Archive for President Obama

Reclaiming the Liberal Legacy

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on January 25, 2013 by playthell

Barack being fortified with the laying on of hands.

The Chosen One

Reflections on Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

      Grand occasions of state demand high flown rhetoric, soaring eloquence and optimistic visions for the future from the orators tasked with celebrating the august event.  President Obama satisfied these demands in high style in his second Inaugural address; a speech marked by brutal honesty and impassioned eloquence designed to present the liberal democratic case as millions of his countrymen listened with greedy ears and joyous hearts to his message of hope and progress, as he navigates the ship of state through troubled waters during his next four years at the helm.  It was a stake through the heart of the Darwinian Reaganite clap trap that “government is the problem,” which has become the mantra of the Grand Obstructionist Party.

Jettisoning the ultra-cool demeanor that earned him the moniker “No Drama Obama,” Chilly B. began his speech with a strong declarative statement: “What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”  The newly reelected President went on to quickly point out, “While these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

While these claims are more or less true, depending upon one’s perspective, his next claim, although it has become conventional wisdom, is a burlesque on history. “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” 

But, in truth, all of these statements are more myth than history.  It is at best special pleading, an attempt to make American history harmonize with the Master Narrative of US civilization, which is spun by the official mythmakers and based on a strong foundation of “American Exceptionalism.”  All successful American politicians, especially those who pretend to the highest office, must pay homage to this bogus self-righteous myth if they are to have a ghost of a chance at success.

For instance while it is true that the Founding fathers gave us a republic, they gave us a slaveholding Republic like Rome.  A patrician democracy where even among the free white population voting was conceived of as a right that should be restricted to straight, property holding, white Christian males!  Hence from the outset their practice contradicted their preachment about the equality of man.  This resulted in an unequal society where the majority of wealth and power in America is still monopolized by a small minority of white males.

To erase the glaring contradiction of African slavery in their newly minted “democracy” it became necessary to deny the humanity of black people. Frederick Douglass described what that did to the promise of America and the character of white Americans in his 4th of July speech in 1852. I wish Barack had quoted from Douglass, especially since we are still suffering the consequences of America’s racist legacy – most notably in the distribution of wealth by race and gender.

However the President is a constitutional scholar who knows a lot of American history – in striking contrast to most of the Republicans who run around invoking the Constitution as if they are quoting scripture, and are equally ignorant of both the Bible and the Constitution – hence he knows that he is fudging the facts, but he also recognizes that he is cast in the role of politician not professor. Hence political propaganda designed to inspire the electorate and win them to his position in the policy debates, not fastidious professorial pontification which could alienate them with his facts, was Mr. Obama’s  objective.  In reading the speech I have taken the President’s objectives into account.

Yet, even so, I believe the President would have actually strengthened his argument had he donned his professor’s cap for a brief interval and told the tawdry tale of how men who created a radical document that celebrated a universal humanism, and appointed the people as the ultimate arbiters of who shall rule them,  declaring that those who would govern must first gain the consent of those to be governed, was betrayed by greed and racism.  It is quite enough to say that this was a new idea in the world, and it has changed the world for the better, then quote Frederick Douglass on the realities of life for African Americans in the slaveholding republic they created.

On the Fourth of July 1852, Douglass, an escaped Afro-American slave who became a brilliant writer/editor/publisher and the foremost spokesman for freedom and justice in the nation, was invited by his fellow citizens of Rochester New York to present the keynote speech at their annual celebration.  He said in part:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?   Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!”

Douglass went to say what he thought of American democracy 65 years after the ratification of the US Constitution.

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” asked Douglass. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds your of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity,  are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.”

Never, to my knowledge, has anyone spoken more courageously and candidly about the shameless hypocrisy of white Americans who passionately professed their love for freedom while practicing an absolute tyranny against millions of their countrymen on the basis of something as superficial as skin color, a biological characteristic that has nothing to do with the content of one’s character.  It is both hypocritical and pathological….a species of collective madness.

This historic hypocrisy on race has caused white Americans to routinely corrupt their most cherished ideals; which make racism a very touchy subject. Virtually all Euro-Americans would prefer to avoid the issue because discussing the race question inevitably brings up the subject of benefit, injury and blame.  Who benefitted from the American racial caste system that spans over three quarters of our history all told?  Who was injured by it?  Who has the liability of compensation to the victims of the monstrous crimes against humanity represented by chattel slavery and the legal caste system that followed for a hundred years after the fall of the slaveocracy?  And, most touchy of all, there is the question of who should be compensated and for how much?

Alas, it is understandable that the President skirted these issues and it is unreasonable to expect him to have addressed them.  After all, it was a political speech designed to inspire a sense of unity in the American people and lift the spirits of the nation.  Hence it should surprise no thoughtful observer of the art of politics that the President may have found hyperbole more useful than history. I have already conceded that on this occasion Mr. Obama was a politician not a professor.   And politics is the art of the possible.

Hence if unity was his goal, a candid review of the myriad sins that stain the nation’s character was not the best strategy for achieving the president’s political objectives.  And since I believe that achieving these objectives must be the president’s paramount concern I defer to his judgment, since he is, after all, the most successful politician in American history.

To expect the President to speak with the unbridled candor of Frederick Douglass, who was an independent minded commentator/editor that was responsible only to his supporters – like yours truly – is as unrealistic as comparing him to Martin Luther King in the way that Cornel West is inclined to do.

For while Dr. King and Frederick Douglass were protest leaders, discontented agitators intent upon shaking things up, President Obama is responsible for the fate of the nation and is trying to calm things down after a very acrimonious election. Hence he must proceed with caution because what he says has serious consequences. Nevertheless, if the President had included even a carefully worded statement that succinctly capsulized the points made by Douglass it would have given more zest to his next statement.

“For more than 200 years, we have, through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.” 

The mention of slavery and Civil War is so opaque it sounds more like a poetic allusion whose meaning is clear only to the tutored ear well-tuned to nuances of American history.  However it is my view that it is the job of intellectuals, who are unburdened by the heavy responsibilities that weight on the President, many of whom have lifetime tenure in their jobs in great universities, or independent commentators like the present writer, to clarify these issues.

From this point on in the speech the President transitions beautifully to the present, showing how venerable American ideals persist over time and what they look like at the dawning years of the 21st century.  With a strong sense of I and thou, as espoused by the philosopher Martin Buber, Mr. Obama’s policy prescriptions are presented as a collective effort of the American people to elevate the public good over private greed. “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” He said.

Skillfully employing the rhythmic cadences that echo the refrains of an Afro-American sermon, he reiterates “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.  Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” In this artfully rendered passage the President pointed out the critical role of government in regulating the activities of the private business sector, and reaffirmed the virtues of the liberal welfare state.

Then Chilly B threw a mean left hook that nullified the arguments of his critics on the right, who hysterically charge that he envisions himself as an American Caeser, a law unto himself; an unrepentant fascist communist liberal who wants the government to take everybody’s guns and money.  He treated the charges as the absurdities that they are and coolly dismissed them.  “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.”

 The President went on to reemphasize the role of public policy in meeting the varied needs of the American people.  It was an unmistakable repudiation of the “go it alone” philosophy of the “Free Market” ideologues in the Republican Party who are screaming bloody murder as I write.  But their cries are in vain, destined to fall on deaf ears because that ship has sailed…it was settled in the election, where the choice between President Obama’s liberal communitarian views were chosen over the Darwinian dog eat dog, survival of the fittest dogma of the GOP.

Then President Obama turned cheer leader, extolling the virtues of the American people in soaring rhetoric that expressed his undaunted confidence that together we can master any challenge. “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

President Obama also acknowledged that social mobility is becoming rare in the present economy, in which corporations are making greater profits from a cybernated production process that is rapidly replacing human labor with robots and other machines, creating the mass “technological unemployment” that the prescient British economist, John Maynard Keynes warned during the Great Depression of the 1930’s would be a growing problem in the future. Well that future is here.

The President has begun to address this impending tragedy for the working class by the way he invested the stimulus money in projects that could yield new technologies which will generate new jobs to address the growing structural unemployment crisis, a crisis the Republicans continue to confuse with the cyclical crisis of the boom and bust of the capitalist business cycle.  But the President knows better.

Mr. Obama understands that it will require serious government intervention in order to solve the tragic phenomenon of chronic unemployment that millions of Americans are suffering through – even as the business sector enjoys record profits as a result of the American taxpayer bailout yet, refuse to invest in America because they can get quasi slave labor overseas while enjoying the protections provided by our government.

Hence President Obama reminded the American people that “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”  And he left little doubt about the responsibility of our government in making this equality a reality.

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.”

The President also signaled the direction of his foreign policy which, in contrast with the American Exceptionalists neo-con ideologues that beguiled the Bush Administration into launching a war of choice against and unoffending nation – is a policy that seeks peace and cooperation with other nations.  We should thank the Gods of politics that Mitt Romney didn’t become President, for he was surrounded by these crazy characters and they are trying their best to prod America into a war with Iran, at the behest of the Israeli government.  The President will be far harder to persuade than Mitt.

Mr. Obama summed up his views on foreign relations thusly.

“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.” 

Predictably, neo-con hacks like William Kristol Jr., who, as the Director of the far right think tank Project for a New American Century, was a major architect of the catastrophic Bush Iraq war policy, attacking the President’s quest for peace and glorifying war.  He is just the sort of petulant little Republican chicken hawk who loves to start wars for others to fight.  But he doesn’t get it.  Americans have had more than their fill of foreign military adventures: hence his day is done!  He is just one more hysterical Republican chatter box cutting the fool in public.

It is clear that President Obama fully realized the importance of his inauguration taking place on the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, and he left no doubt that he considers it an ancestral imperative to continue Dr. Kings legacy of expanding human freedom and fighting to elevate the least of us.  Symbolically he declared himself by using Dr. King’s personal Bible to swear his oath of office, an unprecedented honor no black American has ever received, and he declared himself rhetorically with this unambiguous statement.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”

The Spirit of Dr. King was Omnipresent

Barack and Dt. King 

Invoked by President Obama

Barack Obama has done Dr. King, and the rest of us, proud despite the hysterical blather of Corny West, the clown prince of Obama bashers.  I will have no more to say about this shameless charlatan and self-aggrandizing mountebank, who seizes every opportunity to interject himself into the Obama saga, to rush from the wings like a minstrel figure with bulging eyes and bushy hair and Bogart the stage upon which the magnificent drama of American politics is being played.  But he is only succeeding in disgracing himself, as more people see him as the envious, avaricious, fraud that he is.

As with all great orators, the President left the audience with a transcendent message of hope, delivered with all the passion and eloquence of a black Baptist preacher, and embodying the fundamental tenants of Christian charity that form the foundation of the “Beloved  Community” envisioned by Dr. King.

You and I, as citizens,” he said, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals. Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, an unreconstructed southern neo-Confederate redneck, says the era of liberalism is back.  He says that President Obama intends to bring the old Democratic Party back.  I say hell yeah!  You got it exactly right; President Obama has reclaimed the liberal legacy.  You can tell from the way the Republicans are squealing like pigs.  And some of us like it like that….the majority of Americans who voted Barack Obama into the Oval Office for the second time on the promise that he would restore and defend the liberal agenda.  I say Bravo!!!

  The President Speaking to the Nation

Barack obama-ks-t1larg 

 A New Beginning a New Vision

 

 

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 Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 25, 2013

Who Won in the Cliff Deal?

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on January 3, 2013 by playthell

             Barack After the Cliff Deal - January 2, 2013

President Obama comments on the Art of the deal

 A victory for the political process and the American people

As is to be expected from hard core ideologues on both sides, the deal hammered out by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to prevent the nation from going over the fiscal cliff and smashing the fragile economic recovery on the rocks of uncertainty is being vociferously denounced and condemned as a sellout.  For instance right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer, who is a psychiatrist, called the deal “a complete surrender” on the part of Congressional Republicans.

Since Dr. Krauthammer has long struck me as a man desperately in need of his own services – as in “doctor heal thyself” – it does not surprise me that he would say something crazy. Yet his views are echoed throughout the Tea Party crowd that voted against the deal.  And the response from the left echoes the hysteria on the right.

For instance Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, declared “no deal is better than the one currently on the table.” And Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan based Democrat called the deal a “tremendous victory for Republicans.”   Obviously the naysayers do not fully grasp the nature of compromise, which requires one to give up some cherished goal in order to get the other side to agree to something else you want.

It also means that you don’t always get to choose what you will have to give up; often it is demanded as a concession by the opposition in exchange for ceding something you want from them.  That’s how the game goes.  Neither side can get their way so you negotiate the best deal you can.

That’s how a functioning government works in a system with a threefold division of power where each branch of government serves to check and balance the power of the other.  The American government was designed this way because the architects of the US constitution was determined to prevent the rise of tyrannical rulers such as existed in Europe, with their doctrine of “The Divine Rights of Kings.”

That’s why they specified that those who govern must have the consent of the governed.  That’s also why they wisely placed the military under the control of civilians who are elected by the people, and it has prevented the rise of a military caste that can take over state power.  However they left us with a solution to the problem of gridlock: vote for one party to control the presidency and the Congress.

This will insure that big things will get done.  But so long as we have political parties that are ideologically disparate in their vision of the role of government, we will have these bitter partisan conflicts that threaten to paralyze the critical work of governing this complex nation.  Hence despite its ignoble beginnings in a racist, sexist, genocidal, slave holding republic it remains a good system for self-government…maybe the best in the world.

Although neither side got everything they wanted in the fiscal negotiations, they managed to come to an agreement that steered the nation away from financial disaster while realizing some of their goals.  The Republican goals were simple: prevent raising taxes on the rich while slashing benefits for the poor and middle-classes.

Since cutting entitlements that the majority of Americans have come to rely on is unpopular, the Republicans pander to the prejudices of the electorate by promoting anti-gay and immigrant policies, cultivating fear of “big government” and foreign enemies, and stoking the racist prejudices and fears of working class whites.

While this proved to be a losing strategy in the presidential elections, it is still an effective strategy in certain congressional districts that elected far right Tea Party types who support economic policies that are against their interests.  And it is these recalcitrant ideologues that have rendered the Republican controlled House dysfunctional and reduced John Boehner from the Speaker to the Weeper of the House.

Unable to control his caucus Boehner had to pass the baton to Mitch McConnell to hammer out a deal with Vice-President Biden in the Senate and then pass the Bill down to the House for a vote.  It was an ass backward process that has reduced him to a figure of ridicule among political pundits around the world, and will guarantee him the contempt of future historians – especially when his leadership is compared to the brilliant leadership of Nancy Pelosi who preceded him in office.

Under Speaker Pelosi we got historic legislation that saved the American economy from collapse and set the nation upon a path of reconstruction and reform that will benefit the American people for generations.  On the other hand, the 112th Congress under John Boehner’s leadership is one of the least productive in history.  It is the epitome of what President Truman called a “do nothing Congress!”  In order to understand just how bad this Congress is one need only compare its legislative record with that of the 80 Congress that Truman was referring to.  The 80th Congress passed 900 bills, while the 112 Congress has passed less than a third of that number!

When we consider the fact that the Republican majority has voted 33 times to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, with the same predictable result, while neglecting to even deal with critical legislation appropriating funds to create massive public works projects devoted to reconstructing infrastructure that is critical to our economic revival, it is reasonable to conclude that these Congressman,  and those who elect them to office, are the political equivalent of the inmates taking over the asylum.  This is why some historians are already calling the 112 “the worst Congress in history.”

In terms of who won and who lost in the deal it’s a mixed bag.  Clearly the rich won by getting a 200,000 dollars exemption above the President’s original proposal to raise taxes on all income over $250, 000. And they also gained on inheritance tax rate.  The President was forced to concede these things in exchange for extending unemployment benefits to 2 million Americans suffering long term unemployment; it also preserved the earned Income Tax Credit for low wage workers, as well as preventing a tax hike on 98% of taxpayers and extended the college tuition credit.

The President also saved the Alternative Minimum Tax, maintained the payment structure for doctors who serve Medicare patients and kept the farm subsidies which prevented a sudden and dramatic rise in the price of milk.  The compromise prevented the drastic cuts to important government programs, including the military, if the automatic cuts had kicked in.

When all things are considered the objective observer must see outcome as a win for the President…especially when we consider the fact that he forced many Republicans to break their pledge to never vote for a tax hike.  And he achieved this without cutting a single dime from the bedrock entitlement programs that workers, led by the unions, struggled so hard to achieve in the twentieth century.

These programs dramatically raised the living standards of all working people in this country…including some lower management types.  However the appropriate response to this victory is a “whew!” we just avoided going over the cliff and began preparing for the even nastier and more dangerous battles over fiscal policy that lay just down the road.

Judging from the howls emanating from the Grand Obstructionist Party’s firebrands it’s gonna be a bloody mess that might yet result in economic disaster as we face the Debt Ceiling and the Sequestration law.  Although this compromise may enrage the ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum – like the idiots who still argue that the President should have gone over the cliff – it is a victory for the American people and a vindication for the political process.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem New York

Janurary 3, 2013

What Americans Should Learn From 9/11

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on September 12, 2012 by playthell

The second airliner heads into the tower

 Facing Some Unpleasant Truths

It was a crystal clear day just like today, with blue cloudless skies, when the great terror struck New York a decade ago.   And as I survey the panoramic view of downtown Manhattan form my window on Harlem’s Sugar Hill, while listening to replays of the actual broadcasts on WNBC; it all comes back to me, bubbling up from the dusty basements of my consciousness.

The skyline of Manhattan looks natural now, but for a long time after the hijacked airliners crashed into the towers, bringing them down before our eyes, the city looked lopsided.  The Twin Towers were clearly visible from my windows, and I witnessed the second plane crash into the tower and saw them fall!

The towers looked different ways on different days, depending upon how the sun rays were reflecting off them.  They were a daily part of my life.  Hence I felt an acute sense of loss and had a hard time adjusting to the look of the city without the giant towers.

Since I began writing down my responses to the tragedy within hours after it happened, there is a clear record of my reaction. Then as now, I was appalled by the widespread sense of denial by my countrymen. Their expressions of disbelief and insistence on America’s innocence rang hollow with me.

I had been expecting a terrorist attack for several months because of the Palestinian Intifada provoked by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon when he created and incident at the “Dome of the Rock,” which Muslims call “The Mosque of Omar.” As I watched the violence on television, with Palestinians throwing rocks and the Israeli’s firing bullets, I became convinced that we would see a terrorist attack in response.

As the Palestinian people danced in the streets at the sight of the collapsing towers, I was convinced I had been right – in spite of a swift statement of denial from Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. But history would prove me wrong – I had the right string but the wrong yo yo, as the song goes.  The attack had been the result of misguided American policy in the Middle-East, but the perpetrators had a different argument with the US and the Palestinian issue was almost ancillary.

Al Qaeda, was a far more deadly enemy, and unlike the Palestinian issue there is no obvious solution to the conflict between us; theirs is a historic grievance inspired by a rejection of modern secular society itself.  We had made an enemy that would never go away; entered a state of total war that wouldn’t end until one side or the other was annihilated.  The Bushmen’s misunderstanding of the nature of global Jihad made the 9/11 assault possible.

Despite ongoing attempts to cast the Bush Administration as innocent victims of volatile clandestine forces that nobody could have predicted, the historical record shows otherwise.  The evidence reveals a pattern of arrogance, ignorance and indifference to the advice of intelligence experts that led directly to 9/11, and the Iraq and Afghan wars that we are still fighting 11 years later.

This is the lesson of two very important books on the subject “Your government Failed You” by Richard Clark, written shortly after the attack, and the newly published 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former reporter for The New York Times.

The unique value of Dick Clark’s book is that it provided an insider’s view of the struggle to get then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to call a meeting of the different intelligence agencies and have them compare the bits and pieces of intelligence on Al Qaeda and see what picture would emerge, sort of like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.  She refused.

Dr. Rice was an expert on the Soviet era Russian military and nuclear war strategy.  Hence she was so obsessed with building the “Star Wars’ that she ignoring Dick Clarke’s warnings.  I fact, she was scheduled to present an important speech on “National Security” on the day of the attack.  But that speech was not on the looming threat from the Islamic Jihadists in Al Qaeda, but how to build the anti-missile system around Russia, although the soviet threat was gone!  History will not be kind to this wicked witch of the west.

The revelations in Kurt Eichenwald’s book shows how the neo-cons from the Project for a New American century, brought into the Bush Administration by Dirty Dick Cheney confused matters with their obsession with toppling Sadam Hussein in Iraq, a man who posed absolutely no threat to the US.

It was at their insistence that the CIA’s warning about the intention of Al Qaeda to launch a massive terror attack on the US.  And it was this same crew who came to prominence in the Bush foreign policy establishment after the attack, who talked Bush into invading Iraq, the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history!

I have written at considerable length about how this decision was reached; for a detailed analysis of the decision making process that led to the attack on Iraq read “How the Iraq War was Hatched in a Think Tank” and “The Iraq attack: Bush’s March of Folly” on this blog.  What both of these essays show is that we got into the Iraq war the same way we got into the catastrophic Vietnam War: politicizing intelligence in order to justify a preconceived policy.

Later today I shall be posting a commentary on the present crisis in the Middle East – a complex, multifaceted, dangerous mess – and Mitt Romney’s response to it.  However it is critical that all Americans understand a minimal essential lesson we must from the 9/11 attack to avoid disaster in the future: Meddling in Middle Eastern politics is a very dangerous business, and politicizing intelligence to justify a war of choice deadly folly!

A Warning of Things to Come?

“Ye shall reap what ye sow”

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September 12, 2012

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Happy Birthday Madiba!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , on July 18, 2012 by playthell

A Real Smoothie

 Now Let Us Praise a Great Man!

If presidentObama was looking for a role model he could not do better than NelsonMandela, the liberator of South Africa and the world’s greatest living statesman.  I would not be at all surprised to discover that Barack learned a trick or two from the great leader.  After all, our President is a first rate intellectual who is well read, and endlessly curious about the world.  Hence he could not have failed to notice that our country has a history much like that of South Africa.

They were both founded by colonists who were deposited in new world’s by Dutch charter companies.  It was the Dutch East India Company that deposited the Afrikaners on The South African Cape, and the Dutch West India Company that brought the settlers to New Amsterdam – lately New York.

Both groups of European settler colonialists subdued that indigenous populations of color, and in an orgy of land hunger seized their best land and ruthlessly murdered all who resisted.  And it was a Dutch East India ship that brought the first African labor to the English settlement of Jamestown, in Virginia; after they decimated the Native American population with guns and disease.

In both countries the white settler population established a racial caste system based on white supremacy.  Under these systems racial caste status was codified in law, verified in pseudo-scientific “scholarship” and rigorously enforced by the armed might of the state.  Both men emerged from humble circumstances behind the veil of color and rose to the highest elective office in the land.  And each left some disappointment in those supporters who believed that their ascension to the pinnacle of power would immediately end their suffering; answer their every grievance; and make them whole.

Beyond this the nature of their experiences diverges radically.  Nelson Mandela became the President of a country that is predominantly black and Barack became the President of a country that is predominantly white, yet in both countries the whites held privileged status in the pigmentocracy.  But Mandela had the harder row to hoe because the election of Barack Obama did not carry the threat of radically upsetting the power relations between racial groups in America, such as it did in South Africa.

While Barack Obama’s road to power went through a private school in the American paradise of Hawaii, elite Ivy league universities, Community organizing in a Major American city, the state legislature, a law professorship in an elite university, and the US Senate.  Nelson also became a lawyer and community organizer: But he spent almost three decades in prison on South Africa’s Robbin Island: A hell on earth.

That’s where Mandela was steeled in the fires of struggle and prepared to lead the nation to a peaceful end to white political domination.  Just as Mandela had shown unshakable courage as an ANC militant, he demonstrated the same resolve when dealing with the bomb throwers on his left, who wanted to start a race war that would have wrecked the country, killed hundreds of thousands of black people and hemorrhaged the nation’s blood and treasure!

Although much remains to be done in South Africa, and widespread racial conflict may yet come to that beautiful yet troubled land; the extension of political power to the black majority in South Africa remains one of the greatest political triumphs of oppressed peoples in the 20th century! A century consumed by peoples revolutions.  And the courtly courageous Nelson Mandela was its guiding light.

So enjoy this day to the fullest Modiba; you have done your nation great service…and they know it!!!!!  That’s why millions of school children will sing praises unto your name, and multitudes will smile and drink a libation of spirits in your honor all over the world.  The United Nations honors you by calling on people of goodwill everywhere to spend 67 minutes doing something to make the world a better place – one minute for each year of your public service.

This is my contribution.  Happy birthday Modiba!  No life in the last century has been better lived, and the world may never see your like again.  What Shakespeare said of the noble Moor Othello is profoundly true of you: “The elements so blended in him / that all the world could see…here was a man!”

 A Life Long Fighter

And he is still swinging at 94!!!

(Double click to see Mandla at White House as President of SA”)

http://youtu.be/jzmkt7MtL64

*************

 

 Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Nelson Mandela Day, July 18, 2012

Barack Obama and the Global Jihad

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on December 16, 2011 by playthell
President Lincoln After the battle of Antietam            

 

“The Constitution Is Not a Suicide Pact”

 

On Terrorism, Unlimited Detention and the Constitution

A fire storm is brewing around President Obama, as hysterics on the left and right vociferously denounce his decision not to veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which they claim ushers in a police state – the same argument they made about the “Patriot Act.”  The NDAA authorizes the continued pursuit of terrorist in every country around the world – wherever the intelligence reports leads – including the US.  It also authorizes American forces to capture terror suspects and empowers the government to detain them indefinitely without stating charges and bringing them to a speedy trial.

The core of the complaint against the President was succinctly stated by Laura W. Murphy, the director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “If President Obama signs this bill, it will damage both his legacy and America’s reputation for upholding the rule of law. The last time Congress passed indefinite detention legislation was during the McCarthy era and President Truman had the courage to veto that bill.”  However there are obvious problems with this argument.

Whether the first assertion is true – that signing this legislation will ruin the president’s legacy and the reputation of the US – is a matter of speculation about the future.  But referencing the McCarthy era is a false historical analogy, because the American homeland had suffered no military attack and was in no imminent danger of one.

If one insist upon engaging in the risky business of constructing historical analogies, a practice many professional historians avoid, a comparison of President Obama’s actions with those of Abraham Lincoln’s during the Civil War would be on much firmer ground. What is at question here is the scope of the theater of war and the denial of Habeas Corpus, the constitutional provision that requires the government to charge a detainee within 72 hours or release them.

Abraham Lincoln – who is now almost universally regarded as our greatest President, the savior of the Union -  not only ignored a Writ of Habeas Corpus  issued by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney – author of the notoriously racist Dred Scott Decision - but Lincoln suspended the right of Habeas Corpus altogether on September 24, 1862.  His executive order offered this explanation:

during the existing insurrection and as a necessary measure for suppressing the same, all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of United States, shall be subject to martial law and liable to trial and punishment by Courts Martial or Military Commission… the Writ of Habeas Corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested…”

When Lincoln was accused of subverting the Constitution he said: “The constitution is not a suicide pact.”  The bill that President Obama is signing into law is far more respectful of the rights of American Citizens.  Yet he has a more elusive and potentially destructive enemy, whose theater of war is world-wide and they have rejected the recognized rules of war.  Still, the President has insisted on retaining the role of our federal courts in trying terror suspects, while Republicans argue for military tribunals exclusively.

The paramount issue here is the imperatives of national security vs. Individual rights, and the arguments of both sides have merit.  Like the critics of this bill, I am also disturbed by the absence of any Court supervision in determining who is a terrorist, and the possibility of abuse by future Presidents.  But the American electorate has the power to  make their representatives repeal this law anytime they wish.  That power, the power of the ballot, will remain.

President Barack Obama is tasked with keeping American citizens safe from another attack that could be more devastating than 9/11….a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.  As Commander In Chief of the armed forces it is his responsibility to insure that this will not happen.   It is an awesome task, one that must be mistake free, and thus far the President has performed marvelously.   Furthermore, he is on firm constitutional ground in signing this bill.  Article I, Section 9, clause 2 of the Constitution, clearly states: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” 

I regard this passage as proof that President Lincoln was right, and President Obama, a brilliant Constitutional scholar, concurs.   It shows that the architets of American Democracy foresaw the possibility of a national security emergency that might require extraordinary measures which abridge the normal rights Americans enjoy.  That’s why the US Constitution, despite the limitations of this 18 century document in dealing with 21st century problems, was not intended  to be a “suicide pact.”

The measures President Obama is taking to wage war against the Jihadist is neither unprecedented nor unconstitutional.  What Americans  who are concerned  with protecting civil liberties for the majority of law abiding citizens should really be worried about is what will happen to our democracy if the Jihadists should succeed in detonating a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon in an American metropolis.

Should this happen, we will lose all of our civil liberties with popular consent!  People will be so frightened by the horror of it they will agree to anything if they think it will make them safer.   Alas, as odious as they are to Americans, those are the choices that confront us. This is what real  life is like in the era of the Islamic Jihad.  President Obama is choosing the lesser evil.

At War with the Jihadist

He is facing an Enemy that Lincoln couldn’t imagine

******************

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Deember 17, 2011

There is No Alternative to President Obama and the Democrats!

Posted in My Struggle On the Left!, On Dr. Cornell West, Playthell on politics with tags , , on July 31, 2011 by playthell

 

 He has brought about monumental changes for the American People

 

On Egotist and Fools Errands

There are rumors abroad that Dr. Cornell West AKA “Professor Longhair” and his sidekick Tavis Smylie, a verbose bald heated charlatan, are planning a demonstration to urge people not to support the reelection of President Obama.   Say what?  The last thing we need is another idiot movement among the hapless left to start some sort of Third Party, or even talk about running somebody against President Obama!

Both of these are self-defeating strategies, and I regard such talk as nothing more than a retreat into fantasy by a confused and impotent left that refuses to face the real problem in American politics: A Republican Party that hates the working class and is openly contemptuous of the public interests…yet millions of white workers voted to put them back in charge of the House of Representatives where all revenue bills must originate. This has not only brought the massive plans for reshaping American society to a halt, but has put him into a position where for the first time in American history the US will default on its debts!

Thomas Jefferson, whom I regard as the most thoughtful of the revolutionary Founding Fathers, put our problem succinctly in a prescient observation offered up two centuries ago.  “A democracy cannot work with an ignorant electorate,” he argued. “They will elect and return the worse people to power.”  Yet West and the confederacy of well credentialed dunces who egg him on like a deranged Greek chorus, think our problem is President Obama?

Try as I might, I cannot fathom a syllogism that explains how a reasonable person can arrive at such a conclusion.  How a Princeton Professor, who is actually smart enough to belong to that august assemblage of outstanding scholars, could arrive at this conclusion.  The Grand Obstructionist Party is wreaking havoc on the nation and they attack the President?

Because of their scorched earth policy the President is faced with signing a bill that cuts trillions of dollars from the federal budget with no tax increase for the rich, or face the first default by the United States government!  That’s the choice folks; I’d like to know what any of you all knowing readers would do.  But I warn you: If you do not answer that question at the top of your argument I shall immediately dismiss you as a fool or a charlatan!

Among the fanatics in the House are deranged whackos, like Michelle Bachman, who have threatened to bring impeachment proceedings against the President if he invokes section IV of the 14th Amendment to guarantee the nation’s debt, and thereby avoid the catastrophe of default. I think the reason that the loud mouths on the left who are dogging the President don’t want to discuss this is because they know that they bear some responsibility for the Republicans retaking the House only two years after they wrecked the economy!!!

Instead of doing the only thing that makes any sense in terms of realpolitique, support the President – who is the most progressive politician that has any chance of being elected in America today and return the House to the Democrats – the ‘wise guys” on the left help to confuse and demoralize people to the extent that they decided to sit out the election.

Not only did they not work to help elect Democrats as they had two years earlier when they made history…many of these nincompoops didn’t even vote!  Thereby assuring a Republican victory and the predictable horror show that followed!   Now the know nothing blabbermouths on the Left, led by the likes of Professor Longhair and his Greek Chorus, are at it again!

This is god damned foolishness…and if there is anyone who thinks it is anything but damn foolishness I dare you to tell us what it is!!!!!!    Cornell West really ought to sit down and shut tha fuck up!!!!!   He has yet to apologize for his role in electing Bush, yet has the unmitigated chutzpah to present himself as a reliable political theorist in the present crisis.

I have posted a piece the Commentaries I wrote ten years ago when Cornell was advising people to vote for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore – see “On choosing the Lesser Evil”  on this blog.  The danger I warned of then came to pass. George bush was elected and everything went to shit!!!!!   Since I have written on the sins of the Bushmen ad nauseum, I shall not debate them again here.

Anyone who needs instruction on the Presidents outstanding achievements should read “Civilization or Savagery” on this blog.  Since we are still suffering from the decision of the left supporting Nader however, I felt compelled to write this commentary because I’m beginning to hear whispers of this kind of POLITICAL IDIOCY again!  And I shall stay on the asses of the verbose and reckless charlatans who are spouting it!

In an attempt to explain the embarrassing and perplexing actions of Dr. West, some people are speculating that West and Smylie are being paid by corporate interests to attack the President.  I tell them they are paranoid; that Dr. West would never party to such a scurrilous deal.  I argue that West is not an evil quisling but a deluded megalo-maniac!  But I quickly point out that this is a distinction without a difference, because fess Longhair couldn’t be of more assistance to the Tea Party agenda if he were a paid agent!

Is This Nigga Crazy?

 

Fess Longhair: High Brow Rapper

******************

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

July 31, 2011

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea!

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on December 8, 2010 by playthell

Weighted Down by the Forces of History?

Barack Obama Strikes A Deal with GOP

At the risk of appearing wishy washy, I must confess that I agree with the compromise President Obama has struck with the Republicans regarding tax policy. I feel a need to declare this right off, since it was just day before yesterday that I demanded the President stand and fight; yield not another inch; even fall on his sword and be taken out bleeding on his shield: but never, never, give in: no more compromises with the evil doers who dwell in the dungeons of the Grand Obstructionist Party! I was encouraged in the moral righteousness and political correctness of my position by a swelling chorus on the left that seconded my emotions.

Everywhere I turned I found my conviction that the President should fight to the death before extending the Bush tax giveaways to the Plutocrats reinforced. The Democratic members of Congress echoed my thoughts like a Greek chorus.  I had even counted myself among those who would abandon the President should he refuse to take a stand – see “The President Must Stand And Fight!” –  especially since the latest poll showed that 56% of the public is opposed to extending Bush’s taxation folly, and 14% want to let all the tax cuts lapse.  That’s 70 % of the American public who are ready to back the President’s play if he chose to stand up to the Republican shills for the filthy rich.  And he has acknowledged this fact.  But it does nothing to help him achieve his critical objectives, which must be addressed immediately.

As I write the President is holding a press conference to explain his actions.  He presented his position with the clarity of a law professor enlightening his students about the workings of the American government.  His speech was clear and concise: he said the choice before him is to wage a fight that would eventually expose the Republicans as charlatans, but would also result in collateral damage to the millions of Americans who are depending on extended unemployment benefits, and millions more employed workers whose taxes would dramatically rise when all the tax cuts expire a month from now. Given these alternatives President Obama chose to address the critical needs of those whose economic survival depends on these benefits; even if it means that he has to compromise with the dreaded Republicans to do it.

The questions from the Washington press corps were predictable and some were too clever by half.  I think the President handled them like he was their daddy!   His attitude throughout was “I am the adult here, and this is no time for petulance.”  As I have said repeatedly Politics is the art of the possible; it is both art and science, a game for master players, and President Obama, guided by deep humanistic concerns, has played his hand just right.  Although neither he, nor I, like the deal he did, it was the only acceptable game on the table.  As Mr. Obama said “ Our country was born in compromise; without compromise we would have no union.”  All of this is true on its face.

Predictably, the know-it-all white boys – this time on the liberal left, are complaining about his style.  Mark Halpern, for instance, says the President “should have been bigger in his attitude.”  Halpern thought Mr. Obama was too confrontational; and this after all of the prattle about him being too easy. Even a guy as bright as Keith Olberman couldn’t resist taking cheap shots at the President for “getting angry with his democratic base.”

I have often said Keith is one of the smartest guys on television, but he is talking like a fool in this instance. The President expects the Republicans to oppose him no matter what he does; but he has every right to expect the Democrats to support him!  So when he pompously implored the President: “You are yelling at the wrong people,” I say Bullshit!  He is aiming his shots right where they belong!

The rest of the largely white left is also bitching and moaning – although the black left and reactionary racial nationalists are sometimes worst – yet none of them have any real solution to this dilemma.  Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist in the Senate, a man with whom I am normally in agreement, is actingly like a deluded ideologue by threatening to filibuster the bill that would consummate the deal.   The Senator, albiet well meaning, reminds me of the man who was running down the street and stumbled over the naked truth but ran on as if nothing had happened.   It is enough to make one wonder if these white boys cannot accept the fact that Barack Obama is way smarter than them – although white girls and many black girls are no better.   None of them seem to understand that that’s why he is the President and they are not!

These omnicient  pontificators conveniently forget that Barack won the most powerful office in the world even though he had to bear the burden of race on top of having to successfully negotiate all of the obstacles the white folks had to overcome.  I don’t think these guys can even imagine the troubles he’s seen; that’s why they don’t recognize that they are in the presence of a superior politician and theoretician.  Although Barack was forced by the political realities to extend the tax cuts for the Plutocrats for two more years, in return he got tax cuts for workers and the middle class – some of whose tax burdens would have doubled – extended unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed, and secured tax breaks for college expenses.  And judging from the predictions coming from the business sector, it may very well have the added advantage of stimulating investment in the US economy which will result in job creation.

Hence the President did not walk away empty handed; he struck quite a bargain on behalf of millions of Americans  – 156 million all told – who desperately need the benefits he is providing.  And I’ll bet they are ecstatic about it. I have heard nothing from the President’s critics that even make sense, let alone offer a better solution.  Beyond expressions of self-rightous anger and wishful thinking there is no there there!   Furthermore…. it has not escaped my notice that all the people in the press and peanut gallery who are screaming for the President to let the unemployment benefits for millions lapse, in order to teach the Republicans a lesson, are all gainfully employed.

 

 

**********************

 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December

President Obama and Rev. Wright

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2009 by playthell

Barack and Reverend Wright  

The President and the Preacher

 

On the African-American Jeremiadic Tradition

 Because of his cool, calm, ostensibly detached speech performances and persona, some folks, especially African Americans of his post-Civil Rights generation, call President Barack Obama, “No drama Obama.”  Many African Americans of the pre-Civil Rights generation even see him as such  despite his background as representing the awesome fulfillment in their lifetime of the African American messianic tradition.       

Unlike the charismatic Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his former pastor and advisor, President Obama was not raised in the bosom of the black church or African American Baptist and Methodist Jeremiadic tradition.  The son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, he was raised in a different time, place, and culture by pre-Civil Rights white maternal grandparents in Hawaii. 

How, then, should we understand the historical and cultural contexts as well as the truth of President Obama’s angry claim that his former pastor’s comments do not accurately portray the perspectives of the black church?

In criticism of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s defensive interview on the Bill Moyer show, didactic keynote address at the NAACP convention, and defiant, signifying  speech at the National Press Club, a TV reviewer wrote that President Obama’s former pastor emerged as “a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk” (Stanley A1, 14).  

Responding finally to the unrelenting criticism and political pressure of Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain during the presidential campaign, as well as of media critics to denounce his retired pastor for righteously reminding his predominantly black congregation of the wrath and damnation of God to come to America for its alleged if not actual historical sins, President Obama angrily denounced the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah and severed his long, close relationship with him in an April 29, 2008, news conference. 

“His comments were not only divisive and destructive,” President Obama declared, “but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. . . .They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs” (qtd. in Zeleny and Nagourney A1, 17).  While some people may still have questions about the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s influence on President Obama, it is more enlightening at this time after the election to question the caricature of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah and to examine the facts about the relationship of his beliefs and values to “the perspective of the black church,” which was and is mainly Baptist or Methodist for most African Americans.

 ********

 

Generational Shifts in Cultural Identity

“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west,” as typical black elders of the pre-Civil Rights generation of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah who were raised with black brothers and sisters in African American Baptist and Methodist churches know, and as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us in 1963, “we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.  This is tragic.  Nobody of honesty can overlook this” (King).  Is this one of the probable reasons that so many typical white media journalists and pundits, as well as politicians, reduced the complex identity of the unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian Rev. Dr. Jeremiah to spliced controversial sound bytes from his sermons?  

Quoted repeatedly out of context during the presidential campaign by the news media from sermons he preached in 2001 and 2003, the sensational sound bytes, as in yellow journalism, fostered the false impression that he is an unpatriotic, radical black separatist and racist bigot who deserves vilification and crucifixion.   Some in the media and in blogs even exacerbated their historical, political, cultural, and rhetorical disingenuousness or ignorance by questioning President Obama’s reference to his pre-Civil Rights white grandmother’s belief in racial stereotypes and prejudice as that of the typical white person of her generation. 

Typical is hardly an esoteric word.  Nor is that commonly used adjective as difficult to define as the commonly misused and abused abstract nouns patriotism, separatism, racism, and terrorism.  So, what is there about typical that ordinary educated folks don’t understand?   Well, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary reminds us that typical means “combining or exhibiting the essential characteristics of a group.” 

Although academic postmodern theorists and critics like Jean-Francois Lyotard undermine the traditional grounds for belief in the essential or core principles in master narratives of national identity, unity, community, truth, and reality, readers and listeners do not have to be high-school graduates to know that the media have helped to foster and perpetuate the negative racial stereotypes, myths, and prejudice that constitute some of the fundamental characteristics of our shared national identity that President Obama seeks to change.[1]

 Preaching Truth to Power!

Jeremiah Wright - preacher of the gospel An avatar of the Afro-American Jeremiadic Tradition

 Who, then, is the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah?  And how does his dedication, like that of Jeremiah and the other fifteen prophets of the Old Testament, to a social Gospel, and his commitment to an African American sermonic, especially jeremiadic, tradition, like the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, and Jesse Jackson, contribute to the complexity of his identity as one of the most respected and influential, until recent political attacks, African American ministers in the nation?[2] 

President Obama’s former spiritual advisor and the retired senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC), a primarily African American megachurch in Chicago, Illinois, with more than 6,000 members, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah is the Philadelphia son of a Baptist minister, a veteran of the U. S. Marine Corps and U. S. Navy, a graduate of Howard University (B.A. and M.A. in English), the University of Chicago Divinity School (M.A. in Divinity), and the United Theological Seminary (DMin).

A highly distinguished national and international preacher and speaker, as well as an accomplished musician and writer, he is the author, editor, or co-editor of more than eight books, many articles, and a vast number of sermons.  He also serves on several national committees and boards of directors.  His numerous awards include eight honorary doctoral degrees and three presidential commendations.

An important demonstration of his and his congregation’s dedication to the social Gospel are the more than 70 TUCC ministries that serve the community, including HIV/AIDS, Drug & Alcohol Recovery, Health Advisory, Can-cer-vive, Domestic Violence Advocacy/Care, Housing, and Career Development.[3]  These facts suggest that the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s comments, beliefs, and values are consistent with the tradition and perspective of many urban black American Baptist and Methodist churches.

  The Trinity Church in Chicago

 Trinity Church UCC

 A Modern Temple of the Social Gospel

 The commitment of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah to the African American jeremiadic tradition is more dramatically demonstrated in the complete fiery sermons delivered in TUCC than on the video sound bytes by sensationalizing journalists and newscasters.  ABC News reporters Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri, for example, open their March 13, 2008, yellow-journalism column “Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11” with the sensational, fallacious statement that “Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor says blacks should not sing ‘God Bless America’ but ‘God damn America.’” 

According to these reporters,  “The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor for the last 20 years at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s south side, has a long history of what even Obama’s campaign aides concede is ‘inflammatory rhetoric,’ including the assertion that the United States brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own ‘terrorism.’” Based on an alleged review by ABC News of “dozens of Rev. Wright’s sermons,” Ross and El-Buri claim to have “found repeated denunciations of the U.S. based on what he described as his reading of the Gospels and the treatment of black Americans” (Ross and El-Buri). 

 So let us examine more closely their claims and those of some anti-Rev. Dr. Jeremiah bloggers.  Even though many people will express different interpretations of  historical facts, of patriotism, of racism, of terrorism, and of the invention of HIV, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was speaking truth to the people and to power as a preacher and prophet in the African American jeremiadic tradition when he engaged in hyperbolic rhetoric and passionate denunciations of America for its national sin of racialized slavery, for its violation of the founding principles of the nation with institutional anti-black racism, and for its selective demonizing and violent destruction of non-democratic, non-Christian peoples as suspected threats and terrorists to the United States. 

In “Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country,” a speech on American slavery in 1847, Frederick Douglass stated:  “So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation.  In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of this country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.  It is righteousness that exalteth a nation while sin is a reproach to any people” (qtd. in Foner).  While it is rarely mentioned when speaking of the great abolitionist and moral clarion, Frederick Douglass was also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church.

 Frederick Douglass

 Frederick Douglass

 He Cursed America For Her Sins!

 This is the tradition to which the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah bears witness.  According to the responses in the blogs of some people, especially African Americans, ABC News and other media are shamelessly guilty of reprehensible yellow journalism for sensationalizing, distorting, and misrepresenting the rhetoric and character of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah by quoting him out of historical and cultural context.

In “Confusing God and Government,” his April 13, 2003, sermon, he did not say, for example, that blacks should sing “God damn America.”  Assuming the traditional role of the preacher and prophet in many black American Baptist and Methodist churches and communities, like his father the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Sr., he passionately declared in righteous indignation that “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’  No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.  God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.  God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme” (qtd. in Cooper). 

Why do so many people, especially those with access to such research engines as Google, blind themselves to the unpopular, unpleasant facts about our government?  Why have so many newscasters, pundits, politicians, preachers, and everyday Americans failed to understand the relationship of the sin of blasphemy in the adverbial clause, i.e., “for as long as she acts like she is God,” to the American and African American jeremiadic traditions? 

In other words, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah prophesies that until America repents its sins of overbearing pride against God and man—for acting like God, “for killing innocent people,” and “for treating our citizens as less than human”—the nation is destined for divine—not man’s, not the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s—wrath and damnation.   Perhaps more Americans would understand better our complex national identities, moral transgressions, and historical fate if they learned and lived the lessons of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States, as well as the lessons in classic books on American and African American language, literature, and life!

We learn, for instance, in the Old Testament of the King James edition that the prophet Jeremiah is empowered by the Lord to curse the political corruption, oppression, immorality, and idolatry of the king of Judah, his son Shallum, and the Hebrew nation.  “Woe unto him,” the Lord angrily declared in the voice of Jeremiah, “that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong, that useth his neighbor’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (Jeremiah 22:13).  

Similarly, in preaching to his predominantly black working-class and middle-class congregation, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was justifiably angry at the crimes and sins of our government for breaking the covenant with God that all men are equal and endowed with such inalienable rights as life and liberty; replacing that covenant with the myth of white supremacy. 

 The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also similarly impassioned with righteous indignation at the injustice of the Memphis government.  As Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer, reminds us in “The Last Wish of Martin Luther King,” two sanitation workers, “Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage” (15).  

The night before he was assassinated on April 4 while supporting civil demonstrations by black Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 for higher pay than $1.27 an hour and for more healthful working conditions, he completed writing his Sunday sermon with the jeremiadic title, “Why America May Go to Hell.”[4]  Like the anti-war voice of the post-1963 Rev. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the voice of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was radical.  

Both voices were in the tradition of the antebellum David Walker, a free North Carolina black man who owned a second-hand clothing store in Boston and whose jeremiad, “Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles” (1829), culminated in rebuke and scorn by the government and his death by anti-black racists.

Like the Rev. Dr. King and David Walker, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was impassioned and provocative in developing  his jeremiad on American national sins:   “y’all looking to the government for only what God can give.  A lot of people confuse God with their government” (qtd. in Cooper).

Reverend Dr M. L. King

 Dr. M.L.King

A Great Preacher in the Prophetic Tradition

 The Sacred and Secular Origins of the American Jeremiad

 As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, jeremiad means a “lamentation; a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress; a doleful complaint; a complaining tirade.”  It is derived from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who, between the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., predicted the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishment for the Israelite violations of the Mosaic covenant.   Jeremiah also prophesied the future redemption and restoration of Israel after its atonement in a golden age. 

The complete rhetorical structure of the American jeremiad, according to David Howard-Pitney in The Afro-American Jeremiad (1990), has three elements: “citing the promise; criticism of present declension, or retrogression from the promise; and a resolving prophecy that society will shortly complete its mission and redeem the promise” (8).[5]

The corridors of American history resound with the cries for justice and prophecies of national disaster by blacks in the tradition of Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets.  Many cultural historians argue that the messianic rhetoric of the American and African American jeremiad has its ori­gins in the Judeo‑Christian tradition, the Bible, and New England Puritanism. 

The historians George Bancroft, Perry Miller, Henry Nash Smith, R.W.B. Lewis, Sacvan Bercovitch, Ernest Tuveson, David Noble, Wilson Moses, and David Howard‑Pitney credit sacred and secular myths of origin as the foundation of the providential interpretation of Ameri­can history and America’s self‑righteous mission of saving the world and establishing the kingdom of God on earth. 

For example, in his ten‑volume History of the United States (the first volume appeared in 1834 and the last in 1873), George Bancroft, the father of American history and the most widely respected nineteenth‑century interpreter of America, celebrated a providential view of Americans as a chosen people covenanted by God to save the world—not to purify America—and usher in the millennium by spreading the American way: freedom, individualism, capitalism, and democracy.

This is the Judeo‑Christian myth and mission, secularized in the ironies and paradoxes of the American Dream, that informed our nation’s City-upon-a-Hill “civil religion” of 1630, whites only Naturalization Act of 1790, anti-Europe expansionist Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and transcontinental Manifest Destiny of 1845 as well as our   imperialism in the Spanish‑American War of 1898.  This myth of origin and mission of ourselves as a Chosen People also informed both President George Bushes’ declarations of a new world order of the American way in the wake of the balkanization of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in our own time.

In addition, recent studies in the field of African American studies by such historians as John Blassingame, Nathan Huggins, Lawrence Levine, and Leslie Owens argue persuasively that vestigial elements of African religious customs have endured through the process of syncretism, that is, the merging or hybridization of African and non‑African cultural patterns and sign systems. Perhaps the most illuminating discussions of the relationship between African religious survivals and black messianism are in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) by Eugene Genovese and Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms (1982) by Wilson Moses.

 Derived from the Hebrew mashiah, or “anointed,” messiah, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the Hebrew title … applied in the O.T. prophetic writings to a promised deliverer of the Jewish nation, and hence applied to Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of that promise…. An expected liberator or savior of an oppressed people or country.”  In Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, Moses concisely summarizes the Judeo­-Christian tradition of messianism:

The belief in a messiah grew out of the Hebrews’ experience of oppression at the hands of the great Middle‑Eastern empires. It symbolized their hopes for an improvement in the fortunes of their nation and the restoration of their ancient ideals. The messiah would usher in a messianic age. The chosen people would revolt against their political oppressors and revitalize the conservative values advocated by the prophets. Messianic ideas were adapted by the early Christians, who saw Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited messiah (Christos in Greek means the anointed one).

After the death of Jesus, the early Christians began to await his second coming, at which time he would inaugurate a messianic era of a thousand years’ duration. This belief came to be known as millenarianism or chiliasm, from the Latin millenarias and the Greek chilios (a thousand)….  A messianic people are a chosen or anointed people who will lead the rest of the world in the direction of righteousness.  The messianic people traditionally see themselves as a conscience for the rest of the human race—some­times as a suffering servant or a sacrificial lamb, some­times as an avenging angel. (4-5)

 During the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the African American jeremiadic cry was “No more water, the fire next time,” as well as “We shall overcome!”   The recurring jeremiadic shift between lamentation and righteous anger is grounded in the contradictions and paradoxes of a nation founded simultaneously on the principles of freedom and equality and on the practice of slavery and inequality. These contradictions, however, find synthesis in the mixed emotions of faith, perseverance, and hope in the cry from black folk for social and moral justice, cries which have deep historical roots in the Old Testament tradition of Jeremiah and the other prophets, as well as the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States. This tradition has also been syncretically combined with elements of sub-Saharan African religious beliefs and values.

Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) reveals the sacred Puritan roots of the secular myth of Americans hold of themselves as a chosen people, whose exodus from the corruption and bondage in the old Crown‑dominated church in England took them to the promised land of religious freedom and “a city upon a hill” in America. 

In The American Jeremiad (1978), Sacvan Bercovitch identifies the American Jeremiad as the crucial rhetorical ritual that has charac­terized the major writings of Anglo-American culture since the Puritan era. This rhetorical ritual involves three stages: promise, declension, and prophecy. According to David Noble in The End of History, the promise of the first stage held that “the exodus of the Puritans as a New Israel was leading toward the millennium.” The second stage of the Jeremiad was the assertion of declension:

“Although the Puritans as a Chosen People had crossed the frontier threshold from the medieval past in which history had no meaning, they, as individuals and as a group, had not fully accepted their responsibility to make history a progressive path toward the future Kingdom. They were slothful. They were distracted and pursued false and evil values. And they received divine punishments for their failures to act as a Chosen People. This Progressive jeremiad … established great tension in the community of saints as the distance between the perfection of the promise and the imperfection of daily activity was examined and deplored.” (Noble 5)

 The third and final stage of the jeremiad was “a proph­ecy that the Chosen People would accept their responsibility, reject their sinful life­styles which looked so similar to those of the corrupt medieval past, and construct the environment for the Kingdom in the immediate future” (Noble 5).  This myth of God’s covenant with Puritans as a chosen people informed John Winthrop’s sermonic proclamation on the Arbella in 1630 of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill.”

Spreading from the New England Puritans to all colonial Protestants in the eighteenth century, the Puritan jeremiad became political and American by 1776. “The promise was a virtuous republic,” writes David Noble.  “The Revolution was the exodus from the Egyptian bondage of monarchy.

The new citizen‑saints found themselves living in a state of declension, reflecting their failure of the promise and the gap between the ideal republic and their imperfect political experience. But political prophets pointed out their failings, explained their sufferings as punishment for those failures, and pointed toward redemption and the fulfillment of the promise in the future” (6).

More important for black Americans, Moses indicates, is the evolution of two varieties of American messianism: hard‑line and soft‑line. Hard-line messianism “eventually developed into the doc­trine of white racial supremacy, ruthless expansionism, religious intolerance, and economic insensitivity”; the latter grew “out of the unrealized ideals of the Jeffersonian tradition and the American enlightenment, which came to emphasize America’s mission to preserve the inalienable rights of man.” According to soft‑line messianism, “the American mission was not to dominate the rest of the world, forcing it into the paths of righteousness, but to serve as an example of the spiritual per­fection that human nature could aspire to in an atmosphere of political freedom” (Moses 8).

Many students of American history are familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of political, religious, and educational freedoms as principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founder of the University of Virginia.  Fewer are familiar with his advocacy of the myth of white supremacy in Notes on the State of Virginia (France 1785, England 1787), which includes an American jeremiad that contains a classic ironic illustration of the fusion of oppositional varieties of messianism:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. (289)

 Although Jefferson believed that abolition followed by deportation was the best solution to his personal guilt and fear about the national sin of slavery, Notes also reveals his belief in white supremacy.   Such racist comments as “the blacks are … inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (270) and that blacks prefer white mates “as uniformly in the preference of the Oranootan [sic] for the black woman over those of his own species” (265) were answered in black jeremiads by “Othello,” Benjamin Banneker, and David Walker.

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  The African American Jeremiad

 In Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, Moses defines the African American jeremiad as “mainly a pre‑Civil War,” ingenious adaptation of messianic traditions in the form of “constant warnings issued by blacks to whites, concerning the judgment that was to come for the sin of slavery” (30-31). 

Diverse scholars from W. E. B. Du Bois, Melville Herskovits, and E. Franklin Frazier to Lawrence Levine, Albert Raboteau, and Orlando Patterson persuasively argue that evidence of the retention and reinterpretation of vestigial African religious traits by black people in the Americas is stronger in the Caribbean than in the United States.

As historian Wilson Moses notes, “The religion of black slaves in the United States was similar to both that of West Africans and that of Europeans. These similarities may be attributed to African retentions, syncretic tenden­cies, and spontaneous parallel evolution” (28).

A dramatic, historical example of the so­ciocultural, sociopsychological dualism, or double consciousness, of black Americans is the connection between revolutionary black nationalism and African religious survivals. This is apparent, on one hand, in the role of conjuring by Gullah Jack, a leader in the 1822 slave revolt of Denmark Vesey, and, on the other hand, in the messianic avenging angel mission that Nat Turner assumed in his 1831 revolt.

Both, similar to the contemporary examples of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Minister Malcolm X, involve a synthesis of orthodox and unorthodox faith in the ritual power of the spoken word:  incantations, curses, blessings, and prayers, as well as the magical power of charms, fetishes, and totems to bridge and balance the physical and spiritual, historical and mythical realms of reality, knowledge, and truth.

 In Spite of his Islamic Veneer

Malcolm_speaking 

 Malcolm X was also in the Afro-American Prophetic Tradition

Some scholars believe that the African American jeremiadic tradition began in 1788 with the “Essay on Negro Slavery” by a free black from Maryland who used the pen name “Othello.” Adapting the American jeremiad and warning of God’s wrathful judgment for the American national sin of slavery, he wrote, “Beware Americans! Pause—and consider the difference between the mild effulgence of approving Providence and the angry countenance of incensed divinity” (qtd. in Moses 33).

There are four important responses to the racial injustice and social inequality expressed in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and in American life of the time: Benjamin Banneker’s letter in 1791, the Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ “Address to those who keep Slaves, and approve the Practice” in 1794, Prince Hall’s speech “Charge Delivered to the African Lodge at Menotomy” in 1797, Robert Alexander Young’s Ethiopian Maifesto in 1829, and especially David Walker’s “Walker’s Appeal” in 1829.

Black Americans have responded historically to the hypocrisy, injustice, and immorality of white Americans both by reacting ambivalently to the prophecies of false prophets and by reinterpreting the prophets and prophecies in a manner consistent with their own bi-cultural African American tradition of faith, hope, resistance, resilience, and resourcefulness. 

Probably the most moving passage in President Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995, 2004), is his tearful memory of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s “meditation on a fallen world” in his sermon, “The Audacity of Hope.”  “‘It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year,’” the reverend chants, “‘where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world!  On which hope sits!’” 

 Drawing on the story of a barren and taunted Hannah in the Book of Samuel and the analogy of a bruised and bloodied woman harpist playing on a single frayed string in a museum painting titled Hope, “Reverend Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House” before his stories “became more prosaic, the pain more immediate,” our new black president recalls his former preacher’s and advisor’s words.  “‘Like Hannah, we have known bitter times!  Daily, we face rejection and despair…And yet consider once again the painting before us.  Hope!  Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens.  She dares to hope….She has the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left’” (293)!  

 Unlike such false prophets and charlatans as Daddy Grace and Father Divine, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah has scriptural and secular authority for his prophetic mission of warning the nation of divine judgment for transgressing our personal and national covenant with God and man.  Like “Othello,” Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Prince Hall, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah is respected by many black Americans, especially Baptists and Methodists, as an African American prophetic preacher in the tradition of Jeremiah.  Can I get a witness?

 

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[1] Bill Schneider, “Wright Flap May Hurt Obama,” CNN Political Ticker, 21 Mar 2008, 6 Apr 2008 <http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/21>.[2] “Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Biography,” The History Makers, 11 Jan 2002, 6 Apr 2008 <http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=331&category=religionMakers>. 

 [3] “Ministries: Christ, Community, and Culture,” Trinity United Church of Christ, 2008 6 Apr 2008 <http://www.trinitychicago.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=28

>

[4] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1986) 622.  [5] Martin, Roland S., “The Full Story Behind Wright’s ‘God Damn America’ Sermon,” Anderson Cooper: 360  21 March 2008, 6 Apr 2008 <http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/21/the-full-story-behind-wright%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cgod-damn-america%E2%8%9D sermon/>.

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By: Dr. Bernard Bell

Professor of Literature

Penn State University

November 2009

 

* This essay was originally published as President Barack Obama, the Reverend Dr.  Jeremiah Wright, and the African American Jeremiadic Tradition.”  The Massachusetts Review (Autumn 2009): 332-343.

 

 


 

 

 

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