Friday, March 28, 2008

The Theory of Limits Helps Explain Why Some ‘Get’ Jeremiah Wright, and Many Don’t

In earlier postings I have argued that Pope Benedict XVI (formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, theologian, cardinal and Catholicism’s grand inquisitor) could benefit from understanding Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of limits.

The theory observes that because reality and language are always in flux, assertions can be true only within strict limits, and that when those limits are forgotten, an assertion begins to do the work of a falsehood. Occasions when Benedict has taken questionable positions, communicated poorly or offended people from various religions are generally ones where he forgot those limits.

But the theory of limits also applies to politics. Politicians, commentators and the American public have reacted in various ways to inflammatory comments by Jeremiah Wright, who retired earlier this year after 35 years as pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, which has been Barack Obama’s church for the last 20 years. The theory of limits can help explain why Wright phrased some statements the way he did—and why Obama should not have waited to find them inappropriate until people, mostly not in the black community, began to take offense.

If one takes time to examine Wright’s disputed claims and appreciate the context in which he made them, it is possible to identify even in the most outrageous ones a core of truth. Apart from that effort, many may react with hostility to snippets of his sermons, but they will not be hearing what Wright tried to say.

Two things are important about the context of Wright’s remarks: the mostly black congregations he was addressing expected him to reflect on their experience, past and present, and to do so in a prophetic style of preaching that black preachers have used for centuries.

Clarence Page has observed, Wright was successful at both, transforming a congregation of 80 members in 1972 to a membership of 8,000 today. But another reason Wright succeeded, Page says, was that he could also pray before a racially mixed group, “Oh, God, we come from many different places and different races, but we are of one race, the human race.” So Wright could condemn the United States for its failings—not only because our failings have afflicted blacks, but because they have denied God’s love for the human race as a whole.

With this context in mind, it is possible to construe some of Wright’s more incendiary rhetoric as true, provided the limits of that truth are specified. Let’s look at a few examples.

Wright charged that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to kill black people. So far, no one has proved that is literally true. But it wasn’t that long ago that ACT UP and other gay-activist organizations were saying exactly the same thing about American gay men, the original U.S. victims of the disease. How the virus jumped from monkey populations to African humans has never been satisfactorily explained. For the gay activists, and for black activists before and since, that has left the door open for the suspicion that the jump was someone’s plot, or at least an experiment gone awry.

Given Americans’ historical oppression of gay people and blacks, sinister motives to kill off some of either population are not inconceivable. And as
Kathleen Parker has noted, blacks in particular have special reason to fear they will not receive the best medical care: “After all, the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study, in which about 400 black men with syphilis were left untreated and uninformed as part of an experiment, was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service.”

Whether or not these fears are ever proved to be justified, there is a core of truth in Wright’s jeremiad: the Centers for Disease Control says HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for blacks in the United States. On the face of it, U.S. governments have not stopped the disease from spreading exponentially in the black community. Gays made the same charge against Ronald Reagan about their AIDS deaths. George W. Bush, to his credit, has given some priority to fighting AIDS in Africa. But Wright is right that the United States has not done enough to keep AIDS from killing American blacks.

Wright has also said that the United States bears some responsibility for the attacks of 9/11. Of course, conservative preachers said the same thing, before the ashes of the World Trade Center towers had even settled. The difference was that they were blaming homosexuals and others who do not buy right-wing morals, while Wright attacked the foreign policy of the United States. What’s sauce for the goose, as they say…

As CNN forecast, Barack Obama said in an interview today that if his pastor had not retired first earlier this year, and acknowledged that some of his comments deeply offended people, he would have left Trinity UCC. But the same article quotes another Wright sermon in which he deplored Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, especially by forcibly taking their land for right-wing Jewish settlements. There is also a core of truth in that observation. Sure, Wright could have been more nuanced, by also recognizing that the Jews have a right to defend themselves from Palestinian terrorists. But wasn’t Wright’s point that tactics like the settlement program are not a legitimate means of defense?

And then there was perhaps Wright's most played You Tube moment, when he yells “God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human!” Some find the phrasing indelicate, but it would be really hard to prove that the United States has not so treated some of its citizens some of the time. The phrasing is loose enough that it allows any number of mistreated groups the hear Wright as speaking up for them. To substitute a blessing for the curse, the course is obvious: stop trampling on Americans’ human rights.

Of course, the theory of limits also applies to Wright, and to Obama. Wright could have clarified long ago that his claims work only within limits, and that if those limits are forgotten, some of his words truly are abominable. And, as Parker says, Obama could have contributed more to healing our racial divide if he had said much earlier, before others began objecting, that Wright’s language reflects some legitimate African-American grievances—but that fanning the flames of those grievances is not the most direct route to racial harmony. In other words, Obama should have seen it coming and given his latest Big Speech proactively, rather than defensively.

Clarence Page finds it ironic that Obama may find himself “trapped in the racial divide that many still hope he is uniquely qualified to heal.” Part of the irony is that Obama got involved with Wright in the first place to learn more about the American black experience. Says Page:

“The irony for Obama, who grew up a biracial kid in Hawaii, Indonesia and rural Kansas, is that he met Wright while working as a community organizer and trying to get a better handle on black American culture in the 1980s. Now pundits ask whether Obama, who has won more white than black votes numerically, is ‘too black’ to win many more white votes.”

Time will tell if Obama can eventually capitalize on this experience. But if he is to do so, it can only be by putting Wright’s claims within valid limits and explaining why they are false if those limits are ignored.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Writing as an English pensioner, when we first heard of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, in the first hour of the breaking news, our initial comment was, "They've had this coming for some time." Very similar to Wright's remark about chickens coming home to roost.

Surely the oft-repeated question, "Why do they hate us so?" indicates the perception that there is some reason behind these events; they are not just irrational.