Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod Case: What Have We Learned?

So, on Monday I saw Bill O'Reilly running that clip from Andrew Breitbart's web site, where Ms. Sherrod seems to be speaking with approval of her having discriminated against a white farmer because she thought he was looking down on her. Immediately he called for her resignations. My first thought was "Whoa, that's a little precipitous. Oh, well, maybe you're right. What she's saying does sound pretty awful." It turns out that this was the first time the clip was run on TV.

On Tuesday I learn that Sherrod has already been forced to resign. "Yikes! That was fast! What's going on here?" The CEO goes on TV denouncing Sherrod and applauding her ouster. She claimed she was told, on the instigation of the White House itslef, "Pull over to the side of the road and do it. You're going to be on Glenn Beck tonight!"

On Wednesday we all see the full tape of Sherrod's talk, in which the anecdote is part of a tale of redemption in which she sees the error of her former ways.

What is going on here? It appears that the administration fired Sherrod even before the story showed up on Fox -- which would mean they were relying on Breitbart as their source of information. Since when is this administration strongly influenced by a scurrilous right-wing web site?

I have three comments on all this.

1. Charges of racism hurt people. Further, they are always intended to hurt someone. Breitbart wanted to hurt the NAACP and its members. He also declares in the above video that he doesn't care if he has injured Shirley Sherrod (which is just as bad, if not worse). He did it because he he thought that last week's NAACP resolution denouncing the tea party as (in significant part) a racist phenomenon was intended to de-legitimize the movement and in effect silence its voice. I think he is surely right about this. Although they obviously had other motives as well, some of them honorable, they were pretty clearly using a strategy that I have elsewhere called "turning off the microphone" (see my comment on Rule 5 here). This whole thing was a duel between two groups of character-assassins. That explains why the administration reacted so swiftly. If you are in a sword fight, you don't weigh and sift evidence and try to be fair. You parry and thrust. They knew how deadly Breitbart's charge of racism was, because it is the same weapon they (or rather their close allies) are using here. It had to be parried, fast. If they didn't, the next blow to fall on them (when Glenn Beck weighs in, perhaps) would be a crippling one.

2. "Racism" is a weapon that can be used against anybody. Maybe part of the reason our culture supports and enables this sort of thing is that we think of it is something that is used by underdogs against upperdogs, who of course can take care of themselves. Obviously, it does not really work that way. Everyone has an interest in discourage the use of "racism" as a slur.

3. As I have pointed out before, there is no way of knowing in advance who such charges will hurt. The NAACP meant to harm the tea party and its members. It did not intend to set in motion a row of falling dominoes that would result in one of their own members losing her job. Yet that is what they did. Ironic, isn't it?

Robert Gibbs rightly called this "a teachable moment." One thing we should learn is that using the "racism" charge as a rhetorical weapon unleashes a chaos of malice that no one can control.

Maybe I should add,to avoid sounding naive, that I am merely using talk of "teaching" and "learning" here as a literary device. I don't expect anyone to literally learn anything from this. Since this incident, Sherrod, victim of a false accusation of racism, has made viciously false accusations of racism about Fox News.

To put the matter in its most general form: for all X, where X is something unpleasant, people do not learn that X is wrong by having it inflicted on themselves: more often than not, it merely gives them an overwhelming desire to inflict X on someone else. Such is the depth of human folly.

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