Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Al Sharpton (of all people) as judge and jury

I don’t really have an opinion on whether Don Imus should be consigned to permanent oblivion for smearing the Rutgers basketball women as “nappy-headed ho’s,” any more than I can offer rational mandatory sentencing guidelines for Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington, or any of the other notable celebrities who have engaged in the ritual apologias after uttering racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic remarks.

It’s obvious, of course, that Imus flagrantly breached the current rules of social civility (an everyday occurrence in the disputatious world of loudmouth radio), by reducing a group of aspiring black women to a racial stereotype. Indeed, the most eloquent condemnation was penned today by the prominent black journalist Gwen Ifill: “This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field. Let’s see if we can manage to build them up and reward them, rather than opting for the cheapest, easiest, most despicable shots.”

But even though I can’t decide what form of punishment best fits the verbal crime, I have no problem arguing that the last person who should be sitting in judgment of Don Imus, and arguing for his expulsion from the airwaves, is the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton was playing judge and jury early this morning, on NBC’s Today Show, declaring that Imus’ Monday apology was “too little, too late,” that it was “business as usual,” and that Imus should vanish forever because “people should not be attacked for their gender or their race.”

And yet Matt Lauer never bothered to ask Sharpton to explain why he deems himself qualified to sit in judgment. Lauer mentioned that Sharpton has been a figure of “controversy” in the past, but never hit the preacher with the actual facts. Such as:

In 1987, Sharpton concocted the Tawana Brawley hoax, charging that a 15-year-old black girl had been abducted, raped, and smeared with feces by a group of white men. He targeted one particular guy, who turned out to innocent. In fact, the crime itself never happened. Sharpton taunted his white target, saying: “If we're lying, sue us.” The guy did sue – and wound up winning a $345,000 defamation verdict against Sharpton…who, to this day, has refused to recant his slander or to apologize.

When Sharpton, as a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, was asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press whether he was ready to apologize, he said this: “To apologize for believing and standing with a woman--I think all of us need to take women's claims more seriously…No apology for standing up for civil rights.”

Sharpton followed up on his ’87 performance by stoking anti-Semitic anger in 1991. After an Hasidic Jewish driver in Brooklyn accidentally killed a seven-year-old black boy, Sharpton showed up at the funeral and assailed “diamond merchants” for spilling “the blood of innocent babies.” In case anyone missed the fact that “diamond merchants” was a code phrase for Jews, he lead a pack of demonstrators through a Jewish neighborhood. Subsequently, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed by a group of assailants that reportedly shouted “Kill the Jews!”

Flash forward to 1995, when a white Jewish property owner raised the rent on a black-owned music store in Harlem. Sharpton’s organization picketed the Jewish property owner at his own store site. Protestors shouted, “Burn down the Jew store,” and one of them thought that was a good idea. The “Jew store” was torched, and seven employes (some of whom had already been shot) died as a result.

Sharpton hasn’t apologized for any of these incidents. When Russert tried to confront candidate Sharpton about his past, the preacher responded by saying, “I think you’ve got white candidates with worse backgrounds.”

At least Russert made an attempt. Not so the 2004 white Democratic candidates who shared numerous debate stages with Sharpton. Anxious not to stoke his ire, they pandered relentlessly. Joe Lieberman, for instance, called him “my dear friend,” and seconded a Sharpton remark by saying “amen, brother.”

Yet this morning, there was Sharpton, going unchallenged on The Today Show. Imus has uttered abusive remarks in the past, and has apologized for those too, but Sharpton was unimpressed: “What precedent are we setting, that we can apologize every ten years?” At that point, Lauer might have been wise to suggest (in the form of a question) that Sharpton, of all people, has scant credibility to voice such a complaint.

But the fact that Sharpton is given a national broadcast platform despite his own track record is proof that there are no rules for appropriate punishment. In this country, the past is a disposable commodity. Sharpton has never owned up to his numerous verbal misfires, yet he retains his celebrity status as moral arbiter. What this suggests, in other words, is that the guy who cracked wise about “ho’s” will weather his humility phase and survive, as this hot story fades from memory. Imus should take heart in the Sharpton saga, because it demonstrates that American amnesia is the verbal offender’s best ally.


Well, what a relief that this issue has been cleared up, once and for all. The suspense has been unbearable.