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.”