Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Are We Entitled to ALL Our 'Opinions'?

Pastor James Manning is a Harlem-based preacher (born and raised in North Carolina) who has become something of a youtube phenomonen this election season. Clips from his controversial sermons describing Barack Obama as “evil” and calling him “a long-legged Mack Daddy” who simply “pimps white women and black women” have gone viral this year, turning him into something of a media sensation. He even got a chance to do the national talk-show circuit, including an extended segment on Fox News that actually found right-winger Sean Hannity genuinely mortified by Manning’s demonizations of Obama (and his dismissals of Obama’s mother and father as “whoring trash”).

As someone who has conducted ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, I can say that Manning is quite recognizable to me as part of a vibrantly counter-cultural “Black Public Sphere” that often uses spiritual and religious narratives to make socio-political arguments about contemporary American life.

I’ve already written about some of his interlocutors on those New York City streets. They constitute an eclectic culture of street-corner debate that includes members of the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, various versions of Black Hebrewism (Manning’s church also worships on Saturdays), and more Gnostic/obscure forms of socio-spiritual collectivity such as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the Egyptian Church of Karast/Christ. A lot of those groups have curbside vending operations, tabletops where they sell books about their beliefs, CD's, DVD's, artwork, and various health-related items.

I only bring Manning up because I had listened to his homiletic rants during the months leading up to the election, but I only recently got a chance to hear him respond to Obama’s victory. Manning gave an interview on Howard Stern’s radio show this week where he defended his claim that Obama is profoundly “evil” and only pretending to be a Christian. He argued that Obama and Oprah represent the “two beasts” prophesied in the Bible, dismissing Oprah as a “Babylonian Whore.”

When challenged on these contentions, Manning maintained that he really believes what he’s saying in his heart of hearts (which I’m sure he does), and that all people are entitled to their beliefs -- except, evidently, Obama, Oprah, and Jeremiah Wright, the latter also being dismissed as little more than a liar and faux-Christian.

What an interview -- and on so many levels. I am trying to move beyond the desire to simply chalk up all of Manning’s rants to sour grapes and “playa hating.” This isn’t just about someone with a civil-rights era sensibility trying to beat back a young turk, at least one that the Civil Rights veterans didn’t have the power to vet themselves. Ask Newark Mayor Cory Booker about what that looks and feels like.

Ironically, Manning and Jeremiah Wright also share some of the very same religious mentors, including one of the fathers of black liberation theology, James Cone. This could be a “familiarity breeds contempt” issue. Indeed, the aforementioned spiritual groups on Harlem’s sidewalk spaces share some foundational presuppositions, but they usually seem most adamant about loudly highlighting the aspects of their cosmologies and world views that separate them from everyone else out there.

But what was most troubling about Manning’s post-election position was that he wanted to offer up his Obama “beliefs” as similar to any other opinions people might disagree on. The problem is that his evidence is so non-falsifiable. Manning is most concerned with the fact that African-Americans seem to think about Obama as a kind of messianic figure, and he likens Obama to Hitler. But the Harlem preacher seems to ignore the fact that Hitler’s ideology was explicit and clear. Listen to his Nazi speeches and you hear the hate that Hitler turned into social policy. Manning has to read between the lines to find Obama’s evil. He has to claim that the President-Elect is lying—that you can’t actually trust what he’s saying as an indication of what he really believes and represents.

But what do we do with political beliefs that are so unwaveringly anti-empirical. Manning’s evidence is Biblical, and he reads Obama as an instantiation of prophesy. Of course, he isn’t the first person to make that move. But just because you can characterize the defamation of someone else’s character as your “opinion” doesn’t mean that it is as reasonable as other positions we’d label personal opinions. Some things are actually “opinions” (and can be open to dispute). A non-falsifiable theory about another person’s intrinsic (even genetic and pre-ordained) evil and demonic nature is something else entirely, no? Doesn’t it stretch the definition of opinion beyond all usefulness.

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