The Wright Controversy Revealed America's Deeply Insecure Side

The word "squeeb" is a crude mix of squid and dweeb, and by inventing it I mean no disrespect to the squid, which in most respects is an excellent and admirable animal. In the ocean there's almost nothing you'd rather be than a squid, one of nature's most perfect predators -- fast, resilient, ruthless, more intelligent by leaps and bounds than your average fish, and able to squeeze into impossibly tiny cracks. In the ocean, there is no hiding from a squid, I tell you.

But on land, a squid is about as useless as it gets. It's a spineless, squishy little hunk of seafood that wouldn't stand a chance in a cage match with a baby squirrel. It has no heart, and its first instinct when trouble comes is to hide in a cloud of its own excretions. This is why a squiddy word like squeeb seems to me to be a good way to describe the American voter during a presidential election season.

That's especially true now, during a "controversy" like this latest flap over Barack Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright. This Wright business is a perfect example of the American electorate at its squeeby worst -- panicky, gutless, acting more on reflex than thought, incapable of retaining information for more than a few minutes at a time. It's also a great example of how the presidential election process has become more about enforcing the attitudes of a cultural orthodoxy than a system for choosing leaders.

Through scandal after idiotic scandal, the election process has become a painfully prolonged, deeply irritating exercise in policing conventional wisdom, through a variety of means keeping the public in a state of heightened, dumb animal panic, and ultimately turning the election itself into a Darwinian contest -- survival of the Squeebiest.

As by now the entire country has heard, Barack Obama was forced to run the media gauntlet this week after a series of videos shot across the internet, showing his pastor doing his best Minister Farrakhan impersonation. Pastor Wright's comments ranged from the idiotic (suggestions that AIDS in Africa was spread by the U.S. government) to the even more idiotic (urging black parishioners to sing "God Damn America" instead of "God Bless America") to the not-entirely-without-validity (suggestions that 9/11 in some sense represented a form of blowback for America's violent foreign policies, its role as the world's chief purveyor of weapons, and so on) to the absolutely-true-but-taboo (observations that the U.S. supported terrorism against Palestinians and senselessly bombed Cambodia and Iraq).

Anyone who's ever listened to Farrakhan or any other angry black nationalist is familiar with a lot of these ideas, which have been around forever and aren't exactly controversial in certain circles. The same white America that enjoys saccharine Ice Cube movies like Are We There Yet? and Barbershop probably would puke in its minivan if it listened closely to Farrakhan-inspired Cube tunes like "When Will They Shoot?," which talk about Uncle Sam being "Hitler without an oven," with white America guilty of "Burning up black skin," and bombing neighborhoods to "push the crack in."

A lot of this stuff is stupid as hell and totally paranoid -- the much-regarded theory that white scientists cooked up AIDS in order to keep Africa poor (as if it needed help) rivals only the 9/11 Truth movement for sheer stone-headed dumbness -- but a lot of it is just angry America-sucks ranting grounded in the unfortunately utterly factual record of American iniquity, not much different from the kind of thing you'd read coming from Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky.

But whether or not any of Wright's "controversial" statements have any validity at all is beside the point. The point is that a country that had any balls at all -- that was secure enough in its patriotic self-image to stare vicious criticism right in the face and collectively decide for itself, in a state of sober reflection, what part of it was bullshit and what wasn't -- such a country wouldn't do what it did in the case of the Wright flap, which is to panic instantly, collectively leap off the ground in terror like a bunch of silly bitches, and chase the criticism away in a torch-bearing mob with its eyes averted without even bothering to talk about what was actually said.

Yet naturally this is what was done in this case; the very first response of the entire national media apparatus was to denounce Wright as a kind of living disease and shriekingly demand that Obama do the same.

These controversial occasions, it should be said, are favorites of the national punditry. They offer an opportunity for slothlike, couchbound columnists everywhere to dress themselves up in white-hot outrage and to pen long accusatory columns in a tone suggesting that all contentment and happiness in their lives will henceforth be impossible until the offending agent is fully and completely shunned by society.

You get articles like the one written by Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe ("It's still a question of Wright and Wrong," March 19) in which Jacoby noted that if his rabbi had said such hateful things, his congregation would have risen as one and ridden him out of town on a rail; expressing disappointment that this had not happened at Obama's church full of appallingly approving black folk, Jacoby then expressed sorrow that Obama, who delivered a racial-reconciliation-themed speech this week echoing Martin Luther King (40 years after his death, mainstream America's current symbol of acceptable protest), would not reject a pastor who drew his inspiration not from King but seemingly from Malcolm X, James Cone and Louis Farrakhan (symbols of unacceptable protest).

This "clanging double standard," Jacoby wrote, "raises questions" (these milquetoast pundits never just say they think a guy sucks; they always say his behavior "raises questions") about Obama's character and judgment, and about his "fitness for the role of race-transcending healer." Now, me personally, as a white guy, I have to admire Jacoby -- I'm not sure I'd have the balls to tell black America that it is permitted to criticize whitey in the style of Martin Luther King but not in the style of Malcolm X. I mean, no one sent my grandfather to be injected with syphillis at Tuskegee, or strung up my great-uncle for smiling at a white girl, so no matter what I actually think here, I'm keeping my mouth shut. But not Jacoby, and not the bulk of the media apparatus. They have no problem telling anyone, at any time, where the boundary lines of acceptable opinion are, and what the penalties are for straying beyond them.

Of course, this is not the first time that this kind of thing took place in this campaign; it's actually happened over and over again, with Farrakhan himself (when an exasperated Obama was forced to "reject" and "denounce" Farrakhan's rhetoric, as if mere "rejection" were not enough), with Geraldine Ferraro (when Obama aides demanded that Hillary denounce the ex-Veep hopeful for suggesting Obama was lucky to be a black candidate), and with End-Times enthusiast/right-wing pastor John Hagee in San Antonio, from whom John McCain was forced to make distancing statements. These sorts of denunciations also continue involving figures not connected to the candidates -- the campaign by various women's groups to censure Chris Matthews for his supposed sexist remarks is a good example, as is the much-ballyhooed incident involving Don Imus, a landmark event in the history of herd-panic and rank hypocrisy.

Now, no one is suggesting that there shouldn't be some reaction to genuinely toxic ideas, or that all criticism of racist or unpatriotic comments is unfounded. But what we're getting with all of these scandals isn't a sober exchange of ideas but more of an ongoing attempt to instill in the public a sort of permanent fear of uncomfortable ideas, and to reduce public discourse to a kind of primitive biological mechanism, like the nervous system of a squid or a shellfish, one that recoils reflexively from any stimuli. And the campaign is where you really see this process at work full-time. It's something I noticed while spending so much of the last year (and, before, so much of the years 2003 and 2004) on the campaign trail talking to prospective voters, listening to their complaints and their fears and their (often fleeting) enthusiasms. During this time, I started to notice a pattern, comprised of several elements.

The first is a truly remarkable tendency of seemingly intelligent people to work themselves into genuine outrage over information they didn't even know about twenty minutes ago, until they heard it on television, or coming out of the mouths of a candidate.

A laid-off worker in Ohio will go to a Hillary Clinton speech, hear Hillary talk about the dangers of electing a president without "experience," and then five minutes after the speech he'll be shaking his fist at the ceiling at the very idea of someone without "experience" even trying to run for president. A teacher in New York will go to an Obama event looking curious and happy, then come out furious at the politics of "the past," rambling like it's been on his mind for years about how we need to "look to the future" instead of staying stuck "where we are." A Republican turns on the TV, hears some asshole like Michelle Malkin say the surge is working, then turns around and with his arm draped around his wife gives you a long spiel about how the surge is working and how those damned liberals don't want to admit it.

Crucially, however, those same people never tell you the same story for more than a few weeks. A few weeks later, their brains are a clean slate again, and the next story they tell you is the one they heard even more recently on TV. Now the outrage might be Barack Obama getting a free ride in the media (your squeeb-citizen here might cite the SNL skit about Barack getting offered a pillow by debate moderators), or John McCain not knowing al-Qaeda is Sunni and therefore not an ally of Iran, or Hillary misspending campaign money on luxury suites in Vegas. "That just shows she's not fit to manage money," he'll say, solemnly.

The net effect of all of this is to make the electorate exquisitely sensitive to constant prodding and poking by media stimuli, and what people don't notice is that that prodding and poking is tirelessly moving them in the same direction, toward a safe, inoffensive middle, away from anything that smells controversial. The endless onslaught of tiny scandals trains the electorate to be hyper-responsive to temporary, superficial outrages while simultaneously chipping away at their long-term memories, their inclination to look at the big picture, their ability to grasp subtleties of opinion and policy.

So instead of talking about the fact that Barack Obama once introduced a bill to give a tax break to a Japanese company whose lawyers donated fifty grand to his Senate campaign, we're freaking out for five minutes about the fact that Obama's pastor thinks America spread AIDS on purpose in Zambia.

And instead of talking about the fact that Hillary Clinton took $110,000 from a New York food company she later helped by introducing a bill to remove import duties on tomatoes, we're ranting and raving about Gerry Ferraro's paranoid ramblings about Obama's blackness. We can't keep our eyes on the ball and really think about the serious endemic problems of our system of government because we're too busy freaking out like a bunch of cartoon characters over silly, meaningless bullshit. And then forgetting about that same bullshit ten minutes later, so that we can freak out all over again about something else later on.

That's just the way we are, and maybe it's time to wonder why that is. In Russia they have a word, sovok, which described the craven, chickenshit mindset that over the course of decades became hard-wired into the increasingly silly brains of Soviet subjects. It's a hard word to define, but once you get it -- and all Russians get it -- it's like riding a bicycle, you've got it. Sovok is the word that described a society where for decades silence and a thoughtful demeanor might be construed as evidence of a dangerous dissidence lurking underneath; the sovok therefore protected himself from suspicion by babbling meaningless nonsense at all times, so that no one would accuse him of harboring smart ideas.

A sovok talked tough, and cheered Khruschev for banging a shoe at America, but at the same time a sovok would have sold his own children for a pair of American jeans. The sovok talked like a romantic and lavished women with compliments, but preferred long fishing trips and nights spent in the garage tinkering with his shitty car to actual sex. It's hard to explain, but over there, they know what the word means. More than anything, sovok described a society that spent seventy years in mortal terror of new ideas, and tended to drape itself in a paper-thin patriotism whenever it felt threatened, and worshipped mediocrities as a matter of course, elevating to positions of responsibility only those who showed an utter absence not only of objectionable qualities, but any qualities at all.

We're getting to be the same kind of people. We can't focus for more than ten seconds on anything at all and we're constantly exercised about stupid media-generated non-scandals, guilt-by-association raps, accidental dumb utterances of various campaign aides and other nonsense -- while at the same time we have no energy at all left to wonder about the mass burgling of the national budget for phony military contracts, the war, the billion dollars or so in campaign contributions to be spent this year that will be buying a small mountain of favors for the next four years. And we... shit, I don't even know what I'm saying anymore.

I'm just tired of this tone that's always out there when these scandals break, like we can't fucking stand the existence of this Wright fellow for even a minute longer, not a minute longer! -- when we all know that come Monday, or Tuesday at the latest, Jeremiah Wright will be forgotten and we'll be jumping en masse in a panic away from the next media-offered shadow to fall across our bow. What a bunch of turds we all are, seriously. God help us if we ever had to deal with a real problem.

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