Jeremiah Wright as critical theorist

From Dennis, Time Wise’s article arguing that Jeremiah Wright was right:

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 — a critical inquiry into causes and effects and ideology — 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 — to condemn one attack and not another — 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.

This entry was posted in English 575 Post 9/11 Theory (Winter 2008), Race. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jeremiah Wright as critical theorist

  1. Ira Socol says:

    If Americans had an even passing acquaintance with history, they might know what you are talking about. “What do we have to do with?” is the response I get. Think about it, the Republican presidential candidate cannot distinguish between Iraq and Iran. The US President cannot even pronounce the word Iraq. Could 1 in 1,000 Americans describe Woodrow Wilson’s role at Versailles re the 20th Century in the Middle East? Could even that many tell you anything about the US war on the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century?

    I’m not sure that half of Americans could even clearly describe American slavery.

    Critical Theories require a real depth of knowledge – or at least the willingness to dig for that knowledge. You need to not only know what has happened, but you need to know a real breadth of what has come before, in order to start to doubt existing explanations.

    So when “Wright said not that the attacks of September 11th were justified, but that they were, in effect, predictable. ” Half of congress, and 90% of Americans have no idea of what he is even talking about. “Why would there be a problem? we buy their oil.”

    Education in the United States, formal and informal, from kindergarten through university to general discourse, is of such low quality that critical theory is impossible. Almost no one has enough information to doubt.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I believe it was Slavoj Zizek who suggested that Americans are, on some level, fully aware of the horrors we’ve committed in the name of civilization and gorge ourselves on images of our own destruction to assuage that guilt.

    It certainly seems that, for all our ignorance of world affairs and the injustices of the past, we are fascinated with our own demise. Consider how many Hollywood blockbusters deal with the US coming under attack/the fall of the US: Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield, I am Legend.

    If the texts a culture produces reflect the values/fears/desires of that culture, then we are fully aware that we are vulnerable; though the threat in the previously mentioned films is predominately alien (with the exception of TDAT, which is a weather change, and Legend, which is a virus) the popularity of such a storyline suggests that we know we are not as secure as we pretend. This may not be something most of us acknowledge, true enough, but that doesn’t mean the awareness of the precariousness of our way of life isn’t there.

    In Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Zizek makes an excellent point when he states that the barrage of images of the WTC towers collapsing was as familiar to American audiences as the Titanic sinking. All empires have been obsessed with their fall; the US is not new in this. It may be true that people don’t want to be reminded of the blood on their collective hands, but I think there is something to Zizek’s argument.

    Perhaps most Americans aren’t familiar with our government’s meddling in Middle East affairs for the past 50 years, but there seems to be something in our cultural consciousness that craves our downfall or at least expects it–consider the anomaly of the fallout shelter behind the white picket fences of suburbia during the Cold War.

    That paranoia remains with us today and is, I believe, in part fueled by an awareness of the atrocities we have committed or allowed to happen: slavery, the Trail of Tears, segregation, lynchings, Japanese internment camps, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib…we are not blind to these horrors; we simply punish ourselves by fixating on our demise.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Ira and Stephanie, for your responses.

    Stephanie, I think the idea you attribute to Zizek is actually one Zizek cribbed from Jean Baudrillard in The Spirit of Terrorism.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for the tip, Michael.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *