Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama & Wright: A Darker Shade Of Pale

Hugh Leonard Thompson Murphy, known to history as Lennie, was born in The Village in East Belfast in 1952, a fanatically loyalist Protestant area of a lovely and - insane though it sounds - a truly friendly city which could be such a wonderful place but for the vicious anti-Catholic sectarianism with which it has become synonymous. The Village was known for its particularly virulent hatred of all things Irish and hence, the thinking went, Catholic. Now little Lennie was stuck with that quintessential emblem of Paddydom, his very name. Murphy ( from the Gaelic Ó Murchú) is as Irish as "Danny Boy" and as Catholic as the Rosary.

In the lunatic environment in which he grew up there were widespread suspicions - and suspicions in Belfast, like unexploded bombs, tend to tick away if not swiftly disarmed - that his father William, a mild inoffensive fellow, was a 'Teague' (= Catholic, from the Irish name Tadhg =Thaddeus, Timothy). Hence Lennie, carrier of tainted blood, was called "Murphy the Mick" (Mick = Teague) by mates with comfortably Anglo-Scottish names like Foster, Stewart, Ponsonby, Briggs and the like.

Lennie, the emotional type, as will become clear, reacted by becoming Proddier than the Proddiest of the Prods (Prods aka Sammies = members of any branch of the Reformed Faith). What they call a Superprod. His obsessive hatred of Papists galvanized an essentially psychopathic nature and by the age of twenty he was slaughtering innocent Catholics at the head of a bunch of thuggish misfits who over the bloody years came to be known as the Shankill Butchers. That evocative soubriquet says it all. Lennie died in 1986 in a hail of IRA bullets, having been betrayed to the enemy by fellow Loyalist gangsters who had come to fear him as much as everyone else on the planet.

Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama come to mind though not because they are psychopathic killers, let me add. They are perfectly sane and not in the least criminal or violent. They are in fact pillars of their community. But they have something in common with the unlovely Lennie - a need to prove to themselves and the world that they are totally committed to their assigned identities. In an historically divided social environment such as Belfast fencing sitting was not a recognized way of achieving prestige in one's community or establishing the basis for a political career. Life in general, especially as regards politics and religion, was a zero sum game. You were expected to fight fiercely for your own crowd or else "the other shower of b*****ds" would carry off the prizes. Unimpeachable political-religious tribal credentials were necessary because absolute loyalty to and identification with the tribe was the be all and end all. It was the ultimate moral duty which transcended and therefore destroyed all morality.

Wright and subsequently Obama were faced with a similar strategic dilemma though for different reasons. Obama's difficulty is obvious. He wasn't black enough. He spoke and comported himself like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Born in Hawaii, living in Indonesia, raised in Kansas, with a Harvard Law Degree he was the epitome of an Ivy League thoroughbred yet he had ambitions to lead the herds of wild mustangs that roamed the South Side of Chicago.

All of this, not unnaturally, inspired many misgivings among the canny local Democratic potentates of color in the Windy City. To top everything off their suspicions of this tenderfoot interloper were grounded in irrefutable biological reality. He was half-white. Even his black half came unladen with the politically advantageous baggage of a slave past. His father was a member of the Luo*, a free people who share power the African Republic of Kenya and whose only involvement with slavery had been selling off their Maasai and Samburu enemies to Arab traders, a practice ended by the British. Obama possessed credentials identifying him with not one but two tribes, white American and black African, a unique selling point nationally but distinctly unhelpful in the more claustrophobic black districts where he chose to establish himself.

Jeremiah Wright, a generation before Obama, had a similar but more subtle problem that might not occur to whites who see all people of African descent as just black. Black people themselves of course are naturally more discerning. Where whites see an undifferentiated color they see a range of complexions (as indeed whites do with respect of members of their own race). This is quite normal and inconsequential except of course in the cauldron of race-obsessed America. As anyone can attest who has seen him in his pulpit against the congregation massed behind him Pastor Wright is extremely light-skinned even to the extent that one can easily discern him actually flushing with passion at the more emotionally charged moments of his sermons, a phenomenon not to be observed with the vast majority of black preachers however riled up they get.

This might seem trivial but in the American context it can have significant psychological effects. (This whole question is explored with great subtlety by Philip Roth in The Human Stain, a true American masterpiece.) The 1960s - the seed-time of so many of today's more florid neuroses - was a period when emerging black activists, understandably enough, over-compensated for the shame historically associated with their race by proclaiming an overweening pride in their blackness or rather Blackness. "Black", they declared, "is beautiful", as indeed in so many ways it is because a socially and morally coherent black community is one of the glories of American civilization.

This radical attitude was a necessary corrective to the marginalization by law and by racial stigmatization which blacks had endured for centuries. However this was the Sixties, so in about 3.2547 seconds everyone involved went OTT and healthy radicalism transmogrified into a rabid fanaticism at the core of which throbbed a racism which was the mirror-image of that which it sought to eradicate.

Within this heady scene young Jeremiah Wright, a middle-class graduate of a white Philadelphia high school, was coming into his own. It is not to be wondered at if he felt a psychological imperative to more than emphatically establish his ethnic authenticity in the face - no pun intended - of the paleness of his own complexion when all the cadres of the cause were sporting chic afros the size of the Super Dome and wearing as a badge of honor the very blackness of which he barely possessed enough to bring a scowl to Bull Connor's unpleasing countenance.

He thus became a Super Black, the ranting, rabble-rousing Moses of an Unchosen People for whom no anti-American (because ipso facto anti-white) delusions, however demonstrably paranoid, were off limits.

So, each riding his own distinct yet not very different demons, the pale black Preacher and the half-white black Politician came together and added their own chapter to the Great Adventure that is America.

And for that at least, my friends, we should be grateful.

*I originally identified Obama Sr. as Kikuyu. Many thanks to 'turkey' (see comments) for setting me right.


turkey said...

Obama Sr. was a Luo, not a Kikuyu.

marylinshannon1 said...

This was an incredible read. Thank you for writing it.
I just learned Saturday evening about how the blacks in Kenya kidnapped and sold people from other tribes to the slave traders; now, you explain how Obama's roots go back to those Kenya kidnappers.

Thank you again for sharing your knowledge in such a readable manner.

Mencius Moldbug said...


Welcome to the Sailersphere! BTW, you're a freakin' genius. Ex Hibernia semper aliquid novi, I guess...

Anonymous Person from Belfast said...

I've lived nearly my whole life in Belfast, including growing up in the parts of Belfast where Murphy and his colleagues would cruise around late at night looking for Catholics to kill and torture. I think you are stretching the analogy waaaaaay too far; Murphy wasn't from a remotely mixed background; he grew up in THE Protestant ghetto in Belfast, was an integral part of it and just happened to have a very Catholic name. Well, we've had 400 years of mixed marriages and that isn't unusual on either side of the divide. Generally, those from mixed backgrounds tend to be politically moderate, although there are all sorts of exceptions as people have this pesky habit of being, you know, people.

Comparing Obama and Wright to the biggest mass killer in Northern Ireland's history is just so offensive that it's hard to find a word for it. Would it be acceptable to compare, I don't know, McCain to Son of Sam for his frequent outbursts of temper? I don't think so.

If Obama and Wright come to mind not because they are psychopathic killers, then don't compare them with psychopathic killers. Find a better comparator or drop the analogy. Epithets do nothing to advance your own case.

Also, you need to do some basic fact checking - The Village is in South Belfast, and Murphy was based in the Shankill, in West Belfast. Taig is not spelled teague, and I don't think I've ever heard Sammy used as an ethnic insult for an Ulster Protestant in this City - hun and orangie are probably the most common, although snout, jaffa (referencing the centre of Israeli orange export) and the remarkable bluenose can be in vogue. All minor points, but rather go to prove that while coming from Cork might give the appearance of insight into Northern Ireland's problems to people in the US, it doesn't actually mean you have such insight. I don't think you have any idea just how offensive that comparator is. We have had murderers and hatemongers aplenty and a fair few sadistic psychos, but the Murphy and the Butchers inhabited a moral universe which was baser and more evil by an order of magnitude.

By the way Mary, I don't think most slaves in America came from Kenya, or anywhere particularly close to it... Mombasa was a key anchor of the Arab-run Indian Ocean slave trade, the slaves brought from the US came from the bit of Africa that's closest to the USA.

Howard said...

When I first got cable I watched Hardball almost every night. You were my favorite show, mainly because you went after every phony on the land, both Republicans and Democrats. You were smart, educated, and more important you had been around. suddenly went Left. Not only Left but biased and sometimes bigoted left and I stopped watching you. You have become a caricature of a newsman.

Now you write this. A first rate piece that is informative and actually educational. I learned something. Wish this was the you that was doing TV.

Anonymous said...

"a truly friendly city which could be such a wonderful place but for the vicious anti-Catholic sectarianism with which it has become synonymous"

Yeah - that and the vicious anti-Protestant sectarianism for which it has become synonymous.

Not at all one-sided, are you?

liamascorcaigh said...

"Yeah - that and the vicious anti-Protestant sectarianism for which it has become synonymous."

Dear Anonymous - Béal Feirste became synonymous with vicious anti-Catholic sectarianism, our friend Lenny Murphy was merely the tip of the dung heap as you well know. My statement is true. Your comment is of the 'yah-boo-sucks' variety. The Six Counties was sequestred by force from the rest of the country quite explicitly on the basis of a sectarian headcount - it was a Protestant statelet for as many Prods as they could squeeze in and still have a built-in majority which they used to crap on their Catholic neighbors for fifty years in as brazen and as triumphalist a way as possible. Eventually the 'Micks' refused to take it anymore and the rest is history.

You had your day, my friend, and a long day it was and you thoroughly disgraced yourselves from its sudden dawn to its lingering dusk. Now power is shared and you won't be throwing your wee Queen's pennies at the Catholics no more. Get over it.

As for Catholic sectarianism, not one city, town, village or holiday chalet in Ireland is "synonymous" with such a thing. Nor was there ever any organised discrimination against people of the Reformed Faith throughout the country - North, South, East or West.

In the past Catholics may have believed that Protestants were going to Hell as heretics but they didn't hate them individually and as a body because they were Protestants, though, God knows, as do you, that they had plenty of non-theological reasons for withholding their love.

As regards to my being "one-sided" I tell the truth as I see it. I have no interest in "on the one side...but then again on the other" twaddle. You have your view I have mine, if you don't find yours catered for sufficiently start your own blog. I'm not being sarcastic. That's what I did and here I am going 'mano a mano' with yourself. It makes for a more interesting way to pass the time than telly and booze and you'd have a broader canvas to have a go at me or anyone else that get's up that blue nose of yours. It also helps stave off that ulcer.

Many thanks for going to the trouble of commenting.

And Belfast also is really a great town with lovely people. Period. That's true too. And all of them have been through hell. From my heart I wish them - and all of us in Ireland - a happy, bright, prosperous future and look forward to the day when we can all be friends and the past is part of our shared history not our divided politics.