Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Distraction

7-17-08, 11:19 am

Today's news reports Jesse Jackson using the 'n' word. Jackson in Spain issued another apology. The politics of distraction unfortunately continue. Last week, John McCain had a bad week, only no one knew it. From fumbling the names of football teams (in Pittsburgh he claimed he repeated the names of the front line of the Steelers when a POW instead of the usual team) to his campaign co-chair accusing the working poor of “whining” and being in a 'mental recession,' McCain should have faced tough questions on veracity, character and judgment. But there was barely a peep from the press. Instead, everyone was focused on the “gotcha-moment” starring Jesse Lewis Jackson.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it was a big distraction much like Obama’s bitter statement drawing fire away from Mrs. Clinton slip up on ducking bullets in the former Yugoslav republic. In that sense it helped McCain.

On the other had, the Jackson critique while crude may have played an important role in helping adjust and calibrate the ideological tone of the Democratic platform to saying nothing of its content. With scores of Democrats coming to Senator Obama’s defense including Al Sharpton and ex-Congressman Harold Ford, it was refreshing to hear Donna Brazile defend the content of Jackson statement, namely that government too had a moral responsibility in assisting those in need.

Clearly, Rev Jackson was not alone in voicing concern on the subject. In this regard, noted political scientist Ron Walters is reported to have said words to the effect that we are electing Obama commander in chief, not “preacher in chief” a sentiment that clearly influenced the Illinois Senator as he prepared for his presentation before the NAACP Monday night. Obama struck a very different tone in this well received address, reiterating some of the themes of personal responsibility, but only as footnotes to a more elaborate treatment of implicit government and corporate irresponsibility.

Here Obama located himself squarely in the civil rights tradition of NAACP stalwarts like W.E.B. Du Bois and others who linked the struggle for civil rights with economic rights, a tradition that was broken by the Cold War when the NAACP adopted a legalistic strategy but revived M. L. King.

It was well he did. The ideological and programmatic stakes are huge in this election. After 25 years of blame-the-victim Republican ideology, many are wont to repeat its dictums at times without even knowing it. And while self-help and putting down in order to lift up ideas carry a definite resonance in the African American tradition, (witness Garvey, Malcolm X and Farrakhan) they also smack of a definite conservatism.

Unity is not uniformity and while it is better to disagree agreeably, politics is most times not nice or pleasant. This is not the first time even mature and distinguished veterans of the movement have said nasty things about each other as the Du Bois/Garvey or Du Bois/Walter White spats of the last century suggest. At the end of the day, it seems Jackson’s larger point was not lost despite the regrettable ugliness. In fact it may have created conditions for winning on all sides. But beware of the distractions.