There's one thing about the Jeremiah Wright controversy that keeps nagging at me: This crazy shibboleth promoted by Wright that the US government "lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color."

Of all the outrageous statements we've heard from Wright, this one is in a special category. Some of Wright's other outbursts are simply offensive name calling ("US of KKK-A," "God damn America"). Others may shock middle America but are common on the left, and at least arguable (US foreign policy invited the 9/11 attacks, rich racist whites run America, Hiroshima was a moral abomination).

But this AIDS thing is something different. First of all, it is not an opinion: It is a demonstrable falsehood. Not only that, it promotes a wildly conspiratorial wordview, one extremely corrosive to black America. It instills African-Americans with a belief that whites aren't just prejudiced, but trying to eliminate them. I can understand blacks' grievances about, say, the war on drugs. But how could any black kid who thinks the white establishment is propagating genocide want to succeed in (white) American society? How could he ever trust any white person he meets? And what are the consequences of that for both races?

Apart from fostering a terrible sense of victimhood, the AIDS conspiracy also suggests that black Americans can't even trust supposedly empirical scientific fact. Of course, if my people had suffered Tuskegee-like experiments, I would be pretty suspicious myself. But the legitimate existence of such suspicions makes it all the more deplorable to exploit them, in much the same way Obama's wonderful speech this week deplored the way conservatives have whipped up white racial resentments for political gain.

So, it's one thing for Obama to have done nothing to contest Wright's tirades on race and American foreign policy. You can argue that Wright was entitled to those beliefs. But he is not entitled to peddle a ridiculous lie to a captive and reverential audience. And if Obama knew Wright was doing so, shouldn't he have said something? At a minimum, wouldn't he have felt compelled to say something?

The point isn't to score a gotcha on Obama. It's to get a clearer sense of his political style. To have challenged Wright on this claim would have been an act of political leadership--not least because it wouldn't have been easy. Indeed, it would be fine evidence of Obama's credo of telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Of course, maybe Obama never heard Wright say this at all. I tend to doubt it. But if that's the case, it'd be nice to hear Obama flatly say so.

P.S. No, Wright is not a monster. Here he is leading his congregation in a mass onstage AIDS test to demonstrate its ease and importance. But a right doesn't undo a wrong, either.


--Michael Crowley

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