Monday, July 07, 2008

Everyone hates Al Sharpton. (Coincidentally, everyone is also a fucking twit.)

Matt Yglesias' recent series of posts on the legacy of Jesse Helms has been insightful, but then you get this:
One fascinating thing about the death of Jesse Helms is the conservative reaction. One might expect that Helms' death would prompt from conservatives the sorts of things that I might say if, say, Al Sharpton died -- that he and I had some overlapping beliefs and I don't regard him as the world-historical villain that the right does, but that he's a problematic guy and I regard him and his methods as pretty marginal to American liberalism. But instead conservatives are taking a line that I might have regarded as an unfair smear just a week ago, and saying that Helms is a brilliant exemplar of the American conservative movement.
What is it about Sharpton that makes so many "thoughtful" liberals buy into this crap?

I have reviewed some articles on Sharpton and cannot find anything that would put him even close to being on the same level of moral hideousness as Helms. Yet so many liberals are willing to take the bait on Sharpton and treat him as the Democratic Party's equivalent of a neo-Nazi, thus legitimizing the terms of the debate promulgated by the Right.

To my knowledge, Sharpton has made a few comments about "white folks" which could be taken as bigoted, as well as some about Jews (a gibe about yamulkas), homosexuals, and, in the most recent primary season, Mormons. In almost every case he has apologized profusely for his remarks or misunderstandings stemming therefrom, in some cases meeting personally with Mormon leaders who afterwards declared their good will towards him. Far from appealing to homophobia, Sharpton has taken the admirable steps of supporting same sex marriages (something no Democratic candidate will do -- so much for the supposed "backwardness" of African-Americans on this question as compared to mainstream liberals) and promoting efforts within the black community to recognize and tolerate gay relationships.

In any case, the plain facts of Sharpton's life reveal a man totally committed to equal justice for African-Americans and willing to go to jail -- even almost be murdered -- on their behalf. The mere suggestion that he is the mirror image of Helms seems on its face ridiculous. And Sharpton's life-long commitment to strategies of non-violence make comparisons between him and someone like, say, Yasser Arafat inappropriate. (This is not to accept another set of terms of discourse about Arafat, merely to state the fact that the charge violence is unattributable to Sharpton.)

Is there something I don't know about Sharpton? Some secret stash of quotations that will automatically besmirch his reputation in my mind? I'd like to know. In the meantime I will have to go on assuming that the self-righteous slandering of Sharpton, a man committed body and soul to progressive principles, by "mainstream" liberals is either an unwitting caving to right-wing rhetoric, or is itself the product of a right-wing mentality that attempts to marginalize minority- and popular-power figures in an attempt to fashion itself as the true arbiter of the "liberal" movement. (Instructive here is the near-constant rhetorical use of Sharpton as a foil for the "responsible," "dignified," "post-racial" politics of Obama -- a trope used by both liberals and conservatives. Obama himself has activated this rhetorical nonsense with such statements as: "Whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's or Al Sharpton's?" Unbelievable.)

I wrote this before reading the comments section of Yglesias' post, thinking there might be some there in agreement with me. Amazingly, almost every commentator sympathetic to Yglesias says that the analogy is inappropriate, not because the comparison of Sharpton and Helms is patently absurd and right-wing in its assumptions, but because Sharpton "has no comparable power" in the liberal movement and is "marginal" vis-a-vis Helms. This is another favorite tactic of "common-sense" liberals: distance yourself from a figure perceived as "fringe" (never mind the soundness of his or her positions) simply in order to satisfy the great cosmic balance of "left-right-center." That the resulting state of play is drastically skewed to the right never seems to bother these people, presumably because they are in no position to benefit from actual social justice, or because there is no principle they will not abandon in exchange for acceptance into the political chattering class.


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Blogger Robot said...

I'm not so sure what Sharpton's heinous crimes are either, but at the same time the intensity of your exacerbation perplexes me. So, I'll ask you two initial questions:

1) Why do you think what Obama is doing, distancing himself from Sharpton, is "rhetorical nonsense"? There seems to be obvious and important differences in the way Sharpton and Obama talk about race and I'm wondering why you think it's nonsense for Obama to point out those differences?

2) One of the perceived problems with Al Sharpton, like Ralph Nader, is that he's too critical and pessimistic about American society and politics. One of the reasons, I think, that Democrats have been less successful recently in electoral politics has been their greater (and, ironically, necessary) willingness to talk about the "problems" of American society. "Morning in America" apparently sells a lot better than the "culture of narcissism." How do you square the need to speak frankly about the manifold problems of American society while simultaneously appealing to an electorate that (historically, at least) has responded most affectionately to those who tend to speak more ebulliently about American life?

8:06 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

1) I should have been clearer in my parenthetical statement quoting Obama. I admit it looks as though I am criticizing Obama for simply pointing out the differences between himself and Sharpton (in a more cynical vein, "treating Sharpton as foil"). But the point of my post is not that it's verboten to criticize Sharpton or locate yourself on a spectrum with him. In this particular instance the "nonsense" bit is Obama's tacit identification of Sharpton with Dobson. Indeed the post springs from my supreme annoyance at seeing Yglesias pull this same canard.

2) We can talk about the question you pose, but it doesn't directly affect the main thrust of my post. The issue is pundit/blogger treatment of Sharpton, and more specifically the glib equating of him with right-wing figures. My opinion is that they should be ashamed of this treatment. My intuition is that the reason for their reaction is cowardice or worse.

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Blogger Sebonde said...

For the record, I am pissed at Sharpton for apologizing for his comments on Mormons. If Sharpton is truly uppity, well, he did not show it with the lily white Latter Day Saints.

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