narrative, we have
the basis for a left/progressive strategy. Without that counter-narrative,
we are simply wandering in the wilderness, hoping for change.
Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He
is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president
of TransAfrica Forum. Click
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.