Reverend Wright spoke today at the National Press Club in Washington. It was, in many ways, an important event and will probably have some implications for Obama.
Overall, Wright struck me as man who is clearly very intelligent, well educated, and charismatic. He has a sharp and quick wit as evidenced by his handling of the occasionally hostile questions put to him. He is also clearly passionate about his faith and politics. He is also a person who sticks with his views, even in the face of pressure to do otherwise.
Since politicians and the media have been dissecting his speech and firing off replies, my view is that philosophers should join in as well.
The first point of interest is actually psychological: why did Wright chose to make such a speech? Those who ask this question typically do so in the context of Obama’s campaign. They are, most likely, asking why Wright would chose to bring the spotlight back and thus risk harming Obama.
One possibility is that he sincerely wished to respond to the comments in the media. Ethically, it seems quite acceptable for a person to respond in such a situation. After all, if I were in his situation, I would also want to respond to such negative coverage.
A second possibility is that it is a matter of ego. The desire for fame and attention is a powerful force and perhaps this is why he sought the spotlight once again. If doing so hurts Obama, well perhaps that is part of the price of increasing his national fame and his share of the glory. If this is one of his motivations, this is hardly commendable and would seem to be a sign of the sin of pride.
A third possibility is that he is actually taking his revenge against Obama. While Obama was polite in his handling of the Wright incident, he did distance himself from his former pastor and mentor. That sort of treatment no doubt stung Wright and hurt him. The desire to strike back at someone who has wronged is a natural desire. When someone has poked you in the eye, you want to poke that person back in the eye. If someone knocks out your tooth, you would no doubt wish to strike their cheek and break his tooth as well. Forgiveness is a hard thing and revenge can be a sweet dish indeed. Of course, many moral views enjoin us to forgive those who have trespassed against us and to not walk the road of revenge.
A fourth possibility is that, as Wright claimed, he is not just defending himself but the black churches and religious traditions. Black religion in America is, as a matter of fact, is not well known outside of the black community. What is believed about black religion in America is often based on misinformation and ignorance. As such, Wright would be right to try to enlighten people about the rich and powerful history of black religion in America as well as its current role in American society. Such enlightenment would be a good thing and hence Wright would be doing the right thing by undertaking this mission.
There are, of course, various other possibilities. Also, Wright is clearly a complex man and no doubt there were many factors that motivated him.
The second point of interest is the matter of whether the criticism of Wright is actually an attack on black churches.
One on hand, this obviously need not be the case. Most of the criticisms I have seen have not been directed at the black churches but at Wright in particular and what he specifically said. While Wright is an influential person, he does not embody the entirety of the black churches and hence an attack on him need not entail an attack on black churches. To use an analogy, if someone is critical of Geraldine Ferraro for her remarks, it does not follow that they are attacking all Democrats (or all women). An attack can be directed against a person without that attack being intended for a group s/he belongs to.
On the other hand, some of the comments could be taken as being about the style of certain churches and hence could be construed as a general attack. However, these attacks can be distinguished from those that were addressed to Wright himself. It would, obviously, be correct for Wright to address criticisms against the churches that have no real merit. However, as noted above, taking the view that the attacks on him are general attacks on the churches would be a mistake.
The third point is the matter of what effect this will have on Obama’s campaign. On one hand, Obama did an excellent job in his speech on race and this will help shield him from any shrapnel that might by flying from this situation. Further, Obama has shown a skilled hand at damage control and hence can probably step up to the podium once more. On the other hand, Wright stepping into the spotlight once again serves to bring up the matter once more. Since Obama believed he had to respond to the first incident, this shows that Obama regards the Wright situation as a problem. Hence, each time Wright is in the news, the problem is brought up again. Wright has also made statements that could be seen as critical of Obama. This, ironically, might help Obama by widening the gap between them. Then again, this might hurt him by creating a negative impression. Time will tell what effect it will have on Obama.
The fourth point is one that is often overlooked. Wright’s controversial claims are often greeted with criticism and anger, but rarely are they subject to critical analysis. He does say some harsh things. But, the way to respond to such claims in a critical manner is not to simply give vent to one’s emotions. The proper response is to assess their merit. If Wright is saying untrue things, then the easiest way to deal with him is to simply disprove his claims. If he is saying true things, then these truths must be addressed.