Friday, July 23, 2010

Special Edition: Twitter Follow-Up on Shirley Sherrod

Twitter's great limitation is that 140 characters cannot fully unpack conversations on matters as complex as race. Yet, the virtues of Twitter outstrip the limitations because we can at least initiate exchanges that - courtesy of blogs (and e-mail, and other media) - are able to be extended.

Here is one such attempt to take a brief Twitter dialogue and elaborate on it in the blogosphere. I appreciate the comments made on Twitter, and will attempt to address them concisely in a post of modest length. (Feel free to respond in the comments section. If you want a longer follow-up essay, I will honor your request and provide it, all while trying to answer the more specific questions you have.)

The first thing I must do is to perform the task of any newcomer in a conversation: Mention who I am and where I come from (geographically and, of course, in other senses as well).

I'm a white male, so immediately, I know that I cannot fully relate to the experience of Shirley Sherrod or other people of color. I grew up in Phoenix - which exposed me to hostile conservative speech - and moved to Seattle, a place which has exposed me to a hollow lip-service form of liberalism mouthed by whites who might talk a lot about diversity and pacifism, but who fail to walk the talk (by a wide margin) on both levels.

I consider myself a progressive, but definitely not a Democrat. (I'm fed up with that party, which does not stand by progressive values.) I disagree with conservatives on fundamental questions of policy, but because of my experiences of faux-liberalism - or liberalism that trips lightly off the lips but is not followed up with action - I think the Right has a point when it accuses the Left of failing to live up to its ideals.

Though progressive, another thing which puts me in the middle of many national debates is that I'm Catholic. For conservatives, I have not been Catholic enough; for Seattle liberals, I've been far too religious, too intolerant of secular viewpoints. I can't understand what it means to be discriminated against on the basis of race, but I have tasted discrimination based on religion (albeit less than severe).

So, that's my background in brief. I'll now share just a few thoughts about Friday afternoon's conversation with Professor Blair Kelley, whose force of conviction is admirable, substantial, and rooted in a very strong moral foundation.

My views of Shirley Sherrod are, on the whole, quite positive. This is an inspiring woman whose story is exactly what enlightens a nation and moves an issue forward into a more enriching space and context. Such a notion is easy to understand; one doesn't have to tell a predominantly liberal audience why Sherrod's journey rings with resonance and beauty.

What understandably got lost in my criticism of Sherrod is that I was only criticizing her for one action on one localized level. The entirety of her story, and her full body of work this week in the national spotlight, rate high marks. Naturally - rightly - you were puzzled at best, and very possibly miffed, that I would criticize her.

Well, there's this (admittedly) nagging part of me that, in a forum like Twitter, will cause misunderstandings if not unpacked in a more expansive setting: I often respond to generally positive pieces of work by mentioning the 1 or 2 ways in which they could have been better.

Thursday night, for instance, Joan Walsh of Salon wrote a terrific piece on Sherrod's husband, and on Twitter, I complimented her for the piece. However, I also threw in a modest criticism based on a few phrasings that seemed to be turn-offs for any conservative readers of her piece. Ms. Walsh felt I was giving conservatives too much leeway, and that - in many ways - approximates the sense I get from your responses on Friday afternoon.

For context on the Joan Walsh issue, you can read the blog post which immediately preceded this one. As for this issue pertaining to my exchange with Professor Kelley, let me simply say the following:

Shirley Sherrod did not make a mistake of morality or ethics or character. She made a mistake of political game-playing, in my one (and hardly definitive) lonely opinion. Sherrod is within her rights to sue Andrew Breitbart, and I hasten to reiterate that I cannot honestly know what it must be like to be in Sherrod's shoes tonight.

What I do feel, however - and this is why I would give Sherrod a B-plus for her full week of actions instead of a solid A - is that while Sherrod did nothing morally or ethically wrong, she did miss an opportunity to sustain and/or consolidate the gains she made in our national racial environment before she insisted that Breitbart's website, Big Journalism, should be shut down.

One thing to realize about race - and I'd like to think this statement holds up under scrutiny regardless of the racial identity of the person making it - is that the larger populace is edified by a lived-out example and deep testimonials more than quick sound bites in a hyper-accelerated (and partisan, and fragmented) media landscape. When Barack Obama made his Philadelphia speech in the spring of 2008, the country was edified because it gained a chance to read about and reflect on race in a much more textured fashion removed from the food-fight realm of flamethrowing, talking-point-spouting cable yakkers with no sense of nuance.

In other words, there's a way to teach the country about race, and there's a way to inflame problems even with the best of intentions. The jujitsu of politics - of winning the nation's hearts and minds the way Dr. King did in the 1960s - is different from the realm of morality. There was never a question about the rightness of Dr. King's beliefs and aspirations during the Civil Rights Movement; the lingering question was HOW to go about affirming those values and giving them ratification in the legislative sphere.

The record shows - at least from this student's perspective - that Dr. King suffered punches and body blows (as did the lunch-counter protesters and the people who experienced both the water cannons of Bull Connor and the clubs of Selma) in order to win the war for civil rights. The nonviolence King so faithfully adhered to was powerful precisely because it never struck back at wrongdoers and oppressors. Nonviolence, lived to its fullest, caused the doers of violence to be fully exposed before the nation's eyes. A tipping point was reached where the populace could no longer ignore the nonviolent fidelity and human goodness of civil rights protesters, cast in vivid relief against the harsh polar opposite of thuggish police and the bullies who upheld Jim Crow.

I don't want to take up more of your time, so I'll race to the immediate conclusion and see if you want me to elaborate more on on this issue in the future:

Shirley Sherrod is a hero; I simply think that she ran 97 percent of the race and, near the finish line, resorted to the kind of act that was not politically astute, the kind of act that Dr. King or Gandhi probably would not have resorted to. By going to a sound-bite realm (a CNN talk show) instead of giving a lengthy speech or perhaps asking Bill Moyers to come out of retirement for a one-shot 90-minute special conversation, Sherrod - for the only time this past week - played the political game on Andrew Breitbart's turf and terms. In so doing, she allowed a lot of conservatives who, on Wednesday, were largely in her corner to - on Thursday night - lose their newfound admiration and respect for her. The net result for the nation was still positive, but oh, a big chunk of political capital was squandered.

That's all for now. Thanks for taking the time to comment and raise questions. I'm happy to listen to further remarks and treat them with the sincerity and respect they most certainly deserve.

POSTSCRIPT - Tackling a few of your itemized questions (without naming names or identifying Twitter handles)

** A Vatican 3 Catholic believes in ordaining women and implementing other Church reforms that the Second Vatican Council (Vatican 2) did not achieve. Basically, a Vatican 3 Catholic advocates a further modernization (and laicization) of the Church.

** To the poster who felt I was put in my place: I ask these questions with no rancor whatsoever, and purely in a spirit of honest curiosity:

1) What made you feel I was "put in my place"?

2) What made you feel satisfied about the progression of the conversation I had with Professor Kelley?

3) What did I say or suggest that was off-putting? Did I address it in the essay above? If not, how can I improve my speech and conduct with respect to racial issues in the future? I'm always looking to improve.

** To another poster who referenced ACORN: Does Breitbart's takedown of ACORN mean that he should be taken down with the same hardball tactics he used? Perhaps the best way to take down Breitbart - a figure worthy of being taken down - is to ignore him into irrelevance and not give him continued publicity, which translates into sustained (high) traffic and page views for his network of websites. Moreover, the specific place in which Sherrod erred was not so much the lawsuit as the claim that Big Journalism should be shut down. How is that protective of free speech? Focusing on the libelous actions of Breitbart - without casting a wider net - would have seemed more politically (and legally) astute. Just two cents....

** To another poster: No, Sherrod is not duplicitous. I hope the essay above addressed that. She merely made one tactical misstep during an otherwise heroic week of performance in the national spotlight.


  1. Matt, I sent you an email earlier, before I read this.

    Is it possible to read the entire Twitter conversation you referenced at the end, with names/handles redacted if necessary?

    I don't follow all the people you follow and it is too confusing to try to piece them all together - I miss things I don't want to miss.


  2. What I don't understand is WHY you feel you can grade SHERROD at all....none of us has the right. Also to deny SHERROD the thought/desire/consideration of suing Breitbart to shut down his video doctor news sites is beyond condescending. The oppressed are always asked to take the high is laughable that you honestly think your view is noble. It is no different from telling women to relax and enjoy the rape it will be over soon. I know you don't see it that way...but think about it for a minute off the paternalistic pedestal.