This commentary by Peter McDermott was originally published in The Irish Echo on May 23.
This time four years ago, I got into a conversation with an officer of the armed forces about the presidential election. He was as mainstream as they come: middle-aged, church going and happily married with four children. He’d voted by mail in his state primary for Barack Obama, but he was the only officer he knew who was favorably disposed towards the Illinois senator. (This conversation took place overseas in an American-owned bar that was frequented by military personnel.)
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright saga had been in the news and when I asked him about that, he guffawed loudly. “Heck, our minister goes off like that twice a year,” he said, “regular as clockwork.” He said that some members of the congregation would give each other knowing looks or roll their eyes, while a few lapped it up. The officer, who was black, didn’t think it was any big deal. And it wasn’t really.
A scholarly book published in the 1990s, I Heard It on the Grapevine, looked at how and why so many rumors and conspiracies spread in African-African communities – like that the Ku Klux Klan own certain food chains or that Reebok was South African-owned or that the FBI and CIA facilitated the spread of drug use among poor people. Where possible, the author debunked these stories, but explained how they could take root in communities with a history of oppression and exclusion from the mainstream.
Religious leaders who serve traditionally marginalized people are often conduits for a whole range of views of the type found in I Heard It on the Grapevine. This is the context of Wright, and reasonable people with some knowledge of the world know this. There are, however, not so reasonable people in the media who pretend that the 100-year Jim Crow era that came after Emancipation just didn’t happen – and they’re the very same people who throw their hands up denying that the constant harping about Wright is in any way about race.
Thankfully the plan by Joe Ricketts’ Super PAC to link the president with the controversial reverend was apparently dead within hours of it being reported last week in the New York Times. The backdrop to this is the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that has given the very rich even easier access to the electoral process. So someone like Ricketts – another billionaire who believes the “country is going in the wrong direction,” i.e., he might have to pay something approaching his fair share of taxes – can inject millions of dollars into a campaign without the permission of any candidate.
We’ve yet to see a billionaire propose making the sometime lunatic outbursts by Rev. Pat Robertson, who has long been part of the GOP scene, the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. No surprise there. There are different types of vetting for different types of folks.
We saw an example of it in recent days. To his great credit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has outlawed the use of fingerprinting of food-stamp recipients in New York State. The Bloomberg administration defended its use, saying that it cracked down on fraud worth $55 million. In the same week, the mayor called the $2 billion loss at J.P. Morgan Chase a “hiccup,” praised the bank’s leaders and argued against tighter regulation.
You certainly don’t see the people who run J.P. Morgan Chase being routinely fingerprinted or for that matter those who sit on the Wall Street Journal editorial board. You don’t fingerprint people who have power and those who pay lobbyists. Thousands upon thousands of Americans die each year of gun violence, yet if you want to buy a gun you fill out a simple form. The most telling detail on that form is the box for your social security number – it says “Optional.”