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Roads and Destinations

Washington's detour on race sets America's policy compass

On the day when Barack Obama’s pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright came to Washington to confront the press for its hypocrisy, a little-known member of the Bush Cabinet gave an astounding speech about the nuts-and-bolts of America’s future. The media were all over Wright. There is still a hole where the other spoke.

The Reverend Wright kicked a little DC butt on the always entertaining subject of race relations. C-SPAN will run and re-run the festivities at the National Press Club for all to see on basic cable. The ever-growing political commentary industry will have a jolly old time chewing on this for weeks to come.

Meanwhile, at the Brookings Institution, the Secretary of Transportation talked about how $300 billion a year in federal money will be spent—money that is largely directed by unspoken racial considerations. Nobody, save a few policy wonks and congressional staffers, heard her.

US Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters

Secretary Mary Peters wasn’t particularly entertaining. She did not speak in the time-honored context of what one American historian called “The American Jeremiad,” in reference to the dire warnings of the Old Testament prophet and not this particular Chicago reverend.

It wasn’t high style. But what Peters said was…scary.

She said that the federal government has no transportation policy, and that the no-policy policy will stay in place for the next 50 years—except for a little tinkering here and there with the way the feds address crowded highways in the LA, Atlanta, and New York-Washington corridors.

As for the rest of the $300 billion a year?

“We’re not going to make any decisions about land use,” she said. “That’s up to the states.”

What that means is that, year after year, the patterns of sprawling suburbs, abandoned cities, ever-more-numerous lanes of super-highways, and the rest of the planning debacles engineered by the highway engineers in state governments will go forth as they have since the federal highway program began.

Because there is no federal policy about where this federal money should go.

Meanwhile, your federal government is waging a war over control of the world’s oil supplies. New roads—on which imported oil is consumed—will continue to be built with federal tax dollars.

Hard words, harder reality

Meanwhile, the Reverend Wright spoke to a very enthusiastic group of friends, and a somewhat entertained collection of reporters, in the equally august National Press Club.

He spoke like Jeremiah. The first one.

Wright mixed it up straight away. He challenged the press corps for allowing some non-veteran to accuse him, a six-year veteran of the United States Marines, of being unpatriotic.

“My god-daughter’s unit just arrived in Iraq this week while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service,” he ever-so-gently said, “while sending 4,000 American boys and girls to die over a lie.”

Dying over a lie. Indeed. The truth, however, is not setting us free.

“How many years did [Vice President Dick] Cheney serve?” Wright asked.

Wright’s speech was about the manners and the dimensions and the specific modes of discourse of the black church in America.

Wright also spoke about his AIDs-conspiracy remarks. “Remember the Tuskegee Experiment,” he said, when asked about his assertion that the United States government is fully capable of having concocted the AIDs virus as a way of keeping minorities sick and oppressed.

The Tuskegee Experiment was an officially sanctioned “experiment” that gave black men venereal diseases that maimed, disfigured, and killed them—rather in the way that Nazis performed scientifically worthless, murderous, and ultimately criminal “experiments” on their captives.

And he warned that if his parishioner Barack Obama makes it to the White House, today’s Jeremiah is going to be in his face about fundamental policy issues.

Racial style and fundamental issues

Whoever wins, I hope Reverend Wright gets his time in the Oval Office.

One does not know how President Clinton or President Obama will deal with the instrumentalities of racial isolation—namely, with the roads that drained cities of non-minorities, and committed the United States to importing oil, as surely as if the roads were built for the very purposes of dividing us by race and making us dependencies of sheikdoms.

One expects, however, that President McCain will continue the policy framework of President Bush, and of his Transportation Secretary, who decided that non-policy is official federal policy. McCain has stuck with Bush in war policy and on tax policy, and so he will with transportation policy. The McCain subsidy for imported oil consumption—his “gas tax holiday” proposal—outdoes even Bush for a pro-oil-company policy.

Reverend Jeremiah’s style—his manners, his Jeremiad discourse—may yet shape the election. But style is but style, and content is content, and eventually wars—and elections—are waged about truth.

In February of 1860, there was a bitter fight on the floor of the United States Senate. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi responded “eloquently and persuasively,” according to one report, to an anti-slavery speech by William Seward of New York. Davis said that America should never break apart on the issue of whether the legal, then-Constitutional institution of slavery should be allowed to continue.

Davis “won” the debate. But within months the Civil War came. It had to come. Slavery had to end. A conflict so fundamental could not be papered over with gestures and speeches.

We will have to have a federal road policy—which means a federal oil policy, and a federal war policy. The debate over racial style will go on as long as Reverend Wright is news. But eventually the debate, and the election, will be about the fundamentals.

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