Indignation doesn’t work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country–the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples–we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.
But here we are, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago–occasionally Barack Obama’s pastor, and the man whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity–for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet, so dismissive, so unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go–these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites it seems whenever anyone, least of all an “angry black man” like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.
Wright said not that the attacks of September 11th were justified, but that they were, in effect, predictable. Deploying the imagery of chickens coming home to roost is not to give thanks for the return of the poultry or to endorse such feathered homecoming as a positive good; rather, it is merely to note two things: first, that what goes around, indeed, comes around–a notion with longstanding theological grounding–and secondly, that the U.S. has indeed engaged in more than enough violence against innocent people to make it just a tad bit hypocritical for us to then evince shock and outrage about an attack on ourselves, as if the latter were unprecedented.
The rejection and vilification of Wright’s rhetoric by white society seems so very similar to the rejection and vilification of critical theory post 9/11 by folks such as Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and David Simpson. That an analysis of a situation â€” a critical inquiry into causes and effects and ideology â€” is read as a justification of events. No, Wright is not arguing that America deserved to be attacked on September 11, 2001, and neither was, say Jean Baudrillard. Instead, they argue that it was predictable, something that could easily be foreseen because we have done it to others so many times before. And, as Wright so smartly notes, to express so much anger and grief at the attacks on the World Trade Center while not blinking an eye at Hiroshima â€” to condemn one attack and not another â€” is to mark quite explicitly what bodies matter as human: white, Western, “civilized.” Butler makes a similar point in Precarious Life, noting that we can tell who we value as human based on who we mourn. Simpson, too, notes this, and argues, as I recall, that now is the time when we need philosophy (or critical theory): in society that reacts quickly and moves increasingly faster, we need to slow down and call attention to the injustices of our society.
We need to be indignant, and white folks (myself included), middle class and upper class folks, men, straight folks, need to accept that indignation. But as Wise notes, people don’t want to be reminded of the horror they’re implicated in. This leads to labeling Wright as racist (against whites, of all people!) and anti-American. In the theory class I sat in last term, some students critiqued Precarious Life for the inordinate amount of space Butler devotes to defending herself and her theories against charges of Antisemitism, as she critiques Israel’s imperialism. It seems that we are in a time when not only do we need philosophy, but we need to defend it now more than ever.