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The Proxy Presidential Campaign

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Politics is crazier even than we sometimes think. Half the time, it seems, instead of addressing issues of great solemnity with the attention they deserve -- foreign foes, energy supplies, government overspending -- we talk endlessly about ... would you believe Jeremiah Wright?


What on earth?

The Barnum & Bailey of the black church as center ring attraction in the presidential campaign? Not lastingly so, perhaps. These fads pass. And yet over the last few days of April, Barack Obama's pastor went around the country -- from the Bill Moyers show to Dallas to Washington, D.C. -- calling into question the state of American race relations, not to mention the suitability for the presidency of the half-black, half-white candidate offering change we can believe in.

It's the way we often have our political and intellectual discussions: through proxies -- here, through Jeremiah Wright as lens for examining anxieties over the effects of an Obama presidency on nerves unsettled by the very prospect of racial discussion.

The idea of a president chosen without concern for race seems such a good idea, and Obama seems such a pleasant totem of the new tolerance. Until along comes his pastor, suggesting anew that the government may have invented the HIV virus, meaning to commit genocide on blacks ("I believe our government is capable of doing anything."). Comes the pastor more than suggesting that the 9-11 terrorists had been provoked by American bad behavior overseas. ("You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back to you.")

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, media celebrity extraordinary, is, as the more polite among us would have the matter, "full of it." A bit of a racist, you likely could call him -- notwithstanding that this formerly descriptive reproach has lost its sting through overuse by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and, yes, Jeremiah Wright.


The craziness of politics in 2008 centers on the fluency and undauntedness of ... well, I wouldn't call Wright a wacko. He knows what he's doing -- namely, stirring the pot for plaudits and money. It's possible he believes a considerable share of his own nonsense -- e.g., the assertion, this week, that his critics aren't really attacking him, they're going after "the black church" and its right-brained modes of assertion and understanding. Oh, yes, that's it, nothing to fret about when a pastor suggests that God should "damn" America. Umm-hmm, yes, just a manner of speaking, I guess.

Of course, if some white yo-yo besought the Lord to "damn" the "black church," we'd learn soon enough, I fancy, that sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander.

What we get from Wright are fetching reminders that this is how we play the game. In the Wrightian universe, a booming black voice, trembling indignantly, can speak nonsense with impunity and righteous joy. An even-toned white voice is allowed to visit reproach on whites. That's as far as it goes. Two can't play at Wright's game. He won't allow it. He made the rules, after all, and now hopes the white media, and the Republicans, haven't caught on.

What do we know, then, in the present context, besides our duty, which is to swallow nonsense with never a belch? The campaign doesn't help us to this extent in choosing among the three remaining candidates. It does remind non-Wright-thinking Americans of the consequences, in any context, of allowing nonsense more room than the First Amendment requires.


In other words, a presidential candidate who beams appreciatively at Wrightian bombast -- we can hope Obama winces sometimes -- has some tall explaining to do. A representative of the church -- black, white, whatever hue -- has the constitutional right to say such things as Wright says. The electorate has a duty to hold accountable those in the media -- on the blogs, in politics, at the water cooler -- who can listen to such junk without a horse laugh. And maybe just a cold shiver proceeding to the top of the spine and back again.

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