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American politics has turned into the comic strip Peanuts, with the liberal Charlie Brown attempting to kick a football while the conservative Lucy pulls it away from him for the thousandth time.
Nothing better illustrates a politics that is polarized between an immoral, unscrupulous right and a spineless, incompetent left than the sad story of Shirley Sherrod, an obscure employee in the U. S. Department of Agriculture who became a household name overnight.
After America’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, attacked the conservative Tea Party movement for white racism within its ranks, rightwing activists decided to strike back by exposing black racism within the Obama administration. Rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart posted on his website an edited video of Sherrod, who is black, apparently saying in a speech that she denied help to a farmer in distress because he was white.
In fact, the full context of the speech shows quite the opposite. Sherrod refers to a 24-year-old episode when she worked for a nonprofit organization not the government, to make the point that she confronted and overcame her own prejudices to help a white farmer regardless of race. In a part of the video not played by Breitbart, she said, “Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t … God helped me see that it’s not just about black people. … I’ve come to realize that we have to work together … we have to overcome the divisions that we have.”
Breitbart’s smear of Sherrod became an international sensation when FOX News repeatedly ran his version of the story without checking with Sherrod or the farmer in question. The farmer, Roger Spooner and his wife Eloise later appeared on CNN and confirmed that they never saw a hint of racism in Sherrod and that indeed she helped save their farm. In Roger Spooner’s words, “Me and the wife, we never, we never, we never saw that [racism] at all. Absolutely. It’s unbelievable. If we had not found her, me and my wife — we went checking here and yonder and everywhere — if it hadn’t been for her, we’d of lost.”
In an appearance with FOX New’s Sean Hannity, Breitbart made it clear that he cared nothing about the truth or about Ms. Sherrod. He said, “I’m invested in getting the NAACP and the Democratic Party and the Congressional Black Caucus to stop constantly calling the Tea Party racist. That’s my job. I could care less about Shirley Sherrod, to be honest with you.”
Instead, of carefully checking the full context of the video and the facts of the story, both the Obama administration and the NAACP blundered into the rightwing mousetrap. The administration fired Sherrod faster than you can say Martin Luther King (it has since offered her a new job).
The NAACP applauded the firing, saying, “We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers.” Later, when the truth came out, the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous said, “we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart.” No kidding!
The Sherrod story should have been about an unscrupulous rightwing setup of an innocent victim to take revenge on their opponents. Instead, the story came to center on the blunders of the Obama administration and the NAACP.
Like so many liberal groups, the NAACP has fallen on hard times in recent years. Sexually exploitive male leaders ran the organization into the ground in the 1990’s and early twentieth century. It has lost about half its members and has not made an impact on big issues in recent memory. The organization attempted a comeback with its attack on the Tea Party, but instead has just become another example of liberal cowardice and incompetence.
It is hard to believe that the NAACP once successfully challenged much of the American power structure to help bring down the system of Jim Crow in the South. How the mighty have fallen.
How could liberals in the Obama administration and the NAACP have fallen for the trap set by a known rightwing attack dog, who had previously used doctored videos in attacking the leftwing grassroots organization ACORN? How could liberals not have learned by now that the right will butcher the truth to make political points? Weren’t liberals on this planet when conservatives said we must go to war with Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from hurling a-bombs on our cities? When they charged that the Democrats’ health care bill empowered “death squads” to throw grandma into the gas chamber? When they said that Obama was born anywhere but in the good ole U.S. of A.?
With a right that is wrong and a left that is lame, it is no wonder that Americans are so down on their politics.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is Professor of History at American University. His most recent book is, White Protestant Nation.