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Shirley Interrupted

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"[T]he job of the community is not to catch sinners and punish them but to find people out of balance with the community and to bring them back into balance."

--- Thom Hartmann, Green Festival, Chicago 2008

Anyone who has seen the original video of Shirley Sherrod telling her story to her original audience can't be surprised that Andrew Breitbart needed to interrupt that story. As Rachel Maddow remarked to Eugene Robinson the other night, the Tea Party and more specifically, the American right wing, has used tales of scary black people "coming for your stuff" for years to frighten white voters. What could be more subversive to this cynically divisive narrative than Shirley Sherrod telling her own true story of cross-racial empathy, self awareness, generosity and community? Of course Andrew Breitbart, as a Tea Party activist, had to go right after that one.

If you look at his record carefully, you'll find Breitbart goes after black leaders that put community passionately above and beyond everything else. And with good reason. ACORN, Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod all share a vision of an America that prospers through strong communities, through embracing and mustering diversity. Clearly, these people had to be interrupted because their stories make the "scary black people" lie grossly obvious.

But this last flap, as repugnant as it was and is, is even bigger than race if there's anything bigger than race in America. And I didn't understand it until I caught Anderson Cooper's report on this story, "Truth Matters". Cooper did a good job of showing Breitbart's dishonesty and his utter unwillingness to take responsibility for any of the damage he'd done to Ms. Sherrod. Cooper made a serious effort to follow up with Ms. Sherrod. But even someone as well intentioned as Anderson Cooper seems to be wasn't able to step outside of our national dysfunction long enough to drill down to the bedrock of this story which is all about interrupting a community-building narrative that runs counter to the right wing owned media's divisive agenda and to the Democrats' enabling M.O.

Cooper's report went up on the net in two parts. In the early moments of the first part, he takes ungrounded swipes at "the left". Referring to Breitbart's refusal to admit a wrong, Cooper said there are ideologues on the left every bit as narrow minded and just as recalcitrant about admitting wrongdoing -- as if anyone on the left has a serial history of fabricating evidence to destroy someone politically. That's not true. There is no Andrew Breitbart of the left. Cooper said that the left has anchors who won't cover stories that don't fit their "slant". Maddow and Olbermann not only covered this story but vigorously criticized the Obama administration in their commentary. So, that's not true either. Cooper claimed the internet was even worse for "having no standards" and exploiting anonymity as if the entire intertubes functions as Andrew Breitbart does. Thankfully, that is certainly not true. Some of the very best reporting and whistle blowing is only on the net right now. Baby, bath water.

Ironically, Cooper's critique of Breitbart used the very same "they both do it" argument that makes Andrew Breitbart possible.

Breitbart's argument, one he has repeated over and over again in these incidents that he creates wholesale, is that black people (from our president on down the food chain) discriminate against white people just as much as white people discriminate against black people. In other words, "they both do it". This argument puts into question every single healing program our country has put together to drag ourselves away from a history of racial discrimination, not to mention, it obfuscates the reality of white power and privilege. If "both sides do it", we now have a controversy where before we had a community goal. Voila!

You'd expect that sleight of hand (or mouth) from a cynical hack like Breitbart. You might not expect, I certainly didn't expect the same "everything is everything" argument from Anderson Cooper. Because someone who saw New Orleans drown and someone who sat at the Israeli-Gaza border during Operation Cast Lead and someone who spent time in post-earthquake Haiti would know better. He'd be more careful, just from his own experience, about who is telling stories and who has been silenced and who benefits from that silence.

Near end of his report (in the Part 2 posted to the net) Cooper asks Ms. Sherrod what she had learned from this fracas, and she responded in terms of "we". Amazingly, this lady who had been run to ground for no good reason did not answer in terms of herself, not at all. She only answered as a member of a community, not in terms of a wronged individual: "I wish I could understand why they would want to divide us so much . . . why is it that they think we can't all live and work together in this great country". Cooper is asking Ms. Sherrod to respond from a split off, marginalized place and she answers from the full throat of a community, of a person grounded in community.

The smaller point here is that Anderson Cooper incorrectly accused the left of being a mirror of the right and that was not fair. It isn't. There is no left wing hack mounting effort after effort to put false evidence out into the media to destroy their opponents' political careers.

"Both sides" don't do this. The left, the Democrats (who have a tenuous relationship to what used to be called "the left" in this country), do something else. They leave the field to the Breitbarts. They don't take the risks leadership demands in the media or put another way, they bail on their communication with the American people to protect their own political goals. That is cowardly, convenient and harmful to the nation. The Democrats are every bit as responsible as Andrew Breitbart or as Fox for the dysfunction of our political discourse. They are as much complicit in the disgusting state of our media and our national conversation as the Fox caption editors who designate Republican values offenders as Democrats (D) in the Fox crawl every time a Republican gets caught in a bathroom stall with his pants down. But the left, the Democrats, do not do the same thing. They do something different (and complementary) to keep this dysfunction in place and they seem to have zero interest in correcting their own contribution. That's how alcoholic families work, too. No matter how destructive the characters are, if the system achieves a balance which allows everyone to continue, everyone protects the system at all costs. John Bradshaw used to use a mobile to illustrate this for his seminars on addicted families. All the elements together created a crazy, stressful and completely artificial balance and don't you even think about tugging on this string or moving that one because the whole enterprise will tangle and fall in a heap.

So while Anderson Cooper is unfair in saying the Democrats "do the same thing" as Andrew Breitbart, he is also unfairly letting Democrats (the nominal left) off the hook by not really describing the situation they create with and in response to the Republican rightwing strategy. In using the "they do it too" argument, Cooper is tacitly agreeing to hide from the nation their desertion of the discursive field. And so is our dysfunction maintained by even the good guys in the corporate media.

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Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.
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