Demagogues in black and white

Demagogues in black and white

I shared a flight with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Sunday (in the sense that I saw him in first class as I made the Walk of Shame back to coach). It was an interesting challenge to explain who he is to the kids. How do you capture his long, tabloidy journey from court jester of the civil rights movement, to racial and religious provocateur, to perennial presidential candidate, to the kind of nearly dignified (and thin — say what you want, but the man sticks to a diet) elder statesman he’s grown into?

I mean, what would you even say he does for a living?

For a lot of Jews, it isn’t hard to sum up his career in one word: “anti-Semite.” And the case can be made. In his most famous episodes of race-baiting — the Freddie Fashion Mart protests, which preceded a deadly fire at the Jewish-owned store, or his Crown Heights marches, in which he cast a tragic accident as a racial assault — he played with anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes.

That being said, I always felt the old Sharpton was less interested in denigrating Jews than in driving wedges between ethnic groups by any means necessary. In those two incidents, Sharpton saw Jews as examples of white privilege. In his zero-sum thinking, the success of any one ethnic group must come at the expense of another. Mainstream civil rights leaders and minority politicians seek to build coalitions for change. Sharpton, instead of seeking reform from within, challenging society’s power imbalances through the courts and public persuasion, and cultivating allies without, channeled his community’s anger into fruitless bouts of fingerpointing and scapegoating.

Sharpton’s involvement after a cop killed a 16-year-old black youth in Teaneck in 1990 was typical of the bankruptcy of his style of activism. In the wake of the tragedy a lot of good folks in Teaneck, white and black, civilians and cops, reached out to build bridges. Sharpton, meanwhile, brought in his followers on buses, marching on the Municipal Building to demand — well, it’s not clear what, except some vague notion of “justice.” The futility of his approach was summed up by an onlooker, Kendal Brown, quoted in the New York Times’ account of one of the marches: “I don’t know what this is going to accomplish.”

And then there is the Tawana Brawley incident, which was just unforgivable.

Still, Sharpton has mellowed and in recent years has even come to regret the errors of his youthful ways. “I’ve grown,” he told the Washington Post in 2003. “I’m not as brash. There are ways I look at life now that I would not have when I was a younger man from the ghetto.”

So how did I describe Al Sharpton to my kids? I said he was a civil rights activist who never became a leader, and an agent for change who too often left things worse than he found them. And I said that I hope he’s learned from his failures.

There’s a certain similarity between Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck. They both market in bluster and theatricality, and both can be expertly entertaining. There’s also a lot of the preacher in Beck. But the biggest similarity is the way they traffic in a racially loaded Us vs. Them. Christopher Hitchens has written about Beck’s “white self-pity,” an expression of the fears of an old majority “that it will be submerged by an influx from beyond the borders and that it will be challenged in its traditional ways and faiths by an alien and largely Third World religion.”

Dividing up the world this way never ends well, and last week Beck, blindly or maliciously, ended up in the place where so many demagogues have gone before. Beck devoted two segments of his Fox News show to the investor and philanthropist George Soros. Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast did a fine job cataloguing how Beck’s portrayal of Soros as a rapacious, foreign-born financier who topples governments and manipulates financial markets was a “symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles.”

But that’s not what raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or of Jonathan Tobin at the conservative journal Commentary. They focused on Beck’s charge that a young Soros “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”

Except Soros was a 13-year-old Jew living in Nazi-occupied Hungary whose father hid him with a non-Jewish family to keep him alive. In placing moral culpability on the shoulders of a teenager hiding from the Nazis, Beck has done an egregious thing — more egregious than his usual guilt-by-association, double-bank shot of historical distortification.

Beck has tried to explain that he wasn’t accusing Soros of anything, but merely raising a biographical point and letting his readers decide what it meant. It’s a coward’s dodge. As Tobin wrote, “Political commentary that reduces every person and every thing to pure black and white may be entertaining, but it is often misleading.” “Misleading” is putting it mildly.

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