We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.Dr. Martin Luther King
In the Hebrew calendar, this is the time of t’shuvah, literally turning, but often translated as repentance. In preparation for the new year, we inventory our missteps, the damage we have done and the damage we have sustained. We try to heal the broken places.
It is uncanny how often outer events mirror the fluctuations of spiritual time, of the deepest chambers of our hearts. What I write now echoes along countless corridors, but my specific subject is the scapegoating of Van Jones, President Obama’s special advisor for green jobs, and the good people’s silence that calls so loudly for repentance.
In case you have been on a cleansing media fast, here are the facts: Glenn Beck, a deranged right-wing commentator on Fox News, latched onto a time-honored tactic in American politics: attempting to unseat the powerful by scapegoating those close to them. Van Jones, a member of the well-documented generation, was repeatedly preserved on videotape rallying activists by recounting his own political trajectory. Banned words—communist, revolution—were spoken with fervor. Beck and his colleagues at Fox began beating the drum to a tune familiar since the witch trials of Salem: the devil was within the gates, and must be driven out. A few weeks of this, and Jones fell on his sword to protect his President, and perhaps his mission.
The ears of baby-boomers and our elders surely reverberated with echoes of Senator Joseph McCarthy when it was announced that Jones had stepped down. We remembered the many good people who lost their positions and livelihoods—and sometimes their sanity—when the senator and his red-baiting cohort made use of them to create a national panic. For a good long stretch in the late 1940s and 50s, the country was gripped by fear, by outright denunciations and whispering campaigns rivalling the fascists of both right and left who only a few years earlier had purged European social institutions, encouraging children to denounce their parents for suspect ideas or associations.
The technique perfected then (and first described in Hitler’s Mein Kampf) has been called “The Big Lie.” The idea is to assert something so outrageous that people doubt anyone would say it were it not true. Beck called President Obama a “racist,” shocking Color of Change (a group Van Jones cofounded) into action. Their campaign urging Beck’s advertisers to withdraw further antagonized Beck. He seized on Van Jones as his instrument of retaliation.
Beck used the time-tested trope that Jones was a dangerous radical, a communist. It’s a crude weapon but still a mightily effective one, a club with a rusty nail in it. But Jones isn’t the only outspoken activist in the Obama administration with a history of hyperbolic statements. Beck picked him for a second reason: he is a highly intelligent, high-achieving, attractive and charismatic African American male, and as such, a surrogate for President Obama. Jones’ past political statements gave Beck something to grab onto, protective coloration (so to speak) for the underlying racism of Beck’s crusade.
According to the dominant rules of engagement, scapegoating wins unless the target is big enough—beloved enough, known enough—to deflect it with a shield of readymade goodwill. Otherwise, it is presumed that the scapegoat’s protector will be dragged under while trying to rescue the victim. President Obama has made this calculation and evidently decided that the risk of going to the mat for Van Jones is too great to bear. While I wish it were otherwise, based on our actually existing politics, his reckoning is almost certainly accurate.
If it can’t be the president who defends Jones, then who has less to lose and more to gain in speaking out? The answer is just about everyone. But only a few organizations have come forward to express outrage and counter Beck’s campaign, and many of those have been based in communities of color, notably the NAACP. (Carl Pope of the Sierra Club wrote an outraged and interesting blog on it.)
In a Facebook note, my friend Ludovic Blain III asks where are the white liberal organizations that could be speaking out:
If white liberals can’t oppose racism we have a bigger disaster on our hands than climate change, because America’s commitment to white supremacy, if left unchallenged, will prevent us from dealing with the other important issues of the day, like climate change. As long as white liberals think these are parallel, rather than continuous tracks, they will continue to fail miserably.
I don’t know the answer to Ludovic’s question, but several possibilities occur.
They could fear tangling with a voracious far-right punditocracy which seemed to grow in appetite and impact even as the electoral right wing deflated. As every communicator knows, it is much easier to cry, “Stop!” and to tear something down than to engage in the painstaking steps of building. As in the fifties Red Scare, those who feel vulnerable, who fear becoming targets themselves, may duck and cover when the scapegoating starts, and even more so if Beck’s retaliatory attack succeeds without harming himself.
They could be expressing a narrowness of vision so characteristic of organized political forces in this country: groups focus on an issue or two while allowing the rest of the agenda to pass by, arguing that to do otherwise would dilute their power. I don’t think so. Indeed, I think our characteristically narrow focus has retarded the type of multi-issue, quasi-party movement that has elsewhere helped to bring about social progress more pervasive and lasting than anything we have been able to actualize for a long time. As someone whose concerns span many issues, I often feel frustrated at this constricted social sense. If green jobs isn’t “my” issue or “your” issue, perhaps equality is, or free speech, or the need for political dialogue not dominated by name-calling underwritten by major corporations. Any thread can unravel the tapestry.
They could be expressing underlying racism, the kind that can’t admit that now that we have a person of color as our national leader, deeply internalized, stubbornly rooted racial fear is going to bubble to the surface, and some type of gentlemen’s agreement not to mention will only make things worse. I ask myself if Van Jones had been white, (a) would Glenn Beck have picked him; (b) would a smear campaign have gained so much traction; and (c) would more organizations and notable names have risen to counter the campaign, to greater effect? Who can say with certainty? But this much is sure: you and I both know that it is unsupportable to answer these questions in a way that definitively denies racism a role.
They could be expressing the back-scratching, horse-trading resentment that is another repulsive feature of our political culture. Feminists of any heritage resent “family values” tendencies in communities of all colors, opposed or indifferent to reproductive choice. Gay rights advocates of any color resent opposition to legislation like California’s defeated Proposition 8, of course, but there is a feeling of betrayal, of the absence of reciprocity, in opposition emanating from communities very strong on other economic and civil rights, yet deeply resistant on some issues of gender and sexuality. Inner-city residents under siege of gentrification resent the mostly white artists and gay men who help trigger that phenomenon by moving in, then act indifferent to the consequences. And so it goes: in each instance, one out-group fails to rise to the defense of another. In my fantasy world, all of us are for everyone’s equal rights in every aspect of life. But unhappily for me, the world we live in is no fantasy.
Van Jones has stepped down, but in this time of t’shuvah, turning, repentance, it is not too late for those good people who have kept silent to repent, bringing their actions in line with the just causes of green jobs, free speech, and public discourse not dominated by television’s attack-dogs. I doubt Jones can be reinstated, but even that is conceivable, and certainly, preserving his mission is essential and doable.
We must act now to put a brake on scapegoating before it once again becomes the force that controls public life. The issue will not die down when headlines about Van Jones have faded. Now that Beck has tasted blood, his appetite will grow, and if we let it, sooner or later, one of his pack will be nipping at our heels.
Beyond all that, the need grows stronger every day for the honesty and vigilance I find myself trumpeting every time I get my hands on a keyboard. This is a cultural issue, and a profound one: will the culture of democracy survive? Are we going to watch democracy go down the drain, with the silence of good people as the soundtrack? Or will we seize every opportunity to surface, probe and declare the subtext of this and every other situation shaped by unarticulated fears, resentments and prejudices? The remedy for the silence that requires repentance is the constructive exercise of free speech.
So many of us were thrilled when President Obama was elected. He has been far from perfect, of course, but I shudder to think what John McCain and Sarah Palin would have done by now. Do you want to someday look back on his election as the opportunity for a new McCarthyism, compounded of fear, resentment and racism, to take root? Be silent now, and we will repent at leisure.