Letters at 3AM
Of Prophets, Pissing, and Politicians
"You're ignoring the intangibles!"
"Fuck you! Why?!" My very dear friend prefers not to be named. From the tone and volume of his "Why?!" through the buzz of my cell, I imagined smoke spurting out of his ears. I'm supposed to be good at intangibles, but I'm ignoring the intangibles, adamantly. Our exchange goes back and forth with this and that comradely obscenity until:
"Listen a minute, OK?" I say. He listens. "How have I survived so long doing what I do and doing what I please? Underneath it all, I'm practical. Very. No matter how impractical I am about lots of stuff, including the intangibles, I always know how much money I have, where it's coming from, where it's going. I always take care of the basics, just like you – rent, you know, that level of crap. And that's the level on which politics is important to me. That's the level on which politics interests me. Political theatre doesn't interest me. When I'm moved by a political leader, I step back; I feel the emotion, but I don't trust it. Nations get into deep shit following inspirational leaders, left or right. A people that needs such inspiration is already in deep shit."
"You're being a hardass."
"About politics, always."
"This is a special man, Mike. Barack Obama is a special man. We're lucky to have such a man."
"A president gets in office, looks at his – or her – priorities, looks at the available resources, and decides what can be done. Even the greatest presidents rarely accomplish more than two or three big things a term. There are three big things facing our next president: a country demanding health care, help on the economy, and an end to the war. Iraq is more complicated than any candidate is willing to talk about. The economy probably will not be manageable – but either Democrat will be better than McCain. Health care is doable. Not in the form I'd prefer, but doable. I don't trust Clinton any more than I trust Obama, but Clinton is better at doable. It's like Tina Fey says: 'She's a bitch. Bitches get stuff done.'"
"She's so goddamn divisive. She ... she ... she ...," he goes on for a while about Hillary Clinton, none of which I argue with. She is what she is.
While he's doing that, I'll backtrack a little about our conversation.
My friend and I had been talking about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and we were in complete agreement. White people may be threatened by the way Wright spoke, but what was wrong with what he said? Listen to Wright's "10 Facts" statement on YouTube ("The End of the Ride," www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfNEfEBYIZs). He rambles on fact No. 1, notes injustice to women and others. From fact No. 2: "Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run." Who could claim there wasn't racism in how America was founded and how it's still run? From fact No. 3: "America is still the number one killer in the world." We're the nation fighting two wars. Nobody else is. Wright goes on about our invasions of Grenada, Panama, and Nicaragua; bombing Cambodia and Iraq; "killing women and children." "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers." That's been documented for 40 years ad nauseam. And notice how he's saying "we." Not "you," not "them," but "we." Including himself and his congregation in the complicity.
From fact No. 4: "We ... supported apartheid the whole 27 years [Nelson Mandela] was [in jail]." True. From fact No. 5: "We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic." Some would say yes, some no, and the Anti-Defamation League says Wright is not anti-Semitic (from Wikipedia's entry on JeremiahWright, www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremiah_Wright). From fact No. 6: "We" conducted radiation experiments on our own people. I don't have the space to note how and when, but we did. From fact No. 7: "We do not care if poor black and brown children cannot read and kill each other senselessly. We abandoned the cities back in the Sixties," and he goes on like that awhile, and he's not lying. He tears into the well-heeled in his congregation and his country for wallowing in affluence while ignoring the homeless. Fact No. 8 is that the government invented AIDS – that one is loony tunes, as far as I'm concerned. Fact No. 9: "We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure that Third World people live in grinding poverty." I've said that too.
What is "inflammatory" and "incendiary" about such talk? The Rev. Wright has been preaching like this for decades without starting one riot. Who's he really inflaming? White people who don't want to hear this stuff. He's black, and he's angry. That scares lots of white people. Especially when he ends this sermon with fact No. 10: "We are selfish, self-centered egotists who are arrogant and ignorant. We pray at church and do not try to make the kingdom that Jesus talked about a reality! And ... and ... and ... in light of these 10 facts, God has got to be sick of this shit!"
I don't believe in a just God, but, if one exists, who can doubt he's as pissed as the Rev. Wright?
I've re-created my conversation with my friend, giving the gist. I wasn't writing it all down. But when my friend said the following, I grabbed my pen quick: "Wright did not attack America politically; he attacked America theologically. To ignore that is to ignore a theological tradition that goes back thousands of years. The prophets of Israel attacked the Israel they loved because they wanted Israelites to get right with their God. And those prophets were usually killed for that. He says, 'God damn America,' the same way the old prophets damned Israel, because they loved God, and they loved Israel."
Obama, in his "A More Perfect Union" speech: "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is ... that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made ... as if this country ... is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past." True. However, I'd argue that we're all irrevocably bound to our pasts, but that fact does not irrevocably determine our futures.
So my friend is telling me what we both already know about Hillary Clinton, because he enjoys reciting her sins of commission and omission. (Clinton may have her own religious embarrassments, by the way; they've yet to cause controversy, but they well might. You can read about them in Mother Jones, "Hillary's Prayer," Sept. 1 2007.)
"So what about his speech, Mike?"
"Superb. That was the Obama of Dreams From My Father. Uh ... but ... but ..."
"What? Are you about to be a pain in my ass again?"
"I'd have thought more of the speech if he'd apologized for lying – you know, when the Wright story broke?" Explosions on the other end of the phone. Me: "First he lied, then he hid. First he said he didn't hear any of that stuff in church – his version of 'I didn't inhale' – and then he hunkered down and hoped it would all go away. When it didn't, he wrote the speech."
"I can't believe you'd say that." My friend is honestly shocked. "After a speech like that, I can't believe you're serious."
"That's what he did, man. Want me to read you the reports to prove it? I got 'em here; you hold on, I can find 'em and read 'em. They're not intangible."
"If you die first, I'm gonna piss on your grave." We often say that to each other. I sometimes imagine him or me, whoever survives the other, trying to fulfill our pact to piss on each other's graves and feeling ridiculous because some old-mannish bladder or prostate thing makes it very difficult and feeble. There we are, he or I, in broad daylight, in a graveyard, risking arrest, and doing a poor job of fulfilling our pact. (A cutting feminist analysis of this, please! We deserve it.)
I say, "My behavior counts as much as my words. So does yours, so does his."
"So does hers!" my friend bellows triumphantly.
Her, of course, is Hillary. I agree. And again I talk about health care, hers is better than his, and ... on and on we go, my friend and I.
Later that evening I'm watching Obama on Larry King. What's this I hear? Obama says, "One of the things I think George H.W. Bush doesn't get enough credit for was his foreign-policy team and the way he helped negotiate the end of the Cold War and prosecuted the Gulf War."
I can't wait to tell my friend.