28 April 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs, Elaborated

Someone at the National Press Club today confronted Jeremiah Wright with the question he's needed to be asked since the controversy broke out:

MS. LEINWAND: In your sermon, you said the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. So I ask you: Do you honestly believe your statement and those words?

Wright responded this way:

REV. WRIGHT: Have you read Horowitz's book "Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola"? Whoever wrote that question, have you read "Medical Apartheid"? You've read it? ... I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven't read things, then you can't -- and based on the Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the -- one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales record. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.

Let's see what we can learn about his sources. Emerging Viruses ... is written by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz (see also here) who apparently offers several theories at once regarding the origins of the titular plagues, ranging from accidental mutations during cancer research to deliberate population reduction strategies emanating from Henry Kissinger. Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington seems to be a more widely accepted work because it deals with history, not speculation -- specifically the history of experimentation on blacks, beginning in slavery times and culminating in the Tuskegee experiments Wright refers to.

It's worth noting that, while the talking heads are damning Wright for allegedly affirming today that the government propagated AIDS, the man himself only articulated the minimal position of conspiracy theory: that the powerful are capable of anything. Arguably, he's taken a step back from his original charge, choosing to hide behind his sources. Curiously, while Wright appears to be a learned person in his chosen field, he takes the autodidact's approach to the AIDS question, reading certain books that came to hand (randomly?) that happen to confirm a worldview ("our government is capable of doing anything") that he already held.

If it were just me listening to a sermon from some preacher, I could dismiss it all pretty easily. But as you may have figured out, something bugs me about this whole business. Let me give you a sample.

* * *

There's another guy in our office, whom I've not bothered to nickname, who often gets into loud, angry arguments with Mr. Right. Unlike others, like myself or Mr. Peepers, this guy is usually content with mocking Mr. Right or answering his arguments with nonsense catchphrases. Mr. Right, however, has nothing to do with this anecdote and was minding his business in the Sports department when the evening news showed an excerpt of Rev. Wright's talk.

Having heard the story, this guy's response to Wright was, "He sure seems to be enjoying the attention." For some reason, that irked me.

"What makes you think so?" I asked him.

"Just look at all the speeches he's making now," he explained.

"And you think he's doing it because he craves the attention?"

"Just look at him!"

"Well, what about Barack Obama? He makes a lot of speeches."

"Yeah, but he's running for President."

"So couldn't he be running because he craves attention?"

He seemed to dismiss the question, but I couldn't dismiss the complaint. The way it sounded to me was that Rev. Wright had some hard things to say to the country, some true, some false, but the nation was going to dismiss it all as the "self-absorbed" ravings of an attention seeker. My own opinion is that this country is going to have to learn to listen to hard words, and its citizens are going to have to get less self-absorbed themselves and learn to see themselves as others see them, even if the other is sometimes a fictional character like God. If our first impulse is to dismiss the hard words as those of a attention seeker or a crank, the words are only going to get harder, and we might be forced to hear them.

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