Shirley Interrupted

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EFerrari's picture

“{T]he job of the community is not to catch sinners and punish them but to find people out of balance with the community and to bring them back into balance.”

--- Thom Hartmann, Green Festival, Chicago 2008

Anyone who has seen the original video of Shirley Sherrod telling her story to her original audience can’t be surprised that Andrew Breitbart needed to interrupt that story. As Rachel Maddow remarked to Eugene Robinson the other night, the Tea Party and more specifically, the American right wing, has used tales of scary black people “coming for your stuff” for years to frighten white voters. What could be more subversive to this cynically divisive narrative than Shirley Sherrod telling her own true story of cross-racial empathy, self awareness, generosity and community? Of course Andrew Breitbart, as a Tea Party activist, had to go right after that one.

If you look at his record carefully, you’ll find Breitbart goes after black leaders that put community passionately above and beyond everything else. And with good reason. ACORN, Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod all share a vision of an America that prospers through strong communities, through embracing and mustering diversity. Clearly, these people had to be interrupted because their stories make the “scary black people” lie grossly obvious.

But this last flap, as repugnant as it was and is, is even bigger than race – if there’s anything bigger than race in America. And I didn’t understand it until I caught Anderson Cooper’s report on this story, “Truth Matters”. Cooper did a good job of showing Breitbart’s dishonesty and his utter unwillingness to take responsibility for any of the damage he’d done to Ms. Sherrod. Cooper made a serious effort to follow up with Ms. Sherrod. But even someone as well intentioned as Anderson Cooper seems to be wasn’t able to step outside of our national dysfunction long enough to drill down to the bedrock of this story – which is all about interrupting a community-building narrative that runs counter to the right wing owned media’s divisive agenda and to the Democrats’ enabling M.O.

Cooper’s report went up on the net in two parts. In the early moments of the first part, he takes ungrounded swipes at “the left”. Referring to Breitbart’s refusal to admit a wrong, Cooper said there are ideologues on the left every bit as narrow minded and just as recalcitrant about admitting wrongdoing -- as if anyone on the left has a serial history of fabricating evidence to destroy someone politically. That’s not true. There is no Andrew Breitbart of the left. Cooper said that the left has anchors who won’t cover stories that don’t fit their “slant”. Maddow and Olbermann not only covered this story but vigorously criticized the Obama administration in their commentary. So, that’s not true either. Cooper claimed the internet was even worse for “having no standards” and exploiting anonymity as if the entire intertubes functions as Andrew Breitbart does. Thankfully, that is certainly not true. Some of the very best reporting and whistle blowing is only on the net right now. Baby, bath water.

Ironically, Cooper’s critique of Breitbart used the very same “they both do it” argument that makes Andrew Breitbart possible.

Breitbart’s argument, one he has repeated over and over again in these incidents that he creates wholesale, is that black people (from our president on down the food chain) discriminate against white people just as much as white people discriminate against black people. In other words, “they both do it”. This argument puts into question every single healing program our country has put together to drag ourselves away from a history of racial discrimination, not to mention, it obfuscates the reality of white power and privilege. If “both sides do it”, we now have a controversy where before we had a community goal. Voila!

You’d expect that sleight of hand (or mouth) from a cynical hack like Breitbart. You might not expect, I certainly didn’t expect the same “everything is everything” argument from Anderson Cooper. Because someone who saw New Orleans drown and someone who sat at the Israeli-Gaza border during Operation Cast Lead and someone who spent time in post-earthquake Haiti would know better. He’d be more careful, just from his own experience, about who is telling stories and who has been silenced and who benefits from that silence.

Near end of his report (in the Part 2 posted to the net) Cooper asks Ms. Sherrod what she had learned from this fracas, and she responded in terms of “we”. Amazingly, this lady who had been run to ground for no good reason did not answer in terms of herself, not at all. She only answered as a member of a community, not in terms of a wronged individual: “I wish I could understand why they would want to divide us so much . . . why is it that they think we can’t all live and work together in this great country”. Cooper is asking Ms. Sherrod to respond from a split off, marginalized place and she answers from the full throat of a community, of a person grounded in community.

The smaller point here is that Anderson Cooper incorrectly accused the left of being a mirror of the right and that was not fair. It isn’t. There is no left wing hack mounting effort after effort to put false evidence out into the media to destroy their opponents’ political careers.

“Both sides” don’t do this. The left, the Democrats (who have a tenuous relationship to what used to be called “the left” in this country), do something else. They leave the field to the Breitbarts. They don’t take the risks leadership demands in the media or put another way, they bail on their communication with the American people to protect their own political goals. That is cowardly, convenient and harmful to the nation. The Democrats are every bit as responsible as Andrew Breitbart or as Fox for the dysfunction of our political discourse. They are as much complicit in the disgusting state of our media and our national conversation as the Fox caption editors who designate Republican values offenders as Democrats (D) in the Fox crawl every time a Republican gets caught in a bathroom stall with his pants down. But the left, the Democrats, do not do the same thing. They do something different (and complementary) to keep this dysfunction in place and they seem to have zero interest in correcting their own contribution. That’s how alcoholic families work, too. No matter how destructive the characters are, if the system achieves a balance which allows everyone to continue, everyone protects the system at all costs. John Bradshaw used to use a mobile to illustrate this for his seminars on addicted families. All the elements together created a crazy, stressful and completely artificial balance and don’t you even think about tugging on this string or moving that one because the whole enterprise will tangle and fall in a heap.

So while Anderson Cooper is unfair in saying the Democrats “do the same thing” as Andrew Breitbart, he is also unfairly letting Democrats (the nominal left) off the hook by not really describing the situation they create with and in response to the Republican rightwing strategy. In using the “they do it too” argument, Cooper is tacitly agreeing to hide from the nation their desertion of the discursive field. And so is our dysfunction maintained by even the good guys in the corporate media.

It may well be that Cooper thinks that some distributive property in blame can hasten the healing of our national divide. He is mistaken. That property is what allows the right to continue to smear good people and what allows the left to avoid leadership. Punishing both sides in an attempt to be “even handed” is not a remedy for an asymmetrical situation where the larger goal is to restore community.

It is just as important for Anderson Cooper to stop interrupting Shirley Sherrod’s story of empathy and community with his own narrative of false equivalence as it is for Andrew Breitbart to be stopped from his cynical attempt to fracture Shirley Sherrod’s story and to destroy the teller for some short term political Tea Party gain. Don’t wave away the getaway car, Anderson and don’t hop into the backseat, either. We need a remedy here, not reflexive scattershot punishment. If community is our real goal, we need to make sure Shirley’s story is told and retold, not hijacked by revisionists even if we are those revisionists.


emberAZ's picture
I think the idea missing in

I think the idea missing in all of this is that white supremacy is fighting back against the NAACP.  When it screams that racism against it is the same as racism against non-white people it is clear that this is what's going on.  White supremacy is an illness in this country which must be rooted out.

MarkRoger's picture
Yes, you're right.  When I

Yes, you're right.  When I was young and angry, I thought all racism was the same and sensed it coming from black people.  I believe all people have racist tendencies, or more the tendency , when they see something being done that they don't like, to find something different from themselves in the person doing it and blame the action on that.  This "heat of the moment" racism is not the same as sitting down cool headed and "reasonably" coming to the conclusion that one race of people deserves to be treated differently or that they have wound up on the bottom end of things because they are less capable.

MarkRoger's picture
"heat of the moment" racist

"heat of the moment" racist tendencies in people has historically been used by the rich to divide and conquer society economically.  Nowadays, though racial division is still used, I see education becoming the new "race".  A body of knowledge gained in a university is seen as far superior to the knowledge acquired in every day life.  I've heard and seen some of the dumbest, most socially divisive mentalities expressed with vocabularies that I need a dictionary to understand.  In my opinion, the fact that they are socially divisive is what makes them dumb.  Solidarity is the only way that we, as a society, will overcome and defy the power of the ruling class.

EFerrari's picture
Absolutely.  I couldn't agree

Absolutely.  I couldn't agree more.  What I tried to do here was a little different, and that was to try to show that even people who are not klan members participate in our political conversation in a dysfunctional way.

But the rise in active hate groups and hate crimes and anti-immigrant militias backs up your point.  The right wing has grown their base by appealing more or less directly to racists since at least the opening of Raygun's presidential campaign.

It is an illness.


EFarrari, that is an

EFarrari, that is an exceptional analysis you posted at the beginning of this thread.. May we count on more?

Retired Monk - "Ideology is a disease"

EFerrari's picture
Thank you.  I try to bring

Thank you.  I try to bring stuff here that might interest Thom's audience.   Free Speech TV is re-running Thom's address to the Green Festival 2008 (plus, it's on line) and I was so struck by the end of that speech that I wanted to try to use the idea -- in the way you take ideas out for a test drive as you  go about learning them.  lol