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

24 July 2010

Outrage! (The Shirley Sherrod Story)

I try not to notice, let alone respond to, the many bizarre distractions that our well-organized right-wing fringe produces daily. We all know their twin aims: throwing the Obama Administration off message and off stride, and getting common people to neglect their own economic interests. It’s unspeakably tragic that so many of us―including good reporters who should know better―chomp lustily on this obvious bait. At least those of us who see through this modern version of Caesar’s bread and circuses shouldn’t feed the trolls.

Yet there are times when the results of these intentional distractions are so outrageous that comment is justified. The Shirley Sherrod episode is one of them.

As the whole nation now knows, Shirley Sherrod was a low-level official in the federal Department of Agriculture. She happens to be African-American. She also happens to have lost her father, while very young, to a bit of racist terrorism in the South, of the kind that many Americans, in our lovely “post-racial” world, tend blissfully to forget. [See transcript or video, available 7/26].

But Sherrod got over her understandable bitterness from what racism had done to her and her family. For many years, her job at the Agriculture Department was administering federal aid to small farmers in need. At first, she begrudged a few white farmers the assistance they sought. But as she grew into her job, she saw how injustice and hardship are equal-opportunity misfortunes. She became color blind and began to assist whites and her own race with equal zeal.

Furthermore, she discovered an open secret behind our persistent poverty, backwardness and increasingly extreme division between rich and poor. She came to understand how deliberately fostered racial division prevents poor and unfortunate whites and blacks from helping each other, politically or otherwise, and thereby keeps both down. In short, she saw through the “divide and conquer” strategy that has made the South and other regions more like an hereditary aristocracy than the egalitarian democracy we suppose we have.

Sherrod laid all this out in a 43-minute speech at the NAACP. She pulled no punches. She described her earlier racial bitterness and partiality, her growth as a person and a government official, and her current view that racial division and partiality are holding back not just small farmers, but everyone who is not, by birth or wealth, in the ruling class. Her speech recounted an extraordinary epic of personal growth, redemption and evolving social and political insight.

A blogger (whose name should be forever damned) edited a video of the speech. He took the part where Sherrod confesssed her earlier partiality, out of context, and published it alone. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine picked up this forgery and cast it into the video hall of mirrors as evidence of the rampant “reverse racism” (black against white) that they constantly cite but never seem to pinpoint with precision or credibility.

An embattled Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, fired Sherrod immediately. It didn’t review the misleading blog post’s origin in any depth. It didn’t watch or read Sherrod’s whole speech, which the NAACP didn’t publish until later. It didn’t even bother to hear Sherrod’s side of the story. Sherrod got a cell-phone call while driving around Washington, instructing her to submit her resignation on her Blackberry, which she did while parked at the side of the road.

I won’t recount the subsequent history or the belated apologies, including the President’s. Whatever the perpetrators of this tragedy, including Vilsack, do to atone is too little, too late. What I do want to do is make three points that I have not seen elsewhere.

First, Sherrod has a transcendently beautiful character, tempered in the fire of injustice, personal loss, justifiable anger and redemption. She is precisely the sort of person we should want every government “bureaucrat” to be. Octogenarian white farmers whom she had helped arose from obscurity into the unwelcome glare of the national news cycle to help clear her name.

Allowing false, base and mindless partisan propaganda to remove this marvelous woman from public service says something very damning about our culture. It is not just a tragedy. It is an outrage.

Second, precious few opinion leaders in this country showed a hint of the outrage that was due. To his credit, reporter John Harwood, of CNBC and the New York Times did, speaking on Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS. (Journalists, of course, should feel special outrage, since doctoring speeches to advance a preconceived agenda is the antithesis of journalism.)

The President rightly apologized for his administration’s role in the firing, i.e., for his underlings shooting from the hip. In his low-key manner, he also pointed out how admirable a person Sherrod was and is. But in emphasizing his apology for the hasty and unjustified firing, the President brought the focus of discussion onto the ones who had failed to dodge the bullet and away from the ones who had fired the gun. Where was the outrage at the deliberate assassination of this beautiful character?

Several times I have praised the President’s low-key, understated, cerebral approach on this blog (1, 2, 3 and 4). In general, I prefer his brand of deliberate, thoughtful, and intelligent analysis. After all, it was undue haste that caused Sherrod’s firing.

But there are times when acts are so outrageous that they call for angry condemnation, even if your own mistakes compounded the damage. At those times, a brief flareup from a preternaturally cool person like the President could have an extraordinary impact. It could be a national “teachable moment.”

In his heyday as an anchorman, Walter Cronkite had a public personality much like the President’s. He was cool, professional, noncommittal and dry. In all the many years I watched him serve the news to an eager nation, I saw his anger flare only once.

It was during the tumultous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Democrats were violently split over the War in Vietnam, and their division spilled into demonstrations on the streets outside. Inside the Convention, Chicago Mayor Dick Daley (the present mayor’s father) had hired security men to maintain his version of “order” (pro-war and pro-Establishment) on the floor. They went as far as roughing up Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, then working as floor reporters. In obvious umbrage, Cronkite referred on screen to Daley’s hirelings as “a bunch of thugs.”

The fact that so professional and dispassionate a man as Cronkite broke his cool for that single short moment is something I recall 42 years later. I can still hear his tone of voice and see his face. And I still love him for that single “lapse.”

I know, I know. The President is not after his “base”―people like me who shed tears of frustration on seeing such racial injustice succeed. Nor is he after the perpetrators of injustice, whose minds and hearts have been hardened by years of political cynicism and manipulation, or by ingrained prejudice and unfocused anger. He’s after the middle-of-the-roaders, the “independents,” the undecided, the ones who always seem to be the first to emote, the last to think, and (in this age of polarization) the deciders of our national fate. Who am I to question his superb political judgment, when I’ve already been wrong and he right twice?

And yet, and yet. While undoubtedly important, the next election is not the only thing that matters. The continual, slow debasement of our culture also matters, maybe more. When we let deliberate, extreme character assassination like this go by without a twinge of anger or outrage, what have we become? Lawyers’ dreary monotones, using polysyllabic phrasing to analyze and parse, can never convey the sense of Biblical outrage that this case warrants.

A major reason (perhaps the principal reason) for our nation's decline is rotten culture. (See 1, 2, 3 and 4.) We lack the instinctive, collective sense of right and wrong, shame, guilt and contrition that binds a society together with common values.

Maybe that’s why Catholics and Jews dominate our Supreme Court. Whatever else you may say about these two religions, they both have a well-developed sense of right and wrong, with internalized shame and guilt to enforce it. No well-trained Catholic or Jew could perpetrate this sort of journalistic fraud without a sense of guilt or shame.

My final point is about Sherrod herself. As discussed below, her prospects for succeeding in a libel case are uncertain. But I’m sure many lawyers would take her illustrious case on a pro bono (gratis) basis.

It seems clear that the offending blogger deliberately doctored the video of her speech to distort its meaning. Fox News and others then adopted the doctoring or rebroadcast it without the slightest attention to accuracy, with self-evident preconceived political or commercial motivation. I personally would love to see the blogger bankrupted and Fox News hit hard by compensatory and punitive damages. This sort of knavery must have serious consequences, else our culture is lost.

But Sherrod may have a higher calling. Through her own suffering, growth and personal redemption, she has learned the truth about our modern bread and circuses. And she has learned the hard way. Maybe she should spend some time, while her name is still in the public mind, traveling the length and breadth of this nation and speaking to multiracial audiences about the oldest trick in the book: fooling common folk and stealing their birthright and their future by getting them to fight among themselves. I’d pay good money to see her tell her tale.

P.S. Van Jones’ Response to the Smearing of Sherrod

I wrote the foregoing post before reading Van Jones’ New York Times op-ed piece on the same subject. In it, Jones, who was cashiered in a different but equally disturbing “gotcha!,” pleads for “a wiser, more forgiving culture."

With all due respect to Jones, whom I otherwise admire, and who was referring to Sherrod’s long abandoned partiality, more forgiveness will not cure what ails us. We ought not to forgive certain things, including deliberate lies and distortions—at least not if we wish to regain the close contact with reality that once defined us a nation.

We need a penalty for lies and distortions that bites. Right now, we reward these defects, pushing ourselves ever closer to the definition of national insanity.

Consider the blogger who fraudulently doctored the Sherrod video (cursed be he, whose name I will not mention, lest I increase his unwarranted celebrity). He has risen from obscurity to instant notoriety and no doubt has become a hero of the lunatic right. Even Jones admits that this fraud’s distortion garnered millions of hits. Hits are bloggers’ currency, both psychologically and (if they “monetize” their blogs by advertising or otherwise) financially.

So our culture has rewarded this sleazebag with fame and fortune, its chief rewards today. His only punishment is the skepticism of the few remaining legitimate reporters and the disapprobation of that part of the public which he and his true-believing followers disregard. That’s not much of a deterrent to repeated bad behavior.

A big problem is our libel and defamation laws. They now permit anyone to defame a so-called “public figure” as long as that figure can’t prove publication of a falsehood with knowledge of or reckless disregard for the truth. That’s an awfully high standard. In Sherrod’s case, it’s unclear whether she’s a public figure. She was a public servant, but I never heard of her before this week. It’s also unclear whether the kind of quoting out of context that the blog propagandist committed, even if done with malice aforethought, is enough to meet the high legal standard.

This high bar for libel litigation arose in an era when well-trained professional journalists protected us from deliberate and even most negligent distortions of the truth. In fact, it arose in a case (New York Times v. Sullivan) against the paragon of American print news, the New York Times. The standard was designed to preserve First-Amendment values in an era where their keepers were highly professional news organizations and an elite corps of well-trained and generally ethical journalists.

Today we get our news, directly and indirectly, from thousands of bloggers, many of whom have no training in journalism, no integrity, no morals, not-so-hidden agendas, and (as in the Sherrod case) no incentive to be picky about the truth. Whether the law in its sleepy majesty ever changes to reflect this brave new world of the Internet will determine, in part, whether we maintain our collective contact with reality or nod off into the Internet’s many fictional alternative realities, including the most extreme.

Unfortunately, the law, with all its ponderousness, ambiguity and delay, seems to be our chief enforcer of public values these days. Other successful democratic societies had more forceful and quicker-acting means to curb socially destructive behavior, such as ostracism, exile, public ridicule, and public chastisement.

Some of these social curbs depended on psycho-social constructs like guilt, shame and contrition, which have nearly vanished in our base culture of celebrity and personal excess. Maybe we need to bring back the more physical curbs of an earlier age, such as the pillory, hurled eggs and rotten fruit, or tarring and feathering.

Until we do one of these things, our culture and our collective contact with reality will be at the mercy of sleazebags like the blogger who smeared Shirley Sherrod, apparently deliberately. We don't need more forgiveness of acts like that. We need more effective legal and social means of curbing socially destructive distortion of information that, in the Internet age and in a society built on the notion that all speech is good, could ultimately bring us down.

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