When Barack Obama first became a real contender for the Presidency last year, the first thought on many people’s minds was assassination. Would the first viable black candidate in history become a victim of it? We’re still thinking of the A-word, but now the question is: will the first viable black candidate in history become a perpetrator of it? If the Reverend Wright continues on his whacky media round, reprising all his greatest hits – America sucks, the CIA invented AIDS, etc – it’s surely only a matter of time before, watching him suddenly crumple in the street, people trace the trajectory and see, atop a book depository, a too-thin black man with a hunting rifle.
To recap: Wright is, or was, head of the Chicago south side Trinity church, and a fire-breathing preacher of the old school, wont to don a dashiki – redolent less of Africa immemorial than of LA early 70s – and denounce Amerikkka from the pulpit at length. Obama joined the church when he became a south side organiser, reasoning that he needed to be part of the community he was trying to reach out too, and finding the pastor’s line of reasoning no less ridiculous than half a dozen on offer. When tapes of the pastor doing his thang surfaced, Obama was forced to distance himself, as his apparent consent with silence to the argument that Amerikkka was a racist country for white people became an issue. The pastor for his part maintained radio silence, leading to the widespread assumption that he accepted that he was with the team, and knew Obama was only doing what he had to do.
Turns out he did know Obama was doing what he had to do – he just didn’t care. He was waiting for the moment to create maximum trouble for a candidate who, having no shoulders to speak of, has a lot he would have to bear on them if he did. At the Detroit conference of the NAACP, Wright came out firing, with a scattergun approach to the whole race and America thing, and then doing some impersonations of JFK, LBJ, a typical Englishperson and others, to make some sort of point about …
Well, hard to say. Something about the way black people speak – though if Obama’s proved anything it’s that not every black person sounds like the third bass player from the back in Parliament/Funkadelic after a shroom binge – indeed, if the debates are anything to go by, he’s proving they can sound like your financial advisor, who’s been up all night with a crying one-year-old, and is boring even himself to sleep.
To be perfectly blunt about it, it’s the Wright-style performativity that so many white voters – the voters Obama wants – get freaked out by, the beefy black men in $2000 suits calling on a mixture of Christian witnessing, political radicalism and the call and return of the blues to create an intoxicating political style. Me, I can’t get enough of it, but even the most generously disposed white MOR Democrat can’t help but feel that the Panthers are back, shotties at the ready.
Indeed, part of Obama’s rhetorical genius has been to incorporate that style into something that matches the lo-fi generation. Quite aside from fear, Obama knows that the style has come to be seen as buffoonish, in part because it’s been adopted by black stand-up comedians, even when they’re doing “have you ever noticed …” material. Richard Pryor was the first to use it – rhetorical outrage that demands its own answer – but his material was political, effectively an extension of the Panthers’ project by other means. Eddie Murphy transmuted it, and the endless black and white comics that use it today apply it largely to outrage at the refusal of fellatio by designated hos.
As he noted in his press conference today, further denouncing Wright, Obama made the argument that his whole campaign had been around “the things that unite us being more important than the things that divide us” – a JFK riff, just in case anyone thought the Rodent invented it – and his rhetorical style has been about using the inspirational style of black churches to speak to the lonely crowd of America, the people feeling so isolated and locked in themselves that they had given up hope of connecting to anything larger than themselves or their families.
Obama’s strategy, before all this malarky, was to coax people out via this method after which, I have always presumed, he would give them a more concrete and radical politics, ranged against the idea that McCain was really McBush. He is, if you like, the Miles Davis of black rhetoric, the cool transformation of bebop, the style in which silence speaks more eloquently than voice, and soft is loud.
Well, that’s all truly farked now. Wright’s reappearance has made it necessary to meet that sh-t head-on, yet again, and distinguish himself from the content of Wright’s speech. Yet even here, things are coded, for it’s not the content of Wright’s speech that really needs distancing from, it’s the plain fact that the man is a bit of a tool, with his narcissism, his ridiculous impressions etc, etc.
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That’s the press conference I really want to hear: “Thank you for being here today. I have called this press conference to announce that the Reverend Wright, my former pastor, is a bit of a tool. A dickweed. A wodge. A gaywad, in the hip, ironically perjorative sense of ‘gay’. He’s two pratfalls away from being in a Judd Apatow movie, if Judd Apatow ever put black people in his movies, but that is not the issue here.
“I have known that Reverend Wright is a bit of a tool ever since … well ever since I first spent my Sunday mornings in that draughty church listening to his endless crap for the purposes of building a political base, Sunday mornings when I could have been slowly humping my hot wife under a $300 duckdown doona as the central heating purrs softly and the kids watched cartoons, or eating a mushroom omelette and reading the New York Times arts and leisure section in a chic little Wicker Park brunchery like any normal post-yuppie but oh no, not Barry, not Barry Obama he’s gotta forget he was ever a postmodern Foucault-reading arts student and trot out to hear all this stale, counterproductive, reheated 60s rhetoric transmuted from political rage into victimology over and over and over and over again so he can get to the increasingly aptly-named white house…
“… and now, and now, it’s this very tool who’s keeping me from it. Damn! If I was in a black sitcom I’d get all medieval on his ass, to prefabricated whoops and cheers.
“Look forget the Rev, he’s just a tool. Tool. Tool. Tool.”
Goddamit, that would turn the campaign around. Watching Obama is like supporting Carlton – there are times when you could just dive thru the screen grab the frikkin ball and do better yself.
Left-liberals are wont to dismiss all this stuff as the creation of a liberal media, but the fact of the matter is, people care about these things – especially the swing section of the working class who, identity-wise, don’t have much to hang on to apart from their patriotism and sense of community. Were you planning a Democratic presidential campaign from scratch, helpful ingredients would include military service, a period of manual labour in a doomed manufacturing industry, and a life-threatening illness sub-contracted to your spouse. Sitting thru years of thundering about how the FBI invented crack is no substitute.
But here’s the thing. For all the sh-t being thrown at him – sh-t he could pretty much expect – compared to a lot of former liberal Democratic candidates, Obama is doing okay. Not great, but okay. Reason? For all his own elitism, and the revelation that he thinks of himself as somewhat superior, things are so bad in the US at the moment – or the expectation is – that people will overlook an enormous amount of the identity politics of yore. What they want now is a leader, and they’re not concerned if the guy or gal has a Bingo hall full of tickets on himself, they want someone to take charge.
As Bush’s mewling, puking press conference today showed, there is no-one of that calibre in incumbency. And though McCain will come out hard against Bush once the campaign proper starts, he may have left his run too late. With the consumer economy starting to falter because of high gas prices – people can’t afford to drive to the malls to spend money they don’t have – the terrain even three months from now will look very different. And though reverend Wright will have soured a few good ol’ boys, for the most he will have receded to the status of a Trivial Pursuit question.
Even if it is “which black leader was shot by a leading presidential candidate in …”
As the case may be.
Prove, as the man said, that I lie.