Jeremiah Wright: True and False

I stayed home Tuesday morning to watch the much-hyped Barack Obama speech on race and Jeremiah Wright. I was glad I did. I’ll forgive him his 35-minute, Bill Clinton-style delay before speaking because this speech was obviously one of the most important of his campaign. I had wondered how Obama would both speak to white people who are concerned about the incendiary comments of Obama’s mentor, Jeremiah Wright, and, at the same time, not upset black people, many of whom share some or all of Wright’s views. Obama did a good job, given the circumstances.

Why "given the circumstances?" Because there was a lot in Jeremiah Wright’s speeches that is true or closer to true than many people are willing to countenance. Unfortunately, had Obama tried to defend Wright’s true or partly true remarks, he would have been hammered by the media, especially by many of those same commentators who hammered him anyway. Many in the media would have treated Obama as badly as they treated Ron Paul when he raised some of the same issues. It’s true that Wright was more incendiary than Ron Paul. But Obama is so smooth that he would not have been more incendiary than Ron Paul and, in fact, would probably have done a better job than Paul of explaining some of Wright’s most radical thoughts. Clearly, Obama knew that his candidacy would have been dead had he tried to defend these thoughts. But I’m not running for office. So here goes. And while I’m at it, I’ll evaluate some of the things many critics said about Wright and give my own criticism of Obama.

I should preface this by pointing out an interesting definition that journalist Michael Kinsley gave years ago of a gaffe. A gaffe, he wrote, "is when a politician tells the truth." The idea is that the truth is something few people want to hear because it upsets them. My favorite gaffe was that of Senator Bob Dole in 1976, when he ran for Vice President of the United States. In a debate with candidate Walter Mondale, Dole stated, "I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans – enough to fill the city of Detroit”. Virtually everyone attacked Dole the next day, but not based on whether what he said was true or false. Did he get the U.S. body count wrong? The critics didn’t say, although, as it happens, he got it right. Were the four major U.S. wars of the 20th century up until 1976 – World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War – not Democratic wars? They didn’t say, but he got that right also. Democratic presidents made the decision to go to war in all four cases. Maybe, then, Dole had misestimated the population of Detroit? Again the critics didn’t say.

And that’s the point. In the critics’ minds, the truth didn’t matter. What mattered is that by talking about uncomfortable issues, Dole violated the code. And the code says that you’re either supposed to lie, as long as the lies are generally accepted, or talk about vague things like America’s greatness or the audacity of hope. But never, never talk about things that are true and that matter.

Because I think the truth does matter, I want to look at what Wright said. Here’s a quote from a sermon that Wright gave shortly after 9/11, a sermon that many people have commented on:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost."

Wright does make one crucial error in this statement, one that I have harped on again and again in my columns on this site: he uses the word "we." He’s wrong. I did none of these things I’m charged with. Did you?

But his use of a pronoun, however crucial that pronoun, was not what angered people. What seemed to upset them was that Wright said this at all. Again, though, if we want to evaluate Wright’s statements, we need to check their truth. Assuming that by "we," Wright meant "the U.S. government," let’s consider each statement in turn and use the three options I learned in graduate school when answering questions: True, False, or Uncertain.

"We bombed Hiroshima." True.

"We bombed Nagasaki." True.

"We nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon." True.

"We never batted an eye." Uncertain or True, depending on what is meant by "we." Some people batted an eye. But again, if we mean the U.S. government, Truman seemed pretty proud of what he had done. So, True.

"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians." True, unless you make it false by assumption – that is, by defining terrorism as something that can never be engaged in by states.

"and black South Africans." False, I believe. I’m not aware of any actions the U.S. government took to sponsor terrorism against black South Africans.

[Author’s note: a careful reader made me aware. I now think this statement is likely true. Here’s what the reader wrote:

The US Government (CIA) did in fact do something rather conspicuous. They turned Nelson Mandela over to the South African authorities. It can be seen from the first 6 lines on this webpage.

Also, when I visited Mr. Mandela’s house in February, I noticed an honorary award (among the hundreds he had) from a University in the US where they, on behalf of the United States, apologized for the CIA handing him over to the authorities. It was in that text described as an attempt from the US to keep their relations with South Africa at "status quo" as they said.]

"and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards." True. It is stuff done overseas. It was brought into our front yards, metaphorically speaking. And no one disputes that we, whether you mean the U.S. government or we individuals, were indignant.

"America’s chickens are coming home to roost." True. Note here that to judge his statement as true, you don’t have to accept the view of University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape that suicide terrorism, even for al-Qaeda, is mainly a response to foreign occupation. You just need to accept as fact that what the U.S. government has done in the world was, on 9/11, done in the U.S. by others.

So there you have it. I’ve broken down his statement into eight statements, six of which are true, one of which is true or uncertain, and one of which is false. In my class, that would get him a B+. (I’m a tough grader.)

I found this quote from Wright on conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s web site. Here’s what Limbaugh says immediately after playing the Wright excerpt:

"Okay. Now, let’s examine this within the context of modern-day politics. We’ve had people call and they don’t hear anything wrong with what the pastor is saying. Ladies and gentlemen, what is the thrust of the Obama foreign policy as stated to date? See, I think because of the way Senator Obama’s responding to this bunch of video and audio of his pastor that’s out there, gives us an indication what his foreign policy is. What we just heard from Jeremiah Wright is pretty close to what today’s Democrat Party believes. All through the past five years during the war in Iraq, what have we heard from various Democrats? That our reputation in the world’s gone south, our reputation’s horrible, this kind of stuff we’ve brought on ourself. We deserve this. We gotta go around and we gotta talk, we gotta get a new president, we gotta talk to these people around the world and let them know that we’re not the bad apples that they think we are. We’ve just got one rotten guy, that’s Bush – well, two, and Cheney."

Notice something interesting? Limbaugh does examine the quote "within the context of modern-day politics," but he doesn’t actually address whether it’s true. Moreover, Limbaugh misstates what Wright said. Limbaugh attributes to Wright the view that "this kind of stuff we’ve brought on ourself [sic]." Wright might believe that, and the "chickens coming to roost" remark could lead someone to think he believes that. But Wright might also think that the 9/11 attacks were a predictable response to U.S. foreign policy, without addressing the issue of whether the attacks were deserved.

Many of the conservative commentators have claimed that Wright’s speech was full of hate. Now, it’s possible that Wright hates people, but all I could see clearly from reading or listening to his speech is that it was full of anger. Anger does not equal hate. They can go together, but they don’t have to. Indeed, I’ve found that the more clearly I’ve expressed my anger, the less hate I’ve had.

I do find fault with Obama’s March 18 speech in three ways, though. First, he himself never clearly made the distinction between Wright’s anger and his alleged hatred.

Second, Obama also rejected what Wright had said about Israel, but he did it by mischaracterizing what Wright said. Wright said:

"We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic."

Again, is this true, false, or uncertain? It’s mainly true. The U.S. government (there’s that "we" again) has supported Zionism with substantial money from U.S. taxpayers and, while it has not totally ignored the Palestinians, it certainly does not treat them as well as it does Israel’s government. Is it true that anybody who speaks out against Zionism is branded as anti-Semitic? Probably not. But is almost everybody who speaks out against Zionism branded as anti-Semitic? Certainly.

But in his speech, Obama referred to Wright’s view as:

"…a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

That may be what Wright believes – Obama would know better than I – but that’s certainly not what Wright said in the passage I cited.

Third, Obama asks us to get past the race issue and look at the other issues in the campaign. He does so himself. But in doing so, he stirs up resentment against people who are just as innocent as the struggling black man and the struggling white man displaced by affirmative action. Obama states:

"Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed;"

Later, Obama says:

"…the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit."

This is the standard Democratic riff about how nasty corporations have caused a middle class squeeze. How exactly did they do that? By bringing the prices of products down with the massive increases in productivity that they achieved, so that the average American has an array of goods and services that John D. Rockefeller would have envied? (Think penicillin, the Internet, and cheap, quick airline travel.) And while there have been Enrons, is Obama seriously saying that these have been so widespread as to make the middle class worse off?

Finally, if "the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job," where does Obama get off objecting to a corporation that ships a job overseas? Obama overstates the issue: most of the jobs in manufacturing that have disappeared have done so because of increasing productivity. Even China’s manufacturing sector is losing jobs for the same reason. But what if Obama were right that a lot of jobs are being shipped overseas? Aren’t they then going, largely, to "someone who doesn’t look like you?" Does Obama have a double standard: one for Americans and one for everyone else? Does fairness stop at the border, Mr. Obama? Maybe you should consult a spiritual advisor who could educate you about the nastiness of putting "those people" in other countries lower on the scale. Maybe you should have been actually listening to Jeremiah Wright.

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

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Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Hendersonis a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and a professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The
Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey
and co-author,
with Charles L. Hooper, of Making
Great Decisions in Business and Life
(Chicago Park Press).
His latest book is The
Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
(Liberty Fund, 2008).

He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer
, CNN, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published
in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s,
National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today,
and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified
before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services
Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
Visit his Web site.