The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote a deeply confused column today. I had several thoughts on it.
1. Dionne’s column quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks in 1968, referring to Vietnam as a “senseless, unjust war” and saying, “We are criminals in that war.” Dionne then writes that he doesn’t cite King in order to justify “Wright’s damnation of America.” But of course he implicitly does. Dionne’s whole point in saying that “Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American and to discredit his call for racial and class justice” and “King certainly angered a lot of people at the time” was to imply that Wright and King are comparable. Hence the title of Dionne’s column: “Another Angry Black Preacher.”
2. Does Dionne think “right-wing commentators” are wrong to use Wright’s comments to discredit him? Dionne seems to think they are-even as Dionne himself lacerates Wright for his “lunatic and pernicious theories.” Perhaps Dionne thinks it’s only appropriate for liberals to criticize Wright.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr. did have harsh things to say about America-and one can disagree profoundly with his words. But one key difference between King and Wright is that King, while he was a harsh critic of certain policies (like Vietnam and segregation), believed in the promise of America and its capacity for redemption and improvement. He tried to call it to its better self. Wright, from everything we can tell, presents a fundamental indictment of America. As I pointed out in a previous post, the thrust of King’s teachings was that America was falling short of its promise — but that America, perhaps alone in the world, was the place where the promissory note could be fulfilled.
And of course King did not believe in crazy conspiracy theories (for example, that America is responsible for AIDS and wants to use it to promote genocide). Nor did King ever ask God to “damn” America. Nor did he seem to delight in the injuries we suffered. In addition, King urged us not to drink from “the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Does Dionne believe the same can be said of that “other angry black preacher”?
4. Dionne insists he didn’t cite King “to justify Wright’s damnation of America or his lunatic and pernicious theories but to suggest that Obama’s pastor and his church are not as far outside the African American mainstream as many would suggest.” Dionne later writes that he “loathes the anti-American things Wright said.” What Dionne is arguing, then, is that lunatic and pernicious theories and loathsome anti-Americanism is near the African-American mainstream. Pace Dionne, I desperately hope that is not the case. But if it is, and if black liberation theology as embodied by Wright is as prevalent as Dionne suggests, then I hope Dionne, a leading liberal voice, will give up the argument that Wright is “operating within a long tradition of African American outrage.” The difference is that most of the tradition of African American outrage was justified and noble; Wright’s outrage is (to use Dionne’s words) “lunatic,” “pernicious,” and something we should “loathe.”
5. Dionne writes, “I would ask my conservative friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for him in 1968.” I would in turn ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for King in, say, 1963, when King argued for a color-blind society in law as well as attitudes (many contemporary liberals obsess on race and support racial quotas and preferences). I would also ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly if they would have stood up for King when he made explicit appeals to God’s law and natural law and tied morality to the Scriptures (many contemporary liberals are deeply secular and have utter contempt for those who link morality to religion). And I would ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly today if they would have stood up for King when he anchored his case for the American dream in an appeal to America’s common culture and common values and in King’s appeal to our founding principles and the Declaration of Independence (many contemporary liberals have embraced multiculturalism and have deep animus for “dead white men”).
In a desperate attempt to defend Barack Obama, intelligent liberals like E.J. Dionne, Jr. have to deal with the matter of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not an easy task — and in his attempt to both castigate Wright and tie him to Martin Luther King, Jr., Dionne demonstrates just how difficult their undertaking is. Wright and Obama have badly hurt themselves in this whole episode — and those who are attempting to come to their aid are as well.