Friday, July 8, 2016
July 8, 2016: Modeling Critical Patriotism: Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama
[I’ve written a good deal in the last few months about the topic of critical patriotism, a central focus of my recently completed fourth book. So for this year’s 4th of July series I wanted to highlight a handful of distinct examples of perspectives and visions of such critical patriotism. Please share your own nominees for critical patriots, past and present, for a crowd-sourced weekend post full of fireworks!]
On the historical echoes for a controversial sermon, and the subsequent speech that models critical patriotism far more successfully.
The controversy almost seems quaint in retrospect, at least in comparison with the Birther nonsense and secret Muslim conspiracy garbage and other uglinesses that have been thrown at Barack Obama throughout his presidency, but in early 2008 the debate over Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s angry, critical sermons about race and religion in America was at fever pitch. As usual these days, much of that debate was based on simplified soundbites or outright misinformation, as illustrated by this piece in which CNN correspondent Roland Martin listened to and provided a transcript of the whole of Wright’s infamous “God Damn America” sermon (actual title: “Confusing God and Government”). Yet even with the full context, there’s no doubt that Wright’s sermon represents an extreme perspective on the nation’s histories and identity, both in its specific details (such as the assertion that the government had known about the Pearl Harbor attacks in advance) and in its overarching arguments (exemplified by lines like “God Damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme").
Those extremes in Wright’s speech and perspective quite directly echo much of the speech with which I opened this week’s series, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Take this paragraph from Douglass: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” Yet there are relevant contextual differences between the two addresses that shed a less positive light on Wright’s: the obvious historical ones (that Douglass was speaking in the period of a slave system into which he had himself been born); but also a key distinction in audience (that Douglass was speaking directly to a multi-faceted American community, challenging them to engage collectively with his ideas, while Wright was quite literally preaching to the choir and thus in far more of an echo chamber).
We don’t have to go back a century and a half to find a speech that models critical patriotism with more nuance and effectiveness than Wright’s sermon, though. I wrote at some length in this post about Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered in March 2008 in direct response to the unfolding Reverend Wright controversy. Although the speech originated and opens with that specific context, it quickly moves into a far more wide-ranging and deep reflection on race in both Obama’s life and identity and in America more broadly, one that uses a blunt examination of such issues and histories to argue for how we can continue moving toward that titular more perfect union. At times progressive critics of Obama’s presidency have wished that he would get angry more frequently or openly, but I think the contrast between Wright’s (justifiable but still to my mind limiting) anger and Obama’s speech illustrates precisely the complex balance (in perspective, in tone, in argument, in ideas) that comprises Obama’s critical patriotism. He’s offered so many models of that vital perspective over these 8 years, just one more reason we need to make sure not to follow him with Trump’s ridiculously simplistic “Make America Great Again” style of patriotism.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Critical patriots you’d nominate?