The Magazine

Special Envoy to the Taliban

How Jeremiah Wright can serve his country.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Whew. A message applicable to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, not to mention Bob Marley. On the other hand Wright draws some conclusions from the gospels that I wouldn't. But so did St. Paul (I Corinthians 7:1, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman").

There's a love of rhetorical skill in the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden doesn't just go on tape cassettes and say, "America sucks." He recites poetry, he finds things that "America sucks" rhymes with. On the flip side of the orthodoxy coin, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is hardly a Unitarian mumble of skepticism about the formal doctrines of established religion. The Koran itself is oratory, dictated by the prophet, who could not read or write. (One wonders a bit about Christ's literary, as opposed to rhetorical, learning. In Luke, when Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the Book of Isaiah, he gets the text wrong--and improves it.)

Preachers at black churches are the last people left in the English-speaking world who know the schemes and tropes of classical rhetoric: parallelism, antithesis, epistrophe, synec-doche, metonymy, periphrasis, litotes--the whole bag of tricks. A speaker of Arabic can't buy a fig in the market without using most of these at least once. And embodied in a love for rhetoric is an embrace of contradiction--which, in the form of oxymoron, is itself a rhetorical trope.

In 1984, before Obama was born, I was covering the civil war in Lebanon. I was in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area controlled by Hezbollah, and I got stopped at a checkpoint by teenage Islamic fundamentalists waving their guns around with the safeties off. I turned over my American passport, and one young man began yelling at me. He yelled at me for half an hour, sticking his gun in my face and shouting about how all the terrible things in the world were America's fault--poverty, war, injustice, Zionism. And then, when he was done yelling, he handed back my passport and said, "As soon as I get my Green Card I am going to dentist school in Dearborn, Michigan."

That brings me to another point in favor of letting Pastor Wright deal with the Taliban. They hate America. He hates America. Wright's "God Damn America" sermon, which Obama slept through in 2003, should give the pastor and the Taliban numerous talking points and a basis of mutual interest upon which to build the trust and understanding needed for progress and prosperity in Afghanistan.

Wright has progressed rather prosperously himself damning America. You begin to suspect that Wright's hatred of America is not unlike the hatred of America exhibited by the teen at the Hezbollah checkpoint. That kid's about 40 now, a prominent orthodontist in Bloomfield Hills, and I bet he voted for John McCain. "I stopped by to tell you tonight that governments change," is a less radio-talk-show-quoted passage from the "God Damn America" sermon. Imagine Wright's surprise when the change of government came from a member of his own congregation who would diss him worse than John McCain ever did.

Wright is amusing on the subject. In April 2008, after Obama had washed his hands of Trinity United Church of Christ, Wright told the National Press Club in Washington, "So when Jesus says, not only you brood of vipers, now he's playing the dozens because he's talking about their mamas. To say brood means your mother is an asp, A-S-P. Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?"

In my experience the Muslim world's love of language extends to that natural consequence of having a mouth on you, humor. I was in Kuwait during the run-up to the Iraq war. A shopping center got hit by an Iraqi missile. I went to see the damage and I found a perfume shop where every bottle had burst from the warhead concussion. An American store owner would have been on his cell phone screaming at his insurance agent. The Kuwaiti proprietor was seated comfortably in an armchair, sipping a cup of coffee. When I entered he smiled, gestured at the heaps of broken glass, and said, "Special price."