Web Letters | The Nation

The Ballad of Shirley Sherrod

This morning I'm inspired. We all know the story of Shirley Sherrod, but it's so good I'm going to repeat it anyway. She's a USDA employee who recently made a speech about how her prejudices made her inclined to not help someone twenty-four years ago while working for a private company. She did so anyway and learned in the process that her prejudice was groundless and the real struggle isn't black vs. white but have gots vs. have nots.

Because this speech was given at a March NAACP meeting and she's now a government employee, it was heavily edited by Andrew Breitbart, the guy who brought us the phony ACORN/pimp controversy, to further the conservative storylines of scary, racist black people and outrageously corrupt government. Everyone in the wingnutosphere jumped on it immediately and as usual the MSM started to run it within a few hours. Tom Vilsack personally ordered her firing by the end of Tuesday, day one of this mess.

Also by the end of day one a <i>complete</i> tape of the speech surfaced and the story changed from "black bureaucrat hates white farmers and doesn't help them when she could" to "black public employee is giving speeches to further the cause of racial harmony thanks to an event that earned her longstanding gratitude and friendship with a white farmer." As a result, everyone hit the ground running on day 2, Wednesday.

The liberal blogosphere came out with a fury, probably in part because nothing irritates a liberal like powerful people unfairly attacking a person of much lower power. They were on the media, they were on the White House, they were on the USDA. The right went into a mad scramble for excuses. "She was for bigotry before she was against it"; "no, it really does say that she didn't help these people" (doubling down on the lie); "liberals do it too"; "everyone in the MSM believed it, so you can't blame us for starting it"; "the new tape is fake, Breitbart had it right"; and "the administration is really the group causing hardship for her, blame them!"

The blogosphere wasn't buying any of it, and by the end of the day it was accepted that Andrew Breitbart lied for partisan purpose, something he's done in the past, the Conservative "new media" ran with it, the MSM foolishly fell right into line, and the Administration caved under a tidal wave of unwarranted criticism.

Now it's day three. Shirley Sherrod has a new job and is publicly thanking the Administration for doing the right thing. It's right out in the open that the conservative media have no problem fabricating stories and pressuring the MSM to accept them. The Obama administration has the example they need to resist being bullied by the likes of Fox News. Best of all, there's open discussion of Ms. Sherrod's point the whole time—our issues are not white vs. black. They're haves vs. have-nots, and the have-nots work actively to keep us fighting each other instead of working together.

It's only Thursday, but I'm prepared to say it's a good week.

John Barker

Des Moines, IA

Jul 22 2010 - 9:35am

The danger in compromising

I have been reading Eric Alterman for years and have learned a lot from him. His article in The Nation should be read by all Democratic activists.

Alterman presents an extensive and excellent analysis of the current political, intellectual and media forces standing in the way of and fighting against progressive change in America.

But after reading the essay, I would make two points:

(1) Alterman's extensive presentation of anti-progessive forces in sum exonerates President Obama from any failures to lead and fight for progressive change. I happen to believe that the American public was unusually enthusiastic about what Barack Obama seemed to be for during his campaign, that the most powerful person on earth has a pulpit from which he can educate voters and generate enthusiasm for change if he's willing to instruct as to how opponents are wrong, and that Barack Obama has consistently aimed for compromise, not fought for change.

(2) After some discussion, Alterman says: "Given this radicalization of their base, coupled with their ideological antipathy toward government solutions to societal problems, the current Republican leadership came to power with no interest whatever in bipartisan legislation."

I have to ask: Did Barack Obama choose to ignore this, perhaps feeling that adherence to a "bipartisan" agenda would make him popular and more powerful (it has not), or did he utterly fail to recognize how partisan and obstructionist Republicans would be? Either of these are frankly scary, and Alterman neglects to discuss Obama's bipartisanship failures.

Lastly, I find one of Alterman's closing premises to be absurd—and dangerous to Democrats. Alterman says:

One hypothesis—one I'm tempted to share—for the Obama administration's willingness to compromise so extensively on the promises that candidate Obama made during the 2008 campaign would be that as president, he is playing for time. Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but hopes and expects that once he is re-elected in 2012—a pretty strong bet, I'd say—he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring on the fundamental "change" that is not possible in today's environment.

Why is this dangerous to Democrats?

a) Obama may not win in 2012.
b) How is he going to advance the progressive "change" agenda if Congress is controlled by right-wing Republicans after November's elections?
c) He has worked for none of the "system" changes Alterman says are necessary for the possibility of progressive victories, nor for other possible responses to the conservative dominance in our political discourse.

Let's fight for change!

Henry Noer

Boston, MA

Jul 14 2010 - 6:05am

Obama is no progressive

Of course a progressive presidency is currently impossible—because Obama is in no sense a progressive. In 2008 The Nation and too many "progressive activists" hitched their wagon to the wrong horse, and are still unable to admit it. Projecting onto Obama's blank slate (he did warn everyone) a person that never existed, they ignored the reality of an inexperienced, unaccomplished, corporatist politician who was in fact everything the Clintons supposedly were in leftist myth. But that his father was black, and that he had had the good fortune not to be in the Senate in 2002 (if he had been, there is every reason to think he would have voted for the Iraq authorization, removing the myth of Obama as the "antiwar candidate") became the basis of a leftist hysteria that has given us a president who is not simply "not liberal" but who is actively antiliberal. The first antiliberal Democratic president since before FDR.

Until "progressives" (I remain a New Deal liberal myself) face up to the fact that they simply showed appalling judgement in backing Obama, putting the color of his skin ahead of the content of his dubious character, they are going to continue to chase their tails while the nation (not to mention The Nation) circles the drain.

Ted S. Raicer

The Bronx, NY

Jul 13 2010 - 2:57pm

Kabuki Democracy: part of the show

Eric Alterman presents a spirited defense of the politically correct status quo positions. These positions, according to all the polls I have seen, dominate the media and academia. This domination ensures control of the main channels of public communication. The popularity of politically incorrect conservative media is a testament to the unpopularity of a monoculture monopolizing American cultural life.

Nowhere in the article are issues of central importance to those not in agreement with liberal political correctness discussed in any meaningful way. Some examples are needed and given. There are millions of ex-fathers who feel they have lost their rights to be parents through liberal family law policies that disaffirm fatherhood. To these people liberal political correctness starts off with two strikes against it. After all, historically loss of one's children was a causus belli in many situations. The abortion issue is one on which people of good will can have real, legitimate differences. For example, not many doctors support third-trimester partial birth abortions. Yet unlimited abortion, including late-third-trimester abortions, are a core belief of liberal PC orthodoxy. Many thinking people believe that abortion should be legal but legitimately constrained, just as with most issues in life. National security is another issue that liberal political correctness considers unworthy of consideration unless it is to disengage and cut the defense budget. Yet centuries of geopolitical analysis and development demonstrate that neglect of national security issues has substantial impact on domestic tranquility and prosperity.

The biggest concerns of the non–politically correct involve personal disrespect and totalitarian means of argument. It has become mainstream to dismiss politically incorrect ideas and politicians out of hand. Yet those not of the faith would prefer more nuanced approaches. Repeating the same argument, only louder, is rarely dispositive for those people who are inclined to utilize their left brains. Furthermore, labeling those who espouse different views with pejorative terms no longer causes them to cringe in guilt. This isn't the 1960s, where conservative meant segregationists who were in untenable intellectual and moral positions. Yet many people who call themselves liberal have abandoned reasoned debate in favor of "wall of sound" onslaughts against opponents.

The last group of concerns is with national identity and its implications for policy. The founding principles upon which this nation was created are based on a sophisticated balance of philosophy, psychology, sociology and economics. Read the Debate on the Constitution in the Library of America. Abandoning these principles based on bumper-sticker slogans or on popular intellectual fads usually leads to disasters. That was the message brought here by refugees from European totalitarianism after WWII. Such considerations rarely inform public debate.

In short, Alterman's article describes many valid point issues and criticisms of Republican and Bush era policies. Yet Obama has continued most of them and many Bush policies were continuations of Clinton policies. While the criticisms were interesting and even intellectually stimulating, proposing solutions other than the election of Democratic liberals would have been even more welcome.

Joel Dubow

Chevy Chase, MD

Jul 13 2010 - 8:38am

Impressive article!

This article was, largely, quite impressive. There were quite a varity of gems scattered within the sewage. In the thirty-six-year political eras of American history, we are currently within a mildly right-wing system. just as the New Deal (1932-68) was mildly left-wing. While some Democratic victories are possible again (probably after 2020, for cyclic reasons, as Eisenhower did within the New Deal Era), the next likely shift "should" be a Democratic majority after 2040. Liberal activism can win the most salient victories by concentrating on policy changes through the states. Whatever can be shown to work will be copied elsewhere, just as dozens of reforms did in the Progressive Era (1896-1932). Disasters like the budget processes of Illinois and California can be corrected that would be far worse federally. Much of this may yet happen with healthcare, when the unconstitutional "individual mandate" on insurance is trashed. (The law, itself, references the Commerce Clause. Since it is not forbidden to the states, those who wish to continue may do so.) Obama will be rated on his performance, including whether he wins or slithers away from promoting Afghan democracy.

John D., Froelich

Upper Darby, PA

Jul 8 2010 - 10:25pm

Alterman's got a problem with the Constitution

Pretty much all that Alterman complains about is exactly what the founders had in mind when they crafted the Constitution. The objective was to create a republic—a constitutional democracy—not a pure democracy, along the lines of the French Revolution. Representative Democracy subject to an agreed-to constitutional framework. The Constitution was drawn as it is in an effort to protect the rights of the people against the tendency of government control.

And, at its core, that is why The People are very upset with the current administration and Congress. The People know that the stimulus is not working and that it largely amounted to nothing more than wealth transfer to the public sector unions, not fundamental investments in the infrastructure. Healthcare reform was nothing more than a first step toward a single-payer healthcare system along the lines of the English model, notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of The People want nothing to do with socialized medicine. Nor do we believe in Big Labor and its inherent undemocratic thugishness. Does Alterman really think doing away with the secret ballot as provided in the Democrat-sponsored card check legislation is a good idea? Was it a good idea to circumvent the federal bankruptcy code and simply deliver control of Chrysler to the unions by executive fiat? I hope Alterman doesn’t think so; but if he does, I’d love to know on what theory he would hang his analysis. And now we have the case of the Justice Department and the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia. This one stinks to high heaven, and I do not hear a word about it in Alterman's musings.

I have now arrived at the part of this article dealing with the Wall Street Journal and I am beginning to see that there is probably little or no room for discussion on anything that is rooted in our founding principles. Quite honestly, I read this with the purpose of trying to understand the principles upon which Alterman bases his opinions. I found none—other than the implied objective of trying to do the "right thing”—whatever that is.

Gilbert A. Zimmerman Jr., JD

Morris Township, NJ

Jul 8 2010 - 5:11pm