An Open Letter to Senator Obama
Filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd thinks Barack Obama got it backwards in his March 18th speech on race, when the presidential candidate urged us to take the extreme statements of Reverend Wright in “context.” Writes Chetwynd: “That is the teaching opportunity I hoped you would evoke: not explaining Wright’s outrage to me, but explaining his outrageousness to him.”
March 24, 2008 - 10:31 pm
Dear Senator Obama:
I have now read and reread your speech, understanding you take this to be a “teaching moment,” I have applied myself to its lessons. But some questions have arisen and I need a little more clarification.
You tell me Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s horrendous remarks will take on a different meaning if I will but contextualize them and understand he has seen terrible things in his time, a burden shared by all African-Americans. A fair proposition; from Kant to Auden and beyond we learn we define by comparison and only by internalizing can we grasp true meaning. So I have done precisely that: looked inside myself to understand how hatred might need to be contextualized.
I did not have to look far. I remembered how, as a boy, I sat at the Passover Seder with my sister’s Polish-born husband and the remnants of his family. The remnants of five families to be precise, for the 12 weary souls around that table were all that remained of what had once been 300. The others – their loved ones, their sons, their daughters, their hopes and dreams – were gone, their lives consumed by zyklon-b gas, their mortal remains wisps of smoke from a Büchenwald chimney. These people, who had seen and suffered so much, read of my ancestor’s deliverance from Egypt exactly as the Bible instructed: in the present tense, as if it happened to them. “For with a mighty hand the Lord thy God raised thee out of Egypt and brought you from slavery to freedom.” But as they spoke – or really whispered such was the fear and holiness of the moment – they were not conjuring up Egyptian slavery as a present experience but recalling the horrors they themselves had witnessed, murder on a scope once unimaginable and only made possible by perverted technology. Though their Yiddish was foreign to me, I picked up the odd word. When they spoke of the Concentration Camp guards, they called them the Ukrainians. When they remembered the betrayal of their neighbors, I could distinguish the word Pole. But above all, it was the Germans, the hated Germans. The Hun. The Devil’s Scourge. And I was filled with a righteous hatred. Had I, in that moment, the power to end the life of every German on earth, I might have well done so. That is a shameful thought. I am humiliated by the memory. But perhaps, in context, you can understand my homicidal rage and forgive me, and should I have chosen to preach that doctrine in a place of worship and stir an audience to its feet as it cheered my righteous fury, I trust you would offer me the fig leaf of “context.”
As the Seder ended, my brother-in-law, seeing my rage, put his arm around my shoulder and asked what troubled me. I stammered the best explanation I could. He smiled, “Don’t be a fool,” he said, “the Germans left so many of us dead and stole the joy from so many that remain. So now you want to give them the final victory by allowing your own life to be consumed and twisted and deformed by the same hatred? Leave it to them. That’s why we, at this table, forgive. Not forget, but forgive. You just heard how Moses told the Israelites not to celebrate the death of the Egyptians in the Reed Sea. Learn.”
But his words were empty to me.
A few years later, work on a particular film took me to Munich, and as I drove past the road signs to Dachau, past Hitler’s favorite spot, “The English Gardens,” to my suite at the Bayerischof Hotel (where The Fuehrer himself once stayed) I was physically ill. I couldn’t stand to hear the German tongue, nor bear to see Germans smile, and when I noticed a man in traditional Bavarian dress I again felt my homicidal anger rise. I survived that trip, came back to the safety of my blessed America, promising never to return to part of the world that was home to alien races who had destroyed so many people just like me.
Sometime after that, I was invited to participate on a panel on “Hollywood and Stereotypes” sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. It was against my instinct, but a good friend had asked I participate and so I did. It began with a clip from Hollywood movies picturing stereotypical Germans and ended with the famous moment in Casablanca where the French stand and sing “La Marseillaise”. What a crock, I thought, Senator! After all, the short story upon which the film was based was set in Marseilles where the French were happily arresting Jews for transport to their own concentration camp at Drancy. Besides France had yet to apologize for her diligent rounding up and deportation of Jews even after the successes of D-Day. And yet they considered themselves victims which meant never having to say they were sorry. My first co-panelist to speak was a young woman, a German filmmaker. She spoke of how growing up as a German she felt ashamed and humiliated whenever it was necessary to admit her lineage and how her life was about working to ease her shame. It was pure self-hatred. Senator, by some strange alchemy I heard myself explaining to her the mantle of guilt did not fall upon the shoulders of her generation. In fact, I found myself describing Germany’s honest attempt to come to terms with the horrors committed in its name. I spoke of all the things they had done from which the French, the Ukrainians, the Poles had run. How they taught in their schools the truth of their actions, how they policed their civil society and punished words or acts that had echoes of that time, how they worked tirelessly to make reparation to those survivors not stamped out by their hobnailed boots. They had sought atonement. That is not say anti-Semitism and anti-Semites did not persist in Germany. Of course they did, as they do everywhere. But they are no longer the soul or intent of the German nation, they are seen for the abhorrent aberration they truly are. Mind you, Senator, the “new” Germans did not ask for forgiveness; they knew this was not within the power of humankind and could only be given by the grace of God. They acted out their atonement from pure understanding of what had gone before.
And in that instant I realized my hatred was unjustified. The “context” was false. I was nursing the anger for my own psychic advantage and not because the current state of humanity or my own experience gave it justice. And I shed my anger. And when another film project took me to Germany, my journey was completely different. I’m not saying as I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kimpinski in Munich I couldn’t help but imagine it filled with SS Officers enjoying the fruits of their murdering conquest. Of course I did. But I also understood the young Germans around me could not be held to that account. When one of my colleagues, also Jewish, made a derogatory remark I engaged him, and with surprising ease found he agreed it was time to let go. I threw away the comfort of context, spoke the truth to him. And it freed me. Now, this is not true for all Jews, Senator; some still dwell on that bitterness, and you would say, understandable, given the “context.” Perhaps. But they are not our soul or intent. They are a past generation and we do not look to them for leadership. We teach redemption. We try to hold them to some form of account.
That is the teaching opportunity I hoped you would evoke: not explaining Wright’s outrage to me, but explaining his outrageousness to him. That’s how we’ll reach the postracial era: by no longer justifying ourselves with what was, instead speaking to what now exists. Not deny the past, but recognize that’s what it is: past.
You say you are devoted to Reverend Wright because he brought you to Christ. I can only imagine how powerful a relationship that forges. But, my imperfect understanding of the Christian Faith tells me you can do him an equally magnificent service: You can help bring him back to Christ. Show him redemption and salvation lie not in the satisfaction of doing little dances in a pulpit while you slander good and decent people. Teach him that great leadership and Christian love abjures the very filth – and I pick that word deliberately – that he spews on an apparently regular basis. After all, Senator, you know our government did not invent the HIV virus to kill African-Americans. You know, Senator, this is not the United States of KKK America. You know the truth of 9/11. At least you should. Both you and Michelle have benefited mightily from the new spirit that has come to America in the last two generations. I thought you were part of that. I thought you were post-racial.
But in your silence, in your justifications, in your facile instruction to contextualize, you seem just a more presentable version of those dreary self-promoters, Sharpton, Jackson, Bakewell and the rest. Surely this is not you. Please, Senator, be brave. Lead. From a position of honesty where context is our daily reality, not drawn from bitter memories, no matter how justified they once might have been. Deny Jeremiah Wright your comfort of “context”. Be Presidential. To all Americans.
Yours sincerely, and in prayer for the Grace of God,
PS – I would like to discuss your stereotyping of “typical” white people whose only valid dissatisfaction is apparently the occasional irritation at the misuse of affirmative action. But enough for now. Perhaps another time.
Lionel Chetwynd is an Oscar and Emmy Award nominated filmmaker living in Los Angeles.