Heal thyself, Breitbart!

July 26, 2010 at 12:24 AM Leave a comment


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There’s plenty of cheesiness to go ’round in the Shirley Sherrod affair.

I’m talking about the incident crafted by political gadfly Andrew Breitbart, the one where he nicked a few minutes from a speech that Sherrod gave as the state director of the USDA Rural Development Office in Georgia to a local branch of the NAACP. As people now know, Breitbart posted a portion of that speech on his website to show that Sherrod was a racist. As Sherrod conceded, she had done little to help a white farmer keep his farm from going into foreclosure.

Before anybody inside the Breitbart media klatch, the NAACP, the Obama Administration or Fox News bothered to look at Sherrod’s complete speech, Sherrod was forced to resign her position at the request of “government authorities,” presumably Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

As it turns out, Sherrod had used her NAACP talk in part as a way to reflect upon her evolution from a young black woman angry about the murder of her father by white men to an adult who looked past race to help rural farmers, regardless of skin color, navigate the Georgia state USDA bureaucracy.

An Internet culture of half-truths and distortions

Bad enough that Breitbart manipulated Sherrod’s excerpt so that the lady seemed to be boasting about her indifference to the plight of white rural farmers. Bad enough that the NAACP did not watch the entire 45-minute speech before publishing a press release chastising Sherrod. Bad enough too that Sherrod was sacked without having a chance to defend herself.

What’s really bad, though, is an Internet culture that has no compunction about disseminating half-truths and distortions. What’s bad is that the Internet makes it hard for a Shirley Sherrod to tell a redemption story without running the risk of character assassination by a political ideologue so irresponsible that he even drew the wrath of an intelligent conservative like Peggy Noonan.

What thinking and feeling person doesn’t have a Shirley Sherrod-type story?

Don’t trouble trouble

I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands at a carnival event about four years after the murder of eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Course on St. Croix. I happened to end up in a small group of carnival revelers on St. Thomas that morphed into a pulsing crowd of young black people. Sensing the mood, I knew I had to escape to the perimeter. Before I could move, a black girl shoved me hard in the back and screamed, “Get out of here, you fucking white!” I could hear my mother’s voice in my ear admonishing me in Yiddish: “Krikh nisht vi m’darft nish!” Or, as we might say in English, “Don’t trouble trouble and trouble won’t trouble you.”

I never forgot that incident and I would be lying if I said it hasn’t somehow influenced my relationships with black people. At the same time, my real-life relationships with black people, especially at work, have helped diminish the power of that old memory. My bigger challenge has been with Germans who have always represented the baddies of the world to me.

For years, I would do my best to ignore them. If I saw Germans on the subway and heard them speak their language, I would glower at them or give them that dead fisheye look that New Yorkers save for out-of-towners. Several years ago, a well-meaning friend of mine set up a cultural exchange program at the nursing home where she worked to bring young German people together with aging Holocaust survivors. At a dinner she gave, she asked me to talk about how I felt about these kids undertaking this humanitarian project. I told her — and them — that the whole thing made me uncomfortable. I simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to make a German squirm.

When I came to IBM in 2000, the Germans were everywhere. Quite a few — including some Austrians and Swiss Germans — had prominent positions in the company. In my early days, I worked with a German guy named Karl on an initiative called Project Matrix. True to the stereotype, Karl had a superior command of the company matrix. Like a brilliant spymaster, he was able to home in on the source of procurement and delivery problems. If I could forgive him his genius for process, I could see he was actually a pleasant fellow. This did not stop me from wondering, “Who in his family has blood on his hands?”

I also interviewed three or four Germans on a pharmaceutical account. They were patient with me, despite their having to edit my how-the-deal-got-done story three times. They didn’t call me a dummkopf, although I was, and they didn’t lose patience with me, although they had every right to. Even so, part of me felt that they had no right to get angry with me because they owed me.

Most of the Germans at work were intelligent, hard-working and cordial. Some were insufferable. The fact is, I could say about every group that some people are decent and some are miserable. Ultimately, what makes a group bad is its willingness to follow a government or ideology that advances murder as a state policy to kill off its perceived enemies — almost always non-violent civilians. None of the Germans I have met personally go around calling for the murder of civilians.

Being tolerant is so damn hard

I haven’t stopped censuring the Germans I meet. At least now, though, I censure myself too.

Over the years, I have come across descendants of Holocaust survivors who cannot feel anything but a grudge against the Germans. I understand their discomfort. The Germans around us could be the grandchildren of Nazis.

But I also know it’s unfair to tar and feather Germans in 2010 with the same brush as their twentieth-century ancestors — just as it’s unfair when black people hold white people responsible for slavery in the nineteenth century. Passing judgment on people who are not directly responsible for killing anybody is a habit of mind that cripples the judge more than the judged. Moreover, it leads to the kind of trans-generation grudges that put living in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan, Croatia, Serbia and Rwanda at the top of The Least Desirable Countries to Live in in the World.

Learning how to live without bitterness and resentment takes a long time. That’s why it took Shirley Sherrod forty-five minutes, not two, to tell her story. The next time Brietbart or some other media demagogue pulls an Internet stunt, we have to remember that the Internet can be a faulty vehicle for transmitting breaking news. What the Breitbart-doctored video shows is that the race to scoop the mainstream media organizations┬ácan lead to sloppy vetting of sources.

As for the long, slow evolution of the human soul, I intend to take a page from Shirley Sherrod’s book.

Shirley Sherrod’s speech to the NAACP

How to take on Andrew Breitbart [Fishbowl LA]

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Entry filed under: Internet, Race. Tags: , , .

Living the life of Reilly Just wanna shake things up

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