Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

My Great-Grandmother Thinks Obama’s a Terrorist… Whaddo I do?

(imported from fb, where it was originally posted)

To preface this post, —– is my step great-grandmother who, this weekend, was visiting from Arizona.  She’s a very sweet and loving lady.  She is also a proclaimed and devoted Bush fan who is on record saying that should Obama win she’d move to Canada (hmm…).  I’d resolved not to engage on the subject, however, at dinner the first evening she came out swinging with, “I don’t want to talk about it with you, but to me Obama is basically a Muslim terrorist, with that Reverend Wright.”

Shocked and rattled at being faced by a view that up until then I guess I didn’t actually believe real people held, I overreacted a bit and launched into an hour long lecture on the social history of black people in America / history of terrorism / history of Islam and colonialism in the Middle East that was garbled, and unstructured.  Out of breath, I eventually petered out, only to be told that my views “sure are strange.”  At which point I lost composure and told her that she’d better start packing her bags as soon as she got back to Arizona because Obama was going to win.  We then exchanged about five or six rounds of “Will not!” “Will too!”s before she went inside to play solitaire and I went swimming in the lake.  It later came out (to my uncle, who told me) that she had been researching and planning on coming after me on this and that my great Aunt, who also lives in Arizona, had given her talking points.  This probably because last time she came up, two summers ago, lacking the poise I’ve subsequently developed (*raspberry*), I went at her hard about deficits, China, and gross inequality when she said that Bush has been doing a great job especially in managing the economy.

Anyway, I was upset by the whole thing.  I don’t think that anything about it was constructive, and don’t think I represented myself well.  A big part of me thinks I should just drop it.  She’s an old lady holding onto an anachronistic viewpoint that is steeped in anxiety over the way the world, as it has been represented to her by her pastor and Fox News (“the only place you can find real balance”), is going.

Conversely, she votes, and would dismissing her so not be the moral equivalent of putting her in palliative care–making her and her perspective comfortable as I wait for her and it to die?  I honestly think there’s something wrong with that.

Anyway, I’ve been working on a response e-mail that she can either read or delete and would love any editorial help or wisdom as to whether this is actually a stupid thing to be doing and whether I’ve talked myself into this just because I like a good debate (thoroughly the wrong reason).


Dear —–,

I wanted to write because I was strongly affected by our conversation last weekend.

First off, I don’t feel right with your leaving with an impression that my politics are “strange.”  I’ve worked hard at developing my perspective and  I’m sure you feel the same way, which is why an earnest political discussion between us, undertaken in good faith, has the potential to be so fruitful.

Opinions have become polarized as a result of the different sides having given up on each other.  This is sad because I think that at the most basic level we all–Americans, Canadians, liberals, conservatives–want the same core things:

1) Security for our persons, our family, and our property; and
2) The opportunity to pursue prosperity, happiness, religious faith, etc. with dignity and free from persecution (i.e. a good quality of life defined by what we value most).

It is the furtherance of these core values that I use as the basis for my political opinions.

Second, there’s something very ugly, divisive, and distracting about saying that Obama is a “Muslim terrorist.”  I find statements like that, whether the source is from the left or right, and whether the target is Obama, Clinton, Bush or McCain, extremely offensive.  Obama is an ambitious but honourable man who has devoted his life to date to public service and education–working with poor families in Harlem and the S. side of Chicago, fighting discrimination in the workplace and at the polling booth as a lawyer at a prestigious Chicago firm, and teaching constitutional law at the U of Chicago Law School (reference: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2007/12/29/us/politics/20071229_OBAMA_TIMELINE.html).  Would you honestly put that on a level with people who kill innocent civilians indiscriminately for abstract political goals?

It’s not uncommon to hear people call G.W. Bush the same thing, and it’s just as wrongheaded, and just as poisonous.  What does it add to the discussion?  It’s the same dirty politics that Bush’s campaign used to beat McCain in the 2000 Republican presidential primary, when they stoked a rumor that McCain had an illegitimate black daughter (actually the girl in question was adopted by Cindy and McCain from poverty stricken Bangladesh, ref)

And regarding whether Obama is a Muslim, to say he is is just plain wrong.  His father who abandoned him and his mother at 2 was a Muslim, but Obama was raised in his mother’s and grandmother’s Christian faith (ref ).

But what about Reverend Wright and his angry quotable quotes?  On the topic of Reverend Wright, I’ve pasted below the complete transcript of the sermon he gave in 1990 that Obama says inspired him and served as the basis of his seeking a long term relationship with Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

Reading it, keep in mind that Jeremiah Wright has been a preacher for 25 years.  The media cherry picked the five most incendiary sound-bites from those 25 years and played them repeatedly without context (keep in mind also, that there’s no record of Obama being at any of the services in which those comments were delivered).  Aside from being incendiary and false, what his statements genuinely were, was an expression of a real feeling of injustice and outrage at the way black people have been treated by their government.  From the perspective of churchgoers from ghetto communities that have seen nothing but social, medical, and educational support program cuts for the past eight years while the wealthiest of the white majority has been showered with income, estate, and corporate tax cuts, is it such a stretch to think that the government has malevolent intentions?  The comments were wrong, but they were a genuine reaction to a legitimate sense of injustice.  Human beings are subject to passionate emotions, and also subject to making errors in judgment while in their grips.

Another point about Obama’s participation in J. Wright’s church.  Beyond being inspired by several of Mr. Wright’s sermons, as a community worker it made sense to join what was one of the most powerful and benevolent congregations in the “largest ghetto in America” in the South Side of Chicago (Reference: Trinity United Church of Christ’s ministries: http://www.tucc.org/ministries.htm).  By participating in the church he was able to participate in the community that he was seeking to help.

Anyway, pasted here is the sermon mentioned, which inspired Obama to join Rev. Wright’s congregation (following that, a discussion of the issues and why I’m pretty sure the Bush/McCain Republicans, perhaps through best intentions, are paving the road to hell):

Editor’s note: In light of current political controversy, questions have been raised about the following sermon by Jeremiah Wright. Preaching Today published this sermon in 1990.

Several years ago while I was in Richmond, the Lord allowed me to be in that city during the week of the annual convocation at Virginia Union University School of Theology. There I heard the preaching and teaching of Reverend Frederick G. Sampson of Detroit, Michigan. In one of his lectures, Dr. Sampson spoke of a painting I remembered studying in humanities courses back in the late ’50s. In Dr. Sampson’s powerful description of the picture, he spoke of it being a study in contradictions, because the title and the details on the canvas seem to be in direct opposition.

The painting’s title is “Hope.” It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music?

As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. Famine ravages millions of inhabitants in one hemisphere, while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere. This world is a ticking time bomb, with apartheid in one hemisphere and apathy in the other. Scientists tell us there are enough nuclear warheads to wipe out all forms of life except cockroaches. That is the world on which the woman sits in Watt’s painting.

Our world cares more about bombs for the enemy than about bread for the hungry. This world is still more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character—a world more finicky about what’s on the outside of your head than about the quality of your education or what’s inside your head. That is the world on which this woman sits.

You and I think of being on top of the world as being in heaven. When you look at the woman in Watt’s painting, you discover this woman is in hell. She is wearing rags. Her tattered clothes look as if the woman herself has come through Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Her head is bandaged, and blood seeps through the bandages. Scars and cuts are visible on her face, her arms, and her legs.
I. Illusion of Power vs. Reality of Pain

A closer look reveals all the harp strings but one are broken or ripped out. Even the instrument has been damaged by what she has been through, and she is the classic example of quiet despair. Yet the artist dares to entitle the painting Hope. The illusion of power—sitting on top of the world—gives way to the reality of pain.

And isn’t it that way with many of us? We give the illusion of being in an enviable position on top of the world. Look closer, and our lives reveal the reality of pain too deep for the tongue to tell. For the woman in the painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually an existence in a quiet hell.

I’ve been a pastor for seventeen years. I’ve seen too many of these cases not to know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen married couples where the husband has a girlfriend in addition to his wife. It’s something nobody talks about. The wife smiles and pretends not to hear the whispers and the gossip. She has the legal papers but knows he would rather try to buy Fort Knox than divorce her. That’s a living hell.

I’ve seen married couples where the wife had discovered that somebody else cares for her as a person and not just as cook, maid jitney service, and call girl all wrapped into one. But there’s the scandal: What would folks say? What about the children? That’s a living hell.

I’ve seen divorcees whose dreams have been blown to bits, families broken up beyond repair, and lives somehow slipping through their fingers. They’ve lost control. That’s a living hell.

I’ve seen college students who give the illusion of being on top of the world—designer clothes, all the sex that they want, all the cocaine or marijuana or drugs, all the trappings of having it all together on the outside—but empty and shallow and hurting and lonely and afraid on the inside. Many times what looks good on the outside—the illusion of being in power, of sitting on top of the world—with a closer look is actually existence in a quiet hell.

That is exactly where Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1 :1-18. Hannah is top dog in this three-way relationship between herself, Elkanah, and Peninnah. Her husband loves Hannah more than he loves his other wife and their children. Elkanah tells Hannah he loves her. A lot of husbands don’t do that. He shows Hannah that he loves her, and many husbands never get around to doing that. In fact, it is his attention and devotion to Hannah that causes Peninnah to be so angry and to stay on Hannah’s case constantly. Jealous! Jealousy will get hold of you, and you can’t let it go because it won’t let you go. Peninnah stayed on Hannah, like we say, “as white on rice.” She constantly picked at Hannah, making her cry, taking her appetite away.

At first glance Hannah’s position seems enviable. She had all the rights and none of the responsibilities—no diapers to change, no beds to sit beside at night, no noses to wipe, nothing else to wipe either, no babies draining you of your milk and demanding feeding. Hannah was top dog. No baby portions to fix at meal times. Her man loved her; everybody knew he loved her. He loved her more than anything or anybody. That’s why Peninnah hated her so much.

Now, except for the second-wife bit, which was legal back then, Hannah was sitting on top of the world, until you look closer. When you look closer, what looked like being in heaven was actually existing in a quiet hell.

Hannah had the pain of a bitter woman to contend with, for verse 7 says that nonstop, Peninnah stayed with her. Hannah suffered the pain of living with a bitter woman. And she suffered another pain—the pain of a barren womb. You will remember the story of the widow in 2 Kings 4 who had no child. The story of a woman with no children was a story of deep pathos and despair in biblical days.

Do you remember the story of Sarah and what she did in Genesis 16 because of her barren womb—before the three heavenly visitors stopped by their tent? Do you remember the story of Elizabeth and her husband in Luke I? Back in Bible days, the story of a woman with a barren womb was a story of deep pathos. And Hannah was afflicted with the pain of a bitter woman on the one hand and the pain of a barren womb on the other.

Hannah’s world was flawed, flaky. Her garments of respectability were tattered and torn, and her heart was bruised and bleeding from the constant attacks of a jealous woman. The scars and scratches on her psyche are almost visible as you look at this passage, where she cries, refusing to eat anything. Just like the woman in Watt’s painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually existence in a quiet hell.

Now I want to share briefly with you about Hannah—the lady and the Lord. While I do so, I want you to be thinking about where you live and your own particular pain predicament. Think about it for a moment.

Dr. Sampson said he wanted to quarrel with the artist for having the gall to name that painting Hope when all he could see in the picture was hell—a quiet desperation. But then Dr. Sampson said he noticed that he had been looking only at the horizontal dimensions and relationships and how this woman was hooked up with that world on which she sat. He had failed to take into account her vertical relationships. He had not looked above her head. And when he looked over her head, he found some small notes of music moving joyfully and playfully toward heaven.
II. The Audacity to Hope

Then, Dr. Sampson began to understand why the artist titled the painting “Hope.” In spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate and decimated by distrust, in spite of being on a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy feed the fires of racism and hatred, in spite of being on a world where nuclear nightmare draws closer with each second, in spite of being on a ticking time bomb, with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God. The vertical dimension balanced out what was going on in the horizontal dimension.

And that is what the audacity to hope will do for you. The apostle Paul said the same thing. “You have troubles? Glory in your trouble. We glory in tribulation.” That’s the horizontal dimension. We glory in tribulation because, he says, “Tribulation works patience. And patience works experience. And experience works hope. (That’s the vertical dimension.) And hope makes us not ashamed.” The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension. That is the real story here in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. Not the condition of Hannah’s body, but the condition of Hannah’s soul—her vertical dimension. She had the audacity to keep on hoping and praying when there was no visible sign on the horizontal level that what she was praying for, hoping for, and waiting for would ever be answered in the affirmative.

What Hannah wanted most out of life had been denied to her. Think about that. Yet in spite of that, she kept on hoping. The gloating of Peninnah did not make her bitter. She kept on hoping. When the family made its pilgrimage to the sanctuary at Shiloh, she renewed her petition there, pouring out her heart to God. She may have been barren, but that’s a horizontal dimension. She was fertile in her spirit, her vertical dimension. She prayed and she prayed and she prayed and she kept on praying year after year. With no answer, she kept on praying. She prayed so fervently in this passage that Eli thought she had to be drunk. There was no visible sign on the horizontal level to indicate to Hannah that her praying would ever be answered. Yet, she kept on praying.

And Paul said something about that, too. No visible sign? He says, “Hope is what saves us, for we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man sees, why does he have hope for it? But if we hope for that which we see not (no visible sign), then do we with patience wait for it.”

That’s almost an echo of what the prophet Isaiah said: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension.

There may not be any visible sign of a change in your individual situation, whatever your private hell is. But that’s just the horizontal level. Keep the vertical level intact, like Hannah. You may, like the African slaves, be able to sing, “Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere.”

Keep the vertical dimension intact like Hannah. Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that home of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that church of yours. Whatever it is you’ve been praying for, keep on praying, and you may find, like my grandmother sings, “There’s a bright side somewhere; there is a bright side somewhere. Don’t you rest until you find it, for there is a bright side somewhere.”
III. Persistence of Hope

The real lesson Hannah gives us from this chapter—the most important word God would have us hear—is how to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident. It’s easy to hope when there are evidences all around of how good God is. But to have the audacity to hope when that love is not evident—you don’t know where that somewhere is that my grandmother sang about, or if there will ever be that brighter day—that is a true test of a Hannah-type faith. To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope—make music and praise God on and with whatever it is you’ve got left, even though you can’t see what God is going to do—that’s the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt’s painting.

There’s a true-life illustration that demonstrates the principles portrayed so powerfully in this pericope. And I close with it. My mom and my dad used to sing a song that I’ve not been able to find in any of the published hymnals. It’s an old song out of the black religious tradition called “Thank you, Jesus.” It’s a very simple song. Some of you have heard it. It’s simply goes, “Thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Lord.” To me they always sang that song at the strangest times—when the money got low, or when the food was running out. When I was getting in trouble, they would start singing that song. And I never understood it, because as a child it seemed to me they were thanking God that we didn’t have any money, or thanking God that we had no food, or thanking God that I was making a fool out of myself as a kid.
Conclusion: Hope is What Saves Us

But I was only looking at the horizontal level. I did not understand nor could I see back then the vertical hookup that my mother and my father had. I did not know then that they were thanking him in advance for all they dared to hope he would do one day to their son, in their son, and through their son. That’s why they prayed. That’s why they hoped. That’s why they kept on praying with no visible sign on the horizon. And I thank God I had praying parents, because now some thirty-five years later, when I look at what God has done in my life, I understand clearly why Hannah had the audacity to hope. Why my parents had the audacity to hope.

And that’s why I say to you, hope is what saves us. Keep on hoping; keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayer.

Jeremiah Wright is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Before turning to the issues, I wanted to respond to what you were saying about cable and network news.  To be honest I find all of them largely useless (though Larry King’s obsession with UFOs tickles me).  They’re sensational, and incredibly superficial, blabbering for hours supposedly “analyzing” but providing little or no actual content.  I find Fox to be the worst of all in this respect (though CNN’s constant self-promotion is nearly as irritating).  Either you’ve got Bill O’Reilly yelling indignantly over guests about nothing in particular, or you’ve got Hannity arguing loudly over the weak willed Colmes.  And every three minutes they start over again just in case a new viewer has tuned in and needs to be caught up.

As to the question of balance though, from FoxNews’ British bureau chief:

“Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly.”

For serious news without the hours of white noise you really need to go to print media, and thanks to the internet, pretty much every respectable publication is at your fingertips.

Republican politics play to the sound-bite that’s digestible by the superficial (with an emphasis on the ‘super’) cable networks by offering super simple solutions to complex problems.  Example: Energy crisis?  Offshore drilling!  Gas tax holiday!  Give $300 million to someone who invents a super efficient car battery! Blame the speculators!

Looking more closely though:

* Gas tax holiday:  Price, supply, and demand are all dependent on one another.   The price is what consumers are willing to pay for a particular product.  Reducing the gas tax will temporarily reduce the price, which will increase the demand until the price is back at the original threshold where consumers will tolerate it rising no higher, and then we’ll be in the same situation.  At the same time, what’s happened is a massive, indirect tax reduction for the oil companies (the most profitable corporations in the world, ref: 6 out of the top 10 on the fortune 500 list) taking money out of the transportation infrastructure budget and cranking up the deficit.  This is money that could be used to fund research and innovation into sustainable energy solutions.

When Hillary was arguing for this in concert with McCain, she was challenged to name one economist who agreed with her.  Her response: “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists.”  Really? Not even one?  When your car breaks down you go to the mechanic.  Many are crooks, but not all of them are, and either way you’re better off than if you tried to fix your engine yourself.  And when all of the most respected mechanics in the world are yelling at you that you’re going to do more harm than good, maybe you should step back for a second and listen.   You need a experts to deal with anything 1/100th as complicated as the energy economy.

Another possible economic solution would be to massively increase supply, hence…

* Offshore drilling.  But, the Federal Energy Information Administrations’ best  and most optimistic research says that oil drilling promises no impact to gas prices within 10 years, and even then, a substantial decrease is unlikely, more likely it will be in the order of “a couple of pennies per gallon at the pump” (ref).  Unfortunately, price is set by the global market, and the global supply would be increased by only a couple of percentage points at best.  A couple percentage points’ increase in demand, a couple percentage points’ decrease in cost… in 10 years.  Meanwhile, we increase climate volatility through all of the associated emissions.  Not an attractive solution, especially to people of my generation who’re going to have to live with the consequences.


* $300 million door prize to the person who invents a new, super-efficient energy technology.  This is a step in the right direction but he’s got it backwards.  Anyone who invents a new, super-efficient technology is going to be making hundreds of billions on the back end.  McCain’s prize is going to be a drop in the bucket at that point.  What innovation needs is starting capital to help innovators hedge against the risk that goes along with expensive research.  The prize is already in place… if you want to speed things up you need federal research grants, tax cuts to energy solutions research firms and subsidies to alternative energy endeavors (like the one McCain’s refusal to vote caused to fail on the floor of Congress).  A major technological breakthrough is really the only solution with substantial medium and long term promise.

Unfortunately, it’s decidedly not in the interest of the major oil companies who are spending top dollar on the best lobbyists in Washington.

The other solution, and this one pertains to Middle East policy specifically:  Break the OPEC cartel.  Cartels are illegal in all other industries because they destroy free markets.   OPEC, composed of the nasty (and in many cases terror enabling) regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Venezuela among others, has a long history of restricting supply (and driving up prices) for political ends.  They control a diminishing share of the world’s oil market, and through an aggressive energy policy undertaken in concert with Europe and Canada, they’re vulnerable enough now to be broken.  Unfortunately, they’ve bought the lobbyists that haven’t been snapped up by the oil companies (ref: http://www.slate.com/id/2080118/).  The same goes for Russia (who drove prices up by shutting down a pipeline to Ukraine when the parliament of that country made a decision that Putin didn’t like).  Unfortunately, both parties are two scared of what OPEC would do if they talked about this too loudly, so there’s been very little mention since the bipartisan NOPEC bill put forward by Sens. Arlen Spector (R.) and Herb Kohl (D.) stalled two years ago thanks to a Bush veto threat (ref)

And regarding the speculators:  Speculators create bubbles by hoarding a good. If they were responsible for the price increase there would be evidence of massive stockpiles of energy being taken off of the market (thus restricting supply and driving up price), but there isn’t (http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/453070).  Speculators provide an easy scapgoat, distracting from the real factors driving up demand:  the emergence of energy hungry economies in India and China, instability and unreliability of supply from the Middle East and Russia due to conflict and manipulation by OPEC and the Kremlin, and the effect of bad weather (climate change?) on the refineries in the Gulf of Mexico (ref: the 20% jump after Katrina and Rita).

Anyway.  I’m e-mail writing-ed out.  But in response again to why a Canadian would care so much about American politics:  a vast majority of our economy is dependent on that in the States, and global stability is dependent on the decisions of the American president.  Since I value both our economy and global stability I’m pretty interested.  Plus I’m moving to the US in three weeks.

I hope this is the beginning of a constructive debate in good faith.

Love, and it was great to see you.  I’ll call before the end of the week.



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