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Sunday Radical Roundup: Surely The Obama Presidency Means We Are Now Beyond Race

July 25, 2010, 2:33 pm

To paraphrase Leslie Nielson in Airplane (1980), “No, not if we are firing black people in public service for talking about race — and don’t call me Shirley.” Even out in Minnesota, where the Radical family was taking a vacation from all things political, everyone was aware that it wasn’t a great week to be Shirley. Read good commentaries in today’s New York Times from Frank Rich, a particularly lucid Maureen Dowd, and Van Jones on the Shirley Sherrod affair.

Sherrod’s firing and rehiring by Tom Vilsack, a Midwestern progressive who should have known better (and a West Wing that either signed off or insisted on it) is a teachable moment. Ponder, if you will, what this event tells us about the cynical use of race in contemporary political culture. Why the Obama administration can’t do better than it does, particularly given the historical lessons of the Clinton years in which accomplished black women routinely took it on the chin and were then hung out to dry by their allies, is something academics might want to think about too. Has anyone noticed that as women and people of color are breaking through to higher ed. administration in unprecedented numbers, yawning hiring, tenure and salary gaps persist, and are usually explained as the outcome of discrimination that only existed in the past — discrimination that could not possibly be corrected in the present by women, people of color and self-proclaimed feminist men who now have the power to do exactly that?
But returning to the kamikaze political life that seems to be shaping the nation’s destiny, I would like to add a few observations. As someone who is currently working on the history of radical feminism in the 1970s, it seems quite obvious to me that the political right learned to do this from the political left. Look at any New or Old Left social movement, and you will see a kind of winner-take-all viciousness in which a large scale ideological attack often took the form of taking a remark, or a political stance, as a thread that would then be used to unravel the opposition’s whole sweater. Look at the dirty politics internal to mid-century American Communism; trashing in radical feminism; the decades-long success of the AFL-CIO in suppressing organizing among non-industrial labor; the internal struggles that ended with the expulsion of whites from SNCC (and the subsequent, less heralded, resignation of many black members of SNCC); and the number of queer organizations that have been founded, and then turned on, by Larry Kramer. In other words, there is some shared responsibility for the development of these practices and for the strategic deployment of dirty tricks, particularly statements that are spun out of context to “prove” a foregone conclusion.
This is not to say that the left is worse than the right in this regard: only that they shared in pioneering this behavior; that it has now been fatally merged with racist right-wing political tactics dating from Reconstruction; and that it is now being perfected in an age in which a media story can be transmitted in nanoseconds.
I would also observe that this is not just a political problem, it’s a cultural problem. It is the kind of $hit that occurs daily on blogs: blogger writes a six or seven paragraph essay, and some a$$hat latches onto a sentence out of context, gives it a hateful spin, and writes a “comment” that is actually just a personal attack intended to discredit the blogger wholesale. The idea? Who cares about ideas? You would have to read the whole post to grasp the ideas!!!! How much easier just to move on to the next blog, knowing that the writer is exactly the putrid idiot you knew s/he was before you started reading.

Which is all to say: we have become Adderall Nation. Even our intellectuals and journalists often lack the attention span to read or watch anything all the way through. We tape everything on TV so we won’t have to watch the commercials; we subscribe to Twitters from politicians so we won’t have to read their position papers; and we read or view something just long enough to have — not even an idea, but a reaction – and then we express our outrage as a character assassination of the person who provoked us.
Is it about the technology? In other words, if information could not be spread unchecked through blogs and other free social media, would a good woman like Shirley Sherrod have been assaulted in this way? Certainly the technology makes it possible — but like any other phenomenon that has a history, it doesn’t make it inevitable or necessary.
And as my mother used to say, it’s the thought that counts.
Crossposted at Cliopatria.
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