Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 January 2008

Identity Politics and the Powell Parable

The last few days have seen a supernova of identity politics. When will it stop exploding?

First we had Hillary Clinton implicated in racism for making an edgy comment about the importance of political power as compared to human inspiration. Now we have a spate of newspaper articles suggesting that Latinos have it in for African-Americans. Today a Jewish columnist—not to be left out of the general orgy of ethnic indignity—laments a candidate’s failure to speak out against third hand anti-Semitism, on the part of a person lauded by the candidate’s pastor. (I provide no links because I don’t want to spread this muck.)

Until this week, we all had been acting more or less like adults. We all seemed seriously concerned about arresting our precipitous national decline. Now, suddenly, we are acting like kindergarten children forming cliques on the playground.

Every good manager knows instinctively what to do at times like this. You get both parties together in private and you say:
      “I don’t care who is right or wrong or who started it. You settle this, right here and right now, and make it disappear, or you’re both fired!”
Military leaders and kindergarten teachers do the same, with changes in message appropriate to the context.

“We, the people” are supposed to be the ultimate bosses of this country. But we can’t fire ourselves. Nor can we fire the media who are largely responsible for these tempests in teapots.

We can’t even effectively boycott the offenders, for they are all in it together. Even the Lehrer New Hour—usually the gold standard of TV news—is in the game. Last night it subjected us to the spectacle of two old lions of the civil rights movement refighting—with apparently real emotion—the puerile “he said - she said” spat between the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

Like it or not, we are all in this together. We all need to take a deep breath and recount the Powell Parable.

Early in his military career, Colin Powell was in charge of a platoon of soldiers engaged in parachute training. Days of exhausting exercises, plus the usual sleep deprivation, left everyone bleary and fuzzy minded, simulating the fog of war. It was the last jump at the end of a long, hard day.

Powell and his men huddled in the aircraft around a “fail safe” ring. A cord from each soldier’s parachute had to be attached to the ring so that his ‘chute would open automatically after the soldier jumped.

Like his men, Powell was mentally and physically exhausted. Yet he was conscious of his responsibility as leader. As the plane ascended for the jump, Powell methodically checked each soldier’s safety cord. He found one unattached to the ring. Holding it aloft so the soldier could see, Powell attached it securely.

The engines and the rush of air through the open door made too much noise for talk. But after the jump, the soldier thanked Powell profusely for a simple act of diligence that might have saved his life.

When Powell attached the safety cord to the ring, it didn’t matter whether his hand was black or white. What mattered was the mind behind the hand: its judgment, diligence and attention to detail. All brains are gray.

The story appeared in Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. It is a fine parable for our nation’s present condition.

We are about to cook our planet beyond repair. During the next eight years, terrorism and nuclear proliferation may intersect, creating a real threat to our very own cities, the like of which we have not seen since October 1962. Our most dangerous enemies are still alive and in hiding, growing stronger by the day and still plotting against us. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and the moral fiber that once made us the envy of the world is disintegrating in lies and “spin.”

And we are worried about minor, implicit, race and gender slights?

If this nonsense continues, the candidates who play these childish games—and the media who abet and magnify them for profit—will be complicit in the destruction of our Republic.

When a helping hand attaches our national parachute cord to that safety ring at last, no one should care what chromosomes it bears. It might be Hillary Clinton’s delicate female hand. It might be Barack Obama’s coffee-colored one. It might be John McCain’s grizzled white one. (The other alternatives are too awful to contemplate.)

Our job as citizens is to look beyond the hand’s appearance and evaluate the brains, judgment, wisdom and political skill behind it. The media’s job is to help us do that. Anything less is a form of soft treachery, to our ideals and to our survival as a nation.

And don’t say that this garbage is real, so we have to report it. One of our two greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a cripple who could not walk unassisted. Yet from the entire span of his four terms as president, only two photos of him in braces remain. Our news media once knew how to suppress, not magnify, irrelevant, treacherous stories that might threaten our national survival. They should learn that skill anew.


While the Powell parable still provides a useful guide for voting, subsequent events suggest that the Clintons and their supporters deliberately played the “race card” and are working to suppress minority voting in Nevada. So the “race card” story is not just media hype. See this post.

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