Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anger III: The Way-Back Machine

99 Seats turns lemons into lemonade, using this dispiriting Shirley Sherrod affair to reflect on struggling with biases within ourselves. It's a RTWT thing. There's a lot of interconnected stuff, but there's one dimension that touches on something that we've debated before that I thought it might be useful to return to:
You can't engage in a society or make change or reach anyone coming out of that place of anger. I couldn't live there and maintain any mental integrity. I've been reading some Ralph Ellison essays and plan to tackle Invisible Man again, but I know I'd wind up like him: living in a cave, shut out from the world. I didn't want to go there. have to start somewhere.
I've been meaning to write a post since Chris Bodenner (who was guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's blog) wrote (in reference to the NAACP's resolution calling the Tea Party Movement racist):
I agree with him that a subtler and perhaps more insidious form of racism has seeped into many of the TPM chapters. But for me the issue is a practical matter; was the NAACP resolution helpful for race relations? Based on the immediate and inflammatory backlash showcased in the MSM, I think not.
I've long taken the position that anger is typically not a useful mode of discussion:
It's true that people who cry don't normally solve their problems. But as we're seeing out in the right-wing fringe, the angriest in our society have not been the change-makers. And it turns out we have enough anger out there today. Even though I think we all love Howard Beale's rant about being "Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," let's not forget where that movie leaves him. I don't deny that often, the change would not have come if they had not come first, but at the end of the day, power is the fuel of history.
But specifically, in terms of the discussion around race, I remember clearly our big discussion around Thomas Garvey. Specifically, I remember at the time I took issue with his expression of rage at Garvey, which I defended here:
But suppose a troll lands a bomb at you and you decide to argue back -- after all, you can simply ignore them -- what is the point in arguing? What was the point of that furious post?

1) You want to convince Garvey to change his mind
2) You want to convince your blog-roll readers that Garvey is wrong
3) You want to have some sort of public catharsis by screaming at a wall

Isaac things I'm advocating option number one, but I'm not. I agree that it's pointless. But if your goal is number 2, I think you're much better served by a sharply written post that focuses the anger into tearing your opponent's argument apart, rather than just spewing anger. The spewing anger route might get an "amen" from your own choir, but like it or not there are going to be people on the fence who'll miss what you have to say because they're put off by the anger.

If you're going for option 3, then I probably have already spent too much time talking about the post and I'm tired.

This isn't just about 99 Seats. This is about how we debate major issues in this country. We talk about the partisan rancor in this country, and it's precisely because of this process -- the trolls control the tone, because people feel they have to match the tone of the trolls or get drowned out.
It seems like at every juncture of this story, people seem to be forced with the choice that Chris Bodenner is implying exists: the choice between what is right, and what is tactical.

Take the NAACP, and their resolution against racism. Many bloggers responded that it seemed a poor use of tactics--that it would just start the sort of "You're a racist!" "No, you're a racist!" spat that leads nowhere and directs attention away from an actual discussion of race.

I, personally, was in this camp, for the same reasons that I felt anger was pointless in the diversity discussion. It's not the same thing -- the NAACP was not being "angry," they were stating facts. But looking back only a few days later, I realize I was wrong. Because it turned out that the choice between being right and being effective was not a real one:
When a group called the National Tea Party Federation took it upon itself to read California radio host Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express out of the insurgent movement because of Williams’s mocking and racially tinged attack on the NAACP, the media seized on the episode as evidence of the tea party movement’s struggle to purge racism from its ranks.
Though Williams is still listed as a spokesman on the Tea Party Express's website, Sal Russo, the owner of Russo Marsh + Rogers said Williams "stepped down a month ago and he is not affiliated" with the PAC.
The lesson which I learned from my mother, and which I struggled to keep in my mind every day since then, is that if you are calm and right, you can prevail a lot more than what people will tell you is possible.

Often it will be frustrating, and no you can't always win, but the idea that you have to choose between being right and being effective is not a choice. Now, I still think that choosing between expressing rightness angrily and being effective is often a choice, but this NAACP thing reminded me that you should never, ever think twice about speaking the truth. It's never a useless thing.

I guess I need to reread Vaclav Havel's Power of the Powerless, and remind myself that there is power in living in truth, even in a world where lies have a depressing amount of traction.

And you know who else could stand to go back to those roots? Barack Obama. This whole Shirley Sherrod affair was treated not unlike the Yosi Sargant affair -- don't bother fighting the smears because there are "bigger battles to fight." They didn't even take the time to review the facts of the case -- they just kicked her to the curb.

Oddly, Barack Obama already demonstrated the higher path on this affair:

He took the time to speak calmly and with nuance, and he risked substantial liability to himself by refusing to simply throw aside his church. And Reverend Wright had said something actually offensive to a lot of people (no one ever argued that "God Damn America" was taken out of context).

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