On Making Yourself Right

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

In the mid-1960s, SNCC, one of the most important civil rights groups of its era, began to split at the seams. Since its inception, the group had committed itself to the eradication of white supremacy strictly through the twin pillars of nonviolence and integration. SNCC members, like their fellow activists throughout the South, endured threats, beatings, bombings, and shootings, all of which they greeted with Bible verses and song. The tactic ultimately succeeded by cutting through centuries of hate and accessing a basic sense of human decency.


But nonviolence exacted a price and, in 1966, its success was not assured. That was the year Stokely Carmichael assumed leadership of the organization. Carmichael had spent much of the early 60s subjecting his body to beatings, tear-gassings, and water-hoses. Committed to integration and nonviolence, he had driven down dark and lonely Southern roads accompanied only by the knowledge that people of his ilk were being vanished there with some unsettling regularity. When Carmichael came to power he, and much of SNCC's membership, had changed their politics. They expelled whites from the group and rejected nonviolence. Eventually there was a quasi-merger with the Black Panther Party and a full-throated embrace of revolutionary violence. 

Among the SNCC members to reject that path, were Shirley and Charles Sherrod. Shirley Sherrod had every reason to follow Carmichael. Her cousin Bobby Hall had been lynched. Her father had been killed in cold blood over a land dispute with a white neighbor. Neither killer was punished. Instead, white supremacists regularly visited Sherrod's home intent on terrorizing her widowed mother in silence. But when SNCC split, Sherrod, and her husband, rejected violence and nationalism, despite having every reason to embrace revanche.

When Andrew Breitbart died yesterday, it was natural to turn to the effort he led to injure Sherrod's career and reputation. We all know that in the specific case of the Spooners, Breitbart's facts were wrong. But I want us to consider a greater truth. Sherrod had not simply helped the Spooners, but that she had -- since the days of Lester Maddox -- lived as the exact opposite of the racist Breitbart portrayed. Thus Breitbart did not simply get the facts of an incident wrong, he got the broad facts of an entire human life wrong. Confronted with such a deed, the person who lives in empathy, who sees an aggrieved party as human, must necessarily embrace a firm and full-throated contrition. Instead Breitbart chose, to look for ways to make himself right.
He claimed that the video showed NAACP members cheering for discrimination against whites:

What this video shows ... is not just that Shirley Sherrod, what she said was wrong, but that the audience was laughing and applauding as she described how she maltreated the white farmer. ... The point is that the NAACP, at a dinner honoring this person, is cheering on a person describing--describing a white person as the other.
This was a lie.

He questioned the identity of the very people he claimed to be vindicating:

You tell me as a reporter how CNN put on a person today who purported to be the farmer's wife? What did you do to find out whether or not that was the actual farmer's wife? I mean, if you're going to accuse me of a falsehood, tell me where you've confirmed that had this incident happened 24 years ago. [...] You're going off of her word that the farmer's wife is the farmer's wife?
This was another lie

In short when confronted with his participation in an immoral act, Brietbart doubled down on immorality. Accused of deception, he elected to deceive further. He took many with him down that path, and by the end we were left with writers parsing the term lynching so as to further malign Sherrod. That their redefinition would have remanded Emmett Till out of the category mattered little. Anything for the home team.

When I heard that Andrew Breitbart had died, I was saddened. It is natural to think of the damage Breitbart did to people like Sherrod by embracing lying as a weapon. But I found myself thinking of the great injury he must have ultimately done himself, for by the end of the Sherrod affair, he was a man lying only to himself and other liars.

By embracing that deception, by neglecting to research Sherrod before putting up a clip of her talking, by electing to see her as little more than a shiv against the hated liberals, he deprived himself of knowledge, of experience, of insight, of enlightenment. That he might learn something from Sherrod, that he might access some power from her life, and pass that on to loved ones and friends, never occurred to him. Publicly, he lived to make himself right -- a tradition that is fully empowered in our politics. Breitbart didn't invent the art of making yourself right. But he embraced it, and then advanced it.

That is what took me to sadness. I have experienced curiosity as a primarily selfish endeavor. It originates in the understanding of the brevity of life, and the desire to see as much of it as possible, from as many angles as possible without doing too much damage to my morality. The opposite of that -- incuriosity, dishonesty, the opportunistic deployment of information -- is darkness. Breitbart died, like all of us will, in darkness. But as a media persona he chose to also live there, and in the process has impelled countless others to throttle themselves into the abyss. 

I have heard it said by some fellow liberals that Breitbart was in fact a good person, that his public persona was not the same as his private. This kind of praise is so broadly true of most controversial public figures as to be meaningless. And it is irrelevant. Breitbart may well have been an excellent father and a great friend but that is not why we are talking about him. We are noting his death because of the impact he had on our politics and our conversation. It must be said that that impact was for the worse. Any talk of his private life, is an attempt to change the subject and avoid discomfiting truths.

It is wholly appropriate to be sorry that Andrew Breitbart died. But in the relevant business, it is right to be sorry for how he lived. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/on-making-yourself-right/253889/