Friday, May 02, 2008


In her latest column, Peggy Noonan, surprisingly, tells us Jeremiah Wright doesn't make her angry. What's going on here?

Well, first of all, she wants to remind you that she's quite an expert on race relations in this country:

I have been watching America up close for many years -- if you count a bright childhood, for half a century. I have seen, heard and respected the pain of a people who were forced to come here when they did not want to and made to live in a way that no one would want to. Who could deny them their grief or anger? I have seen radicalism and extremism, too. I have seen Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, the Black National Anthem, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Louis Farrakhan.

Wait a minute -- examples of "radicalism and extremism" include the Black National Anthem? You mean this?

Egad! Listen to that uplift, soaring lyricism, and stalwartness in the face of scorn and rebuke! Hide the babies, Muffy!

But Noonan's mid-century "extremists" (including James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the song above in 1900) were just being silly -- they didn't understand that white Americans are so nice and reasonable that we simply stop being hateful (eventually) if you just ask us politely. In fact, with regard to blacks, it's already happened -- there's no racism anymore.

I came to see their radicalism as, putting the morality of policy based on rage aside, essentially unhelpful and impractical. It wouldn't work as an American movement, not long-term. Hatred plays itself out, has power in the short-term but is nonsustaining in the long. America, and this is one of its glories, has a conscience to which an appeal can be made. It may take a long time, it may take centuries, but in the end we try hard to do the right thing, and everyone knows it. Hatred is a form of energy that does not fuel this machine and cannot make it run.

And all the time I was watching the old days of rage, blacks in America were rising, joining the professions, becoming middle class, assuming authority, becoming professors and doctors. No one is surprised anymore to meet a powerful man or woman who devises systems by which others should live -- that would be a politician -- who is black.

In fact, some of Noonan's best friends are black.

Now here's where I have to cut Noonan a bit of a break, because she's half-right about something. She explains that she's not angry at Reverend Wright because she knows that Irish-Americans, to this day, like to listen to the music of militant Irish nationalism.

My 20-year-old friend has lived a good life in America and is well aware that he is not an abused farmer in the fields holding secret Mass in defiance of the prohibitions of the English ruling class. His life has not been like that. Yet he enjoys the bitterness. He likes going to Wolfe Tones concerts raising his fist, thinking "Up the Rebels." It is good to feel that old ethnic religious solidarity, and that in part is what he is in search of, solidarity. And it's not so bad to take a little free-floating anger, apply it to politics, and express it in applause.

He knows the dark days are over. He just enjoys remembering them even if he didn't experience them. His people did.

I know exactly what he feels, for I felt the same when I was his age. And so what? It's just a way of saying, "I'm still loyal to our bitterness." Which is another way of saying, "I'm still loyal." I have a nice life, I'm American, I live far away, an Englishman has never hurt me, and yet I am still Irish. I can prove it. I can summon the old anger.

I give her a bit of credit because she may be the only right-winger in recent years who's ever acknowledged that white people feel ethnic solidarity, too. This needs to be remembered every time Michelle Malkin has to reach for the smelling salts because someone within our national borders has been photographed holding a Mexican flag.

But Noonan seems to accept ethnic expressions of solidarity and outrage only when they're strictly for show -- you'd better not be genuinely angry, or even disgruntled, now.

The thing is to not let your affiliation with bitterness govern you, so that you leave the Wolfe Tones concert and punch an Englishman in the nose. In this connection it can be noted there is no apparent record of people leaving a Wright sermon and punching anyone in the nose. Maybe they're in search of solidarity too. Maybe they're showing loyalty too.

A middle ground -- people feeling dissatisfaction about the present as well as the past and still not punching anyone in the nose -- seems unimaginable to her. But that's what you really have in the pews at Trinity United. And you have people who see more possibility than Wright seems to -- such as Barack Obama. But he doesn't see racism as strictly a phenomenon of the past. There's a middle ground between militancy and perfect contentment, but even Peggy Noonan, who doesn't share her right-wing crowd's anger at Wright, can't seem to imagine black people in that middle ground. Either they have to be movin' on up (with some harmless nostalgia for the angry past) or they have to be plotting to kill (or at least scare the bejeesus out of) us all.

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