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 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. More than 2000 people have written me about him, and their opinions vary widely. Some sting: “Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American-hating radical,” one of my viewers wrote. Another called him a “nut case.”
Many more were sympathetic to him. Many asked for some rational explanation for Wright’s transition from reasonable conversation to the shocking anger they saw 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-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 Conner, and Jesse Helms.
Even so, the anger of black preachers I’ve known and heard 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 since my interview. 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 for yourself, but at least it helps me to understand the why of them.
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 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 and 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 unsettles some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We’re often exposed 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 played out right in front of our 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.”
BILL MOYERS is managing editor of the weekly public affairs program BILL MOYERS Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.