Loyal to the Bitterness

I am out of step. There is something that is upsetting others whom I care about and whose thoughts are often not unlike my own. And it’s not hitting me the same way.

I am referring to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I disagree with and disapprove of the things he says. The U.S. government did not spread AIDS among the black community, 9/11 was not the chickens coming home to roost, etc. He seems like a bright man, warm, humorous and compelling, but also needful and demanding of the spotlight, a showman prone to crackpottery, and I have to wonder how much respect he has for his congregation. He shows a lot of fury and does a lot of yelling for a leader of the followers of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

YawpWhen he is discussed on news shows, pundits are asked what they think Mr. Wright’s political impact will be, which is another way of saying: What will people think of this?

I always wish they’d say what they themselves think. I think what Mr. Wright has been saying is extreme and radical, and people don’t like extreme and radical when they’re pondering who their next leader will be, and as Mr. Wright has been Barack Obama’s friend and mentor for 20 years, this will hurt Mr. Obama. This is borne out in the week’s polls. From the New York Times: 48% of Democrats say he can best beat McCain, down eight points since April. The proportion of Democrats who say Mr. Obama is their choice for the nomination is now 46%, down six.

I also think that if Hillary Clinton wins because of the Wright scandal, it will leave a sad taste in the mouths of many. Mr. Obama reveals many things in his books, speeches and interviews but polarity and a tropism toward the extreme are not among them. What happened with Mr. Wright should not determine the race. Mr. Obama’s stands, his ability to convince us he can make good change, his ability to be “one of us,” that great challenge for a national politician in a varied nation, should determine the race.

But I am finding it hard to feel truly upset about what Mr. Wright has said. This is the out-of-stepness I referred to. So here I will talk not about how people will respond to him but how I do.

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I do not feel a sense of honest anger or violation at his remarks, in part because I don’t think his views carry deep implications for our country. I have been watching America up close for many years—if you count a bright childhood, for half a century. I have seen, heard and respected the pain of a people who were forced to come here when they did not want to and made to live in a way that no one would want to. Who could deny them their grief or anger? I have seen radicalism and extremism, too. I have seen Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, the Black National Anthem, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Louis Farrakhan. I came to see their radicalism as, putting the morality of policy based on rage aside, essentially unhelpful and impractical. It wouldn’t work as an American movement, not long-term. Hatred plays itself out, has power in the short-term but is nonsustaining in the long. America, and this is one of its glories, has a conscience to which an appeal can be made. It may take a long time, it may take centuries, but in the end we try hard to do the right thing, and everyone knows it. Hatred is a form of energy that does not fuel this machine and cannot make it run.

And all the time I was watching the old days of rage, blacks in America were rising, joining the professions, becoming middle class, assuming authority, becoming professors and doctors. No one is surprised anymore to meet a powerful man or woman who devises systems by which others should live—that would be a politician—who is black.

I came to think all the talk of radicalism and extremism amounted to little, and was in the end rejected by the very people it was meant to rouse. They didn’t buy it.

This week I talked to a young man, an Irish-American to whom I said, “Am I wrong not to feel anger about Wright?” He more or less saw it as I do, but for a different reason, or from different experience.

He said he figures Mr. Wright’s followers delight in him the same way he delights in the Wolfe Tones, the Irish folk group named for the 18th-century leader condemned to death by the British occupying forces, as they say on their Web site. They sing songs about the Brits and how they subjugated the Irish and we’ll rise up and trounce the bastards.

My 20-year-old friend has lived a good life in America and is well aware that he is not an abused farmer in the fields holding secret Mass in defiance of the prohibitions of the English ruling class. His life has not been like that. Yet he enjoys the bitterness. He likes going to Wolfe Tones concerts raising his fist, thinking “Up the Rebels.” It is good to feel that old ethnic religious solidarity, and that in part is what he is in search of, solidarity. And it’s not so bad to take a little free-floating anger, apply it to politics, and express it in applause.

He knows the dark days are over. He just enjoys remembering them even if he didn’t experience them. His people did.

I know exactly what he feels, for I felt the same when I was his age. And so what? It’s just a way of saying, “I’m still loyal to our bitterness.” Which is another way of saying, “I’m still loyal.” I have a nice life, I’m American, I live far away, an Englishman has never hurt me, and yet I am still Irish. I can prove it. I can summon the old anger.

Is this terrible? I don’t think so. It’s human and messy and warm-blooded, as a human would be.

The thing is to not let your affiliation with bitterness govern you, so that you leave the Wolfe Tones concert and punch an Englishman in the nose. In this connection it can be noted there is no apparent record of people leaving a Wright sermon and punching anyone in the nose. Maybe they’re in search of solidarity too. Maybe they’re showing loyalty too.

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Few voters will be more inclined to vote for Barack Obama because his friend, mentor and pastor is extreme. They will think it makes Mr. Obama less attractive. They will not think Mr. Obama handled the challenge with force, dispatch and the kind of instinct that turns dilemma into gain.

And yet . . . it doesn’t get my blood up. It doesn’t hurt my heart. It doesn’t make me feel I need to defend my country. Because I don’t see it as attacked, only criticized in a way that is not persuasive.

Mr. Wright seems to me to be part of the great “barbaric yawp,” as Walt Whitman called the American people fighting, discussing, making things and living. I like the barbaric yawp. I don’t enjoy it when it makes me wince, but at least when I am wincing, I know the yawp is working.