Whenever a political figure lets fly with some remark that bounces badly, he or she is likely to protest that it was taken "out of context." The implication is that, if the critics would just read (or, better yet, quote) the rest of the speech, the offending utterance would be seen in a different and far less offensive light.
But is that really true? The defender of the statement almost never points to anything else in the speech that actually modifies the damage done by the words in question. We are asked to assume that it is there, somewhere, but it is never quoted for our benefit -- or the speaker's.
The most recent orator to try to take refuge in this imaginary hidey-hole is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor and spiritual adviser for the past 20 years. In a sermon that has been excerpted on television innumerable times in recent weeks, the good reverend was bewailing the miserable condition into which America's white citizens have allegedly forced blacks. He charged, among other things, that whites actually invented AIDS to afflict the black population of the country. Working himself up into a righteous frenzy, he seized on the expression "God bless America" and declared that it badly needed revision. No, he thundered: The right view was "God damn America!" The listening parishioners cheered enthusiastically.
Given the long and close bond between Wright and Obama, reporters wasted no time asking Obama for his comments. And Obama, it hardly needs saying, wasted equally little time repudiating his pastor's words, and indeed in denouncing them. Thereupon the reporters went back to Wright.
It was very simple, Wright explained to Bill Moyers in a genial TV interview. The offending expression had been "taken out of context." A small snippet of his sermon had been seized on, and broadcast to the world, as if it were a fair representation of his opinion. It was, he seemed to be saying, no such thing -- as the rest of the sermon (the "context") made clear.
Well, if it wasn't, surely there was a ready remedy. Let Wright simply quote some of that omitted context -- the parts that softened those searing words. The part, for instance, where he went on to say, "Now, my friends, that of course isn't my whole view of America. Our country has done many good things." But he didn't tell Moyers about that part -- for the very good reason that it isn't there. The omitted "context" simply doesn't exist, and Wright is lying when he suggests that it does.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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