Dumping Wright to move to the right

By ditching his former pastor, Barack Obama hopes, as the campaign-speak cliché goes, to get "on message" again. The question is: What message?

Barack Obama (Emmanuel Dunand | AFP)

THE CORPORATE media attack dogs are at it again. Following Rev. Jeremiah Wright's appearances at a meeting of the Detroit NAACP and the National Press Club, assorted blowhards and hypocrites are lining up to ask--once again--if Barack Obama will disown his former pastor.

A few weeks before, Obama had turned a media-manufactured "Wright controversy" into an opportunity to give a widely hailed speech about the continued centrality of the issue of race in U.S. society and politics.

This time, though, Obama obliged his conservative--and mostly white--media critics by denouncing Wright for his statement that he admired Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and for implying the U.S. government may have had a role in creating the virus that causes AIDS.

These were convenient excuses for Obama to distance himself. But neither Farrakhan nor AIDS are the real reasons for the media uproar. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out, the press isn't attacking John McCain for his association with Rev. John Hagee, the far-right televangelist and anti-Semite.

Most of all, Wright is under fire for speaking out forthrightly about the ugly reality of racism in the U.S.

In his speech at the National Press Club, he observed how, in U.S. history, a white minister "could worship God on a Sunday morning, wearing a black clergy robe, and kill others on a Sunday evening, wearing a white Klan robe." Wright also declined to retract the sound bite from an old sermon, "God damn America." As he said, "God damns some practices. There is no excuse for the things that the government--not the American people--have done."

Race, of course, isn't an issue the media are remotely capable of having an honest discussion about. So the pundits pounced.

Typical was the sneering comment from Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley on the newspaper's weekly television program: "I want to know what Barack thinks about Black liberation theology. What does he subscribe to? What does he not subscribe to?"

In this context, Wright's speeches presented Obama with not just a crisis--a renewed media furor over his former pastor--but also an opportunity. His decision to ditch Wright is part of a broader campaign strategy of burying any hint of radicalism in Obama's own past as a community organizer, and tilting to the right to appeal to supposedly conservative white working-class voters.

Thus, instead of taking up the real issues underlying the controversy, Obama focused on Wright's most controversial statements--glossing over Farrakhan's anti-Semitic slurs and refusing to state unequivocally that the U.S. government didn't release the AIDS virus.

Obama also recycled the media distortion that Wright "equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism," in Obama's words.

Actually, Wright's comments on this subject at the National Press Club were most of all about the terrible legacy of U.S. imperialism.

"Our congregation," he said, "took a stand against apartheid when the government of our country was supporting the racist regime of the Afrikaner government in South Africa. Our congregation stood in solidarity with the peasants in El Salvador and Nicaragua while our government, through Ollie North and the Iran-Contra scandal was supporting the contras who were killing the peasant and the Miskito Indian in those two countries."

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IT'S CERTAINLY refreshing to see someone use their moment on the national political stage to denounce racism and U.S. imperialism.

On the other hand, some of Wright's politics are objectionable to anyone on the left--not only his dodging of the issue of anti-Semitism, but his argument, spelled out in the speech to the Detroit NAACP, that Black and white children learn with different halves of their brains.

Wright contended that Black children are "right-brained, subject-oriented in their learning style," as opposed to left-brain, object-oriented European children (where does that leave Latino or Asian kids?).

This was Wright's explanation for the problem of poor education in the African American community--not the woeful under-funding of urban public education and de facto segregation of schools more than half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

Wright's views, known as essentialism or identity politics, only lead away from the social and political solutions to the problems of racism and inequality. And they effectively let Obama off the hook--by giving him a way to avoid engaging with Wright's substantive critiques of racism in U.S. society.

In Obama's widely hailed speech on race in Philadelphia, the senator had to acknowledge the ways in which racism and inequality shaped the world view of Wright's generation. Then, Obama's treatment of Wright was sympathetic--though condescending and constrained by mainstream U.S. politics (thus, Obama's critique of Wright's anti-Zionism and the candidate's ritual statement of support for Israel).

After that speech, Obama no doubt hoped Wright would fade into the political background until the campaign was over. Instead, Wright, justifiably angry over his shameful treatment at the hands of the corporate media, came out swinging.

At that point, the door slammed shut on the trap Hillary and Bill Clinton had set for Obama.

The Clinton attack, honed since the South Carolina primary goes like this: First, Obama's success is like that of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, based on a motivated Black electorate (never mind Obama's primary wins in overwhelmingly white states like Iowa). And second, he is an elitist who is out of touch with workers (read: white workers) and more comfortable rubbing shoulders with former radicals in the Weather Underground than going bowling or grabbing a beer with a blue-collar crowd.

So for the Clintons, Wright's re-emergence as a political issue before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries was a gift.

Obama was already on the defensive over his comments about working-class "bitterness" at a San Francisco fundraising event and his acquaintance with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. The renewal of the Wright controversy allowed Clinton and her slimy surrogates--especially Bill Clinton--to pigeonhole Obama as the "Black candidate" once more.

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BY DUMPING Wright as fast as possible, Obama hoped--as the campaign-speak cliché goes--to get "on message" again. The question is: What message?

Obama is so determined to be seen as a post-partisan, if not "post-racial," figure that he won't make the most obvious moves that could expose the Clinton's phony populism. If Obama were to tell the truth about the economic and political forces that are driving down working-class living standards and increasing inequality, he could expose the way Bill Clinton's administration accelerated that process.

Instead, Obama bows to the conventional political wisdom that white workers can only be approached by appealing to their alleged cultural conservatism, such as religious values.

Instead of bold policy proposals, he offers a spiffed-up version of Clintonite policies, couched in terms of social movements and a vague call for "change." The more the Democratic power-brokers and CEOs back Obama, the more he clings to a political mainstream palatable to big business and the entrenched state bureaucracy.

Rather than call for a single-payer national health care program modeled on Medicare, Obama's plan is a patchwork that leaves profit as the decisive force in the industry. Instead of calling for affordable housing and relief for working-class victims of the mortgage crisis, Obama refuses to call for a moratorium on foreclosures. And while Obama stands in front of closed factories and decries the impact of NAFTA and other trade deals, he has yet to offer a serious proposal for creating jobs.

Obama's handling of the Wright controversy is instructive about his politics and--if elected president--what his administration would be like. Rather than confront the media reactionaries head on or put forward an economic program to appeal to workers--white, Black, Latino, Asian and all--he is saying only as much as he thinks he has to, calculating that Hillary Clinton can't overcome his delegate lead.

Obama is aiming to win by not losing, rather than delivering substance to go with his rhetorical call for a new politics. The question is whether all this adds up to the change that voters are looking for.