There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He’s cheated on his wife. Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson’s credibility as leader of anything like a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his “Hymietown” remark. I am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement, profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though they were children playing “words can never hurt you.” I distrust Jesse Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long, complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against Jews and blacks and women.
In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman’s book Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is imperfect. In Timmerman’s rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil impulses and global appetites, a “dangerous fool,” “a David Duke in black skin” who “drifts off into mumbo-jumbo” “like a Halloween ghoul” while “mau-mauing” corporations that “think it is cheaper to buy protection” from the “race industry” he has purportedly milked dry.
The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman’s gargoyle is inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson’s existence is milled into malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s death is described as an event that “set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his own boss.” If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one, and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what many in the majority of this society think they already know–how else could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York Times bestseller list for more than a month?
In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he’s an effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that disagreement, but that’s the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean when he uses the word “shakedown.” In Timmerman’s world, Jackson’s entire relation to money is one of “profiting,” “profiting-at-the-expense-of” and “profiteering.”
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Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual scope–promptly corrected–of what all businesses, including nonprofits, face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions, particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman refers to him as “still just a street hustler” who benefited from the “most friendly of audits” and whose “scandalous” accounting practices would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the FBI’s investigation of him been “shut down during the early months of the Carter administration.” That Timmerman is referring to the notorious COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.
To Timmerman, Jackson’s every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is wrong when he wears shorts and sandals–too déclassé and inappropriate. He’s wrong when he wears suits–too expensive and self-indulgent. He’s a fraud because his “black buddies” give him a nice, large house in which to raise his family–a “fifteen room Tudor,” mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood–how inauthentic! His children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out well–how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks! His son is elected to Congress–what “dynastic” pretension!
There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book. Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias accounts for Timmerman’s irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor. When Newsweek praises his children as “poised, proud and living antidotes to inner-city despair,” Timmerman snorts that “Jesse Jackson with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel, his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators…was as close to inner city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty.”
Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as nothing more than “bullying,” the surest sign of someone who’d rather be staging a riot. Jackson’s attempts to convince businesses to “provide jobs and award contracts” to minorities is redescribed as making them “pony up.” Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion–as though African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one’s business elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist brown bodies.
When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he’s not working within the system, heaven forbid, he’s just “working” it. Indeed, General Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in craven complicity with his “plundering.” “For the scare-muffins who still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion,” writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, who refused to “pony up” to Jackson’s concerns about hiring patterns: “My advice to other CEO’s? Why don’t you grow a pair of balls? Or if you’re a female, whatever is the female equivalent.”
Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class bias, however. “Uncle Jessie,” as Timmerman calls him on several occasions, wants “not just equal opportunity, but equal results.” Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his “cohorts” have “more than.” They are described not merely as lying, cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve, however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family ever owned–his son’s wife’s BMW, for heaven’s sake–is listed and ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were radial or whitewall.
There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to Shakedown, but a “seminary drop-out” whose “church” (always in quotes) is nothing more than a front for his “poverty pimping.”
Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described as drawing up a “hit list” of corporations. In a passage astonishing for its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson’s “inflammatory words” protesting the outcome of the 2000 election “were dangerously close to a call for insurrection.” Even Al Gore is depicted as plotting with Jackson in hopes of “unleashing a massive outpouring of ‘rage’ in black communities across America.” (Rage, too, is always in quotes.)
Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits–and that’s where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling. Timmerman can’t stand anyone who’s ever shaken Jackson’s hand. He despises the civil rights “establishment.” He hates Bill Clinton, the Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin, Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist “plants,” radical “functionaries,” card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others “who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States.”
Jackson’s closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson, engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson’s own half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they’re all just part of “Jesse’s World.” Based on association alone, street toughs become his accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson “boasted of his ties to the gangs: ‘I get a lot of them to go to church.'” Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair understanding of “ties” to gangs. To describe it so implies something more sinister, suggests much more.
Indeed, Jackson’s mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that Timmerman can’t stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages. His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still working overtime as Jackson’s “link” to gang life.
Similarly troubling is Timmerman’s description of Jackson’s association with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers–none other than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomb” conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown‘s appendix contains a 1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The sarcastic caption reads: “The ‘Reverend’ Jackson’s Best Pupil.” Beneath Fort’s picture is the following legend: “Jackson–a seminarian dropout who never even had his own church or congregation–” (perhaps the twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) “claims to have ‘baptized’ Jeff Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the services of a real ‘Reverend.'”
This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling “six degrees of separation”: In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank’s top five executives, who claimed he’d been fired because of his race. Ingram, who never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the Pakistani military. Since September 11, “federal investigators have been interrogating Ingram…about possible ties between the ultimate buyers of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.” Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What’s that got to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey, Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other… What has this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by Timmerman as having gone “on safari”). Clinton sent Jackson along as part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson’s “race-baiting tactics” in Ingram’s case against Deutsche Bank give the illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda’s illicit trade in diamonds, a trade that has “flourished under the Lomé Accord Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department.”
In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone Ranger “links” will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident, one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in some other forum than Timmerman’s overwrought court of public opinion. In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of assassinating a broad range of America’s enemies by way of “pre-emptive” strategy, one worries about Timmerman’s recurring theme of Jackson’s alignment with those enemies; of Jackson’s affairs being a matter of national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America’s political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, “No flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson’s PUSH meeting held September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself.”
John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But who needs Hoover if Timmerman’s book reflects a national backlash rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank “many” in academia, law enforcement and intelligence “who have asked not to be named”), we are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there’s really no need to read this book at all–one could just go see Birth of a Nation and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it, “know nothing of the incidents of power.”
Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way, if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed, big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a popular culture so racially freighted?
If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I’d tell him to get out and make a few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out for himself that we’re not as scary as all that. I’d urge that course, I guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly closer to my own–perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in reviewing Stephen Carter’s new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton on Martha’s Vineyard:
More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses on the island…. Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers, listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of things–the uniform.
This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has, I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain old human beings than the reverse. It’s impossible not to: Black people work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person. I’d never be able to say at a cocktail party, “Who’s that wonderful white entertainer? Oh, you know the one.” And everyone there would have such a narrow range of reference that they’d all answer in unison, “Oh yeah, Steve Martin. He’s great.”
And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman’s readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that–do they wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight if he’d been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge and no lawyer?
Do Timmerman’s readers really write off all the disparities of black and brown life in America–from housing to healthcare, from schooling to employment–as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social resentment so many blacks endure–yes, even well-educated and wealthy black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just extremely knowledgeable but rather “besotted” with knowledge. Sometimes it’s in the large things. When Bill Cosby’s son Ennis was murdered while changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an expensive car.
Does Timmerman’s book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?
How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down based not only on specific information but by employing broadly inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political spectrum–from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman’s brand of vulgar overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured as the enemy within–indeed, the enemy “wherever.”
There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has offended him with some imagined trespass. “But I didn’t do it,” protests the lamb. “Well,” sighs the lion, “it must have been your brother”–and digs into his dinner.