“Stigmatizing the uncounted as backward, dangerous, etc., then, is the best way to ward off a more profound evil’: the emergence of a popular subjective force that would be capable of opposing the sterility of comfortable self-perpetuation. . . .
Senator Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech has received near universal acclaim. Cable television talk shows and editorial pages of newspapers across the nation have hailed the speech as a landmark moment in modern American presidential politics.
When we reflect on all that has transpired to get us to this moment, we must give some critical thought to how the speech, the performance, and the response sheds light on that which must be contained in the low intensity spectator sport that is American democracy.
Although the framing of “Jeremiah Wright” began over a year ago, when it recently reached critical mass it became nearly impossible to distinguish the myth from the man, the individual from the institution, and the historical from the fictional. In other words, “Jeremiah Wright” ceased to function as a proper name and began to operate metonymically to signify the excesses of “the Black Church,” “black rage,” and “the Civil Rights generation.”
It is this framing that has facilitated the domestication and containment of “Jeremiah Wright” to a conversation on race that is at one and the same time a conversation about a speech on race.
But to think singularly about “Jeremiah Wright” as an occasion for and an invitation to a conversation on race fails to recognize the more potent political content contained by the framing of “Jeremiah Wright.”
“Jeremiah Wright” represents the unknown, unauthorized, and unqualified languages and politics that stand at the center of the void of American democracy. In its utter alterity relative to the dominant and privileged forms of democratic politics, “Jeremiah Wright” comes to represent a dangerous and divisive demagogic politics that must be repudiated.
Thus, “Jeremiah Wright” as the excesses of “the Black Church,” “black rage,” and “the Civil Rights generation,” is eclipsed and contained in contemporary democratic politics. That is, independent institutional bases for political theorizing and mobilizing in the solidarity with those who inhabit the margins of society both locally and globally and directed toward realizing new visions of freedom and human existence beyond the horizon of the given are foreclosed and deemed irrelevant to the larger project of the American nation.
“Jeremiah Wright” as the excesses of “the Black Church,” “black rage,” and “the Civil Rights generation,” do not possess the requisite level of knowledge and sophistication of skill to deal with the problems facing a new generation. “Jeremiah Wright” is impolite when speaking on American imperialism abroad and capitalist empire at home. “Jeremiah Wright” uses outdated language to speak to the fact that the public schools are as segregated now as during the age of Brown and the gap between the rich and the poor is at a level unseen since the Depression era. “Jeremiah Wright” tells inconvenient truths of the expansion of American policing abroad and the politics of policing and prisons at home.
“Jeremiah Wright” explodes on the political scene because “Jeremiah Wright” cannot be accounted for except through the language of disturbance and disruption of acceptable discourse. To critically think “Jeremiah Wright” in its singularity and multiplicity stands as a challenge to a totalizing political logic that erases unruly elements from the political field.
Indeed, to confront “Jeremiah Wright” means to confront the “structural lie” of contemporary American democratic politics. That is, a form of politics that is authorized, mobilized and maintained by absolute commitments to vacuous and impotent notions “policy” and the political calculus of “politicians.” Politics is polls, strategies, talk shows, blogs, races, and campaign contributions. It is, to paraphrase Alain Badiou, public order wedded to the protection of private wealth. It is this “structural lie” that (mis)represents “Jeremiah Wright” and that sutures the political gap exposed by “Jeremiah Wright.”
The institutions, logics, and imaginations signified by “Jeremiah Wright” stand as critical modes and foundations that facilitate individuals and collectives to challenge the dominant structures of power in our contemporary conjuncture. In a politics of “Jeremiah Wright,” passive citizens become authorizing political subjects that frame and develop formations and practices that revive the word politics in expressing and struggling to actualize new emancipations for radically democratic futures.
“Jeremiah Wright” exceeds our political situation in accordance with our inability to recognize and represent a politics of liberation. And thus, it is only through the politics of “Jeremiah Wright” are we able to achieve a planetary more perfect union.
COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.