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What's 'Out of Context'?

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

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.

Obama, too, wasted no breath trying to dig his pastor out of the hole he had dug for himself. He made no attempt to suggest that "God damn America" was unrepresentative of the general thrust of Wright's sermon. He simply did what any decent or even sensible person would do -- he denounced the statement and left Wright to extricate himself from it as best he could.


Wright's performance was both outrageous and pathetic. It was outrageous because it was a gross libel on his country -- a country that has been good to him, and has done much to improve the condition of his fellow blacks. The very fact that one of his black parishioners is a serious candidate for the presidency is testimony to how far our black fellow citizens have come from the sheer inhumanity of slavery.

And it was pathetic because, having made that blunder, Wright had no better defense than to lie that it was softened by omitted snippets of "context" that simply aren't there. Hasn't Wright ever made a mistake? Doesn't he even have the guts to admit it?

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