Could everybody please stop for a minute and take a breath?
A milestone has been reached, one we might best commemorate by a collective inhalation, sending a little oxygen to the national forebrain, which seems to be suffering the symptoms of acute deprivation.
The scapegoating of Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced to resign last week, was such a perfect, surreal, and toxic example of everything that is wrong with our politics that I am daring to hope we can actually learn something from it.
In case you’ve been taking a media fast, here’s a quick recap. (Frank Rich has a much more detailed account in Sunday’s New York Times, complete with many of the relevant links.)
Shirley Sherrod, head of the United States Department of Agriculture’s rural development office in Georgia, a civil rights hero, married to a civil rights hero, and the daughter of a civil rights martyr, has lifelong bona fides as a human rights and justice advocate.
Last week, Andrew Breitbart, a reckless, relentless right-wing media propagandist (whose shaky credibility seems no impediment to Fox News), posted an excerpt from a speech Shirley Sherrod gave to an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet, doctored to make it look as if she used her public position to discriminate against white farmers who came to her office seeking help. Since the NAACP has recently been publicly condemning racism in the Tea Party movement, there’s good reason to think Sherrod’s talk to that organization was targeted as a way to retaliate.
Without investigating—without even watching the full tape of Sherrod’s speech—Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requested her immediate resignation, demanding by phone that she pull off the highway and send it via her Blackberry. The same day, national NAACP President Benjamin Jealous denounced Sherrod for “abuse of power” and “shameful” actions.
Once they bothered to look at the entire speech, first the NAACP and then Tom Vilsack apologized, and reportedly, Sherrod is considering another job at Agriculture. Sherrod said on TV that she deserved a call from the President, and a few hours later, he obliged, expressing regret.
Are you remembering to breathe? While this story and all the other horrors unfolded, children went swimming to cool off, people worked hard, birthday candles were wished-upon, most of the systems that sustain our world kept ticking over, love overflowed.
So what is going on here?
The incident has been condemned for racism, and surely racism has a great deal to do with it. The disintegration of our national discourse on race (which was never all that stable anyway) has been hyper-accelerated by the right’s tactic of defending against charges of racism by leveling the same charge at the attackers, baselessly, shamelessly, over and over again.
If all you have is a hammer, they say, every problem looks like a nail. Glenn Beck’s favorite hammer is Hitler: he pummels every social policy and political statement he dislikes with comparisons to Nazism, to the extent that a Daily Show clip diagnosing him with “Nazi Tourette’s” has garnered over a million hits on the show’s site. Fox’s second-favorite hammer is racism; a year ago, Glenn Beck made headlines calling President Obama a racist, something he and his colleagues have continued to do with accelerating frequency. Once Sherrod was dismissed, Fox quickly picked up the story, and a string of the network’s commentators, including Newt Gingrich, denounced Sherrod for her “racist attitude.”
If Shirley Sherrod had been white, it’s very likely the rush the judgment would have been slowed enough to view the speech in its entirety. And if she had transgressed, it’s much more likely she would have been given a chance to redeem herself: rest in peace, former Ku Klux Klan organizer Robert Byrd, whose coffin lay in state in the Lincoln Catafalque of the Senate Chamber, not a month before Shirley Sherrod was pulled off the highway and summarily fired. That this was done on the watch of an African American President was not sufficient to change the entrenched pattern.
The incident has been seen as an expression of what’s wrong with the media: the extent to which these snippets of heavily, tendentiously edited video are validated and repeated with such force that they become reality in many people’s minds; the way new and old media tend to run them without checking. No disagreement: unless there is some way to introduce awareness and refusal, to disrupt the cartoon version of reality that spreads virally through these videos, the future of our national discourse is likely to resemble one of those whack-a-mole games, where poking your head into public space invites a crushing blow. (Van Jones had a nice op-ed on this.)
The incident is perhaps most telling with respect to public leaders’ response to this climate. It is very important to recognize that Shirley Sherrod was dismissed before the tape was ever broadcast on Fox. In other words, Obama administration leaders (plus the NAACP and almost every else) have so completely ceded power to control the public story to Fox and its ilk that they preemptively punished themselves to avoid being beaten up by Glenn Beck. Have you ever seen one of those depictions of the child who is trained to assist in his own punishment, marching dutifully to the woodshed to fetch a switch? That’s what happened here, and Shirley Sherrod was the one who bore the pain of it.
Remember to keep breathing now. Lots of us give our power away at some time, in some relationship, whether to another individual or an opposing political force. But if you have given it away, then only you can take it back. The choice is yours.
I’m not all that big on psychological explanations for social phenomena, but most of my direct exposure to self-punishing behavior like this has been with highly traumatized individuals who are stuck in a cycle of reactivity. Panic takes hold, breathing stops, the neocortex surrenders to the more primitive parts of the brain, which administer a chemical bath evoking the fight, flight, or freeze response. Typically, the person becomes so organized around his or her defenses that every stimulus feels like an attack. The traumatized person’s responses are trained to hair-trigger readiness. Once the cycle has been set in place by actual experience, without intervention, the traumatized person will compulsively repeat it, cringing in anticipation even of blows that never come.
Some people may be too far down this path to fully recover, but for many, there is an antidote, and it is awareness. You train yourself to notice your own reactions, and over time, with practice, what had been a compulsion becomes a choice. Things still strike a match in your brain, but self-awareness enables you to refrain from touching it to the fuse.
I can’t see any way out but making this a lesson, getting as many people as possible to speak out about the roles of racism, media manipulation, and hyper-defensive politics in this fiasco. Right now, almost everyone involved has apologized to Shirley Sherrod. That suggests a moment of receptivity. Let’s not waste it on arguments over whether this scandal turned on racism (it did), the terrible state of the commercial media (it did), or traumatized politics (it did).
This just in, friends: such events are always caused by a combination of such forces, each contradicting, reinforcing, or somehow distorting the other. And when people temporarily awaken, see what they have done, and apologize, an opening is created to learn. Let’s not waste it.
It’s a blues moment in America. A time for the bittersweet aesthetic of broken things made beautiful. For me, there is only one consolation and one hope, and they are the same thing: the sad news lives alongside the happy. Neither is truer than the other. Life is this and this and this, all at the same time. Even as the body politic is gripped by this terrible reactivity, while defensive reflexes shoot off like dandelions bursting into seed, there is always the chance to fill your lungs and brain with oxygen and make a different choice.
Take another breath. Listen to the divine Bettye LaVette, “Let Me Down Easy,” a masterpiece of yearning. Imagine the awesome power of awareness in action. Yearn for it. It’s yours.