I could care less about Shirley Sherrod.
-- Andrew Breitbart, blogger*
I should have taken time to listen and to learn.
-- Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
We’re forced in this business to make quick judgments.
-- Benjamin Jealous, President, NAACP*
No Mr. Jealous, no Mr. Vilsack, you were not forced to throw a good woman under the bus. You were not forced to do the bidding of a self-confessed liar. You were not forced to ignore decency and fairness. You were not forced to betray the code of liberal (okay, call them “progressive” if you want) values. You were not forced to endorse the power of falsifiers and fabricators. These were your own decisions. These were your choices. We hold you responsible. We’re allowed to do that. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.
I’m glad you apologized and are trying to clean up the mess you made. But what will you do next time?
Both of you presumably went to college. You got what we used to call a “liberal education.” My liberal religion is not value-free; it proclaims as a principle the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Scholarship – the pursuit of knowledge – came of age in the Enlightenment, and free speech is its modus vivendi because, as Jefferson said (with a little help from the committee), “all men are created equal.” That is to say, you don’t get to win the argument because you’re a king. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re a bishop. You don’t get to win the argument because you thump the Bible. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re holding a gun. You don’t get to win the argument because you shout the loudest. You don’t get to win the argument because you use the most insulting language. You don’t get to ignore the facts, or lie about them, without public judgment and private penalty.
The table of discourse has standards. It denies a chair to those who will not live by facts, logic and evidence. Its clear space is a temple passionately committed to reason – that is to say, sacred to the whole power of human perception, and dedicated to the proposition that together we can rise above our lusts, greeds and fears to share the world.
So the rules of discourse are not the rules of a party game, like conventions of bidding in bridge. They are not the ceremonial of a narrow class, like rituals of a debutante cotillion. The rules of discourse are moral laws, rules of what some have called the Divine Domain. They are an instantiation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. They are a necessary means of the Golden Rule. They are the nearest thing human beings have created to justice. Without rules of discourse, revolutions are just chapters in the endless cycle of revenge.
When prominent officials who know better, prompted by a suspect source, rush to judgment and fall over each other to do the bidding of the wicked, it is a Day of Discouragement and also of Revelation, exposing the cowardice of liberal culture, its forgetfulness of principle, laziness before the work of decency, shamefastness for virtues rather than for sins. Justice begins in meticulous search for truth. That’s why tyrants and ruffians fear and persecute the honest, and that’s why liberal officials of public or private agencies are supposed to defend the innocent from those assaults.
“Integrity” is an old-fashioned word meaning wholeness. Those who have it know that compartmentalization ultimately fails, whether at the pearly gates or at the door of conscience. There is, or used to be, a price to be paid for bad character. Mr. Breitbart has told us that he is a person of bad character, a person without regard for truth, a person willing to destroy the innocent in pursuit of his plans – the kind of person from whom you would shield your family if he lived next door. No statement from such a source should prompt any action of government, or appear in any venue of journalism.
The Attorney General wants us to talk about race, and Ms. Sherrod’s story is of a kind that, if it were more widely known, could help to heal our racial wounds. She has overcome profound grief and injury, and taught herself to address the suffering of those made to suffer unfairly, no matter what their social location. She is the living refutation of Breitbart’s lie. When our leaders threw her to the wolves, they were engaging in a kind of behavior that enables witch-hunts, red scares, blacklists and pogroms.
Kipling the colonialist said that “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, . . . You’ll be a man, my son!” We’ve learned during the death of empires that both women and men participate in Menschheit, so I could say to my daughters that I hope you’ll be a Mensch, my child. And in times of moral peril when the mediocre lose their courage, we need Menschen to lead us, people who will stand for truth in a storm of entitled idiocy, naming the lie and the liar for what they are and denying them influence. It’s what we expect of our leaders.
Mr. Jealous, Mr. Vilsack, I hope that in your future careers you’ll redeem yourselves from this week’s betrayal of America’s values. But as for now, if you were in my employ, I would fire you both.
*Both quotes from “On the Media,” National Public Radio, July 25, 2010