Jonah Goldberg’s regular column in the Los Angeles Times is usually an awkward grab-bag of right-wing talking points backed by an incredible lack of historical knowledge. Goldberg stepped on to my beat this last week with a column about the 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who infamously raised their fists on the awards podum in protest against state-sanctioned racism in Africa. His piece was such cheap, dishonest scribble, I feel compelled to respond.
The column’s starting point was the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to Smith and Carlos at the recent 2008 ESPY Awards. Lest you had any doubt about Goldberg’s take, the headline blares, “’68 Olympics salute deserves no honor: ESPN ignored the violent extremism behind the black power salute given by two medalists at the Mexico City Games.”
You could tell right away that Goldberg didn’t read a book, an article, even a fortune cookie, about the 1968 Olympics before whipping out his laptop. Smith and Carlos never advocated any kind of violence. Furthermore, they saw their symbol as a sign of resistance that would connect broadly across ethnicities, not a narrow expression of “black power.”
But the title turns out to be the intellectual summit of the piece.
Goldberg writes, “The stench of self-congratulation surrounding ESPN’s decision [to honor Smith and Carlos] is thicker than the air in a locker room after double overtime…. The argument that Smith’s and Carlos’ critics must dine on their denunciations rests on an inch-deep nostalgia and the triumph of celebrity culture.”
Note that Goldberg doesn’t mention a word about why Smith and Carlos made their stand and why his intellectual forbearers “must dine on their denunciations.” Smith and Carlos wanted South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the 1968 games because of their apartheid politics. They demanded more black coaches in sports. They sought to hold Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, accountable for what many black athletes thought to be policies of barely concealed racism. They wanted Muhammad Ali to have his heavyweight boxing title restored after it was stripped because of the Champ’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Goldberg never makes clear if he even knows this history. I’m guessing he doesn’t.
And yet he continues:
“In today’s culture, is it even worth trying to remind people that the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence–rhetorical, political and literal–against the United States? It was the high-sign for a racist militia, the Black Panthers, which orchestrated the murder of innocents and allied itself with America’s enemies.”
This is little more than an ugly screed against the Black Panthers. They were popular inot because they were a “racist militia” but because they were seen as standing up to racism. They armed themselves to challenge police brutality. They set up breakfast programs and health clinics in neighborhoods deteriorating from neglect. They were popular enough that J. Edgar Hoover called them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and set out a plan to kill their leaders and destroy their organization. There are many reasons to raise criticisms of the Panthers but not by someone who seems to have done little more than read the David Horowitz Cliff Notes on the subject. And I have to ask, what the hell is a “high sign”? Is that Goldberg trying to be hip?